We Need Tanks, Not Talk Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Wendell Willkie addressed the annual dinner of the United States Conference of Mayors just over a month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Willkie, a former Republican presidential candidate who had opposed Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt's third term in 1940, had become a surprise supporter of Roosevelt's war policy. Willkie was an early supporter of the idea of a draft to increase military preparedness, but during the 1940 campaign, when Roosevelt actually instituted one and the isolationist wing of the Republican Party objected, Willkie changed his position. However, after losing the election, Willkie joined his former rival in campaigning for increased material support to Great Britain and against isolationism. In the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Willkie was one of the strongest advocates of large-scale mobilization, arguing that the greatest victory for democracy would be to win on the battlefield.

Summary Overview

Wendell Willkie addressed the annual dinner of the United States Conference of Mayors just over a month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Willkie, a former Republican presidential candidate who had opposed Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt's third term in 1940, had become a surprise supporter of Roosevelt's war policy. Willkie was an early supporter of the idea of a draft to increase military preparedness, but during the 1940 campaign, when Roosevelt actually instituted one and the isolationist wing of the Republican Party objected, Willkie changed his position. However, after losing the election, Willkie joined his former rival in campaigning for increased material support to Great Britain and against isolationism. In the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Willkie was one of the strongest advocates of large-scale mobilization, arguing that the greatest victory for democracy would be to win on the battlefield.

Defining Moment

Wendell Willkie was a surprise Republican candidate for the presidency. A former Democrat, successful businessman, and the son of German immigrants, Willkie had never held public office. The key issues in the campaign were the war raging throughout the rest of the world and the unprecedented third term pursued by Roosevelt. In 1940, the United States still maintained official neutrality in the war, although Roosevelt worked closely with Great Britain and its allies to provide material support for their defense. The nation, and particularly the Republican Party, was deeply divided. Isolationists believed that war should be avoided at almost any cost (and were thus opposed Roosevelt's assistance to the Allies), while interventionists (also known as internationalists) believed that the survival of the United States and of democracy in the world depended on the defeat of the totalitarian governments of Germany and its allies.

In May 1940, Willkie was running a distant fourth in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. He was best known for his opposition to Roosevelt's New Deal economic policies, which had crippled his own business, but his support for the war effort was similar to Roosevelt's. He was the least isolationist of all of the Republican candidates, and as Germany began making remarkable gains in Europe and public sentiment began to shift toward greater support for Great Britain, Willkie surged ahead in the polls. By the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in June, he was in second place, boosted by grassroots Willkie Clubs that sprang up across the country. By the end of the convention, his vocal supporters had pushed hard for, and won, his nomination. It was considered one of the most dramatic upsets in the history of political conventions.

Once he achieved the nomination, Willkie focused his opposition to Roosevelt on the inappropriateness of a third term for the president, and he was also very critical of Roosevelt's New Deal programs. Neither of these two arguments had much traction with voters. Though many people were skeptical of a third presidential term in general, the special circumstances of the war made the continuity of leadership far more palatable. Many Americans blamed the Republican Party for starting the Great Depression, and had benefitted directly from New Deal programs. Roosevelt had widespread support and led in every preelection poll. The issue of the moment was the war, and Willkie first accused Roosevelt of inadequately preparing the nation militarily and then accused him of being too aggressive in his pursuit of involvement. Roosevelt urged material support for the Allies but continued to support neutrality publically. On November 5, 1940, Roosevelt won the election for a third term with 27.3 million votes to Willkie's 22.3 million.

After the election, Willkie abandoned his flirtation with isolationism and threw his support behind Roosevelt and his interventionist and internationalist policies. He supported the liberal terms of the Lend-Lease Program, which allowed for nearly unlimited aid for Great Britain, and traveled across the world as Roosevelt's representative in 1941 and 1942.

Author Biography

Wendell Lewis Willkie was born in 1892 in Elwood, Indiana, the fourth of six children born to two lawyers, Herman Willkie and Henrietta Trisch Willkie. His father was a German immigrant from Saxony, and his mother was among the first women lawyers in Indiana. After graduating from high school, Willkie earned a BA from Indiana University and then a law degree from Indiana University School of Law in 1916. When the United States entered World War I, Willkie enlisted in the army, and provided legal assistance in Europe. After his discharge, he worked as a corporate lawyer for several corporations, and in 1933, he became the president of the electrical company Commonwealth & Southern Corporation. When the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of Roosevelt's New Deal programs, began offering inexpensive electricity to customers of existing power companies, Willkie argued that it was unconstitutional for the government to compete with private enterprise. A longtime Democrat, Willkie became a Republican after his company was forced to sell its holdings in the Tennessee Valley.

