1948 Election

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Even by the standards of blasé Washington, it was an impressive affair. The date was February 19, 1948. The occasion was one of the great ritual feasts of the Democratic party, the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner. The 2,100 guests filled two of the capital’s grandest banquet halls—the Presidential Room of the Hotel Statler and the ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel. The distinguished company included President Harry S. Truman and the First Lady, members of the Cabinet, and sundry senators and representatives. They dined on terrapin soup and breast of capon and toasted their nineteenth-century patron saints in champagne.

But the minds of the Democratic leaders were fixed on the future. Specifically, they were looking ahead to the presidential election less than nine months away. They calculated that—at $100 a plate plus “additional contributions”—the dinner guests would donate more than $250,000 toward the millions needed to finance the fall campaign. And in anticipation of the July nominating convention, the after-dinner entertainment included a “draft-Truman” rally, complete with placards reading: “Harry Is Our Date in ’48.” Later, the sixty-three-year-old President delivered the main address, which the radio networks broadcast to the nation.

No effort was spared that evening to convey to the American public the image of an enthusiastic and united party. But no one knew better than the Democratic chieftains themselves how false this picture was. The painful truth was that not since Al Smith’s disastrous defeat in 1928 had the party’s prestige been so low and its prospects so bleak.

The Democratic malaise was occasioned by the colossal problems that confronted the country after the end of World War II. Victory found the economy dislocated, much of the population uprooted (more than twelve million men were still in uniform), and frustration with wartime rigors and controls near the breaking point. Organized labor, whose wage demands had been tightly reined for nearly four years, could be held back no longer. Their right to strike now restored, the big unions—the auto workers, the steel workers, the packing-house workers, the electrical workers, the mine workers—all walked out. By the end of 1946 the total production time lost to strikes had tripled the previous annual record.

The resulting wage hikes added to the pressure mounting within the business community for higher prices. Finally, in the spring of 1946, Congress stripped the wartime Office of Price Administration of nearly all its power; between June 15 and July 15 food prices soared nearly fifteen per cent, the largest monthly jump ever recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, industry could not catch up with the pent-up demand for autos, apartments, and a host of other scarce items. In desperation, consumers turned to the black market, which flourished as it never had in wartime.

Even as they contended with these domestic headaches, Americans cast worried glances abroad. The peace they had just won was suddenly in deadly peril. Soviet Russia, a wartime ally, now loomed as a dangerous adversary. In Fulton, Missouri, Winston S. Churchill described the geographical dimensions of the Iron Curtain, behind which Stalin massed his troops. Should he give the older to march, there seemed little to stop the Red Army from engulfing Europe and the Middle East.

In the twelve tumultuous months after V-J Day, the sense of victory had dissipated, and the ruling Democratic party suffered the consequences. The Republicans exploited the national mood in the 1946 congressional elections with a provocative slogan. “Had enough?” they asked. The electorate answered by unseating do/cns of Democratic lawmakers and giving the Republican party control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928.

So demoralized was the party of Jefferson and Jackson that on the day after the 1946 balloting, J. William Fulbright, the junior senator from Arkansas, proposed that Harry Truman resign after appointing a Republican Secretary of State to succeed him. “It will place the responsibility of running the Government on one party and prevent a stalemate,” Fulbright explained. Truman promptly labelled Fulbright “half-bright” and indignantly rejected his proposal. But the feeling grew, among both Democrats and Republicans, that if Truman did not quit the White House the voters would turn him out.

Certainly little had happened between the 1946 elections and early 1948 to brighten the postwar situation. With the Truman Doctrine, the United States had pledged to help Greece and Turkey resist Communist aggression. And through the Marshall Plan it had committed its economic might to aid in the rebuilding of all of Western Europe. But still the Old World teetered on the brink of chaos; and halfway around the globe, Chiang Kai-shek was waging a losing battle to keep China from falling tinder Communist domination. At home, the pressures of the postwar era were shattering the grand Democratic coalition that Franklin Roosevelt had forged and led to victory in four national elections.