June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
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.
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.
In thirteen years F. D. R. had left an indelible mark on the Presidency. Inevitably Truman was compared to his predecessor, a comparison that nearly always worked to his disadvantage. A bitter jest summed up the difference between the Hyde Park squire and the son of the Middle Border: “For years we had the champion of the common man in the White House. Now we have the common man.”
Roosevelt, with his leonine head and patrician features, was a strikingly handsome man. Truman, with his square-cut midwestern face and thick-lensed glasses, was undistinguished in appearance. Roosevelt’s manner was the epitome of elegance and grace; Truman’s bearing brought to mind a shopkeeper—which, it was remembered, he had been, and a bankrupt one at that. In no comparison did Truman suffer more than when it came to oratory. Roosevelt’s sonorous tones and superb timing had enhanced his eloquence; Truman’s rasping monotone seemed to dull the edge of every point his speech writers sought to make.
His performance at the 1948 Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner was all too typical of what Americans had come to expect from their President. Truman’s address lasted only twenty-two minutes, but it seemed a good deal longer to many in the audience; at the head table Leslie BifHe, secretary for the Senate minority and one of Truman’s closest friends, doxed off.
Halfway through his address, Mr. Truman tried to rouse his audience by poking fun at the “reactionaries” who opposed his program. “These men who live in the past remind me of a toy … called the ‘floogie bird,’” the President said. “Around the floogie bird’s neck is a label reading: ‘I fly backwards. I don’t care where I’m going. I just want to see where I’ve been.’” The laughter was scarcely uproarious, and understandably so. Only two months before, Henry Wallace had told the same story about the “oozle finch.” And before that, Franklin Roosevelt had given Republicans the same bird, which he called the “dodo.”
Listening to the President tell his warmed-over joke, mindful of the decline in his popularity, the assembled Democrats may very well have considered Truman an albatross hung on their necks which would drag them and their party down to overwhelming defeat in November.
These features of the political landscape that the Democrats perceived witli such foreboding were, of course, equally apparent to the Republicans, who were unanimously convinced that 1948 was the year when a Republican would at last return to the White House. But which Republican? The Grand Old Party, like the Democrats, had to contend with a bitter intramural dispute between its eastern liberals and its midwestern Old Guard.
The dominant faction appeared to be the liberals. On major domestic issues their differences with the Democrats were more procedural than substantive; on foreign policy their disagreements were almost nonexistent. Their candidate was Thomas E. Dewey, who at forty-six had been governor of New York for six years and a national figure for a decade. Dewey had risen to prominence in the 1930’s as a racket-busting district attorney in New York City. At the 1940 convention he had led the race for the nomination before being swept aside by the boom for Wendell L. Willkie. But this setback was only temporary. In 1942 Dewey became the first Republican in twenty years to win the governorship of New York. In Albany, a traditional forcing ground for presidential timber, Dewey estab lishcd a reputation as a moderate on economic and social problems, and as an exceptionally efficient manager of the state’s bureaucracy. In foreign affairs he moved from isolationism to active support of the United Nations. By 1944 Dewey’s prestige was so great and his political staff so adroit that he won the Republican nomination without openly campaigning for it.
In the election he could not overcome Franklin Roosevelt’s great personal popularity or the electorate’s reluctance to depose a Commander in Chief during wartime. But Dewey made a better showing than any of Roosevelt’s previous Republican opponents. And this respectable defeat was followed by an impressive victory in 194(1 that returned him to the governor s mansion in Albany.
Dewey was not a dramatic or compelling figure. His critics found his manner cold and smug. Harold Ickes, the former Secretary of the Interior under Roosevelt and Truman, caustically likened Dewey to “the little man on the wedding cake” and said he reminded him of someone “who, when he had nothing to do, went home and cleaned his bureau drawers.” But Dewey had a rich baritone voice, ideal for radio; lie was clean cut and well groomed; and he combined youthful vigor with the political seasoning gained in the 1944 presidential campaign. All these things, the liberal Republicans felt, made Dewey the party’s logical choice for 1948.
