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The President’s popularity was waning, and he was facing an able Republican as well as two rebels from his own party. At hand was the with the nation in peril at home and abroad. Then Harry S.Truman set out to give ’em hell.
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
The disintegration had begun on the left flank. Convinced that the tough new stance the United States had assumed toward the Soviet Union would lead to war, Henry Agard Wallace announced in December, 1947, that he would run lor President on a third-party ticket. Wallace had been Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture for almost eight years and his Vice President for four more. Many regarded him, rather than Truman, as F. D. R.’s true political heir. Indeed, at the Democratic convention in 1944, Wallace had come close to being renominated as Vice President. That Wallace was still a potent political figure the Democrats had learned from the results of a special congressional election in New York City only two days before the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner. The candidate backed by Wallace had won a stunning upset victory over one of the country’s most powerful Democratic machines.
Just as left-wing Democrats were disturbed by Truman’s foreign policy, the party’s southern conservatives were up in arms over his approach to a major domestic issue—civil rights. The great economic and social upheaval accompanying the war had given some fifteen million American Negroes new hope and aspirations. To help alleviate the Negro’s long-neglected gTievances, Truman that very month had sent to Congress a bold legislative program asking for federal laws against lynching, the poll tax, and discrimination in employment. The reaction in the South was immediate. Southern governors meeting in Florida at the time called for an “all-South” political convention and warned: “The President must cease attacks on white supremacy or face full-fledged revolt in the South.” Judging from the number of southerners absent from the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, the revolt seemed to be under way already. Senator Olin Jolmston of South Carolina even reserved an entire table in a prominent position in the banquet hall, then sent an aide to make sure the table remained pointedly vacant.
If the Democrats were to survive as a national political force, let alone stand a chance in the 1948 elections, they needed a leader strong enough to rally the party regulars and to put down the rebellions that threatened on left and right. It was a challenge that would have sorely tried even Franklin Roosevelt. And most knowledgeable politicians agreed that it was a task far beyond the capacities of Harry S. Truman.
No one had intended Truman to be President of the United States, least of all Truman himself. In fact, he had not much wanted to be Vice President. His ascent to the White House was marked by two fateful phone calls. The first came during the 1944 Democratic convention in Chicago, when the party faced a bitter fight over the vice-presidential nomination. On one side were the liberal supporters of incumbent Vice President Wallace; on the other were the conservative backers of James Hyrncs of South Carolina, a former senator and Supreme Court justice and then the director of War Mobilixation. Truman seemed a logical compromise. He had been a senator from Missouri for ten years and had distinguished himself during an investigation of mismanagement of the war effort. But Truman insisted that he was not a candidate. Finally, Democratic National Chairman Robert Hannegan summoned the reluctant senator to his hotel suite. While they talked, the phone rang. It was the President, demanding to know if Hannegan had “got that fellow lined up yet?”
“He is the contraries! Missouri mule I’ve ever dealt with,” Hannegan complained.
“Well, you tell him,” F. D. R. bellowed, loud enough for Truman to hear, “that if he wants to break up the Democratic party in the middle of a war, that’s his responsibility.”
After that, there was nothing for Truman to do but accept his fate. He dutifully pitched in during the fall campaign and after inauguration day quietly accepted the obscurity to which the President relegated him.
Truman had been Vice President of the United States less than three months when, on April 12, 1945, he received the second momentous phone call. Presidential Press Secretary Steve Early told Truman that he was wanted immediately at the White House. Truman dashed over to find Eleanor Roosevelt waiting for him. “Harry,” she said, “the President is dead.” Ninety minutes later, Truman was sworn in as the thirty-third President of the United States.
“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now,” the new President told the White House press corps. “I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
At first, as the United States went about finishing off the Axis powers, the new Commander in Chief’s modesty and matter-of-fact manner struck just the right note. But this harmonious state of affairs had already begun to deteriorate by the time victory was achieved. Not unnaturally, as postwar problems cropped up, the Chief Executive became the target of mounting criticism.
“To err is Truman,” the wiseacres jeered. The President was roundly criticized not only for his handling of major issues of domestic and foreign policy but even for minor notions that seized his fancy. When he proposed to build a new balcony on the White House, the New York Herald Tribune upbraided him “for meddling with a historic structure which the nation prefers as it is.” Underlying much of the faultfinding was a complaint that the President could do little about. Many Americans simply could not forgive Harry Truman for not being Franklin Roosevelt.