Willkie ran against Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and lost. After the election, Willkie worked with Roosevelt to advocate for support to Great Britain and its allies. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States joined the war, and Willkie campaigned in support of the war effort. Willkie contemplated a run for the presidency in 1944 but withdrew after his campaign failed to attract widespread support. Willkie had a history of cardiovascular problems and suffered a fatal heart attack on October 8, 1944.

Historical Document

IN New York City, I might say, Mayor LaGuardia is known as a controversial figure. But there is one point about which there is no controversy and that is that he is without question the best Mayor the City of New York ever had.

All of you, I believe, have been elected to public office. I cannot say the same, although I assure you it is not for the lack of trying.

But at least I can say that I have shared with you the experience of being a candidate. It is an inspiring experience, no matter what the outcome, because an election in which free people exercise their right to choose their own leaders is the very essence of democracy. It represents the spirit of human dignity and human worth—the spirit which says that the State is the servant of its individual citizens, not their master.

This spirit now faces its gravest challenge. A dark and brutal force, based on the idea that the individual exists only to serve the State, intends to stamp out every trace of liberty on earth. We cannot—we must not—we will not let that happen!

We are now at the beginning of a new phase of a war the results of which will profoundly affect the future of the human race—a war which will decide for generations to come whether men shall live as individuals in a free society or as mere implements of a dehumanized State economy.

All of us realize at last that this is truly a world war, a struggle that goes far beyond territorial rivalries to the very roots of human relations. Every living man, woman and child has a stake in the outcome.

And we in the United States and Canada and Mexico have had this fact brought home directly to us since that infamous day of the Japanese assault on Hawaii. A slogan has caught fire in the hearts of Americans—”Remember Pearl Harbor!” We should remember Pearl Harbor—but not merely as a piece of treachery to be avenged, nor even as a costly and humiliating defeat whose stigma we must erase. For more was destroyed at Pearl Harbor than ships and lanes and human lives. Obsolete ideas and habits of thinking which made this destruction possible went down with the Arizona. Never again can we of this continent dwell in the fool's paradise of belief that we are immune from attack. Never again can we cherish the blind illusion that disturbances in other parts of the world are no concern of ours. Never again can we place our trust in a Chinese Wall of national aloofness.

We must remember Pearl Harbor for the painful but necessary awakening it has given us. We must take its lessons to heart. We must realize, now and forever, that we cannot seal ourselves hermetically against the rest of the world. We must learn to face without flinching the great responsibilities which destiny has imposed upon us. So long as we remember Pearl Harbor, these things we can never forget. And only so can we preserve the values which make our lives worth living.

Above all, we must recognize that we are fighting not only armies, but ideas. The Nazis' “new order” is the most challenging economic conception that has appeared in human affairs since the Industrial Revolution. It has harnessed the forces of the modern industrial age under the direction of a centralized government control and created a military and economic force so powerful as to catch the imagination of millions.

We must, therefore, do more than defeat German and Japanese military forces in order to win a final victory. We must also meet the challenge of their totalitarian doctrines. We can do this only by proving that our way of life is not only more self-respecting, more humane and more happy than theirs, but more effective as well.

The Fascists jeer at democracy as something soft and weak. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press seem ridiculous to them. From their standpoint the individual is just a cog in the state machine without any value of his own. They do not feel that cogs are entitled to opinions. They see no reason why the people should have any voice in their government. The duty of the people is to do as they are told. Certain features of the Fascist system have appealed to men even in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. Especially has the efficiency with which it operates been tempting to men of action who forget the cost in individual freedom of that brand of efficiency.

When supreme and unquestionable authority is vested in one man or a small group of men both in governmental and economic affairs, and when all others are forced to obey their orders promptly and without question, you get results, particularly under modern industrial developments. Nazi and Japanese successes in the war to date confirm the point. They show none of the stumbling hesitancy which is too often associated with the processes of democracy.

