OTD in History… November 7, 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt is elected to an unprecedented fourth term as president
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history, November 7, 1944, Democratic nominee President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is reelected to an unprecedented fourth term after his victory against Republican nominee Governor Thomas Dewey of New York winning 432 Electoral College votes. Roosevelt is the only president elected to more than two terms. Roosevelt was first elected in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression he along with the Democratic Congress enacted his New Deal program aimed to curb the depression, among the programs passed in his first hundred days in office, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, National Industrial Recovery Act, and the Public Works Administration and Tennessee Valley Authority. Roosevelt’s policies helped the economy and he was reelected in 1936.
During his second term, the focus began shifting to the potential war in Europe and Asia because of German and Japanese aggression. In 1939, the World War II was declared but Roosevelt kept America slowly shifting from neutrality to support for the allies. The war prompted Roosevelt to reluctantly agree to run for a third unprecedented term. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, his third term shifted focus to foreign policy and America’s subsequent entry into the war. The 1944 election was the only the second held during wartime after Abraham Lincoln’s reelection in 1864 during the Civil War. When asked by a reporter about suspending the election Roosevelt replied, “Well, you see, you have come to the wrong place, because — gosh, all these people haven’t read the Constitution. Unfortunately, I have.” Roosevelt would go on to call 1944 the “meanest campaign” of his political career.
The major issue of the campaign was Roosevelt’s health with Republicans making a change in leadership their campaign focus and Democrats ensuring the vice presidential nominee could succeed if Roosevelt’s health failed. At the Democratic National Convention held July 19–21, 1944 at the Chicago Stadium, Roosevelt was renominated easily despite growing concern about his economic and social policies among conservatives in the party and especially in the South. Roosevelt’s declining health and suspicions of concealed health problems prompted the Democratic Party’s conservatives to oppose the renomination of Roosevelt’s second Vice-President Henry Wallace. Wallace’s left wing position and New Age spiritual beliefs concerned conservatives considering might have to assume the Presidency. Wallace had written coded letters discussing Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to his controversial Russian spiritual guru, Nicholas Roerich.
Party leaders told Roosevelt about their opposition and suggested Missouri Senator Harry Truman, a moderate and chairman of a Senate wartime investigating committee. Roosevelt refused to publicly support any of the Vice Presidential choices, Roosevelt’s second choice was James F. Byrnes of South Carolina, however, he was conservative on race and labor issues, and Sidney Hillman, chairman of the CIO’s Political Action Committee and Roosevelt campaign contributor opposed his nomination. Roosevelt accepted Truman as his running mate for party unity, Truman himself was reluctant to accept the nomination, referred to as “the new Missouri Compromise.” Liberal delegates still supported Henry Wallace and he was in the lead in the first ballot. The Northern, Midwestern, and Southern state delegates supported Truman, and he was able to clinch the nomination on the second ballot after shifts.
Republicans wanted General Douglas MacArthur to run for the nomination, however, he was leading the Allied forces in the Pacific and could not actively campaign. Thomas Dewey wanted the nomination, however, when was elected Governor of New York in 1942, he promised to serve his entire four-year term. He could not actively campaign, or announce his intentions for the Republican nomination, however, his name was on write-ins in state primaries contests, and, Republican state conventions pledged delegates to vote for him at the convention. The 1940 nominee Wendell Willkie did not win a single delegate in the Wisconsin primary and subsequently withdrew from the race. Dewey won the Wisconsin primary and became the frontrunner. At the Republican National Convention held on June 26–28, 1944, at the Chicago Stadium, Dewey as the frontrunner captured the nomination with near unanimous delegate support, one Wisconsin delegate voted for MacArthur. Dewey chose John W. Bricker of Ohio as his running mate. Dewey accepted the nomination and gave a speech at the convention.
At first Republican nominee, Thomas Dewey campaigned mostly agreeing with Roosevelt’s New Deal domestic policy and not attacking his foreign policy although Republicans were divided between internationalists and isolationists calling themselves nationalists. Dewey attempted to style himself as younger than the president and the country needed a change in leadership after 12 years of Roosevelt being in power. The tactic did not gain traction. Soon, rumors about Roosevelt’s failing health started to make waves in the campaign, including the possibility the Roosevelt could live out a fourth term in office. To capture the public’s attention, the Republican campaign turned to visceral attacks on Roosevelt and the administration.
