Final Victory goes inside FDR’s last campaign

FINAL VICTORY: FDR’S EXTRAORDINARY
WORLD WAR II PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN

By Stanley Weintraub

Da Capo Press, $26

In 1944, the president’s doctors warned that he would not survive another term. “That will be all, Dr. Lahey,” Roosevelt dismissed a Boston heart specialist in early July, shortly before renomination for an entirely unprecedented fourth term. To cover himself, Lahey sent a memo to his superiors, bemoaning FDR’s trip to Yalta and stating that his patient was “on the verge” of heart failure. It was incumbent upon the incumbent to choose his vice president carefully.

In his new book, Stanley Weintraub lays out the contest between a worn-down FDR and his 42-year-old Republican opponent, the “racket-busting” former district attorney, now New York governor, Thomas E. Dewey, in the months after D-Day. Equal opportunity critic Alice Longworth, who was Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, caustically called the primly mustached Dewey “the little man on the wedding cake”; four years earlier she had said she’d rather vote for Hitler than re-elect Cousin Franklin.

With all its quirky and quotable passages, Final Victory remains a carefully drawn and highly engaging narrative of a moment in our history when the end of war was in sight and Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives ready for reassessment. Candidate Dewey spoke out against “unnecessary” growth in government, but found he could not safely advocate undoing New Deal social programs. “We cannot go backward,” he pronounced. “We would not want to, if we could.”

For his last, great government program, Roosevelt spearheaded the GI Bill, which narrowly passed the House and Senate in June. It provided job training, loans and college tuition for those who fought. Then, for a post-convention “bounce,” as well as a reminder of the danger of turning over the reins of power to a man with no experience in military affairs, the president went to Pearl Harbor at the end of July. Weintraub builds up to the dockside scene where, in front of reporters, FDR hailed the only man who could compete with him, the even more flamboyant, largely ungovernable, publicity-craving General Douglas MacArthur.

One gets the clear impression that in 1944, politics was about personalities and guile and publicity generated by the media — no less than it is today. The author presents a steady stream of episodes wherein stagecraft and timing are as important as matters of substance. We have MacArthur, hero of the Pacific Theater, having prompted stateside supporters to float his name as a Republican alternative to FDR. “The only reason I want to be president,” he was heard saying, “is to beat that SOB Roosevelt.” Then, when the two SOB’s met in Hawaii after the Republican Convention, MacArthur gamely asked FDR whether he thought Dewey had any chance of unseating him, and, according to the general’s later recollection, the exhausted politician-president fessed up: “If the war with Germany ends before the election, I will not be reelected.”

Roosevelt’s only concession to his doctors was his self-imposed limit of “one and a half cocktails per evening” and “five or six cigarettes” instead of a pack and a half. From Hawaii, he went by destroyer into the choppy waters of southern Alaska, where he gave a live radio address about the plan to conquer Japan and, as Weintraub reports, “veered from his prepared script, dropping syllables and even words,” as chest pains menaced him and he began to sweat.

It was an unusual campaign, with a dangerously ill, globetrotting president and a vice presidential nominee in Missouri Senator Harry Truman, whom he did not know well. When they met on the South Lawn of the White House in August, on FDR’s return from Alaska, Truman wrote to his wife Bess: “You’d have thought I was the long lost brother or the returned Prodigal. I told him how much I appreciated his putting the finger on me for Vice President and we talked.” Then the polio-afflicted president was wheeled back inside the Executive Mansion, without telling his successor much of anything about military affairs.

All in all, it was a surprisingly close race. In the pages of Final Victory, we learn about Dewey’s attempts to capitalize on the administration’s failure to anticipate the Pearl Harbor attack; we get glimpses, too, of the tension between FDR’s outgoing vice president, the excessively left-leaning Henry Wallace, and his presumptive successor Truman.

We meet embittered former Ambassador to Britain Joseph P. Kennedy, Roosevelt-hating father of two martyrs: his first son had been shot out of the air over Europe, and his second, a future president, would die in office. Accosting Truman, who was campaigning in Boston, Kennedy said: “Harry, what the hell are you doing campaigning for that crippled son of a bitch that killed my son Joe?” In the final stretch, we have Dewey blustering that the country would see a “Red Menace” from within with a Democratic win. Domestic peace was most elusive.

You may think you’ve had enough of electioneering this year, but Final Victory is a brisk, rewarding read. It’s the story of a battle for the public’s confidence that does not seem at all old.

Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship Professor of History at LSU and author of books on American politics and culture. His website is http://www.andburstein.com.