In the first half of 1940 only one question mattered in American politics. Would Franklin D. Roosevelt break with tradition and run for a third term as President of the United States? The New York Times proclaimed it as ‘the all-absorbing political riddle’.
Roosevelt kept the country guessing right up until the Democratic National Convention held in Chicago in July 1940. On the second day of the convention, a message from FDR was read out.
It announced that the President had no desire to continue in office or to be nominated for election. It produced a stunned and shocked silence.
Suddenly, the quiet was shattered by a voice thundering over the loudspeakers.
‘We want Roosevelt!
We want Roosevelt!’
But did the President want a third term?
Breaking the example of the Cincinnatus of the West
In March 1797, George Washington left the President’s House in Philadelphia. He had completed his second term in office and was retiring to his beloved Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.
The first President of the United States was so popular he could have held the office for life.
Instead, he became the Cincinnatus of the West. Like his Roman precursor, Washington voluntarily gave up powerful military commands and political prizes and became a role model for the fledgling republic.
A precedent was set. Presidents would limit themselves to two terms in office. It was a powerful tradition and its power helps to explains the contortions that Roosevelt and the Democratic Party went through in 1940 as they prepared to break it.
Roosevelt was first elected to the White House in 1932. His second term was won in the Presidential election of 1936. By 1940, he had served two terms. So, what would FDR do next?
The world wants Roosevelt
He had never seen so many people in a single place. He’d been told that there would be more than twenty thousand attending the convention. That was more than the entire population of his home town. Hell, it was more than the entire population of the county.
Chicago didn’t phase him – he’d spent plenty of time in New York City. But this crowd, well, that was something else.
Wherever he looked, there was a mass of people. Row upon row of tiered seating ringed the convention floor, rising steeply towards a ceiling decked with the stars and stripes and patriotic bunting. Each of the balconies was dressed, so that continuous ribbons of red, white and blue stretched around the stadium.
He stood with his state delegation, clustered around the simple white placard that announced NEW YORK. Thrust into the air on a black pole, it joined the 47 other state banners that waved and jostled in a curious continental joust.
There was only one thing that people were talking about. Would he run for a third term? Around him, he heard passionate arguments in favour of Roosevelt and the occasional denunciation of FDR.
But they hadn’t heard anything from the man himself.
He’d heard rumours that the President didn’t want the nomination. Some said that he was tired, others that he was ill. Some suggested that he wouldn’t dare break the tradition set by the great George Washington.
But would he really leave office in the middle of such a crisis?
Europe’s war was coming closer to home. The Atlantic didn’t seem nearly wide enough with Hitler in control of so much the other side of the Pond. He had spent much of the overnight train journey over engrossed in newspaper reports of the fall of France and the air war with England.
Chicago had seemed muted. There was far less of the razzmatazz that he’d expected from the Democratic National Convention.
The sombre atmosphere continued inside. After the first day, the local newspaper had written that the delegates were drafting Roosevelt with all of the enthusiasm of a chain gang.
By the time he had found a place on the floor, the hall was waiting for the next speaker. Senator Barkley delivered a barnstorming speech that sent a shiver of pride down his spine. All around him, delegates stomped their feed and cheered. A passing mention of the President’s name sent the crowd into a frenzy. For almost an hour, the delegates shouted, screamed and roared, leaving his ears ringing and his senses reeling.
The Kentucky Senator finally quietened the room by announcing that he had a message to deliver from the President. By the time he reached his conclusion, many delegates were already slumped in their seats:
The President has never had, and has not today, any desire or purpose to continue in the office of President, to be a candidate for that office, or to be nominated by the convention for that office. He wishes in earnestness and sincerity to make it clear that all of the delegates in this convention are free to vote for any candidate.
The stunned crowd met the conclusion of his speech with a tense silence. No one quite knew what to do next. Before anyone had a chance to speak or move, a booming voice bellowed over the loudspeakers.
“We Want Roosevelt, We Want Roosevelt”
The voice rang from every speaker, echoing around the cavernous hall.
Soon, the chant was taken up by delegates across the floor. Subdued silence was replaced with ecstatic shouts.
He found himself joining in, leading a chant of “New York wants Roosevelt”. The state delegation was on its feet and gathering around the Empire State’s standard. He linked arms with people he had never met before, and they began to march, demanding a third term for their president.
For the next hour, the convention was a blur of yells, movement and music. Every state, every city and even the world wanted Roosevelt. Shouts would go up and be passed around the convention floor. The state standards bopped up and down as delegates marched around the convention.
The convention became a carnival as the Chicago Police band marched in playing Roosevelt’s anthem “Happy Days Are Here Again”. They competed with the city’s fire department who belted out “Franklin D Roosevelt Jones”. Soon, the stadium’s giant electric organ joined in, and the President’s campaign tunes rang out throughout the hall.
He found himself talking manically, smiling and even dancing.
He had never been swept up in something so completely, so unexpectedly, as that day in Chicago.
But, by the close of proceedings, there was still no official word from the President.
The nomination was his for the taking. But did Roosevelt want to take it?
The riddle of the Sphinx
Was there really ever any doubt that Roosevelt would seek a third term?
At the beginning of 1940, the President suggested that he did not want to remain in the White House for another four years.
