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How an American political tradition was broken

Roosevelt's Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War - Richard Moe

Though ostensibly a history of the presidential election of 1940, Richard Moe's book is essentially the account of a decision -- specifically, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's decision to go against nearly a century and a half of American political tradition and run for a third term. It was an incredibly critical choice, one with momentous significance for Roosevelt's, historical legacy, American political history, and indeed even the history of the world itself, for it determined that it would be he rather than a successor who would lead the United States to war in December 1941 and to the cusp of victory less than four years later.


Roosevelt's decision was also an incredibly controversial one, though, as it flew in the face of decades of presidential custom. One of the strengths of Moe's book is his summary of the two-term tradition itself, in which he argues that it was really not until well into the 19th century that serving only eight years as president became a standard expectation of presidential office holders. Yet even before Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1933 that custom was fraying at the edges, as Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and even (unacknowledged by Moe) Wilson all had sought to extend their terms, Franklin Roosevelt himself seemed accepting of it until the outbreak of the war in Europe, when the worsening geopolitical situation led him to reconsider. Part of the issue for Roosevelt was his low assessment of his potential successors from the party's ranks, namely John Nance Garner and James Farley, The lack of a clear heir led Roosevelt to conclude that he needed to run for another term, a decision that then had to be managed into a staged "draft" at the Democrats convention in an effort to counter animosity to defying the longstanding tradition.


Moe's book offers an interesting look at how Roosevelt made his momentous choice within the context of politics and world war. Yet there is little that is new in Moe's account, as he relies mainly on the mass of secondary works about Roosevelt and his contemporaries in order to construct his narrative. His dependency on them invariably channels him towards a standard narrative that makes the same points as many of the previous authors (such as the ultimately unverifiable view that, but for the issue of war, Roosevelt's Republican opponent Wendell Willkie would have won in 1940), with little fresh consideration of the subject. In this respect, Moe's book is a useful examination of an event fully justifying its inclusion in a series about the "pivotal moments in American history," but one that ultimately has little that is new to say about its subject.