Franklin D. Roosevelt Wins a Fourth Presidential Term

Franklin D. Roosevelt won an unprecedented fourth term as president, defeating Thomas E. Dewey in an election held during World War II. Roosevelt’s choice to replace Henry A. Wallace with Harry S. Truman as his vice presidential candidate proved significant when Roosevelt died just a few months into his fourth term.

Summary of Event

The election of 1944 had several unusual features. It occurred in the middle of a war (World War II); the only previous presidential election during wartime had been that of Abraham Lincoln in 1864, during the Civil War. As he had in 1940, incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt rejected the custom established in the early republic limiting the tenure of presidents to two four-year terms. Presidential elections, U.S.;1944
Presidency, U.S.;Franklin D. Roosevelt[Roosevelt]
[kw]Franklin D. Roosevelt Wins a Fourth Presidential Term (Nov. 7, 1944)
[kw]Roosevelt Wins a Fourth Presidential Term, Franklin D. (Nov. 7, 1944)
[kw]Presidential Term, Franklin D. Roosevelt Wins a Fourth (Nov. 7, 1944)
Presidential elections, U.S.;1944
Presidency, U.S.;Franklin D. Roosevelt[Roosevelt]
[g]North America;Nov. 7, 1944: Franklin D. Roosevelt Wins a Fourth Presidential Term[01300]
[g]United States;Nov. 7, 1944: Franklin D. Roosevelt Wins a Fourth Presidential Term[01300]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 7, 1944: Franklin D. Roosevelt Wins a Fourth Presidential Term[01300]
[c]World War II;Nov. 7, 1944: Franklin D. Roosevelt Wins a Fourth Presidential Term[01300]
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;1944 presidential elections
Dewey, Thomas E.
Truman, Harry S.
[p]Truman, Harry S.;1944 presidential elections
Wallace, Henry A.

Unlike twenty-first century presidential elections, which appear to start the day after mid-term congressional elections and run for two years, the 1944 campaign did not get under way until that January with Roosevelt’s state of the union address State of the union address;1944 . Although Roosevelt claimed he had not decided to run (he waited to declare his candidacy until July, shortly before the Democratic convention), the January address anticipated his campaign platform. After sending its text to Congress on January 11, Roosevelt read the address to the American public over the radio that evening in one of his customary “fireside chats.”

The president rejected conservative criticism of his economic policies: Strengthening controls and raising taxes would ensure victory in the war by providing a secure supply of matériel for the armed forces. Roosevelt then held out his vision of better times after the peace, requesting Congress to enact an “economic bill of rights” Economic bill of rights
Social justice guaranteeing the American people—regardless of status, race, or creed—access to jobs, to decent housing, to adequate medical care, to a good education, and to protection against the economic fears of old age.

Republicans Republican Party, U.S. settled on Thomas E. Dewey as their candidate to challenge Roosevelt. Challenges to Dewey by Wendell Willkie Willkie, Wendell , the 1940 nominee, and other would-be contenders evaporated during the primary elections, and Dewey won the nomination on the national convention’s first ballot on June 27. Dewey had come to public attention by successfully prosecuting New York City gangsters and had achieved national prominence by winning the governorship of New York, a position dominated for the previous two decades by outstanding Democrats, including Roosevelt (1928-1933).

Republicans claimed the New Deal had prolonged the Depression and that Roosevelt had failed to prepare the country for war and mismanaged the conflict, deliberately providing insufficient support for the Pacific theater. Dewey’s youth posed a realistic threat to Roosevelt; Republicans contrasted their energetic forty-two-year-old challenger to a sixty-two-year-old president depicted as decrepit, tired, and no longer up to the demands of his office.

Roosevelt faced serious health problems in 1944, which he and his doctors deliberately kept from the American people. Secrecy about health was an old habit of the president. Although everyone knew that Roosevelt had suffered an attack of infantile paralysis (poliomyelitis) in 1921, he tried not to be seen in a wheelchair and avoided photographs that might raise doubts about his ability to fulfill the duties of his office.

False rumors that Roosevelt had cancer circulated in 1944, spurred by the unexplained disappearance of a growth over his left eye and his visible loss of weight as he failed to rally from stomach and pulmonary discomforts. A March 28 examination at Bethesda Naval Hospital revealed the true cause of his problem when a cardiologist diagnosed hypertension, hypertensive heart disease, and partial cardiac failure.

Since drugs to control blood pressure were not developed until the 1950’s, doctors had no resources to treat Roosevelt that had not been available in ancient Rome. They put him on a low-salt diet and prescribed digitalis, a foxglove extract that steadied the action of his heart and reduced the severity of the president’s symptoms. Roosevelt knew he was being treated by a heart doctor, but he never asked and was never told how serious his problem was. The president’s personal physician, Admiral Ross McIntire McIntire, Ross , discouraged speculation and publicly insisted the president was basically healthy. He believed it almost treasonable to reveal the state of the president’s health during wartime; hearing that rumors were circulating at the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Maryland, McIntire used the Federal Bureau of Investigation to squelch them.

