Wendell Willkie photo

Post-election Radio Address to the Nation

November 11, 1940

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 hope.

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 upon the Continent of Europe.

We in America watched darkness fall upon Europe. And as we watched there approached an 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 polling places in greater numbers than ever before in history.

Nearly fifty million people exercised on Nov. 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 out 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 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 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 that minority—22,000,000 people, nearly half of 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.

The British people are unified with a unity almost unexampled in history for its endurance and its valor. Yet that unity coexists with an unimpaired freedom of criticism and of suggestion.

In the continual debates of the House of Commons and the House of Lords all of the government's policies, its taxation, its expenditures, its military and naval policies, its basic economic policies are brought under steady, friendly, loyal, critical review. Britain survives free. Let us Americans choose no lesser freedom.

In Britain some opposition party leaders are members of the government and some say that a similar device should be adopted here. That is a false conception of our government. When a leader of the British Liberal party or a member of the British Labor party becomes a member of the Churchill Cabinet he becomes—from the British parliamentary point of view—an equal of Mr. Churchill's.

This is because the British Cabinet is a committee of the House of Parliament. It is a committee of equals, wherein the Prime Minister is chairman, a lofty chairman indeed and yet but a chairman. The other members are his colleagues.

With us the situation, as you well know, is different. Our executive branch is not a committee of our legislative branch. Our President is independent of our Congress. The members of his Cabinet are not his colleagues. They are his administrative subordinates. They are subject to his orders.

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.

Clearly, no such device as this can give us in this country any self-respecting agreement between majority and minority for concerted effort toward the national welfare. Such a plan for us would be but the shadow—not the substance—of unity.

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 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 football suits to be put 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.

Let me raise a single warning. Ours is a very powerful opposition. On Nov. 5 we were a minority by only a few million votes. Let us not, therefore, fall into the partisan error of opposing things just for the sake of opposition. Ours must not be an opposition against—it must be an opposition for—an opposition for a strong America, a productive America. For only the productive can be strong and only the strong can be free.

Now let me however remind you of some of the principles for which we fought and which we hold as sincerely today as we did yesterday.

We do not believe in unlimited spending of borrowed money by the Federal Government—the piling up of bureaucracy—the control of our electorate by political machines, however successful—the usurpation of powers reserved to Congress—the subjugation of the courts—the concentration of enormous authority in the hands of the Executive—the discouraging of enterprise—and the continuance of economic dependence for millions of our citizens upon government. Nor do we believe in verbal provocation to war.

On the other hand we stand for a free America—an America of opportunity created by the enterprise and imagination of its citizens. We believe that this is the only kind of an America in which democracy can in the long run exist. This is the only kind of an America that offers hope for our youth and expanding life for all our people.

Under our philosophy, the primary purpose of government is to serve its people and to keep them from hurting one another. For this reason our Federal Government has regulatory laws and commissions.

For this reason we must fight for the right of labor, for assistance to the farmer, and for protection for the unemployed, the aged and the physically handicapped.

But while our government must thus regulate and protect us, it must not dominate our lives. We, the people, are the masters. We, the people, must build this country. And we, the people, must hold our elected representatives responsible to us for the care they take of our national credit, our democratic institutions and the fundamental laws of our land.

It is in the light of these principles, and not of petty partisan politics, that our opposition must be conducted. It is in the light of these principles that we must join in debate, without selfishness and without fear.

Let me take as an example the danger that threatens us through our national debt.

Two days after the election, this Administration recommended that the national debt limit be increased from $49,000,000,000 to $65,000,000,000.

Immediately after that announcement, prices on the New York Stock Exchange and other exchanges jumped sharply upward. This was not a sign of health, but a sign of fever. Those who are familiar with these things agree unanimously that the announcement of the Treasury indicated a danger—sooner or later—of inflation.

Now you all know what inflation means. You have lately watched its poisonous course in Europe. It means a rapid decline in the purchasing power of money—a decline in what the dollar will buy. Stated the other way round, inflation means a rise in the price of everything—food, rent, clothing, amusements, automobiles—necessities and luxuries. Invariably these prices rise faster than wages, with the result that the workers suffer and the standard of living declines.

Now no man is wise enough to say exactly how big the national debt can become before causing serious inflation. But some sort of limit certainly exists, beyond which lies financial chaos. Such chaos would inevitably mean the loss of our social gains, the destruction of our savings, the ruin of every little property owner, and the creation of vast unemployment and hardships. It would mean, finally, the rise of dictatorship. Those have been the results of financial collapse in every country in the history of the world. The only way that we can avoid them is to remain sound and solvent.

It is not incumbent upon any American to remain silent concerning such a danger. I shall not be silent and hope you will not be. This is one of your functions as a member of the minority. But in fulfilling our duties as an opposition party we must be careful to be constructive. We must help to show the way.