Stubbornly arrayed against the Dewey forces was the conservative Old Guard of the Republican party. Its ranks were made up of party stalwarts whose efforts held the Republican machinery together between national elections. Their roots were in the Midwest hinterland, their views harked back to William McKinley, and their champion in 1948 was Robert Alphonso Taft of Ohio. The son of the conservative Republican President, the fifty-eight-year-old Taft had emerged as a formidable political figure. He had proved his skill as a political tactician in the Senate, where he was de facto leader of his party. More than that, to conservatives Taft had come to symbolixe thrift, honor, patriotism, and other old-fashioned virtues that they felt had been subordinated during two decades of bewildering change.
Taft was a shy, sour-looking man, almost totally lacking in personal magnetism. Too often his comments on controversial issues were blunt and politically ill-considered. In 1947, for instance, he advised Americans confronted with skyrocketing food prices to “eat less,” a comment that predictably brought a chorus of derision from the Democrats. But despite his faults, or perhaps because of them, Taft remained the hero of the Old Guard and the most serious threat to Dewey’s nomination.
The very fact that the GUP had two contenders as strong as Dewcy and Taft, in a year when Republican chances seemed so bright, kindled the hopes of a number of lesser men who hoped that the party might turn to one of them in the event of a convention stalemate. Prominent among those being groomed as Republican dark horses in the winter of 1947–48 were General Douglas MacArthur, then the American proconsul in Japan; Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, one of the chief architects of the nation’s bipartisan foreign policy; the very popular Governor Earl Warren of California; and Ioe Martin of Massachusetts, Speaker of the House in the Republican Eightieth Congress.
But by far the most vigorous dark-horse candidate was Harold Stasscn. In 1938, Stassen had startled the nation by winning the governorship of Minnesota when he was only thirty-one. Two years later he had been Willkic’s floor leader at the Republican convention. After wartime service in the Navy, Stassen had returned to the political scene more ambitious than ever. In December, 1946, he became the first Republican to declare his candidacy for the Presidency and then launched a campaign that was eventually to cover 160,000 miles in forty-two states. As a midwesterner, Stassen had some appeal for conservatives, while liberals found his internationalist views attractive. But unlike Dewey ;incl Taft, lie had no backlog of delegate strength that he could count on at the convention. His only chance for the nomination was to make an impressive showing in the preconvention primaries, and accordingly he entered nearly all of these.
In March of 1948, Stasscn lost the opening round to Dewcy in New Hampshire. But the result was not significant, because Dewcy was operating near his home base and with the backing of the New Hampshire Republican organization. In the next primary, in Wisconsin, where Dewey enjoyed no such advantages and made only a token effort, the returns told a different story. Stassen scored a smashing victory, winning nineteen delegates to eight for MacArthur and none for Dewey.
The Wisconsin vote had two immediate results in the battle for the nomination. Because of his poor showing in what was nominally his home state, MacArthur was eliminated from serious consideration. Dewey, who until then had not taken the primaries seriously, was forced to change his strategy. He suddenly broke away from Albany and plunged headlong into campaigning for the Nebraska primary, which followed Wisconsin s by seven days. But Stassen had been barnstorming in Nebraska at a furious pace for weeks, and it was too late for Dewey to catch up. Nebraska Republicans gave Stassen forty-three per cent of their vote to thirty-five per cent for Dewey.
On the strength of his primary victories, Stassen jumped ahead of Dewey in the Callup poll. Next was the Oregon primary, where another Stassen triumph would make it almost impossible for the party to deny him the prize he sought. The Oregon polls showed Stassen had a commanding lead.
Dewey was finally alerted and ready for a fight. Three weeks before the balloting, the New Yorker swept into Oregon and began campaigning by bus in every corner of the state. No hamlet was too small for Dcwcy to visit, no hand too humble to shake. As Dewcy poured it on, it was Stassen’s turn to become alarmed. In his panic, he made a crucial error. He challenged Dewcy to a debate on whether the Communist party should be outlawed; Stassen offered to take the affirmative.
Dewey eagerly accepted. His courtroom experience proved ideal training for such an encounter. While voters around the country listened in on their radios, the ex-district attorney tore Stassen’s arguments to bits. After that, Oregon’s verdict at the polls was no surprise. Dewey not only captured the state s twelve convention delegates but also greatly increased his prestige across the nation on the eve of the Republican convention.
