Now that Charles Peters has finished with Five Days in Philadelphia, we should draft him to overhaul the American history textbooks inflicted upon the youth of the nation. Dense in both senses of the word, these books induce a loathing of history and leave a kid feeling that he’s been condemned to eat his way through a boxcar of Kleenex. The prose in Mr. Peters’ history lesson is efficient, clear as a windowpane, affable and sermon-free. Most importantly, he knows how to tell a story. The manager of J.F.K.’s Presidential campaign in West Virginia, Mr. Peters later worked on the start-up of the Peace Corps and founded The Washington Monthly, where he trained a generation of prize-winning journalists.
Five Days in Philadelphia chronicles the upset at the Republican National Convention of 1940, which nominated Wendell Willkie, who was both a political virgin and a heretic in a party then dominated by isolationists. Mr. Peters suggests that the frankly internationalist Willkie might not have won if the war news in the two months before the convention had been less dire. But in April Hitler had helped himself to Denmark and Norway, in May the British Army had had to save itself by the evacuation at Dunkirk, and on June 22, two days before the Republicans assembled in Philadelphia, France surrendered to Germany. Britain now stood alone, with uncertain prospects. Watching from the White House, Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted to reinstitute the draft and send arms to the British, pronto, but couldn’t act without new laws from Congress. And without Willkie’s vocal support of the draft and military aid to the British, Mr. Peters argues, F.D.R. might not have got the new laws in time.
Willkie’s chief rivals for the nomination, organized-crime fighter Thomas E. Dewey of New York and Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, were bent on keeping the United States out of the war. In hindsight, the isolationists are easily damned, but Mr. Peters gives them their due: Memories of the slaughter of World War I were still fresh, and the Atlantic was a formidable moat. Herbert Hoover, the most recent Republican inhabitant of the White House, assured convention delegates that Hitler was no menace to American security: “Every whale that spouts is not a submarine.” The Germans could not invade the United States without crossing the ocean, and the U.S. Navy, Hoover declared, “can stop anything now.”
Mr. Peters gives a briskly paced, Technicolor account of the five days, with proper emphasis on the role played by chance, the ruling divinity of politics. Dewey was the front-runner, but Willkie gained an unlooked-for edge when the chairman of the committee on arrangements, a Dewey man, dropped dead. His successor happened to be a Willkie man, and as official dispenser of tickets to the convention hall, he was now free to pack the galleries with Willkie cheerleaders. Combined with arm-twisting and horse-trading in backrooms and on the floor, the hooting and hollering from the galleries encouraged wavering delegates to make the leap to a different bandwagon.
Willkie’s candidacy was also a fluke. President of Commonwealth and Southern, a large utilities holding company on Wall Street, he’d never held political office, and until the late 30’s had been a Democrat with a history of liberal activism, crusading against the Ku Klux Klan and for American participation in a new, more forceful League of Nations. Willkie endorsed many New Deal measures but parted company with F.D.R. over federal control of the price of electric power produced by the Tennessee Valley Authority. When Willkie began speaking out on the dangers of tampering with free-market forces, his critique and his internationalism attracted the notice of Henry Luce and other Republican publishing barons who disapproved of both F.D.R. and isolationism. Willkie, then 48, struck them as electable.
He was attractive in a down-home way—rumpled, warm, approachable and, to judge by his eyes, a little needy. He liked women and they liked him; one who knew him well said that “he had a great deal of masculine charm.” Now, almost everybody has some charm, but the charms of Dewey and Taft seem to have been kept out of sight—maybe in the icebox. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of the first Roosevelt and distant cousin of the second, said that Dewey reminded her of “the little man on the wedding cake.” I.F. Stone thought that poor Taft looked like “an elderly boy.”