Thus, in order to counteract the threat of inflation and to correct some of our economic errors, I see five steps for our government to take immediately.

First, all Federal expenditures except those for national defense and necessary relief ought to be cut to the bone and below the bone. Work relief, obviously, has to be maintained, but every effort should be made to substitute for relief productive jobs.

Second, the building of new plants and new machinery for the defense program should be accomplished as far as possible by private capital. There should be no nationalization under the guise of defense of any American industry with a consequent outlay of Federal funds.

Third, taxes should be levied so as to approach as nearly as possible the pay-as-you-go plan. Obviously, we cannot hope to pay for all the defense program as we go. But we must do our best. That is part of the sacrifice that we must make to defend this democracy.

Fourth—Taxes and government restrictions should be adjusted to take the brakes off private enterprise so as to give it freedom under wise regulation, to release new investments and new energies and thus to increase the national income. I do not believe we can hope to bear the debt and taxes arising out of this defense program with a national income of less than one hundred billion dollars—our present national income is only $70,000,000,000—unless we lower the standard of living of every man and woman who works. But if we can increase our national income to $100,000,000,000 we can pay for this defense program out of the increase and that increase can readily be produced if we free private enterprise—not for profiteering but for natural development.

Fifth, and finally, our government must change its punitive attitude toward both little and big business men. Regulations there must be—we of the opposition have consistently recommended that. But the day of witch hunting must be over.

If this administration has the unity of America really at heart it must consider without prejudice and with an open mind such recommendations of the opposition.

National unity can only be achieved by recognizing and giving serious weight to the viewpoint of the opposition. Such a policy can come only from the administration itself. It will be from the suppression of the opposition that discord and disunity will arise. The administration has the ultimate power to force us apart or to bind us together.

And now a word about the most important immediate task that confronts this nation. On this, all Americans are of one purpose. There is no disagreement among us about the defense of America. We stand united behind the defense program. But here particularly, as a minority party, our role is an important one. It is to be constantly watchful to see that America is effectively safeguarded and that the vast expenditure of funds which we have voted for that purpose is not wasted.

And in so far as I have the privilege to speak for you, I express once more the hope that we help to maintain the rim of freedom in Britain and elsewhere by supplying those defenders with materials and equipment. This should be done to the limit of our ability but with due regard to our own defense.

On this point, I think I can say without boast that never in the history of American Presidential campaigns has a candidate gone further than I did in attempting to create a united front.

However, I believe that our aid should be given by constitutional methods and with the approval, accord and ratification of Congress. Only thus can the people determine from time to time the course they wish to take and the hazards they wish to run.

Mr. Roosevelt and I both promised the people in the course of the campaign that if we were elected we would keep this country out of war unless attacked. Mr. Roosevelt was re-elected and this solemn pledge for him I know will be fulfilled, and I know the American people desire him to keep it sacred.

Since Nov. 5 I have received thousands and thousands of letters—tens of thousands of them. I have personally read a great portion of these communications. I am profoundly touched. They come from all parts of our country and from all kinds of people. They come from Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Christians, colored people and white people. They come from workers and farmers and clerks and businessmen—men and women of all the occupations that make up our American life.

All of these letters and telegrams, almost without exception, urge that the cause that we have been fighting for be carried on.

In your enthusiasm for our cause you founded thousands of organizations. They are your own organizations, financed by you and directed by you. It is appropriate for you to continue them if you feel so inclined. I hope you do continue them.

It is not, however, appropriate to continue these organizations in my name. I do not want this great cause to be weakened by even a semblance of any personal advantage to any individual. I feel too deeply about it for that; 1944 will take care of itself. It is of the very essence of my belief that democracy is fruitful of leadership.

I want to see all of us dedicate ourselves to the principles for which we fought. My fight for those principles has just begun. I shall advocate them in the future as ardently and as confidently as I have in the past. As Woodrow Wilson once said: "I would rather lose in a cause that I know some day will triumph than to triumph in a cause that I know some day will fail."

Whatever I may undertake in the coming years, I shall be working shoulder to shoulder with you for the defense of our free way of life, for the better understanding of our economic system and for the development of that new America whose vision lies within every one of us.

Meanwhile, let us be proud, let us be happy in the fight that we have made. We have brought our cause to the attention of the world.

Millions have welcomed it. As time goes on millions more will find in it the hope that they are looking for. We can go on from here with the words of Abraham Lincoln in our hearts:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds ... to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Good night. And God bless and keep every one of you.

Source: "Text of the Willkie Address Urging 'Loyal Opposition,'" New York Times, November 12, 1940, p. 12.

Wendell Willkie, Post-election Radio Address to the Nation Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/346004