Words That Men Live By
Wendell L. Willkie (1940)
NATIONAL RADIO ADDRESS, Nov. 11, 1940, - A defeated candidate for the Presidency, Wendell L. Willkie, sat before a radio microphone tonight to set a new precedent in American politics. One week after losing the race for the Presidency to Franklin D. Roosevelt, he reminded his own supporters, and the public as well, that in the American system there always must be a “loyal opposition” that supporters all measure for the public good but stands as the check against arbitrary assumption of power by the winning side. Such a statement he deemed necessary, he said, to calm the controversies aroused by the recent campaign.
Mr. Willikie, the relatively unknown “dark horse” who came out of political obscurity to capture the banner of his own party and to poll more votes than any other candidate except Mr. Roosevelt’s total in defeating him, echoed in his speech the grave apprehensions of many persons that, while the United States is not directly involved in the European war, its path at best must lead perilously close to involvement.
Hence the great need for unity, and Mr. Willikie’s clearly apparent effort to hold his party to constructive criticism, the form of “loyal opposition” that has long been formalized in the British Parliament and actually has existed in the United States on most crucial occasions.
People of America: Twenty-two years ago today, a great conflict raging on the battlefields of Europe came to an end. The guns were silent. A new era of peace began and for that era the people of our Western World – our democratic world – held the highest hopes.
Those hopes have not been fulfilled. The democratic way of life did not become stronger – it became weaker. The spirit of constitutional government flickered like a dying lamp. And within the last year or so the light from that lamp has disappeared entirely from the continent of Europe.
We in America watched darkness fall upon Europe. And as we watched, there approached and important time for us – the national election of 1940. In that election, and in our attitudes after that election, the rest of the world would see an example of democracy in action, an example of a great people faithful to their Constitution and to their elected representatives.
The campaign preceding this election stirred us deeply. Millions upon millions of us who had never been active in politics took part in it. The people flocked to the pollin places in greater numbers than ever before in history.
Nearly 50,000,000 people exercised on November 5 the right of the franchise – the precious right which we inherited from our forefathers and which we must cherish and pass on to future generations.
Thus it came about that although constitutional government had been blotted our elsewhere, here in America men and women kept it triumphantly alive.
No matter which side you were on, on that day, remember that this great, free expression of our faith in the free system of government must have given hope to millions upon millions of others – on the heroic island of Britain – in the ruined cities of France and Belgium – yes, perhaps even to people in Germany and in Italy. It has given hope wherever man hopes to be free.
In the campaign preceding this election, serious issues were at stake. People became bitter. Many things were said which in calmer moments might have been left unsaid or might have been worded more thoughtfully.
But we Americans know that the bitterness is a distortion, not a true reflection of what is in our hearts. I can truthfully say that there is no bitterness in mine. I hope there is none in yours.
We have elected Franklin Roosevelt President. He is your President. He is my President. We all of us owe him the respect due to his high office. We give him that respect. We will support him with our best efforts for our country. And we pray that God may guide his hand during the next four years in the supreme task of administering the affairs of the people.
It is a fundamental principle of the democratic system that the majority rules. The function of the minority, however, is equally fundamental. It is about the function of the minority – 22,000,000 people, nearly half our electorate, that I wish to talk to you tonight.
A vital element in the balanced operation of democracy is a strong, alert and watchful opposition. That is our task for the next four years. We must constitute ourselves a vigorous, loyal and public-spirited opposition party.
It has been suggested that in order to present a united front to a threatening world, the minority should now surrender its convictions and join the majority. This would mean that in the United States of America there would be only one dominant party – only one economic philosophy – only one political philosophy of life. This is a totalitarian idea – it is a slave idea – it must be rejected utterly….
An American President could fill his whole Cabinet with leaders of the opposition party and still our Administration would not be a two-party administration. It would be an administration of a majority President giving orders to minority representatives of his own choosing. These representatives must concur in the President’s convictions. If they do not they have no alternative except to resign….
Our American unity cannot be made with words or with gestures. It must be forged between the ideas of the opposition and the practices and the policies of the administration. Ours is a government of principles and not one merely of men. Any member of the minority party, though willing to die for his country, still retains the right to criticize the policies of the government. This right is imbedded in our constitutional system.
We, who stand ready to serve our country behind our Commander in Chief, nevertheless retain the right, and I will say the duty, to debate the course of our government. Ours is a two-party system. Should we ever permit one party to dominate our lives entirely, democracy would collapse and we would have dictatorship.
Therefore, to you who have so sincerely given yourselves to this cause, which you chose me to lead, I say: “Your function during the next four years is that of the loyal opposition.” You believe deeply in the principles that we stood for in the recent election. And principles are not like a football suit to be out on in order to play a game and then taken off when the game is over.
It is your constitutional duty to debate the policies of this or any other Administration and to express yourselves freely and openly to those who represent you in your state and national government.
~ Postlogue ~
Even at this writing the place of Wendell L. Willkie in American history is clouded by controversy, although his stature has grown as an individual.
A fascinating man, he burned bright and fast in a life that lasted only 52 years, from 1892 to 1944. A successful lawyer – highly successful in representing financial interests – he became an ardent political liberal within the Republican party, capturing the nomination in 1940 without the benefit of any organization whatever.
Yet he could not win over those Republican radicals who had cast their lot with Roosevelt; notably Harold L. Ickes, the former Bill Moose leader, who dubbed Willkie “the barefoot boy from Wall Street.”
Soon after Willkie’s defeat in the big contest, he offered his services to the Administration and traveled widely in Europe and Asia on missions for the government. He became a bitter for of the isolationists and left, as his political legacy, two books, One World published in 1943, and An American Program, published in 1944.Printable version