1940 Republican National Convention

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1940 Republican National Convention
1940 presidential election
WendellWillkie.png Charles McNary 1912.JPG
Wilkie and McNary
Date(s) June 9 – June 12, 1940
City Cleveland, Ohio
Venue Public Auditorium
Presidential nominee Wendel Wilkie (IN)
Vice Presidential nominee Charles McNary (OR)
Ballots 6
1936  ·  1944

The 1940 Republican National Convention was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from June 24 to June 28, 1940. It nominated Wendell Willkie of Indiana for President and Senator Charles McNary of Oregon for Vice-President.

The contest for the 1940 Republican nomination was wide-open. Front-runners included Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio and Manhattan District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey.

Republican Candidates

The race

In the months leading up to the opening of the 1940 Republican National Convention, the three leading candidates for the GOP nomination were considered to be Senators Robert A. Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, and District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey of New York. Taft was the leader of the GOP's conservative, non-interventionist wing, and his main strength was in his native Midwest and parts of the South. Vandenberg, the senior Republican in the Senate, was the "favorite son" candidate of the Michigan delegation and was considered a possible compromise candidate. Dewey, the District Attorney for Manhattan, had risen to national fame as the "Gangbuster" prosecutor who had sent numerous infamous mafia figures to prison, most notably "Lucky" Luciano, the organized-crime boss of New York City.

All three men had campaigned vigorously during the primary season, but only 300 of the 1,000 convention delegates had been pledged to a candidate by the time the convention opened. Moreover, each of these candidates had weaknesses that could be exploited. Taft's outspoken non-interventionism and opposition to any American involvement in the European war convinced many Republican leaders that he could not win a general election, particularly as the French Third Republic fell to Nazi Germany in May 1940 and Germany threatened the United Kingdom. Dewey's relative youth - he was only 38 in 1940 - and lack of any foreign-policy experience caused his candidacy to weaken as the Nazi military emerged as a fearsome threat. In 1940 Vandenberg was also a non-interventionist (he changed his foreign-policy stance during World War II) and his lackadaisical, lethargic campaign never caught the voter's attention. This left an opening for a dark horse candidate to emerge.

Willkie emerges as a dark horse

A Wall Street-based industrialist named Wendell Willkie, who had never before run for public office, emerged as the unlikely nominee. Willkie, a former Democrat who had been a pro-Roosevelt delegate at the 1932 Democratic National Convention, was considered an improbable choice. Willkie had first come to public attention as an articulate critic of Roosevelt's attempt to break up electrical power monopolies. Willkie was the CEO of the Commonwealth and Southern power company, and he opposed the federal government's attempts to compete with private enterprise, claiming that the government had unfair advantages over private companies. Willkie did not dismiss all Roosevelt's social welfare programs, and in fact supported those he believed free enterprise could not do better.

Furthermore, unlike the leading Republican candidates, Willkie was a forceful and outspoken advocate of aid to the Allies, especially the United Kingdom. His support of giving all aid to the British "short of declaring war" won him the support of many Republicans on the East Coast of the United States, who disagreed with their party's isolationist leaders in Congress. Willkie's persuasive arguments impressed these Republicans, who believed that he would be an attractive presidential candidate. Many of the leading press barons of the era, such as Ogden Reid of the New York Herald Tribune, Roy Howard of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain and John and Gardner Cowles, publishers of the Minneapolis Star and the Minneapolis Tribune, as well as the Des Moines Register and Look magazine, supported Willkie in their newspapers and magazines. Even so, Willkie remained a long-shot candidate; the May 8 Gallup Poll showed Dewey at 67% support among Republicans, followed by Vandenberg and Taft, with Willkie at only 3%.

The Nazi Army's rapid blitzkrieg into France in May 1940 shook American public opinion, even as Taft was telling a Kansas audience that America must concentrate on domestic issues to prevent Roosevelt from using the international crisis to extend socialism at home. Both Dewey and Vandenberg also continued to oppose any aid to the United Kingdom that might lead to war with Germany. Nevertheless, sympathy for the embattled British was mounting daily, and this aided Willkie's candidacy. By mid-June, little over one week before the Republican Convention opened, the Gallup poll reported that Willkie had moved into second place with 17%, and that Dewey was slipping. Fueled by his favorable media attention, Willkie's pro-British statements won over many of the delegates. As the delegates were arriving in Philadelphia, Gallup reported that Willkie had surged to 29%, Dewey had slipped 5 more points to 47%, and Taft, Vandenberg and former President Herbert Hoover trailed at 8%, 8%, and 6% respectively.

