A Warning on Isolationism

Wendell Willkie

The Women’s National Republican Club

Hotel Astor, New York City

January 08, 1941

Mrs. Hays, members of the Women’s National Republican Club, I am delighted to be here, not alone as the last candidate on the Republican ticket for President of the United States, but also to thank each one of you personally for what you did in that crusade which we conducted just before Nov. 5. There is considerable solace in defeat. Not long ago I was reading the autobiography of Henry Watterson, that sparkling editor of The Louisville Courier-Journal. His father was a Congressman prior to the Civil War, and Henry spent much of his time in Washington with his father and was a great friend of many notables, among whom his greatest friend was Stephen Arnold Douglas who, as you know, was an outstanding leader in American public life.

The boys were sitting around the table one night, perhaps imbibing more than they should, and one of them said, “What do you think has happened—Steve Douglas wants to be President of the United States.” Another spoke up, “Well, if Steve Douglas wants to be President we will have to go out and work for him. But I don’t for the life of me know why he wants to be President at 44 years of age and have to be good for the rest of his life.”

The American people relieved me of the necessity of being good for the balance of my life.

I am greatly concerned about the Republican party—because in my judgment it is the only political organization in the United States today that can possibly ultimately bring back to the American people those principles that made this government great. It is the only political organization in the United States that can possibly restore to this country the system of free enterprise and individual liberty which transposed this country from a wilderness to the greatest industrial nation with a higher standard of living than that of any other country in the world and which offers over a period of years, when the rewards of this system are more widely diffused among the people, the ultimate hope of mankind for liberty and well-being.

And my concern about the Republican party and its place in this country is such that instead of speaking mere pleasantries to you I decided to speak to you very frankly of what I believe should be the Republican party’s position in this most critical moment in the Iong and magnificent history of liberty. I do not presume to speak for all in the party; I speak as Wendell Willkie to you fellow-Republicans saying what is in my heart and what I think will ultimately bring the Republican party to full power in the American system of government.

Whether we like it or not America cannot remove itself from the world. Every development in the art of transportation, every development in the art of communication has reduced the size of the world so that the world today actually is no larger than the thirteen original colonies were when we established our system of liberty in the United States. And much as we would like to withdraw within ourselves and much as we would like to disregard the rest of the world—we cannot. ’We cannot be indifferent to what happens in Europe. We cannot forget the fighting men of Britain. They are defending our liberty as well as theirs.

If they are permitted to fail I say to you quite deliberately that I do not believe liberty can survive here. I take issue with all who say we can survive with freedom in a totalitarian world.

I want to say to you even though some of you may disagree with me, and I say it to you with all the emphasis of my being, that if Britain falls before the onslaught of Hitlerism, it will be impossible over a period of time to preserve the free way of life in America.

There has been a bill introduced in Congress to give the President quite extraordinary power to deal with the present crisis, and as I said last Sunday, this bill must be modified in several respects and particularly in one—the extraordinary power granted must automatically come back to the people on a definite date.

I have listened this afternoon to the suggestions of Jim Wadsworth with whom, whether or not you all agree, you must say of him that of all the men in public life he has most consistently stood for what he believes, irrespective of the consequences. I have listened to some of his suggested amendments and I think they are wise suggestions to consider. I have also reviewed the suggestion of Kenneth Simpson, member of Congress from New York, and I think his suggestions are wise ones.

But let me say to you that if the Republican party in the year of 1941 makes a blind opposition to this bill and allows itself to be presented to the American people as the isolationist party, it will never again gain control of the American government. I beg of you—I plead with you—you people who believe as I do in our great system of government—please do not in blind opposition—do not because of hate of an individual—and of all persons in the United States I have least cause to hold a brief for him—forget the critical world situation which confronts us and in which America is a part.

We are fortunate to be represented in Congress—we Republicans—by very able and outstanding men. It is their duty and if I have any persuasive ability with them, I beg of them to debate and consider the bill and each of its provisions carefully. I urge you likewise to call upon them to examine the bill with utmost scrutiny and debate it thoroughly but in the final analysis after justifiable criticism urge them not to vote to render America or its Chief Executive impotent to preserve liberty in Britain—not alone because we are sympathetic with Britain’s economic, social and cultural way of life but primarily because in her preservation of that way of life the hope of preserving it in America will be assured.

May I say to you as my considered judgment that America will not stay out of the war merely by persons asserting bravely in speeches that she will not go into the war. We will, however, stay out of the war, in my judgment, if the men of Britain are supported to the utmost and immediately. This can only be done by the granting of enlarged powers to the President to deal not alone with the international situation but with the building of the materials and instruments of combat.

Republicans of 1941, you who gave to me the rarest privilege that could come to any man, the privilege of leading the greatest cause of this century in a great crusade—I call upon you now to rise to the opportunity of preserving the blessed principles of freedom and the preserving of the Republican party so that it may be an effective instrumentality in the solution of both our domestic and our international problems. If during this critical period we play a wise and proper part America in the near future will call us the truly gallant and brave defenders of America into power. Let us not fail.

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