On 24 January 1940, hetold Henry Morgenthau that ‘he didn’t want to run unless “things get very, very much worse in Europe”’. He elaborated on this feeling in a discussion with the president of the Teamsters union, Daniel Tobin, citing his failing health:
No, Dan, I just can’t do it. I am tired. I really am. I can’t be president again. I have to get over this sinus. I have to rest. No, I just can’t do it.
In February, he vented his frustrations to George Norris, who had visited to urge Roosevelt to run for a third term:
I am chained to this chair from morning till night … I am tied down to this chair day after day, week after week, and month after month. And I can’t stand it any longer. I can’t go on with it.
There were also more concrete signs of plans for a post-presidential life. Roosevelt’s private retreat, Top Cottage, was completed at the end of 1939. At the nearby Springwood estate in Hyde Park, designs were being laid for his official library.
There was even talk of buying one of the Florida Keys and developing it as FDR’s fishing retreat.
But, as it turned out, things did get very, very much worse in Europe. By the time of the Democratic National Convention, Nazi Germany held sway over much of continental Europe.
Just days before Chicago Stadium welcomed delegates, the Battle of Britain began. This furious clash of aeronautical power emphasised the precarious situation for freedom and democracy in the West.
Meanwhile, pro-Roosevelt tickets were sweeping the Democratic primaries and caucuses. The President neither campaigned nor publicly endorse these slates.
When is a campaign not a campaign?
So, did Roosevelt ever really plan to retire in 1940? Or were his announcements and deals part of an elaborate plan to maintain an aura of reluctance and humility?
As Ted Morgan notes in FDR: A Biography:
a third term movement would make him vulnerable to attacks that everything he had done was to serve his ambition.
I think it is more likely that Roosevelt saw his presidency as being instrumental to defeating Hitler and Nazism.
Whatever the truth, any doubt in the President’s mind seems to have been dispelled by the time of the convention.
The New York Times reported on 13 July 1940 that ‘the Democratic Convention of 1940 will go into the records as one of the most completely regulated and the most willingly controlled meetings in the history of the present Presidential nominating system’.
Anything other than a nomination for Roosevelt would have been ‘a surprise for which the assembling delegates, or the country … are distinctly unprepared’.
A wild, shifting mass of screaming, standard-waving humanity
Roosevelt did send a messenger to formally turn down a third nomination. The New York Times’s correspondent, Sidney M. Shalett, described Senator Alben Barkley’s speech heightening the tensions in the hall. When Roosevelt’s name was finally mentioned, for ‘twenty-five minutes the stadium was a wild, shifting mass of screaming, standard-waving humanity’.
Conrad Black relates the next minutes in his book Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom:
There was complete silence for a few moments. Then the Chicago Democratic machine took over the convention. From the basement a mighty voice bellowed into a microphone connected to all the loudspeakers in the convention hall: “We Want Roosevelt!” This chant was repeated endlessly; every state and city, sequentially, wanted Roosevelt: “Chicago wants Roosevelt!” “New York wants Roosevelt” etc., peaking every couple of minutes with “The World Wants Roosevelt!”
In the New York Times, Sidney M. Shallot described the ‘screaming, shouting, yelling in complete abandon’.
Jean Edward Smith describes the pure pandemonium of the convention in his bookFDR, and goes on to note that:
through it all that deep penetrating voice could be heard above the noise that filled the arena: “We want Roosevelt”, “Everybody wants Roosevelt”.
This voice was later identified as belonging to Thomas D. Garry. At the time, he was serving as Superintendent of Chicago’s Department of Sanitation. His intervention would become famous, or infamous, as the Voice from the Sewers.
Taking over the microphones was only one part of the plan. Chicago’s Democratic mayor, Ed Kelly, had planted hundreds of Roosevelt supporters around the stadium. They took up the chant, which spread to the delegates. They had created an unstoppable momentum.
A virtually unanimous nomination
Was anyone really surprised at this turn of events? The New York Times’s James A Hagerty didn’t think so. In his view, the President’s message to the convention ‘was taken as the basis on which to accord the President a virtually unanimous nomination later, and an implicit promise on his part that he would accept renomination if drafted by a united convention’.
The next day, the delegates cast their ballots. Whether planned or not, Roosevelt received 946 votes against 72 for Farley, 61 for Garner and 5 for Hull and 9 for Millard Tydings. It was a crushing landslide that strengthened FDR’s grip on the Democratic Party.
Roosevelt went on to win the Presidential election in November of 1940. He served a full third term and then won the next presidential election in 1944. His fourth term was cut short when he died in April 1945.
Roosevelt’s 13-year occupancy of the White House remains unique in the nation’s history. In 1951, the 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, limiting future presidents to two consecutive terms.
So, what if Roosevelt had decided that enough was enough and that he wasn’t going to run? With the United States teetering on the brink of participation in the Second World War, whoever entered the White House in 1941 would have been tested to the core.
It remains one of the most fascinating counterfactuals with potentially profound implications for the conduct and course of the war.
- Black, Conrad. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom. New York: Public Affairs, 2005.
- Morgan, Ted. FDR: A Biography. London: Grafton Books, 1985.
- Smith, Jean Edward. FDR. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2008.