The year was 1942.
After more than a decade of losing elections to Democrats, after three straight presidential losses to Franklin D. Roosevelt — the man conservative Republicans loved to hate — the scent of victory was at last in the air for the GOP.
But there was a problem, and a big one at that. The previous December 7th America had been attacked at Pearl Harbor. The attack was a disaster, killing 2,471 military and civilians and destroying a considerable portion of the U.S. Navy. For the second time in just over twenty years the country was now at war. Not only were we fighting the Japanese but the Germans and the Italians too.
In the partisan camps of the Republican Party there was considerable feeling that the fault for this lay personally with FDR. Some were convinced he either knew the attack was coming and let it happen to plunge the country into the war, or that he should have known and was simply incompetent. The man, they believed, was neither very bright nor very honest. Battlefields were now erupting in strange countries literally all over the world — in Europe, Africa, Asia. So in circumstances like this, how does a political opposition approach the upcoming election?
Savage FDR? Run on a campaign of “Roosevelt lied and people died”? Should they go out and tell the American people just how dangerously incompetent the man was, that the best thing to do was make peace with Hitler and Japan’s Hirohito, then elect Republicans who would simply force FDR to bring home the boys and let the rest of the world cope with chaos? After all, a few years earlier FDR himself had turned back an ocean liner filled with 937 Jews escaping the looming Holocaust. The idea of not making Hitler, Hirohito or Mussolini any angrier than they were was certainly one approach.
The Republicans did none of the above. Instead, with the President on the political ropes at last, with a burgeoning team of attractive GOP candidates all over the country they did something else.
They rallied to FDR.
“House Republicans State War Support” blared the New York Times as the election campaign heated up on September 23, 1942. Campaigning vociferously against FDR’s domestic policies, the congressional Republicans issued what the Times described as a ten-point “Loyalty Declaration.” What did the GOP tell the nation? That they would give the President so many of them detested “loyal, wholehearted and patriotic support in the war.” They would be as one with FDR in opposing “any attempts to negotiate peace or the consideration of any peace terms until our arms have won such a decisive victory that we, together with our Allies, are able to dictate the peace terms.”
There was no mention of an “exit strategy.” Good thing too. One White House political ally, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the CIO — half the precursor to today’s AFL-CIO), coached by FDR’s team, passed a resolution as the campaign opened on September 1st calling on Americans to support FDR’s policy “as the country prepares itself for the final gigantic drive that will carry our Armies to Berlin in 1942.” As if! Allied troops didn’t make it to Berlin until 1945, a full three years later. As for FDR’s “exit strategy”? The U.S. is still there right now — sixty-one years since war’s end.
House Republicans weren’t the only Republicans supporting FDR in 1942. Republican candidates were adamant in falling in behind the man they practically lusted to defeat.
In New York, gubernatorial candidate Thomas E. Dewey campaigned at the Cortland County Fair in rural upstate by praising the sons and daughters of farmers for working hard to produce food supplies for the war effort. He contrasted the 4-H club with the “One H, All for Hitler or All for Hirohito” club. In Connecticut the playwright and congressional candidate Clare Boothe Luce pledged herself to “total victory,” saying that the fight ahead would mean “a hard war.” She did not hesitate to be graphic. The horrors that were to come would include “men maiming, mutilating and burning each other and blasting each other into eternity, with women and babes buried under bombed homes, with whole peoples starving and with American seamen going down in torpedoed ships and American fliers crashing to death in flames.” Running for Governor of Connecticut Raymond Baldwin stated flatly that “[t]he President of the United States is our Commander in Chief. Because we are Americans before we are Republicans, we will back him in the conduct of the war. His success is our success and we want him to succeed.” At the Republican National Committee, Chairman Joseph Martin pledged “100 percent support of the war effort.” And on it went with campaigning Republicans across the country.
Was there criticism of FDR on the war? Of course. Luce accused him of fighting a “soft” war and demanded a harder response to the Nazis and Japanese. Martin’s deputy said the President had bungled the war effort, should be stronger in its prosecution, and that the entire purpose of an opposition party was to keep an eye on the party in power. There were demands for having a “unified command” of the military (a call that would result after the war in the creation of the modern Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff).
Democrats responded by accusing various Republican congressional incumbents of isolationism, of having cut-and-run from world affairs in the 1930s when something could have been done to defeat Hitler and stop the Japanese. Senator Joseph Guffey, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, asked all Senate candidates to concentrate on the war, saying that, in the words of the Times, “creation of dissensions and disunity would only play into the hands of Hitler.” Guffey added: “Winning the war is our uppermost issue.”
As America readies for the traditional Labor Day kickoff of this year’s election campaign, a look back tells us the world has certainly changed in 2006. In 1942, Republicans and Democrats both understood the dangers the country and the world faced.
What happened in 1942?
The Republicans won the election, gaining 44 new House seats and 10 in the Senate, not quite a majority, but erasing FDR’s control. Dewey won in New York and was instantly bannered as a presidential sure thing. GOP gubernatorial candidates won across the country.
What was FDR’s reaction? The news account of his post-election press conference reported FDR “laughs.” Why? Said the headline: “Assumes New Congress is for Winning, So Why Should Poll Make Any Difference?”
And the Nazis and the Japanese? The so-called Axis Powers? What was their response? The New York Times editorial page trumpeted “an admission from Berlin that it would be ‘harboring an illusion’ to expect the Republican victory to bring any change whatever in the policy of the United States.” Focusing on the silence of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, the paper concluded: “His silence is proof of the fact that we have made the unity of our purpose apparent to our enemies.”
We’re a long way from 1942.
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