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps as many as one million, telegrams urging support for Willkie poured in, many from "Willkie Clubs" that had sprung up across the country. Millions more signed petitions circulating everywhere.


At the 1940 Republican National Convention itself, keynote speaker Harold Stassen, the Governor of Minnesota, announced his support for Willkie and became his official floor manager. Hundreds of vocal Willkie supporters packed the upper galleries of the convention hall. Willkie's amateur status, his fresh face, appealed to delegates as well as voters. The delegations were selected not by primaries but by party leaders in each state, and they had a keen sense of the fast-changing pulse of public opinion. Gallup found the same thing in polling data not reported until after the convention: Willkie had moved ahead among Republican voters by 44% to only 29% for the collapsing Dewey. As the pro-Willkie galleries repeatedly yelled "We Want Willkie", the delegates on the convention floor began their vote. Dewey led on the first ballot but steadily lost strength thereafter. Both Taft and Willkie gained in strength on each ballot, and by the fourth ballot it was obvious that either Willkie or Taft would be the nominee. The key moments came when the delegations of large states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York left Dewey and Vandenberg and switched to Willkie, giving him the victory on the sixth ballot. The voting went like this:

Presidential Balloting, RNC 1940
ballot 1 2 3 4 5 6 before shifts 6 after shifts
Wendell L. Willkie 105 171 259 306 429 655 998
Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft 189 203 212 254 377 318 --
Thomas E. Dewey 360 338 315 250 57 11 --
Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg 76 73 72 61 42 -- --
Pennsylvania Governor Arthur H. James 74 66 59 56 59 -- --
Massachusetts Rep. Joseph W. Martin 44 26 -- -- -- -- --
Hanford MacNider 34 34 28 26 4 -- --
Frank E. Gannett 33 30 11 4 1 1 --
Former President Herbert Hoover 17 21 32 31 20 10 --
New Hampshire Senator Styles Bridges 28 9 1 1 -- -- --
Scattering / Blank 40 29 11 11 11 5 2

[Table source: Richard C. Bain and Judith H. Parris, Convention Decisions and Voting Records (1973), pp. 254–256.]

Willkie's nomination is still considered by most historians to have been one of the most dramatic moments in any political convention. Having given little thought to whom he would select as his vice-presidential nominee, Willkie left the decision to convention chairman and Massachusetts Congressman Joe Martin, the House Minority Leader, who suggested Senate Minority Leader Charles L. McNary of Oregon. Despite the fact that McNary had spearheaded a "Stop Willkie" campaign late in the balloting, the candidate picked him for his running mate:

Vice Presidential vote
Charles L. McNary 848
Dewey Short 108
Styles Bridges 2

"On the first ballot, Dewey was ahead followed by Taft and Willkie. Thereafter, Dewey steadily lost strength while Taft and Willkie picked up votes. On the fourth ballot Willkie was ahead but short of the 501 votes needed for nomination. On the sixth roll call — 1 a.m. Friday — Willkie finally went over the top." [1]

Wendell Willkie made history too by his personal appearance at the 1940 convention. "WILLKIE BREAKS PARTY TRADITION BY PERSONAL APPEARANCE LIKE ROOSEVELT'S IN '32," The New York Times' headline told its readers. "CROWD GOES WILD GREETING NOMINEE" and "CHEERS MARK HIS EVERY WORD" in The New York Times' headlines convey something of the convention's mood in 1940 with Willkie's appearance. "As your nominee," Willkie told the convention in his brief appearance, "I expect to conduct a crusading, vigorous, fighting campaign."

The 1940 Republican Convention also holds the distinction as the first convention carried on live television, broadcast by NBC and W2XE (later KYW-TV), and seen on pioneer stations in Philadelphia, New York and Schenectady. See also NBC.

Bomb Discoveries

Two dynamite bombs were discovered outside of the hall and a total of seven bombs were discovered in the greater Philadelphia area during the convention. The discoveries of the bombs were inadvertently released to the public by an emotional New York City police commissioner Lewis J. Valentine while discussing the New York World's Fair bombing that killed two police officers.[2]


Further reading

  • Charles Peters (2005), Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing "We Want Willkie" Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World, New York: Public Affairs.

Preceded by
Cleveland, Ohio
Republican National Conventions Succeeded by
Chicago, Illinois