The efficiency argument gains added weight for many from the Russian role in this war. Russia happens to be fighting on our side and she is doing a magnificent job. In land warfare, her gallant army has been more effective against the Nazi juggernaut than any other.

People realize that the Soviet successes are due in part to the fact that the Russian military and economic structure is built on a state-controlled economy. And they ask themselves, reluctantly perhaps, but surely: Is that the only way anything gets done?

It is this doubt that democracy must answer. To free minds, there are things more important in civilized life than efficiency. But when those things are threatened, independent, self-governing people must make themselves function efficiently to meet the danger.

We have been slow to realize the imminence and the extent of our danger. Before Japan attacked us there were literally millions who hoped that Communist Russia's stiff resistance would save us the necessity of fighting at all. And even today there are still many who fatuously believe we need only defend ourselves in the Pacific while Russia destroys Nazism.

But democracy cannot be saved by the armies of Russia. Democracy must be saved by the democracies themselves. Let us remember that to be effective, not alone at the peace table but in the reconstruction of the world after the war, democracy must be effective in the war. Leadership does not spring from evasion and petty self-protection but from work and sacrifice and success.

Therefore, those who fear communism most should be the most anxious to see the fighting forces of the democracies on every front in the world. In other words, in order to survive, the democratic world must bear the brunt of winning this war.

Recently an event took place in this city which future historians, looking back with the perspective of years, may choose to rate as a major milestone in human progress. Twenty-six nations, acting of their own free will, solemnly pledged themselves to fight the Axis aggressors to a finish and to stand by each other until the job was accomplished. This was the first necessary step toward the creation of a new world founded on the principles of justice and human rights.

Led by the United States and the British Commonwealth of Nations, that honorable Union of Nations covers all continents. It includes China, which for more than four yean has steadfastly refused to bow to the barbarian invader. It includes Russia, whose courageous resistance has shattered forever the legend of the “invincible Nazi legions.” It includes the Netherlands, whose overseas warriors, proudly and with astonishing success, have carried on to avenge their stricken homeland. It includes all of our nine sister republics in Central America and the Caribbean.

Other countries signed the pact also, countries which now lie prostrate under the conqueror's heel but have never ceased to work and pray for deliverance—Norway, Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Czecho-Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Greece—and still another representative of a conquered nation—the Free French, not the “so-called Free French,” already participating in the battle, stand ready to join their fellows.

The Nazis sneer that these are ghost States. But who can doubt that the representatives who dedicated these temporarily lost nations to the pact against the aggressors were reflecting the most ardent hopes and desires of their people?

The agreement which created the United Nations was no ordinary diplomatic document. It was a charter of unity— unity of purpose and unity of action. Backed by courage and determination, by deeds as well as words, it should lead eventually to the utter destruction of the war lords who seek to rule the world with bayonets and whips.

But for the democracies to assume the leadership in carrying out this purpose, as they have in forming this union, we must become our own severest critics. We must impose on ourselves a discipline to match the fanatical fatalism of the Nazis and Japanese.

We must subordinate politics and group interests to the national welfare. Clever little political manoeuvres and personal considerations must be scrapped. Our governments must learn to set the pace for efficiency and unity. For it is by no means sure that we will win this war.

The price of victory at best will be high. The people of the democracies will pay that price, knowing it is the only way to save their freedom. They will pay it the more willingly if convinced in their hearts that their leaders in government, national and local, in labor and in industry, measure up to their responsibilities.

Nothing is gained now by disputing the errors of the past. That those errors were grave is obvious. Otherwise, today with our resources we would be experiencing victories, not defeat. But there are errors of the present which we can and must correct at once.

For instance, in the United States our unparalleled productive facilities are but partially used. Whole areas of industry are unconverted to war needs. The capacities of our enormous motor industry are not completely used, while our Pacific Fleet and our fighting men in the Philippines and the British defenders of Singapore are outmatched, because they lack planes and tanks and guns.

Again and again in recent weeks we have seen men equipped with little but their courage opposed to the mechanical forces of a nation whose productive capacity is pigmy-sized as compared to ours.

But the problem of the automobile industry, while important on our list of industrial problems, cannot be solved all by itself. It must be solved as a part of the entire problem of war production.

We need decisions, not discussions; we need planes, not predictions; we need tanks, not talk.

