America's Fight Over World War II, 1939 - 1941 (2013)
Willkie and his handlers took five weeks off after the Republican convention to plot their strategy. As a result, what was hot became cold; the cost of the decision was that Willkie was out of public view, and he lost ground to FDR. Once his campaign began, it was a very disorganized fountain of anarchy and confusion; that was due largely to Willkie's refusal to have anything to do with the traditional Republican Party strategists.
Willkie's problem: how to get voters to favor a political neophyte over FDR, a long time veteran of the hustings (campaigning). Willkie tried to attack FDR on the still-stagnant economy, and the failure to quickly organize the now much-larger army since the Selective Service Act of 1940. Willkie also accused FDR of being a dictator, which to him was easily shown by FDR running for a third term.
Willkie became even more annoyed and frustrated during the general campaign when it became clear that FDR wasn't even going to acknowledge him as a viable opponent. From September through much of October, FDR stayed "above the fray", emphasizing his role as Commander-in-Chief. While FDR toured defense locations, the leaders of the Democratic Party went after Willkie hard on the President's behalf.
The Democratic strategists focused on exploiting the split in the Republican Party, associating Willkie (incorrectly) with the Isolationist faction. The idea spread that Willkie was just a tool for the Republican ultra-conservative Isolationists. There was even the rumor (spread by these Democrat strategists) that a Willkie victory would lead to a Fascist coup d'etat in Washington, D.C. by Republicans. FDR's VP candidate Henry Wallace came very close to publicly stating that a vote for Willkie would be a vote for Hitler.
Willkie was also beginning to slip in the polls (by early-October, FDR was ahead by ten points), and he began to re-think his promise to keep his campaign civil. Republican leaders begged Willkie to attack FDR where he was weakest: the War in Europe. These party bosses demanded that Willkie renounce all he had done before, and state that a vote for FDR was a vote for America entering the War in Europe, and sending American soldiers to once again die on European battlefields.
Willkie agreed: he had reached a point where his anger and resentment trumped his principles and conscience. Suddenly, Willkie was the Apostle for Isolationism; he accused FDR of causing America to "drift towards war" in Europe. Willkie even went so far to state that FDR had made a secret agreement with Great Britain that the U.S. would soon enter the war as their ally.
Willkie was ahead of FDR in the Midwest, and was surging in the Northeast. Now it was the Democrats turn to panic; FDR actually had to start campaigning for re-election. A potential complication for the Democrats arose when a series of letters written by VP candidate Henry Wallace came to be in the possession of a powerful Chicago Republican newspaper publisher . . . that powerful enemy of FDR wanted to publish the letters, showing that Wallace's mental stability was in question.
But FDR had in his possession proof of Willkie's extramarital affair with the New York Herald-Tribune's book editor, Irita Van Doren (pictured in a portrait taken in 1947). FDR told the Chicago publisher if the Wallace letters were published,then Willkie would be "outed". During this nasty campaign, in this instance, both sides actually agreed to keep what they had secret.
But Dorothy Thompson (pictured), the most famous female journalist in America (and the biggest "Lindbergh Hater" in the media), wasn't fooled by the rhetoric. She switched from being 100% behind Willkie to 100% behind FDR; FDR's last campaign speech was largely taken from a draft that Thompson had written on his behalf. Thompson's main focus was to stop Hitler (she had seen firsthand the excesses of the Nazi Party in Germany), and she believed that Willkie had become an "Isolationist Shill".
Willkie had received more votes that any other Republican candidate in U.S. History by 1940; had it not been for the War in Europe, the Republicans would have regained the White House. In the end, FDR's known faults were preferred to Willkie's unknown virtues.
One week later, on a national radio address, Willkie once again put partisan politics aside. He proclaimed his support for FDR, stating that all Americans owed him the respect that the Presidency deserved. Little did anyone know that in the upcoming crucial years, Willkie would be one of FDR's most trustworthy and reliable soldiers, becoming in essence America's "Ambassador at Large" in Europe and Asia during most of WW II.
(Below: Lowell Thomas narrates a short film documenting Willkie's political life)