Global War and Peace: The 1944 Election
In his 1944 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered a “Second Bill of Rights” that redefined the rights of the founding bill of rights. This radical pronouncement promised economic security and “positive rights” guaranteed by the federal government.
The new entitlements included a right to a job for all Americans, adequate food, clothing, and recreation, a decent living for every farmer, a decent home for all Americans, adequate medical care and good health, protection from all economic fears, and a good education. He warned that failing to do so in the postwar world would be to yield to the “spirit of fascism here at home.” Despite the fact that the war had effectively ended New Deal reform, FDR looked to revitalizing it after the war.
In early June, Allied armies launched the largest amphibious invasion in history on D-Day when their soldiers assaulted the beaches of Normandy. Rome had been taken the day before, and millions of Soviet troops were driving the Nazis back across Eastern Europe. Americans were closing in on Imperial Japan.
With the end of the war in sight, FDR was already thinking about the shape of the postwar world. At home, he sought to avoid a return to the suffering of the Great Depression with an expanded welfare and regulatory state. Abroad, FDR sought a vision of liberal internationalism in which the United States and the great powers cooperated to ensure lasting world peace and thereby fundamentally altered its role in the world.
FDR decided to run for an unprecedented fourth term because he believed himself indispensable to victory in World War II and to shape his vision for the postwar world in America and the world. He accepted the nomination of the Democratic National Convention by radio from San Diego as he was traveling to Pearl Harbor to meet with his Pacific commanders to decide on a strategy leading to the invasion of Japan. His fiercely partisan speech to the delegates attacked the Republicans as isolationists who opposed international cooperation and the party that led the country into the economic abyss of the Great Depression.
The most important question that FDR willfully ignored was his rapidly deteriorating health and the strong possibility that his vice-president would assume the presidency at some point in the likely event he died. Every person who encountered the president was shocked at his pallid, tired, unhealthy countenance, and FDR had a series of heart issues that left him reeling in pain and great fatigue. FDR dumped the progressive and erratic Vice-President Henry Wallace for the more moderate Harry Truman, though the president did little to cultivate him for the presidency.
The Republicans countered with the young governor of New York, Thomas E. Dewey, for their presidential candidate. He was a relatively centrist Republican who ran with the more conservative Governor John Bricker of Ohio. The Republican strategy was somewhat garbled and mostly sought a change from FDR after three terms with mild criticisms of the New Deal social programs and the conduct of the war.
FDR kicked off his campaign in September with another highly partisan speech again blaming the Republicans for the Great Depression and attacking their isolationism. He also humorously defended himself against charges that a destroyer was sent to retrieve his dog, Fala: “I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them!” FDR, however, had difficulty managing his postwar vision for the world.
The Dumbarton Oaks Conference drew up a plan for the United Nations which committed the United States to maintaining world security and peace. FDR argued that the United States had failed to fulfill this obligation after World War I by refusing to join the League of Nations, which significantly weakened the peace and led to another world war.
However, FDR tried unsuccessfully to deal with Stalin and an aggressive Soviet Union. The Red Army had allowed the Nazis to crush the Warsaw Uprising in Poland, and then imposed the brutal Communist regime throughout Eastern Europe despite agreements with the Allies and specifically Winston Churchill in Moscow that fall. The Soviets ignored all their promises regarding the freedom of Eastern Europe. FDR conceded Eastern Europe to the Soviets despite the principles of democracy and self-determination in the 1941 Atlantic Charter because he acknowledged Soviet military dominance on the Eastern Front, sympathized with Soviet security concerns after being attacked twice in the century, and was duped by Stalin.
Just before the election, the American armed forces more successfully defeated the Japanese Navy decisively at the Battle of Leyte Gulf and then invaded the Philippines. In early November, FDR won re-election with 432 electoral votes and a margin of three million popular votes. The Democrats retained control of both houses of Congress, and even gained several seats in the House. In his brief Inaugural Address, FDR again advocated an internationalist foreign policy: “We have learned that we cannot live alone at peace, that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other Nations far away. We have learned to be citizens of the world.”
In February, 1945, an ailing FDR attended Yalta and hammered out compromises including the joint occupation of Germany, a Soviet promise to join the invasion of Japan, and agreement on the shape of the United Nations. When he returned to the United States, FDR delivered a speech to Congress in which he asserted the old diplomacy of unilateral action, alliances, and balance of power relationships was being replaced by international cooperation. “This time, as we fight together to win the war finally, we work together to keep it from happening again.”
FDR died in mid-April, and his vision for international cooperation and peace did not come to fruition. Rather, the cracks in the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union became a full-blown arms race and Cold War with the Soviet Union and Communist world. The postwar world split into rival military, political, ideological, and economic blocs with the haunting specter of nuclear annihilation threatening global destruction.
Tony Williams is the author of five books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, co-authored with Stephen Knott.