THE BLOG
01/02/2013 05:38 pm ET | Updated Mar 04, 2013

An American First and a Republican Afterward

A highly polarized country. A savagely partisan Congress. A brutal presidential race, which ended with the Democratic incumbent defeating his Republican challenger, an ex-businessman.

This was America in 1940 and early 1941 -- a period that the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr would later label "those angry days" and one that bears striking parallels to today's poisonous political climate. Just as now, Americans were engaged in a bitter debate over the future direction of their country. World War II had just begun, and the question was: Should the traditionally isolationist U.S. come to the aid of Britain, the last European nation holding out against Hitler? President Roosevelt and other interventionists said yes, believing that Britain's survival was crucial to America's economic and physical security. The country's isolationists, a predominant force in the Republican party, argued that the United States was in no danger and must focus only on its own defense. Just as today, the president's re-election made no difference to his Republican congressional foes, who steadfastly refused to cooperate with him and his policies.

There was, however, one vital difference between then and now. In the midst of all the polarization and gridlock, a few prominent Republicans stepped up to do what they thought was right, defying their party and putting the interests of their nation and its people ahead of political ambition and partisan advantage.

The chief rebel was none other than Wendell Willkie, the 1940 GOP candidate for president. Instead of pulling a Mitt Romney-like disappearing act after the election, Willkie went on the radio to announce to the American people: "We have elected Franklin Roosevelt president. He is your president. He is my president... We will support him."

To the fury of the Republican old guard, Willkie endorsed 1941 legislation creating the Lend Lease program, sending aid to Britain, as well as backing the first peacetime draft, which made possible the huge U.S. Army and Air Force that took the field after Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt, who would later describe his former foe as "a godsend to this country when we needed him most," acknowledged that Willkie's support for those measures, both of which were crucial in winning the war, might well have made the difference between congressional victory and defeat.

Joining Willkie as GOP apostates were Henry Stimson and Frank Knox, the country's two most respected Republican senior statesmen, who became members of Roosevelt's cabinet and who, like Willkie, were essentially read out of their party. Neither much cared. As Knox told his friends, "I am an American first, and a Republican afterward."

Like Stimson and Knox, Wendell Willkie has disappeared into the mists of history, recalled, if at all, merely as one of FDR's defeated rivals. He deserves much more. Noting Willkie's moral courage and political leadership, MSNBC's Chris Matthews recently wrote, "I long for such a leader today."

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