If we give our soldiers and sailors the materials of war with which to fight, none of us doubts that they will defeat the armed forces of the aggressors. But that will not be enough in the end.

Beyond that, the United States must have the wisdom and vision to build a just and enduring peace. This cannot be accomplished through pious platitudes. It can only be accomplished if it is first realized that the necessary areas of trade for the fruitful functioning of a modern, scientific economy, like the areas of attack in a modern, scientific war, have greatly expanded.

Hitler has realized this. His aim in Europe has been to reorganize the entire continent as a single trade area under German domination. The Nazis would be masters and everybody else would be slaves, but all would belong to a unified economy. We should not let our aversion to the Nazi philosophy and its brutal methods blind us to the merits of enlarged areas of economic unity. We know that such areas will be created in the new world because they must be. The basic question is whether they will be created by the democratic process or by the totalitarian method.

Barriers of economic nationalism, restricting the free flow of commerce among the nations, are as obsolete in a modern industrial world as wooden warships. And we cannot afford to forget that a sound and fruitful economy is essential to the survival of democracy.

It is a favorite argument of the Fascists that dictatorships are necessary because democracies are unable to cope with fundamental economic problems. And we must admit that they have had some reason for their belief.

We all regret, for instance, the loss of the staggering millions, important to human welfare, that might have been created by additional trade between the United States and Canada if President Taft's proposal for reciprocity in 1911 had not been defeated. But as too often happens in a democracy, the catch phrases and cliches of politicians appealing to special interest groups and narrow nationalism prevailed.

It must be the task of the United States and the British Commonwealth of Nations in the future to show the world that the Fascists are wrong—that democracy can cope with economic problems.

For the present, our elected leaders have made it plain that we face a long, hard struggle before the brutal forces of gangsterism are crushed. Too many are still not convinced.

Americans are inclined to be optimistic by nature. The feeling is still too prevalent that somehow everything will turn out right. We aren't accustomed to the hard realities of all-out war.

It is natural to rejoice about Russian victories over the Nazi army, about British victories in Libya, about Chinese victories in Changsha, but we must not allow ourselves to look upon them as an excuse for slackening our own efforts. This is no time to wear rose-colored glasses. Complacency is as deadly an enemy as Hitler himself.

Above all things we must not underestimate our enemies. There was a lot of loose talk, before Pearl Harbor, about mopping up the Japanese with one hand in a few weeks, in which our own naval authorities flamboyantly indulged. We are paying dearly for that over-confidence, but we still haven't fully absorbed the lesson.

Nazi Germany and militarist Japan are not abstract demons. They are cruel, clever and powerful States. And we must not be so naive as to expect any decency or honor from them. They have shown us that.

They treacherously chose the hour of attack. And now they enjoy the great advantage of surprise and superior preparedness. Naturally they will hit as hard as they can while they have that advantage. Nothing less than the whole-souled devotion of our total energies can defeat them, and even then it won't be quick or easy.

In inspiring this devotion, you Mayors assembled, who are leaders of local affairs, play a most important role. You are close to the people and you represent the very source of what we are fighting for, representative government.

While false optimism and half-hearted efforts would be disastrous, there should be no reason for despair. Our potential strength in man power and resources is infinitely greater than that of our enemies.

More than that, we have a tremendous spiritual advantage because free men fighting for the freedom which means more than life itself are strengthened by a moral force which regimented robots can never understand. The future demands of us a sober realization of the difficulties and disparent—if not self-evident. Under such conditions provincialism will be a heavy drag upon the economic life of any section of our country. This is particularly so in the case of New England. With the leadership in business, finance, and industry in New England recognizing this apparent change and its consequences, the future of New England is assured and as a section it will continue to give its leadership in the economic progress of our country and of our people.

What can you and I do now? We can give unswerving loyalty to our Commander-in-Chief, and as we send our prayers to heaven for the victory which is coming, ask the God of Justice that He endow President Roosevelt with renewed strength in the right and more of the marvelous courage which enabled him to win his own war against physical handicap.