Republicans thought the biggest issue they could make was about Communism, and they linked the American alliance in the war with Russia and Communist Party support for Roosevelt to communism influence within the Roosevelt administration. Attacks focused on Sidney Hillman. After the convention, Arthur Krock of the New York Times reported that Roosevelt told Hannegan: “Go down and nominate Truman before there’s any more trouble. And clear everything with Sidney.” The overheard moment became a controversy, that Hillman had too much decision making power within the Roosevelt administration and Democratic Party. Hillman linked the Democrats to Communism because he praised Russia’s resistance to the Nazi invasion with Earl Browder and urged the Communist Party to support Roosevelt.
Initially, Roosevelt decided he would not campaign and would just continue his responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief. Roosevelt became tired of the attacks on his health but was more upset about Republicans attacking his administration and in mid-September commenced stumping. At first, the president planned to give five speeches, to answer the criticism show he was physically up to the challenge. Roosevelt took to the stump September 23, 1944, his first of speeches answering his critics, was to the Teamsters Union in Washington, the Fala Speech is considered the best campaign speech of Roosevelt’s career. In the speech, which was carried on national radio, Roosevelt ridiculed Republican claims that his administration was corrupt and wasteful with tax money. He particularly ridiculed a GOP claim that he had sent a US Navy warship to pick up his Scottish Terrier, Fala in Alaska, noting that “Fala was furious” at such rumors.
In response, Dewey gave a blistering partisan speech in Oklahoma City a few days later on national radio, in which he accused Roosevelt of being “indispensable” to corrupt big-city Democratic organizations and American Communists, he also referred to members of Roosevelt’s cabinet as a “motley crew.” Dewey accused Roosevelt of incompetence, arrogance, inefficiency, fatigue, and senility. The Republican nominee almost immediately regretted his decision to deliver the speech, saying it was the “worst damned speech I ever made.” In reflection, Dewey commented, “I was attacking the dignity of the office I was seeking.”
Presidential historian Gil Troy indicates in his book See How They Ran: The Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate, “The 1944 campaign in general, and the Fala speech, in particular, became essential components of the Roosevelt legend. Historians later celebrated the speech as vintage Roosevelt, a moment of triumph. That the popular antipathy about the speech and the campaign was buried in a heap of praise says much about Franklin Roosevelt the politician. From 1932 until his death in 1945, Roosevelt bewitched with his political charms.” (Troy)
To quiet rumors of his poor health, Roosevelt insisted on making a vigorous campaign swing in October and rode in an open car in traveling New York city streets in the rain all day. Roosevelt’s personal doctor, Vice Admiral Ross McIntire issued a statement declaring, “nothing wrong organically with him at all. . . . He’s perfectly O.K. . . . The stories that he is in bad health are understandable enough around election time, but they are not true.” (Boller, 262)
Historian David M. Jordan writing in his book, FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944 seems to believe that the focus on Roosevelt’s bad health is based on hindsight, writing, “When people think of the 1944 presidential election, they usually think two things: that everybody knew Franklin D. Roosevelt was dying; and that victory was a given for FDR. The thing they usually don’t know, or can’t quite remember, is who the Republican candidate was. Walter Trohan, the longtime Washington correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, summed it up in his memoirs: ‘The 1944 presidential campaign was a foregone conclusion even though all the politicians knew FDR was a dying man.’ … On the contrary, such history-by-hindsight should be guarded against, because it does not accord with what really took place. The biggest issue in the campaign was who was better suited to bring the war to a conclusion and handle the issues of peace thereafter.”
The 1944 election was the first and only time a President was elected to a fourth term. Congress would pass the 22nd Amendment of the United States Constitution in 1947 limited the number of Presidential to two, three, if a Vice President succeeded as President had less than two years of the term left. One of the few elections where the vice presidential choice was more important than the presidential nomination, where a historic fight over the Democratic vice presidential nomination resulted in the next President. Roosevelt died of cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1944, less than 4 months after taking the oath of office for the fourth time, and Truman became the nation’s 33rd President instead of Henry Wallace. The 1944 election was the last in which a Democratic presidential candidate carried every state in the South. First election since Grover Cleveland’s re-election in 1892 in which Ohio went to the losing candidate, and the last election in which any candidate received over 90% of the vote in any state.
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Boller, Paul F. Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Jordan, David M. FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.
Troy, Gil. See How They Ran: The Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate. New York: Free Press, 1991, 2014.
Troy, Gil, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel. History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008. New York: Facts On File, 2012.
Weintraub, Stanley. Final Victory: FDR’s Extraordinary Campaign for President During World War Ii. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2012.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.