Wendell Lewis Willkie was an American lawyer and corporate executive, and the 1940 Republican nominee for President. Willkie appealed to many convention delegates as the Republican field’s only interventionist: although the U.S. remained neutral prior to Pearl Harbor, he favored greater U.S. involvement in World War II to support Britain and other Allies. His Democratic opponent, incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt, won the 1940 election with about 55% of the popular vote and took the electoral college vote by a wide margin.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Willkie offered his full support to Roosevelt. Willkie’s mission was to be Roosevelt’s personal representative, “demonstrating American unity, gathering information, and discussing with key heads of state plans for the postwar future”. After leaving the U.S. on August 26, Willkie’s first stop was in North Africa, where he met General Montgomery and toured the front at El Alamein. In Beirut, he stayed with General de Gaulle, leader of the Free French. In Jerusalem, Willkie met with Jews and Arabs, told the British rulers of Palestine that both peoples should be brought into the government, and he later wrote that the conflict there was so ancient, it was unrealistic to think that it could “be solved by good will and simple honesty” Willkie had been moved to add the Soviet Union to his itinerary when three Western reporters there urged him by telegram to do so There, he met with Stalin, and upon his return he advocated more liberal Lend-Lease terms for the USSR. In China, Willkie was hosted by Chiang Kai-shek and was fascinated by Madame Chiang. Willkie was taken to the front to observe the Chinese military forces in their fight against the Japanese, and he spoke out against colonialism, in China and elsewhere. His statements were reported widely in Britain, angering Churchill, who responded by saying, “We mean to hold our own. I have not become the King’s First Minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.
Though he never became President, he it has been said he won something much more important: a lasting place in American history. Along with Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, and Hubert Humphrey, he was the also-ran who would be long remembered. “He was a born leader,” wrote historian Allan Nevins, “and he stepped to leadership at just the moment when the world needed him.” Shortly before his death, Willkie told a friend, “If I could write my own epitaph and if I had to choose between saying, ‘Here lies an unimportant President’, or, ‘Here lies one who contributed to saving freedom at a moment of great peril’, I would prefer the latter.”
During his 1940 campaign, Willkie had pledged to integrate the civil service and armed forces, and proudly pointed to what he deemed the strongest civil rights plank in history in the Republican platform. He also promised to end racial segregation in Washington, D.C.