“God grants liberty only to those who love it, and are ready to guard and defend it,” said one of Massachusetts' great men a century ago. That is equally true today. Now we are in total war, and that requires from the civilian population a responsibility to support the armed forces. There is a mutuality of interest. To develop the full resources of our national strength, upon which the full effectiveness of our war effort depends, we must build up the physical fitness, the morale, and mental stamina of all the people of this country so that they will be physically tough, mentally sound, and morally strong.

That gifted humorist, the late Will Rogers, once said, “America has never lost a war, nor never won the peace.”

This time, God willing, we shall win both, for America is on the march—to insure the liberty, peace, and the right to self-government of the entire western world, and, as we hope, to take its proper place among the councils of the nations of the world to reasonably assure in the future assurances of permanent peace.


fatuously: foolishly or inanely, especially in an unconscious, complacent manner; silly; illusory

hermetically: so as to be airtight

juggernaut: any large, overpowering, destructive force or object, as war, a giant battleship, or a powerful football team; anything requiring blind devotion or cruel sacrifice

pigmy: disparaging and offensive slang for a small or dwarfish person

platitudes: a flat, dull, or trite remark, especially one uttered as if it were fresh or profound

prostrate: to lay flat, as on the ground; to case oneself face down on the ground in humility, submission, or adoration

stigma: a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one's reputation

Document Analysis

This speech was given at a meeting of mayors from across the country, and Willkie begins by addressing his history as a candidate for the nation's highest office and how this experience reminds him of how “an election in which free people exercise their right to choose their own leaders is the very essence of democracy.” He says the experience of campaigning for the presidency gave him a profound appreciation for democracy, and so he intends to address the threat that the war poses to democracy.

Speaking just over a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Willkie cautions that the attack was neither simply a “piece of treachery to be avenged” nor “a costly and humiliating defeat whose stigma we must erase,” but rather an event that requires a radical change of view for the American public. It was proof that the United States would no longer be able to see itself as separate from the rest of the world. He asserts that isolationism, a popular sentiment in the country before Pearl Harbor, is the “blind illusion that disturbances in other parts of the world are no concern of ours.” The attack on Pearl Harbor was thus a “painful but necessary awakening.”

Now that Americans have been roused from their “national aloofness,” they also need to realize that they are fighting “not only armies, but ideas.” The totalitarian regimes of Germany, Japan, and Italy had used their complete control of economic systems and their population to make a very efficient war machine. The German or Japanese worker, under the complete control of their government, could be very easily managed. Resistance, political or economic, was quickly suppressed. This streamlining of the economy seen in the Fascist system was very appealing and caught the “imagination of millions” in Canada, Britain, and even the United States. The only way to fight this way of thinking, Willkie asserts, is to defeat it in battle—to prove that the American way of life is “not only more self-respecting, more humane and more happy than theirs, but more effective as well.” Though economic and military efficiency may not have been the primary gifts of democracy, now that this way of life is being tested, “self-governing people must make themselves function efficiently to meet the danger.”

The declaration of common purpose issued by the United Nations just days before this speech was a good first step, in Willkie's opinion, but now it is crucial that the democracies lead the opposition to the “fanatical fatalism” of the Axis powers. To do so, they must meet and exceed the productive capacity of the totalitarian governments and put aside petty differences and unnecessary obstacles to do so. Willkie understands that Nazi domination had as one of its goals a unified economic system, to be brought about by brutality and force where necessary; he argues that the world should recognize the advantages of greater economic unity but bring it about through voluntary cooperation. The world must see that “democracy can cope with economic problems.” The democracies opposing the Axis powers must prove that they are “strengthened by a moral force which regimented robots can never understand.” The speed with which the entire United States economy can be turned to war production will provide this proof, he says.

Essential Themes

This speech lays out the reasons why it is crucial for democracies around the world, and the United States in particular, to prove that their system of government can be as successful in the waging of war as the totalitarian regimes they opposed. Industrial production was streamlined and unified under these regimes, and Willkie argued that the United States needed to lead the way in proving that free people could meet and exceed the productive capacity of their totalitarian adversaries.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Beevor, Antony. The Second World War. New York: Little, Brown, 2012. Print.
  • Neal, Steve. Dark Horse: A Biography of Wendell Willkie. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1989. Print.
  • Peters, Charles. Five Days in Philadelphia: 1940, Wendell Willkie, FDR, and the Political Convention That Freed FDR to Win World War II. New York: Public Affairs, 2006. Print.
Categories: History