More than 2,000 delegates and alternates convened in Philadelphia on June 21, and the day marked the dawn of a new political age. Television had arrived. The cameras transmitted the deliberations at Convention Hall to the largest audience in history ever to witness an event as it was happening. The eighteen stations that beamed the proceedings “live” reached ten million potential viewers from Boston to Richmond. And beyond the range of the East Coast cable system, millions more watched Rimed highlights a day or two later.
All this foreshadowed the time when television would reshape the conduct of the conventions and completely transform the face of national politics. But in 1948 the medium was still a novelty with limited reach—there were in all the United States only about one million TV sets, and most of these were in bars. Besides, at the 1948 Republican convention, as at most political gatherings, the major decisions were being made well out of camera range.
Dewey arrived in Philadelphia with 350 votes, gathered in open primaries and behind-the-scenes mancuverings. The New York governor needed about aoo more to secure his nomination. Conceivably, he could be stopped if his foes united behind one man. But that would take time, and time was running out.
While Stassen, Taft, Vandenberg, and the others bickered among themselves, Dewey’s emissaries went forth to the headquarters of uncommitted delegations, wheedling, cajoling, and promising—or at least seeming to promise. Rumors swept through the delegates’ ranks that the Dewey forces had mortgaged the Vice Presidency to one influential figure or another in return for his support. One state after another wavered and then, fearful of being bypassed by the Dewey bandwagon, panicked and climbed aboard.
On the first ballot Dewey had 434 votes, just 114 short of the needed majority. Taft had 224 votes and Stassen 157, with the rest scattered among half a doxen favorite sons. Then came the crucial second round. To maintain the psychological pressure, Dewcy’s lead would have to grow; it did, to 515 votes, only 33 short of nomination.
While the convention recessed, Taft put through a desperate phone call to Stassen. The only chance to stop Dewey, Taft argued, was for Stasscn to release his delegates to Taft. No, said Stassen, not until the fourth ballot. But Taft now knew there would be no fourth ballot. Connecticut and California were both ready to switch to Dewey, and that would be more than enough to put him over the top. Wearily, Taft scribbled a few lines and put through another phone call, this time to Ohio’s other senator, John Brickcr, who had placed Taft’s name in nomination (and who had been Dewey’s running’ mate in 1944). Just before the third ballot began, Bricker read Taft’s message to the convention: “Dewey is a great Republican, and he will make a great Republican President.”
A tremendous roar greeted the announcement, and within a few minutes the other candidates also bowed out. On the third ballot Dewcy became his party’s unanimous choice.
To the wild cheers of the delegates, Dewey entered the hall and began his brief acceptance speech with a statement that nearly rocked some of his listeners out of their seats. “I come to you,” Dewey declared, “unfettered by a single obligation or promise to any living person.”
The delegates who had been privy to the intensive preballoting bargaining conducted by Dewey’s lieutenants found it hard to reconcile what they had witnessed with what they now heard. But it was soon clear that Dewey meant exactly what he said, at least when it came to the Vice Presidency. Whatever promises his aides might have made or implied would not be binding on him.
Dewey did confer for several hours witli the leaders of his party on vice-presidential possibilities. Not until the meeting was over did the candidate register his view, which turned out to be the only one that counted. At 4 A.M. , he summoned Earl Warren to his hotel and offered him the Vice Presidency. In 1944 Dewey had made the same offer, but Warren, who cherished his own presidential ambitions for 1948, had turned him down. Now the circumstances were far different. Warren could not again turn Dewey down and still retain standing in his party. After receiving Dewey’s promise to invest the Vice Presidency with meaningful responsibility, Warren agreed to run.
The Republicans thus offered the electorate the governors of the two richest and most populous states, men whose achievements commanded the respect of voters in both parties. The ticket spanned the nation from coast to coast, and along with geographic balance, presented a fortunate combination of personalities. Warren’s good-natured warmth nicely complemented Dcwey’s brisk, chilly manner. All things considered, it seemed that the Republicans had come up with their strongest possible ticket.
