When Franklin Roosevelt ran for a fourth term in 1944, the matter of his running mate proved to be more consequential than his renomination. Roosevelt’s allies knew he was in poor health, and that whoever was selected as Roosevelt’s running mate would be likely assume the Presidency in a short amount of time. Democratic Party insiders distrusted then Vice President Henry Wallace, disliking his liberal racial views and his pro-Soviet sympathies. Robert Hannagan, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, led the search for an alternative to Wallace. James Byrnes, the influential director of the Office of Wartime Mobilization, was considered a strong contender- he had assumed vast executive powers as part of the war effort and was thus well qualified to assume the Presidency. Byrnes was trusted by Roosevelt. However, as a segregationist from South Carolina, Byrnes was unpopular among northern liberals and was opposed by organized labor. As a personal rival of Wallace, the selection of Byrnes as Vice President would have caused rancor at the Democratic Convention and likely exacerbated divisions within the Democratic Party. Hannagan was thus forced to search for other candidates after DNC members warned him of Byrnes’ political liabilities. Hannagan approached Missouri Senator Harry Truman about replacing Wallace, but Truman told Hannagan he was not interested in the position- and some members of the DNC feared that Truman’s ties to imprisoned political boss Tom Pendergast would prove to be a political liability. Furthermore, Truman was not close to Roosevelt and was relatively unknown. Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn were additionally considered as possibilities, but both men preferred being powerful congressional leaders over assuming the powerless position of the Vice Presidency, even if they were likely to get an unexpected promotion.
Hannagan, Edwin Pauley, Edward Flynn, Frank Walker, and George Allen all met with Roosevelt to discuss potential Vice Presidents. Hannagan came to the meeting with a written list of possibilities. Byrnes, Truman, Barkley, and Rayburn were all considered, but were rejected for previously discussed reasons. The final name on Hannagan’s list of proposed alternatives to Wallace was John Gilbert Winant, the American Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Winant had previously served as Governor of New Hampshire and thus had the appropriate political experience required to become President. While Winant had previously been a Republican, this was not seen as immediately disqualifying- after all, Henry Wallace had been a Republican, and that had not stopped him from being nominated at the 1940 Democratic Convention. Winant had served as chief of the Social Security Administration and had vocally defended the program in the 1936 Presidential Election. Winant thus had credentials as a New Dealer, having staked his reputation in defense of Roosevelt’s bold, persistent experimentation. Winant was considered a superior ambassador to his predecessor, Joseph Kennedy, who had rocky relations with the British government. Winant had a good working relationship with Winston Churchill and had ably coordinated American-British wartime cooperation. Winant, reasoned Hannagan, would thus be well posed to manage post-war administration of Europe and America’s international relations should he accede to the Presidency. Winant had domestic and foreign policy experience. Furthermore, Winant was a good compromise candidate as being stationed in London, he was removed from the internal disputes of the Democratic Party. Roosevelt was still fond of Wallace; and displacing him with one of Wallace’s intraparty rivals appeared unseemly and potentially alienating to liberals. Winant was not seen as politically threatening.
Winant was informed by Hannagan that he was under consideration for the Vice Presidency. In a Cross-Atlantic phone call, Winant said that he would accept the Vice-Presidential nomination if offered, but that he would not campaign for the position. Roosevelt recalled Winant to the United States so that Winant could attend the 1944 Democratic National Convention- Winant defeated Wallace on the second ballot. While progressives were displeased that Wallace was not renominated, there was no objection to Winant himself, who was a solid supporter of Roosevelt. Winant returned to London to resume his ambassadorial duties and was not a subject of controversy during the 1944 Presidential election. When Roosevelt was re-elected, little attention was given to Winant, who resigned as Ambassador in December 1944 and permanently returned to the United States to assume the Vice Presidency.
JULY 1945Winant’s hands were shaking as he read the reports of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The core of the city had been reduced to rubble. Tens of thousands of Japanese had perished in the attacks. Innocent civilians and children had been incinerated by the thousands. And Winant was responsible for their deaths. At the behest of the Secretary of War and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Winant had unleashed a terrible, unprecedented horror upon the world. Winant had previously authorized Curtis LeMay to carpet bomb Japan, killing countless thousands. Winant had cried quietly, alone over their deaths but at least previous attacks on Japan had been targeted towards military and industrial sites. Hiroshima had no particular relevance to the Japanese war effort. The United States had destroyed Hiroshima to send a message to the Japanese- surrender, or we will obliterate you.
