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Fdr Talks Frankly —

July 2024
8min read

about foreign policy, his opponent, the voters, and the polls

On Friday morning, October 4, 1940, the Democratic leaders of the House, Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas and Floor Leader John W. McCormack of Massachusetts, were ushered into the Oval Office immediately following the noisy exit of the reporters who had attended the President’s six hundred and eighty-sixth press conference—his first appointment of the day. Roosevelt was clearly in an expansive mood, eager to talk about the two matters uppermost in his mind—the increasingly ominous outlook overseas and the tight race he was running with Wendell Willkie. His visitors only rarely got a word in edgewise.

“And you see,” FDR began, “look here now…. The prime minister of Japan has just given out an interview, which may or may not be true because they may deny it this afternoon, to the… INS papers, in which he says that Japan would regard it as an act of war if we were to give aid and comfort to any of the enemies of Japan. Now, what d’ya mean? [Here FDR begins an imaginary dialogue between himself and his opposition, a common feature of his conversations and always performed with histrionic relish.] What’s the word ‘attack’ mean—I don’t know. It’s perfectly possible—not the least bit probable—I mean it’s a, it’s a—as Jack Garner would say—a one-in-ten shot, that Hitler and Mussolini, and Japan, united, might— ah—feel that if they could stop American munitions from flowing to England— planes, guns, ships, airplanes, ammunition, and so forth, that they could lick England.

“Now, they might send us an ultimatum: “If you continue to send anything to England, we will regard that as an attack on us.’ [FDR emphasized this point by rapping on his desk.] I’ll say: ’I’m terribly sorry. We don’t want any war with you. We have contracts, and under our neutrality laws any belligerent has a right to come and buy things in this country and take ‘em away.’ They’ll thereupon say: ‘Well, if after such and such a date you are continuing to ship munitions to England—and planes—we will regard you as a belligerent.’

“All right, what have we got to say on this?… I’ll say: I’m terribly sorry. We don’t consider ourselves [FDR began to chuckle] a belligerent. We’re not going to declare war on you. If you regard us as a belligerent, we’re dreadfully sorry for you, because we don’t. Now, all we can say to you is that, of course, if you act on that assumption—that we’re a belligerent—and make any form of attack on us, were going to defend our own —we’re going to defend our own —and nothing further.’”

McCormack spoke briefly here, but most of what he said is unintelligible.

“Now, if that happens, of course,” FDR replied, “we’ll be in a position to say: ‘We’re not a belligerent, we’re not fightin’ y’ah, we’re not at war with y’ah, but we decline to change the laws of the United States, we’re going to defend ourselves and our present policy of neutrality.’ Now, there’ll be in this country, if that happens, a great deal of scared feeling— panic . There’ll be a lot of people that’ll say: ‘My God, we ought to keep some of these planes back here. We haven’t got enough of these planes—to defend ourselves. We ought not to send every other plane over to England. We haven’t got enough antiaircraft guns—for Boston, and New York, and Washington, D.C.’ Sure, it’s perfectly true. And there’ll be a demand that we pull right in, inside of ourselves, and keep everything we’re making—for our own defense. And that’s just what they want us t’do.

“Now, this morning … you know the terrible attack on Lehman because of what Lehman said. It’s perfectly true that the Axis Powers—there’s no question about it—they’d give anything in the world to have me licked on the fifth of November.”

The President was referring here to a statement Herbert H. Lehman, the governor of New York, had made before the Democratic state convention a few days earlier. “Let there be no mistake about this,” Lehman had declared. “Nothing that could happen in the United States could give Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and the government of Japan more satisfaction than the defeat of the man who typifies to the whole world the kind of free, humane government which dictators despise—Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

The President not only had agreed with this judgment but also had found what he regarded as confirmation of the governor’s statement—as he now proceeded to tell Rayburn and McCormack: “And the Times yesterday morning comes out with one of those editorials. Well! What Lehman said! Well, how does he get that way? What do you mean that the Axis Powers want to defeat the President? Why, are you insinuating that—ah, ah—they, they are taking a course of interference in our, in our local affairs, and that they and Willkie have some kind of an arrangement? Governor Lehman said, ‘No, I never said such a thing about they and Willkie have an arrangement. I am merely making a statement [FDR again rapped on his desk] that they want to plot our defeat….”

“This morning, front page of the Times , Herbert L. Matthews, Rome, October 3 [the crackle of the newspaper is clearly audible as the President begins to read from it]. Wireless to The New York Times : ‘Moreover’—this is about this [Brenner Pass] meeting of Hitler and Mussolini. ‘Moreover’—and I—this ought to be used…. ‘Moreover, the Axis is out to defeat President Roosevelt, not as a measure of interference in the internal policies of the United States but because of the President’s foreign policy and because of everything for which he stands in the eyes of the Italians and Germans. The coming United States election is realized to be of vast importance to the Axis. Therefore, the normal strategy for the Axis is to do something before November 5 that would somehow have a great effect on the electoral campaign.’ Now, if that isn’t substantiation of what Lehman said!”

Here the President’s two visitors finally managed to get a word in. Speaker Rayburn: “The fellow is writing from Rome. [FDR: ‘What?’] He’s writing from Rome. [FDR: ‘Writing from Rome.’]” This brief exchange was followed by an observation made by Representative McCormack: “They didn’t say anything about Landon’s statement, where he deliberately accused you…. I was surprised at him because I had a very high regard for him. I didn’t think Landon would stoop so low as to, even for political reasons, to … make the statement that—the deliberate Statement—that you were going to drag the United States into war. You saw that statement, didn’t you, Mr. President?”