When the Democratic Democratic Party, U.S. national convention opened July 19 in Chicago, Roosevelt’s renomination was assured; the only suspense was over the vice presidential nomination, a post that questions about the president’s health made particularly desirable. Most party leaders considered the current vice president, Henry A. Wallace, a utopian visionary who detracted from the ticket. Roosevelt encouraged Wallace to run and refused to tell Wallace personally when he and the leaders decided on July 11 to back Harry S. Truman, senator from Missouri.

Truman had earned a national reputation through effective chairmanship of a committee investigating wartime government expenditures. He was acceptable to all wings of the party and seemed the candidate least likely to cost Roosevelt votes. After Roosevelt’s renomination on July 20, Wallace supporters started a vigorous rally trying to stampede the convention into immediately choosing Wallace, but party leaders hastily adjourned the convention, and Truman won overwhelmingly the next day.

Stressing his role as wartime leader rather than politician, Roosevelt did not address the convention in person, but radioed his acceptance speech from the San Diego Marine Corps base while preparing to leave for a Hawaiian conference with his commanders on U.S. strategy in the Pacific. A string of Allied victories aided his campaign, undermining criticism of Roosevelt’s military leadership. On June 4, Rome was liberated. On June 6, the Allies landed on Normandy beaches, and they liberated Paris in August. When General Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philippines on October 20 and the Navy decisively defeated the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, accusations of inadequate prosecution of the war in the Pacific became hard to believe.

Congress never passed Roosevelt’s “economic bill of rights” for the American people, but in June it did enact a significant portion in the G.I. Bill, providing postwar help for veterans in finding jobs, housing, and education, regardless of race. College aid transformed American higher education and markedly upgraded the skills of the population.

In the final two weeks of the campaign, Roosevelt answered questions about his health and stamina raised by Republican newspapers with a spectacular campaign performance. On October 21, he toured New York City for four hours in an open car in pouring rain; nearly half the city’s population, some three million people, lined the streets to see him. On October 27, he made a similar tour of Philadelphia, and Boston hosted him on November 4. Roosevelt won decisively on November 7, albeit with the closest margin of his four elections, 25.6 million votes to 22 million for Dewey; thus, he won with 53.8 of the vote to Dewey’s 46 percent.


Roosevelt’s success infuriated Republicans, who made enacting a constitutional amendment limiting presidents to two four-year terms a major objective. Joined by Democrats and independents who also rejected the possibility of presidents-for-life, they successfully ratified the Twenty-second Amendment Twenty-second Amendment[Twentysecond Amendment]
Constitution, U.S.;Twenty-second Amendment[Twentysecond Amendment] in 1951, guaranteeing that Roosevelt’s achievement would remain unique. Ironically, in the years since, one of the few presidents who arguably would have had a real chance of winning a third term were it not for the amendment was Republican Ronald Reagan.

The sudden death of Roosevelt three months into his new term of office shocked Americans. Many Americans—albeit none of voting age—had known no other president during their lifetimes. When it became known how much critical information on the president’s health had been withheld during the election, the public reacted strongly. The public outrage forced future presidents and presidential candidates to reveal their medical data, which became regularly reported and analyzed in the media.

The most significant decision Roosevelt made during the 1944 election was his choice of a vice president. Although made casually to meet internal political criteria, the decision had a major effect on world history. Roosevelt expected to guide American policy in the postwar era and never treated Truman as a probable successor. To the surprise of many, Truman turned out to be a strong president, vigorously leading the United States in defense of Western Europe against the Soviet Union. Wallace’s criticism of Truman demonstrated how markedly different American policy would have been if he had become president.

Perhaps the most important fact about the election of 1944 was that it was held as scheduled. Parliamentary democracies normally postponed elections during wartime, as Great Britain did during both world wars. Despite fighting on two fronts in the greatest war of all time, United States citizens listened as the opposition vigorously criticized their current leadership, peacefully went to the polls, and decided who should lead the future. Nothing could have more powerfully demonstrated the strength and vibrancy of American democracy. Presidential elections, U.S.;1944
Presidency, U.S.;Franklin D. Roosevelt[Roosevelt]

Further Reading

  • Black, Conrad. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom. New York: Public Affairs, 2003. Lengthy anecdotal biography, better on personal affairs than on politics.
  • Ferrell, Robert H. Choosing Truman: The Democratic Convention of 1944. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994. Detailed examination of maneuvering by Roosevelt and party leaders that led to Truman’s nomination.
  • _______. The Dying President: Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944-1945. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998. Informed discussion of what Roosevelt knew, and what he could have known, about his health.
  • Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990. The best one-volume biography, with good detail on 1944 politics.

Roosevelt Bans Discrimination in Defense-Industry Employment

Roosevelt Signs the Emergency Price Control Act

United States Interns Japanese Americans

Western Allies Invade Italy

Invasion of Normandy Begins the Liberation of Europe

Roosevelt Signs the G.I. Bill

Battle for Leyte Gulf