1948 Election


For the moment at least, the delegates seemed to believe him. They stomped and cheered as he reeled off a long list of Democratic achievements and again lashed out at the sins of the Republican Congress. Then, building toward his climax, he noted that the platform adopted by the Republican convention favored legislation to remedy the housing shortage, curb inflation, and increase social security benefits. The Eightieth Congress, he charged, had failed to act on these and other worthy proposals. Finally, Truman dropped his bombshell:

On the twenty-sixth day of July, which out in Missouri we call “Turnip Day,” I am going to call Congress back and ask them to pass laws to halt rising prices, to meet the housing crisis—which they are saying they are for in their platform.… They can do this job in fifteen days, if they want to do it. They will still have time to go out and run for office.∗ “Turnip Day” has no legal status in Missouri or anywhere else. In fact few Missourians had even heard of it until the President brought it up. But oldtimers explained that it was a day set aside for planting turnips so they would have time to mature before the first frost. One seed company reported that after Truman’s reminder, its sales of turnip seed suddenly tripled.

In summoning Congress back to Capitol Hill before the election, Truman laid himself open to charges of playing politics, a point the Republicans were prompt to press home. Then too, there was always the chance that the Republican congressional leadership would push through the legislation Truman proposed, and take credit for it. But Truman believed he had no choice. As Clark Clifford, the suave St. Louis lawyer (now Secretary of Defense) who was the President’s top political adviser throughout the campaign, put it: “We’ve got our backs on our own one-yard line with a minute to play; it has to be razzle-dazzle.” Moreover, Truman was confident that the Republicans would not call his bluff. “Of course I knew,” he wrote later, “that the special session would produce no results in the way of legislation.”

The Congress fulfilled his expectations. The grumbling lawmakers authorized a loan to help the United Nations build its new headquarters in New York, but did nothing substantial about inflation, the housing shortage, civil rights, or the other major problems of the day. Less than two weeks later, the Republican leaders closed up shop and went home, leaving behind a fresh supply of ammunition for Truman.

Only a few weeks remained before Labor Day, the official start of the campaign. Truman began working out the details of the battle plan with his staff. Clifford was the President’s first deputy and chief speech writer. Louis Johnson, a wealthy Washington attorney, took over the thankless and unwanted post of finance chairman. Along with Chairman McGrath, Matt Connelly, the President’s appointments secretary, handled liaison with local politicians around the country. No one held the title of campaign manager, but everyone knew who was in charge. It xvas, of course, the President.

In August, as these men made their plans, the Democratic situation seemed blacker than ever. The hope that had flickered at the Philadelphia convention had been extinguished almost immediately when southern Democrats, rebelling against the party’s strong civilrights plank, held a convention of their own in Birmingham, Alabama. The Dixiecrats, as they were dubbed, nominated Thurmond as their presidential candidate and Governor Fielding L. Wright of Mississippi as his running mate. Their platform made plain what they regarded as the main issue of the campaign: “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race.”

A few days after the Dixiecrats adjourned, Henry Wallace’s Progressive party convened in Philadelphia. There, in the same hall used by the Democrats and Republicans, the Progressives formalized the nominations (actually decided on months before) of Wallace for President and Democratic Senator Glen Taylor of Idaho for Vice President. “The party Jefferson founded 150 years ago was buried here in Philadelphia last week,” Wallace declared. “But the spirit which animated that party in the days of Jefferson,” Wallace claimed, now infused his own Progressive movement.

The Dixiecrats and the Progressives threatened to make major inroads among normally Democratic voters. Nevertheless, Truman and his aides decided that for the most part they would ignore the two splinter parties. The President’s only chance of victory, they concluded, was in mounting an all-out attack against the Republicans. They had already chosen the Eightieth Congress as the chief target for the assault. Now they focused their attack on two important, sensitive areas: labor and farm legislation.

Truman’s first salvo came at the Democrats’ opening Labor Day rally in Detroit’s Cadillac Square. The President had good reason to claim labor’s friendship. In June, 1947, he had vetoed the Taft-Hartley Bill, which most union men regarded as an abridgement of the rights they had fought for so hard during the turbulent igso’s. His reception in the strongest union town in the country showed that organized labor had not forgotten. Crowds lined the streets six to ten deep along his route from the rail terminal to Cadillac Square, where some 175,000 people waited to hear him.