FDR’s Republican opponent in 1936, Alfred M. Landon, had spoken in Hastings, Nebraska, on October 1, and, according to The New fork Times , had said that no one could be sure whether a re-elected Roosevelt would permit Congress to play its proper role or whether he would “so conduct our national affairs that declaring war” would be “a mere formality.” Landon had described the President as “a spectacular, mercurial glamour-boy” and had asserted that FDR, “more than any other Chief Executive in our time,” had “successfully concealed his plans and intentions from the American people.”

Roosevelt “wants to dominate world politics,” Landon had told his audience, “just as he has dominated the Democratic party, and now seeks to dominate the record of all other Presidents by serving a life term. If I were Hitler, I would rather wage war against Mr. Roosevelt than against Mr. Willkie, because Roosevelt’s leadership, while more spectacular, is flighty.”

Upon being asked whether he was aware of this attack upon him, FDR responded: “Sure, sure, I know. That was vicious. Horrible.” The President’s mind, however, was still on what his friend Lehman had said (news that had made the front page of The New York Times ) and on that paper’s editorial reaction to the Lehman speech—the Times having already declared for Willkie: “Well, all right. I mean that’s a damn good thing because that’s quoting the … front page of the Times against the editorial page of the Times [the President chuckled], which is very amusing.”

“Of course, the trouble with Willkie,” FDR went on to say, “as you know, his whole campaign—the reason he’s losing… is that he will say anything to please the individual or the audience that he happens to talk to. It makes no difference what he’s promised. J.P.M. [perhaps J. P. Morgan] … will come in and say, ‘Now, Mr. Willkie, please, will you, if elected, do thus and so?’ [FDR speaking for Willkie: “Quite so!”] Then somebody else comes in and he says, ‘Of course I won’t.

Rayburn and McCormack once again entered the conversation, but their remarks are indistinct. There is one passage, however, that can be understood in part at least. McCormack recalled that Mrs. McCormack had recently said to him: “You know what Mr. Willkie [reminds] me of?… He reminds me of a carnival barker—one of those men who you know is [cheating] you, but wants to get you in…. You know he’s not telling you the truth, in order to get your money in.”

If FDR reacted to this verbally, his response is not audible on the recording, but he did resume speaking at this point: “Now, old Sam Rosenman was in this morning. I was fixin’ up with him—going over the final draft of a little dedication speech tomorrow at three schoolhouses [in Hyde Park]—and he got off a very searching remark that I never thought of before. [He said] that you were right, that Willkie is using the tactics of Hitler. Fascism. Hitler’s fascism—Naziism—based upon the iteration, and reiteration, of the same thing—so often that after a while people are going to believe it. [Here, pretending to be Willkie, FDR says: Tm going to put nine million men at work.’] That’s very, very nice. [FDR, again doubling for Willkie, repeats the assertion: Tm going to put nine million men at work.’] That’s very, very nice. And after he’s said it thirty or forty times, he’s made a real issue of it [until the voter says],‘Willkie’s the fella who’s goin’ to put nine million men to work, I’ll vote for him.’ It’s the iteration —‘promise, promise, promise’ every single morning, noon, and night. After a while people get to believe it.

”…Willkie is using the tactics of Hitler, Fascism…Naziism…”

“And, of course,” the President continued, “on the strategical end of things, I said in—about the first of August—I said you watch these polls, you watch the Republican timing of this campaign. I think the polls couldn’t possibly make it Willkie. They’re going to show Willkie—ah—in pretty good shape the first part of August. Then they’re going to put him through a bad slump, bad slump , so that I’ll be well out ahead on the first of October. And my judgment is that they are going to start Willkie—pickin’ up! pickin’ up! pickin’ up!—from the first of October on. And you know what a horse race is—it’s like—what they’re going to do is to have their horse three lengths behind, coming around into the stretch. And then, in the stretch, in the first hundred yards, he gains a length, and the next hundred yards he gains another length, and gives people the idea that this fella still can win—he’s got time to win. He can nose out the other horse…. Now, I don’t know whether that’s their game, but I’m inclined to think it is. I’m wrong on my dates. They didn’t start the first of October. Next Sunday, in the Gallup poll, we’ll have a great many—too many—votes handed to us, five hundred. A great many too many…. They’re giving us New Hampshire. They’re giving us Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and they’ll probably put Connecticut at the bottom of the pile.”

Here McCormack interrupted. He felt the President should focus on one underlying thought: the descendants of the early Anglo-Saxons—“They’re great Americans, don’t particularly love England, but they hate Hitler. [FDR: ‘Yes!’] Now, I’ve found, up our way, a trend among people that never voted a Democrat—they’re voting for President Roosevelt. [FDR: ‘Yes.’] They’re not voting for any other Democrat. [FDR: ‘No.’]… We have cases of men who… are lifelong Republicans. They’re declaring for the President on his foreign affairs [FDR: ‘Yes, I know.’] because they know … that you’re the expression of their views.”

The President then re-entered the conversation, picking up on “that old Anglo-Saxon element, composed most of the undergraduates of Harvard College, all through New England. I’m hoping they’ll offset the Italian defection…. I’m speaking on the twelfth of October … about Columbus being an Italian—splendid nation which contributed so much to all of our civilizations—prime stock, and so forth and so on, like the Latin Americans, the Spanish Americans, and I think [they’ll] begin to come back….”


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