Its potency only reinforced the general opinion among politicians that the Democratic cause was hopeless. Truman, who in March had publicly announced that he would seek to succeed himself, vigorously disagreed, but most observers concluded that the President was simply out of touch with reality.
Typical was the view expressed by Ernest K. Lindley, Newsweek ’s Washington columnist, shortly before (lie Democratic convention. “The cold facts of the political situation are in many ways unjust to Harry Truman,” Lindley wrote, “but they cannot be removed by wishful thinking or personal pluck. The most popular, and probably the best, service that Truman could render to his party now is to step aside and … to assist in vesting the party leadership in younger hands.”
Truman had no intention of doing any such thing. He had, he liked to point out, waged uphill fights before. Back in 1940, as his first term in the Senate drew to a close, he had been faced with political extinction. The Pcndergast machine in Kansas City, which had launched him into politics as a county judge (an administrative, not judicial, position) in 1922 and which had helped send him to the U. S. Senate in 1934, had been wrecked by federal tax investigators. Its leader, Tom Pendergast, had been jailed for income-tax evasion. Truman, loyal to Boss Tom until the end, found himself discredited and with no other political base. Truman was advised to withdraw from the contest for the Democratic senatorial nomination and to accept an appointment to the Interstate Commerce Commission tendered by Franklin Roosevelt. Truman indignantly refused the offer and hurled himself into a bitter primary campaign. With the last-minute help of the railroad unions, grateful for his work on railroad labor legislation, Truman squeaked through to victory in the primary and then handily defeated the Republicans in November.
His 1940 triumph gave Truman abundant confidence as a campaigner and political tactician. In 1948, as he considered his chances of remaining in the White House, his confidence was bolstered by his understanding of the Presidency. No President, not even F. D. R., had a keener appreciation of the powers of the office or a greater willingness to use them than Truman. He had brought the Second World War to an end by ordering the first atomic bomb dropped. In the midst of the postwar labor unrest he had staved oft a national railroad strike by threatening to draft the trainmen into the army. And with the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan he had involved the United States in an unprecedented overseas commitment to save the peace.
It mattered little to Truman if the press and Congress objected to what he did. The decisive judgment, as he saw it, rested with the people, who were the ultimate source of presidential power. “I have always believed that the vast majority of people want to do what is right,” Truman said later, “and that if the President is right and can get through to the people he can always persuade them.”
His campaign to carry “a personal message” to the people began when he accepted the offer of an honorary degree from the University of California, which enabled him to list the trip as “nonpolitical” and to have it paid for by the federal treasury rather than by the impecunious Democratic National Committee. On June 3 he set off by special train for the West Coast on a journey that took him across eighteen states, with stops for major addresses in five key cities and more than three score off-the-cuff rear-platform talks. Everywhere he went, Truman jauntily announced that he was on his way “fur to get me a degree.” Having established the nonpolitical pretext for the trip, Truman then got down to his personal message: “There is just one big issue. It is the special interests against the people, and the President being elected by all the people represents the people.” Who represented the special interests? Why, the Republican party, of course, and most particularly the Republican-controlled Eightieth Congress. “You’ve got the worst Congress in the United States you’ve ever had,” the President declared. “If you want to continue the policies of the Eightieth Congress, it’ll be your funeral.”
It was on this trip that the first shouts of “Give ’em hell, Harry!”—soon to become the battle cry of the Democratic campaign—were heard. Truman later claimed that it was originated by “some man with a great big voice” in Seattle. “I told him at that time and I have been repeating it ever since, that I have never deliberately given anybody hell. I just tell the truth on the opposition—and they think it’s hell.”
The spectacle of the President of the United States rampaging across the land, spewing hell-fire and brimstone at them, and all at federal expense, was more than the Republicans could stand. “The President,” Senator Taft protested bitterly, “is blackguarding the Congress at every whistle station in the country.” The Democratic Committee immediately wired officials along Truman’s route, asking if they agreed with Taft’s description of their communities. As might be expected, they emphatically did not. “If Senator Taft referred to Pocatello as ‘whistle stop,’ ” the indignant head of the Idaho town’s Chamber of Commerce wired back, “it is apparent that he has not visited progressing Pocatello since time of his father’s 1908 campaign for President.”
