The famous Riddle of the Sphinx asks, “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and then two-footed, and finally three-footed?” To which Oedipus answered: “Man, who crawls on all fours as a child, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then as an elder uses a walking stick.”
This is what crossed my mind as I came across a small sculpture of Franklin D. Roosevelt as the Sphinx, with cigarette holder and all, at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum gift shop. I’d often find myself browsing the store during breaks from my research there, but the oddity of the sculpture stuck with me as I was unable to answer the riddle of FDR as Sphinx until reading Roosevelt’s Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013) by Richard Moe.
Moe, who was chief of staff to Vice President Walter Mondale and a senior advisor to President Carter, has since served as President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation as well as being a Trustee for the Ford Foundation – brings all his experience to bear as he writes a well-researched and enlightening text on the often overlooked but unprecedented election of FDR to a third-term in 1940. As Moe notes, “After George Washington had set the precedent there was an almost sacrosanct rule in American presidential politics that a chief executive should serve no more than two terms. Roosevelt never openly took issue with that precedent, and he was actively planning for retirement.” Well, yes and no.
Rule of Two?
It is true that the two term tradition was set by Washington, who was basically forced by the rivalry of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton into a second term, by which he was unanimously elected president. But, as Moe writes Washington “never expressed a principled objection to a third term in any document or elsewhere.” It would be Jefferson’s two term retirement in combination with Washington (no one took note of the one term precedent set by John Adams) that set an example for popular presidents like James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson to do the same. Yet this practice was not set in stone, especially to Ulysses S. Grant who actively pursued a third term in 1880, but lost the GOP nomination to James Garfield. Then there is FDR’S distant relative Theodore Roosevelt, who after years of ruffling the feathers of both Republicans and Tammany Hall in his home state of New York was exiled to the political no man’s land of the Vice Presidency. An office that FDR’s own VP for his first two terms, John Nance Gardner of Texas, would call infamously “not worth a pitcher of warm piss.”
Theodore Roosevelt would become president when McKinley was assassinated six months into his term. TR would win the presidency in his own right in 1904 after serving as president for over three and a half years, what he considered his first term though technically he was only elected president once. But, Teddy would make a pledge in 1904 that he would one day regret, when he stated he would never be a candidate for president again. TR, never great at sitting still would come back for the GOP nomination in 1912, and when they gave it to Taft, he stormed out with half the delegates to run as president in his own newly created political party – the Bull Moose.
It was on this campaign that Roosevelt survived his own assignation attempt, the bullet that hit his chest slowed by the steel eyeglass case and a fifty page copy of his speech in his jacket. Because he was not coughing blood TR decided he was not fatally wounded and went on to give a full speech for over an hour, beginning with the statement “Ladies and gentleman, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose!” The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (Simon & Schuster, 2013) by Doris Kearns Goodwin centers on this time period. The split in the Republican party would pave the way for the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. And it would be in the Wilson administration that a young FDR would first cut his teeth in the federal government, serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy through Wilson’s two terms and the Great War, known today as WWI (history buffs will have plenty to read on this subject in 2014 as it marks the centennial of the First World War).
So through this brief presidential history, we can see there was precedents both for and against a third term, but what Moe points out is that “the decision to gird for war with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and the choice to seek a third term cannot be understood in isolation from each other.” In short, extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures, and as we see in Moe’s text FDR was by far the most extraordinary politician of his times.
Moe also puts forth a convincing argument that Roosevelt was planning on retirement. It is true that he broke ground on his presidential library in Hyde Park and was looking forward to resuming his own interest in local history, which FDR gave a room to the Dutchess County Historical Society and had been an active member in the 1920’s before becoming governor of New York in 1928. The president was also offered a generous contract to write regular articles for Colliers and was also considering penning an autobiography. Moe writes, “Retirement was on Roosevelt’s mind, and he enjoyed anticipating it.” But, he also chronicles how FDR was a master politician; letting circumstances and events play out as he kept his feelings on a third term close to his chest, hence the silence and secrets of the Sphinx.
Isolation versus Intervention
At the heart of Moe’s book is how Roosevelt was facing an international crisis as president of a country that was overwhelmingly isolationist. As the war drums started beating in 1936 “95% of Americans” opposed involvement in any sort of overseas war. Fresh still were the memories of WWI, as Moe writes “Pacifist sentiment in the country was wide and deep, stemming as it did from a belief that desperate powers in Europe aided by greedy financiers and munitions makers at home had lured America into the tragically unnecessary First World War.” The American of the 1930’s recognized that war was in part a business, and that it cannot be waged without bankers and the production of arms, a fact that was brought to light again recently in the two wars fought by America in the first decade of this new century.
In Roosevelt’s Second Act Moe charts how FDR slowly steers the unprepared country for a war that seems inevitable, as he pushes up against isolationist sentiment at every turn. This started with his attempts to navigate around the Neutrality Act of 1935, which forbade the sale of armaments to belligerents in foreign conflicts. Here I have to mention an oversight concerning many American history writers, who tend to completely overlook the importance of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). In contrast, many European histories often cite this conflict as an introduction to WWII, as it was in many ways a prelude to the larger war in miniature. And to the surprise of many, the United States was heavily involved though not officially, as it is often said that without American credit, oil, and trucks (Ford, GM, and Studebaker supplied over 12,000 vehicles to the Nationalists) Franco would not have prevailed.
