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“I Hardly Know Truman”
Thus did Franklin Roosevelt characterize the man who was to be his running mate in 1944 and—as everyone at the astonishing Democratic Convention knew—almost certainly the next President of the United States. Here is FDR at his most devious, Harry Truman at the pivot of his career, and the old party-boss system at its zenith.
July/August 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 4
By spring Jimmy Byrnes looked like the clear favorite at the White House, though Wallace was leading in the polls. Harry Hopkins, the only one closer to Roosevelt than Byrnes, made a point of telling Byrnes that FDR very much hoped he would be on the ticket. When Byrnes appeared reluctant, others began putting pressure on him.
For by then there was concern over more than just losing votes in November. The President’s declining health could no longer be ignored, though in wartime nothing on the matter could be said publicly. George Allen, remembering those critical months just before the 1944 convention, wrote that every one of their group “realized that the man nominated to run with Roosevelt would in all probability be the next President…”
In May Roosevelt sent Henry Wallace on a mission to China, which many took as a sign that Wallace was finished. Then, in early June, just after news of the Allied landings at Normandy, and with only a month to go before the convention, Hannegan dropped in on Byrnes and for several hours tried to convince him to become a candidate for Vice President. The President himself, Hannegan said, had told him that Byrnes was the man he had really wanted as his running mate in 1940 and that he would rather have Byrnes on the ticket this time than anybody.
On June 27 Hannegan took things a step farther. He told Roosevelt that Wallace had to come off the ticket. All he had to do, Hannegan said to the President, was to agree to Jimmy Byrnes and they could “sail through” the convention and the election.
“That suits me fine,” Roosevelt responded. He asked Byrnes to go with him to Shangri-la, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, to talk campaign strategy for a few days, after which, wrote Byrnes, “I did conclude that he was sincere in wanting me for his running mate…”
Yet at the time, at the end of a long day, Byrnes also remarked to one of his aides, “Now, partner, let’s not get too excited on this vice-president business. I know that man [FDR] more than anybody else.”
Having completed a cross-country survey at Roosevelt’s request, Ed Flynn told him that opposition to Wallace was greater even than anyone supposed. Together, according to Flynn’s subsequent account, the two of them ran down the list, weighing the negative sides of all the other candidates.
Byrnes was the strongest choice, Flynn agreed, but in 1938 he had been in the forefront of those Southern senators fighting against a proposed federal antilynching law. Sam Rayburn was a good man, but Rayburn was from Texas, another Southerner, and so “couldn’t be considered.” When they went through the list of the entire Senate, only one fitted the picture, Harry Truman. As Flynn wrote, “His record as head of the Senate Committee to investigate the National Defense Program…was excellent, his labor votes in the Senate were good; on the other hand he seemed to represent to some degree the conservatives in the party, he came from a border state, and he had never made any ‘racial’ remarks. He just dropped into the slot.”
Flynn left the White House convinced that Roosevelt saw Truman as the one who would do the ticket the least harm. This was not exactly a rousing endorsement for the senator from Missouri, but it was what Flynn had wanted to hear, which is probably the main reason Roosevelt, given his manner of operation, sent him on his way with that impression.
F DR proposed Douglas: he was youthful and dynamic. Besides, he played a good poker game.
About this same time Roosevelt asked a favor of Anna Rosenberg, a member of the War Mobilization Advisory Board, who had become a great favorite of the President. Byrnes, said FDR, was the best man, but he wanted Rosenberg to go tell him he was not to be the vice-presidential choice, because of the Negro vote. Rosenberg, who admired Byrnes greatly and wanted him on the ticket, said she couldn’t do that. If the President wanted Byrnes to know he had no chance, then the President would have to tell him himself, she said. But Roosevelt never did, never could, as she knew.
Meanwhile, Truman was trying to clear up his work and get away for a few days in Missouri before the convention opened in Chicago on July 19. With so little time remaining, gossip over the vice-presidential question had become intense. To any and all who asked if he was interested in the nomination, Truman said no—“No, no, no.” The whole matter was getting on his nerves.
“The Vice President simply presides over the Senate and sits around hoping for a funeral,” Truman explained to a friend. To his daughter, Margaret, he wrote, “It is funny how some people would give a fortune to be as close as I am to it and I don’t want it.”
On Monday, July 10, after an all-night flight from Seattle, an exhausted Vice President arrived in Washington at the end of a fifty-one-day, twenty-seven-thousand-mile mission to China and at four-thirty that afternoon he met with the President to report on what he had seen. Roosevelt was cordial as always. As Wallace recorded in his diary, it was FDR who at last “opened up on politics saying that when I went out I should say that no politics were discussed.” Roosevelt assured Wallace that he was his choice as running mate.