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The Amazing "We Want Willkie!" Convention of 1940 and How it Freed FDR to Save the Western World

A-FiveDaysPhiladelphiaWhen the Republican Party convened in June 1940 to nominate its presidential candidate, four competitors rose to the challenge: rising Republican luminary Tom Dewey, established Republican members Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg, and newcomer Wendell Willkie. The charismatic Willkie, a Democrat most of his life but a New Deal critic, was, unlike his isolationist opponents, a liberal interventionist and just as anti-Hitler as FDR. After five thrilling days of political machinations and surprising support, Willkie won the Republican nomination. Five Days recounts the events surrounding this feat, including the surrender of France the day before the convention, and explains how essential Willkie’s nomination would prove in allowing FDR to ready the country for its entry into World War II.
Public Affairs. 256 pages. $26. ISBN: 1586481126

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"At a time when Hitler was threatening the world, American democracy was proving itself not only the best form of government, but the most inspiring. . . . Five Days in Philadelphia is a rousing read, especially for those who love America, politics and the city itself." Chris Matthews

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"To read Charles Peters’s excellent book on how dark horse Wendell Willkie won the 1940 Republican nomination for president is to be reminded of how times political have changed, and not necessarily for the better. . . . Peters, founder and for 32 years editor of The Washington Monthly, has written a vivid, entertaining account of how, in a crisis, the right man appeared at the right time." Leonard Boasberg

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Accounts of political conventions from the days when they were the zest of American politics are nostalgia trips for political junkies of a certain age. . . . Every bit as engrossing in Peters’s account are the campaigns to win support for a peacetime draft and for the delivery of 50 mothballed destroyers to Britain in exchange for the use of British naval bases in Newfoundland and the Caribbean." Michael Kenney

New York Observer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The prose in Mr. Peters’s history lesson is efficient, clear as a windowpane, affable and sermon-free. . . . Mr. Peters gives a briskly paced, Technicolor account of the five days, with proper emphasis on the role played by chance, the ruling divinity of politics." Patricia O’Toole

Orlando Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"Charles Peters focuses more on FDR’s and Willkie’s political platforms and the advent of World War II than he does on the candidates’ battle for the White House. In fact, Peters says little at all about the presidential election, but much about the issues that separated the Democratic and Republican parties, and the electorate at large." Sam A. Mackie

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The book’s tendency to overstate Willkie’s effect begins with its subtitle . . . and continues on through a concluding assertion that the losing candidate’s ‘impact on this country and the world was greater than that of most men who actually held the office’ of president. . . . Five Days in Philadelphia would also have been helped by less mechanical methods of establishing period detail (what’s playing at the local bijou during one week or another), and a smoother integration of Peters’s own boyhood memories with national history." Thomas Mallon

Critical Summary

Peters, author of How Washington Really Works, attended the 1940 Democratic convention as a boy, managed John F. Kennedy’s 1960 primary in West Virginia’s largest county, then moved to Washington, D.C., to help launch the Peace Corps and found The Washington Monthly. He delivers an inspirational book in our era of scripted political conventions devoid of drama and excitement. Readers of Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America ( 4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2004), which offers a fictional look at that same campaign, may find Five Days to be the more insightful and imaginative book. Although Peters sometimes gets swept up in hyperbole, he tells an engrossing story in masterful prose.