Winant had always been plagued with fear and self-doubt. He had dropped out of Princeton because of his poor nerves. He had been ambitious enough to accept the Vice Presidency, but now that Roosevelt was dead, Winant found himself at a loss to fulfil the awesome responsibility of the Presidency. There was no way he could live up to Roosevelt’s reputation- he would always be remembered as an accidental President, and he was only chosen because the Democratic Party bosses didn’t like Henry Wallace. Now that the war was coming to a close, Winant found himself in the midst of an existential crisis. He had unleashed the atomic bomb on the world, a gene released from a bottle which could not be returned. That would forever be his legacy- the annihilation of an entire city, the senseless slaughter of countless innocents. Roosevelt would forever be remembered as Doctor New Deal, Winant would be remembered as Doctor Death. Winant had received broad support throughout the country while the war was ongoing, but now who would want him?
Winant’s personal life was also rapidly disintegrating. Winant had been in mourning following the execution of his son John Jr., a prisoner of war, at the hands of the Nazis in the Black Forrest a few months earlier. Winant had received news of his son’s death almost immediately after taking the Presidential Oath of Office. He had cried for days. Since his son’s death he had felt a deep well of despair overtaking him, and he only roused himself just enough to sign the wartime orders Roosevelt’s advisors prepared for him. Winant largely acquiesced to the recommendations of Stimson and Marshall, but now he wished he hadn’t. He should have objected to the bombing of Hiroshima. So much needless death.
Winant was no longer on speaking terms with his wife. His wife had learned of his affair with Sarah Churchill and had grown cold and distant. Winant had broken off his affair with the Prime Minister’s daughter after he returned to the United States, but he was still in love with her. He had written her letters, begging her to come to Washington so that they could be together again. He was alone and the woman he loved spurned him. Winant fantasized about bringing Sarah to Washington and keeping her as his secret mistress, but he had been too busy to come up with a concrete plan. Sarah’s letters had been terse and non-committal.
But now it seemed his plans were quickly coming apart. Press Secretary Stephen Early had informed the President that there had been… inquiries from the British newspapers regarding Winant’s relationship with Sarah Churchill. Early had been tact enough not to accuse the President of adultery, referring instead to the President’s “friendship” with Sarah and that the “gossip rags” aligned with Churchill’s rivals would soon publish certain “innuendo.” But the President immediately understood Early’s meaning. It seemed that the whole world would soon know of the President’s affair. And surely it would destroy his fledgling Presidency- he would be scorned forever, remembered as an adulterer and a war criminal. The President knew he could not live with his shame. A few hours later, in the executive residence, the President took a pistol to his head and ended his life.
“Comrade Stalin!” shouted Foreign Secretary Molotov as he burst into the Premier’s office. “I have received an urgent message from our Embassy in America!”
“Oh?” Stalin turned at his desk to face Molotov, a slight smirk on his face. “And what might that be? What could possibly be happening in Washington that would be of interest to me?”
“President Winant has been found dead at the White House! It seems the man committed suicide- he couldn’t handle the pressure. The act of a weakling! Comrade Stalin, America has a new President. As you know, American laws dictate that the Vice President accedes to the Presidency if the President dies. But Winant was already Vice President, and there is no mechanism for him to name a replacement until the next Presidential election. According to the American law regarding succession to the head of state, the highest ranking Cabinet member will become accede to the Presidency if there is a vacancy in both the Presidency and Vice Presidency. Until recently, that would have been my American equivalent, the Secretary of State- Edward Stettinius. But Stettinius resigned a few weeks ago to work at the United Nations. The next man in the presidential line of succession is the Secretary of the Treasury. The new President of the United States is Harry Dexter White.”
“White?” Stalin’s eyes bulged. “Harry Dexter White?” The leader of the Soviet Union threw back his head and chortled. Stalin’s laugh grew louder, and soon the Premier was completely hysterical. “President Harry Dexter White!” His loud raucous laughter continued unabated for minutes. Stalin’s eyes grew watery. He took a handkerchief from his desk and wiped his eyes. “Vyacheslav Mikhailovich, this a glorious day for the Soviet Union indeed! Let me tell you all about it!” The Premier closed the door to his office and proceeded to tell Molotov of his future plans for the Soviet Union’s international relations.
President Harry Dexter White
RED SPIES IN THE WHITE HOUSE: AN ALTERNATE COLD WAR