Faykosh on Jeffries, 'A Third Term for FDR: The Election of 1940'

John W. Jeffries
Joe Faykosh

John W. Jeffries. A Third Term for FDR: The Election of 1940. American Presidential Elections Series. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017. Illustrations. 264 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2402-7.

Reviewed by Joe Faykosh (Central Arizona College) Published on H-FedHist (May, 2018) Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann (Miami University of Ohio Regionals)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51595

In 1940, opponents of Franklin Roosevelt’s third-term bid circulated buttons that read: “Washington Wouldn’t, Grant Couldn’t, Roosevelt Shouldn’t.” Roosevelt’s precedent-busting bid for a third term can too often appear today through the prism of inevitability: the subsequent administration and the war effort are so well known that the election has often been overlooked. In A Third Term for FDR: The Election of 1940, John W. Jeffries expertly details the events and people who contributed to this unique electoral cycle: from Roosevelt’s hedging and the behind-the-scenes wrangling of fellow Democrats unsure of FDR’s machinations to the efforts of well-known and obscure Republicans alike to reclaim their political power after eight years out of power.

Jeffries’s A Third Term for FDR provides a comprehensive, compelling, and concise narrative of the tumultuous 1940 presidential election cycle, mixing ideological clashes, personality conflicts, and voluminous electoral data. While other books have focused on the foreign policy implications of Roosevelt’s third-term gambit, Jeffries’s book focuses attention on the domestic successes and intra-party corralling that enabled his unprecedented candidacy. Jeffries also makes the important contribution of providing an exhaustive review of the demographics of the 1940 presidential election, examining the general election tallies against polling, congressional and state races, and other data to give nuance to the numeric result.

Jeffries divides his book into five logical sections, giving equal coverage to Roosevelt’s maturity as Democratic Party leader, the Democratic Party’s search for an adequate successor to the Roosevelt machine, the Republican Party’s similar but more desperate search to find someone to carry their altered banner in a post-New Deal climate, the brief but tumultuous campaigns of Roosevelt and Wendell Wilkie, and an in-depth consideration of the 1940 electorate demographics. Far from showing that Roosevelt’s third election was predetermined or inevitable, Jeffries gives a thorough account of Wilkie’s Republican competitors and the New Deal backlash that provided an opening for his well-funded and organized campaign. Roosevelt similarly faced partisan opposition as his expansions of the New Deal, attempted purge of Democratic critics, and effort to pack the Supreme Court met with strong reaction and mixed motivations from some of his closest allies and harshest critics.

Roosevelt’s third term exemplifies, perhaps more than anything else, the power he had over his administration, his party, and all of those around him. Jeffries vividly depicts the abortive attempts of intra-party rivals John Nance Garner, Cordell Hull, and James Farley, among others, to take the mantle from the incumbent. Roosevelt is largely inscrutable, with his available correspondence demonstrating a preference toward people-pleasing over direct and precise views on the events around him; as Jeffries states, “the president remained silent, enigmatic, and playful...—and seemed in conversations both to advance and dismiss other possible candidacies” (p. 93). Roosevelt weaponized his ambivalence to step down or continue by torpedoing the chances for his party to imagine future success without him at the helm. Jeffries illuminates the danger of this lack of imagination for Democrats, as the party’s fortunes fluctuated with Roosevelt’s personal charm and appeal to voters. Viewing this election as a referendum on the Republican and/or Democratic Party is impossible: the candidate consuming all of the oxygen in 1940 was Roosevelt.

As detailed in A Third Term for FDR, Wilkie tried, in vain, to draw a dichotomy between himself and Roosevelt, particularly on criticism of the New Deal and Roosevelt’s apparent dictatorial reluctance to leave the White House. Yet Roosevelt could change the game as quickly as Wilkie learned the rules, focusing on domestic issues where opportune, and then on the growing foreign tension when necessary to rally the party and public around the flag. It was an unwinnable gambit, but Wilkie was game, traveling around the country and developing a consistent if ineffective message. Far from a co-signor to the New Deal, and a lame opponent to the victorious Roosevelt, Wilkie was a strong and incisive critic (and former Democrat) who offered “one spot of color” and “appears to say anything he really thinks,” according to Arthur Krock (p. 66). Wilkie was also a candidate who ran an exhaustive, nationwide campaign and offered voters a true choice for president.

Another key contribution of A Third Term for FDR is Jeffries’s focused dissection of the various ideologies used at the time by both Democrats and Republicans. For the Democratic Party, having membership divided among conservative, liberal, and moderate constituencies was confusing and largely self-applied. Jeffries completes the difficult task of separating these intra-party factions and describes how these schisms informed opposition to potential candidates and policies, giving an astute and clear understanding of this fractious time in party politics. This is also the story of Roosevelt finding his ideological voice as a party leader, who charged himself with “carrying out the definitely liberal declaration of principles” and pitted himself against “outspoken reactionaries” and conservatives with their “concerted campaign of defeatism” (p. 31). While the book rightly deserves credit for its focus on domestic debates during the election and incomparable demographic analysis of the results, this explanation of ideologies is superior.

Roosevelt’s remarkable political career reached an important fork in the road in 1940, and he cast his political future (and life) with a commitment to stay in the office longer than anyone else, breaking all precedents and criticisms of decorum. Jeffries provides an excellent narrative of the decision making and challenges that made this election truly dynamic and historical, forever cementing Roosevelt’s legacy as a singular politician. The 1940 election was a crossroads: Roosevelt was faced with retirement or the further stress of his job; Wilkie was faced with criticizing his opponent or being a dutiful, people-pleasing citizen at a tumultuous time; and the American people were faced with a choice between a known politician, whose legacy grew outsized with each passing day, and a staunch critic offering an alternative path. Jeffries, too, faced a crossroads in writing this book: offering the same narrative about Roosevelt’s inevitable victory or a truly insightful work that explores all sides and possibilities, and adds nuance to the campaign and results. Let us be glad he chose the latter.  

Citation: Joe Faykosh. Review of Jeffries, John W., A Third Term for FDR: The Election of 1940. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. May, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51595

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