On the other side almost three thousand Americans volunteered to fight in Spain, forming the Abraham Lincoln Brigade which joined the Republican forces against Franco’s fascist coalition. Some eight hundred of these men never returned home, and should be remembered as the first Americans to fight against Hitler and Mussolini well before the invasion of Poland in 1939. Homage to Catalonia is one of George Orwell’s better, yet less known works, and is a good introductory text into the often forgotten Spanish Civil War (another is For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway). Moe though is great at portraying the national mood through one of the most controversial figures of those times – Charles Lindbergh.
By comparing the radio addresses of both FDR and Lindbergh leading up to the war, Moe reveals not only the debates of the day, but also the vile face of eugenics embraced by Lindbergh. The eugenics movement in America had crested in the 1920’s with the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, which supported the right of states to forcibly sterilize those they deemed undesirable. The Nazi’s would take eugenics and forgo sterilization in favor of euthanasia, i.e. state sanctioned murder.
I will not allow Lindbergh’s words the light of day here, as Moe does in his book, but I will repeat what FDR said concerning the aviation hero’s beliefs: “If I should die tomorrow,’ Roosevelt told Henry Morgenthau, ‘I want you to know this. I am absolutely convinced that Lindbergh is a Nazi.” In Lindbergh’s defense, after the traumatic events and media circus surrounding his child’s kidnapping he sought escape on a tiny island off the coast of Brittany. Unfortunately, Lindbergh ended up spending most of his time there with an Alexis Carrel, a controversial French scientist who was an admirer of Mussolini and a proponent of eugenics. Lindbergh also undertook three information gathering tours for the U.S. to Germany in the late 1930’s, and fell under the spell of Goring and the Luftwaffe’s impressive aircraft.
It would be the backlash to Lindbergh’s form of isolationism that would pave the way for the internationalist leaning Wendell Willkie to secure the nomination to run as president against Roosevelt in 1940. Willkie was a political unknown, and it came as shock to FDR that he received the GOP nomination. Roosevelt would say to Eleanor that “Willkie was a crook who reminded him of the sleight of hand fellow at the Dutchess County Fair,” but he also appreciated that Willkie shared many of his views, even wanting to expand the New Deal farther than Roosevelt to cover health care (something that has only taken place some seventy years later).
That might sound strange, but the political lines were not drawn as strict or simplified as they are today, Roosevelt himself had four Republicans serving in his cabinet by 1940: Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, and Henry Wallace the Secretary of Agriculture who would go on to become FDR’s Vice President during his third term (replaced by Truman in Roosevelt’s fourth term as president). But most important, FDR saw Willkie as a “Godsend to the country” because both he and the Republican candidate supported all out aid to Britain, and the isolationist versus interventionist debate would not be a factor during the campaign (and somewhere across the Atlantic at this time Winston Churchill breathed a sigh of relief as well).
Moe writes about the two term precedent and the isolationist hurdles FDR had to face in greater depth and clarity than I can relate here. He also uses his own years of political experience to bring impressive levels of insight into the conventions, campaigns, and election of 1940. It is an election and time in history that has often been lightly passed over, with the focus either on Roosevelt’s two terms during the New Deal or his leadership during the war in his third and fourth terms, not the bridge election that connects the two. Moe through examining Roosevelt’s interactions with various individuals, such as Churchill, Joe Kennedy, Cordell Hull, George Marshall, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frances Perkins, Missy LeHand, Jim Farley, Lindbergh, and Willkie among others, act as minor characters who illuminate the main elusive one – FDR.
Georges Duby in his introduction as editor to the five volume historical work A History of Private Life, states “that at all times and in all places a clear distinction is made between the public and private life.” With Roosevelt, we have a person that treated his personal life as if it were public. He studied history and knew that what he left behind would become studied as history in the future. For example, he built and stocked his own presidential library, building a monument in which to shape his own legacy. A Sphinx? There are of course rumors and conjectures about his private life, but the true Franklin Delano Roosevelt will probably always remain something of an enigma. It is a testament to Moe’s skill as a writer and researcher that he draws such a full figure of Roosevelt during this period. It is through the varied perspectives that a larger, more coherent image of the man appears.
The answer to the riddle of FDR as the Sphinx is provided by Moe: “One of the annual highlights was the winter dinner of the Gridiron Club, to which the capital’s leading journalists invited its political elite. This evening President Roosevelt was in attendance. Reporters and cartoonists had begun to depict him as the sphinx for his secrecy. Onto the stage rolled an eight-foot papier-mâché sphinx with a broadly grinning FDR face, his signature cigarette holder clenched firmly in his teeth. The gathering broke into uproarious, knee-slapping guffaws, and no one laughed more heartily than Roosevelt himself. He enjoyed the performance so much that he soon arranged to have the prop sphinx secured as an eventual exhibit for the presidential library in Hyde Park, where it remains – silent – to this day.”
Ultimately, Roosevelt’s Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War by Richard Moe details what an ingenious politician FDR was, the kind that comes along once in a lifetime, if that. A man who lost the use of his legs but convinced the world he could walk. An original game changer.