Likable, plain-spoken, an internationalist and a political moderate, Willkie became the golden boy of Time, Life, Fortune, Look, The Saturday Evening Post and several big newspaper chains. Their clout helped him make a sufficiently creditable showing in the primaries to win a shot—albeit a long one—at the nomination. Convention outcomes in those days were not foreordained. The state-by-state roll-call voting (and the arm-twisting, horse-trading, hooting and hollering) went on for as many rounds as it took to give one candidate a majority. Dewey led on the first ballot, Taft placed second and Willkie finished last, but he gained steadily, took the lead on the fourth ballot and got his majority on the sixth.
At this point, Mr. Peters rhapsodizes on Willkie the people’s candidate, center of “a genuine people’s movement.” That’s a stretch, I think: Shouldn’t a movement have to last for more than one election season to qualify as genuine? Willkie was a man fully deserving of a Presidential nomination, but he owed it to a handful of moguls in a position to gin up the illusion of a people’s movement. It’s worth noting that the people’s candidate traveled home from the convention on a yacht belonging to the newspaper publisher Roy Howard. I agree with the serpent-toothed Alice Longworth, who said that the nomination of Wendell Willkie “sprang from the grass roots all right, from the grass roots of a thousand country clubs.”
People’s candidate or no, Willkie was a boon to F.D.R. On the day the Republicans were coming to order in Philadelphia, the President’s military advisors were urging him to abandon his hope of giving Britain 50 U.S. destroyers mothballed after World War I. If Britain fell, they argued, the United States would be vulnerable to invasion. Thanks to Willkie’s nomination, Mr. Peters writes, F.D.R. “had the comfort of knowing that if he chose to take the risk, he would have the support of the person who would have been in the best position to eviscerate him for leaving this nation stripped of its defenses.”
F.D.R. soon finagled a swap of destroyers for some British bases in the Caribbean. Willkie couldn’t publicly endorse the deal without infuriating the G.O.P., but F.D.R.’s emissaries sought him out and persuaded him not to attack it. (He did, however, criticize F.D.R. for failing to consult Congress.) Willkie also spoke up for the draft, saying that it was “the only democratic way” to meet the need.
Charles Peters, then a boy with an outsized interest in politics, rounds out his tale with the story of the Democratic convention (which he and his family briefly attended) and the campaign itself. There was harrumphing about F.D.R.’s run for an unprecedented third term, but the indignation voiced by Willkie and a few Democratic purists failed to inflame the electorate. Roosevelt dodged accusations of self-seeking by saying that he had asked himself whether he had a right, as commander in chief, to ask others to serve while excusing himself from duty. He concluded that he did not and allowed himself to be drafted.
Willkie put up an energetic fight, whistle-stopping for seven weeks across 31 states and making 560 speeches. Early in the book, Mr. Peters brings up the issue of race and makes something of Willkie’s strong opposition to the Klan, but the reader is left wondering what if anything Willkie did to court black voters and how he was viewed by black leaders. The author’s lapse is a small one, given that all issues paled beside the war. And on that question, there was little difference between Willkie and Roosevelt, both of whom argued that helping Britain was the best way to keep the United States out of the fighting. On Election Day, F.D.R. bested Willkie by five million votes, but Willkie had the satisfaction of winning more votes than his Republican predecessors.
A few months later, Willkie appeared before Congress to support Lend-Lease, the program authorizing F.D.R. to send military equipment to Britain with the understanding that it would be returned or replaced after the war. Before he died (in 1944, at the age of 52, after a series of heart attacks), Willkie told a friend that if he could write his own epitaph, he would much prefer “Here lies one who contributed to saving freedom at a moment of great peril” to “Here lies an unimportant President.”
Roosevelt or Willkie? I doubt that I’m alone in envying the choice faced by American voters in 1940. “During the time of this book, the good guys were winning,” Mr. Peters writes. That may explain why Five Days in Philadelphia is so satisfying to read: It puts us in the company of the good guys and reminds us that politicians, like everybody else, are creatures of free will. Whatever the pressures, it is possible to do the right thing.
Patricia O’Toole is the author of When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House (Simon and Schuster) and The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, which Touchstone will reissue next spring.