Whatever the Republicans might say about his trip, Truman was highly satisfied. “I had never lost the faith, as some of those around me seemed to,” he wrote later, “and I found renewed encouragement and confidence in the response that came from the crowds.” In addition, the journey west established the free-swinging style Truman was to use in later campaign trips, and it set up the Republican Congress as his punching bag. But before he squared off against the Republicans, Truman had to overcome elements within his own party that were determined to deny him the nomination.
The idea of running General Dwight D. Eisenhower for President had occurred to the Republicans months before. Rut in January of 1948, when his admirers appeared to be getting serious, Ike had firmly declared: “I am not available for and could not accept nomination to high political office.” That seemed to settle matters—so far as the Republicans were concerned. But some Democrats, in what must surely be a classic example of wishful thinking, concluded that Eisenhower’s rejection of politics applied only to Republican politics. Eiseuhower had never voted, and no one knew his views on the issues of the day. AH this made little difference to the “Eiscncrats,” who included such strange political bedfellows as liberals James Roosevelt and Chester Bowles, big-city bosses Frank Hague and Jake Arvey, and southern segregationists Richard Russell and Strom Thurmond. They were drawn to Elsenhower simply because they were sure he could win.
But Elsenhower, who was then president of Columbia University, still was not interested in politics. A week before the Democratic convention opened in Philadelphia on July ia, he announced: “I will not at this time identify myself with any political party and could not accept nomination for any political office.”
Incredibly enough, some Democrats refused to take even that No for an answer. A measure of their des pcration was a proposal by Senator Claude Pepper of Florida that the Democrats draft Eiscnhower as a “national” rather than a “party” candidate and let him pick his own running mate and write his own platform. Eisenhower responded with a statement that was the clearest of its kind since General William Tecumseh Sherman turned down the Republicans in 1884: “No matter under what terms, conditions or premises a proposal might be couched, I would refuse to accept the nomination.” That was enough, even for Pepper. The dissident liberals now made an attempt to persuade Supreme Court Justice William U. Douglas to accept a draft. When Douglas also declined, the rebels had no choice but to call oil their rebellion.
As the Democrats gathered in Philadelphia, the prospects were for a dull and depressing convention. It did not turn out that way. Instead, the Democratic party caught fire in Philadelphia, and the man who struck the first spark was the convention keynoter. Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky. Barklcy, who had been sworn in to the House of Representatives on the day of Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration, remained at seventy one of the party’s staunchest bulwarks and one of its most colorful orators. From the moment he mounted the rostrum in Convention Hall to face the delegates, the microphones, and the TV cameras, it was obvious that the old war horse was in rare form. “We have assembled here for a great purpose,” the Senator announced. “We are here to give the American people an accounting of our stewardship in the administration of their affairs for sixteen outstanding, eventful years, for not one of which we make an apology.”
The delegates, suddenly roused from their lethargy, cheered. But the Senator was only warming up. The Republicans, Barkley noted, proposed “to clean the cobwebs” from the national government. “I am not an expert on cobwebs. But if my memory does not betray me, when the Democratic party took over … sixteen years ago, even the spiders were so weak from starvation they could not weave a cobweb in any department of the government in Washington.” That brought down the house. And when Barkley concluded his hour-long oration with a call “to lead the children of men … into a free world and a free life,” the delegates leaped to their feet in a demonstration that lasted more than half an hour.
Barkley’s rousing speech not only instilled life into the convention, it also brought about his nomination as Vice President, a development that Truman had neither anticipated nor desired. Truman originally h;;d hoped to bolster (he ticket with a youngish New Dealer, and his first choice was fifty-year-old Justice Douglas. But Douglas, who had already refused to be the presidential candidate of the dissident liberals, turned Truman down too. This threw the race for the Vice Presidency wide open, and when Barkley’s speech made him the party’s hero, Truman had to accept him.
Before the convention closed, Truman’s strategy received another jolt. He had hoped he could minimixe friction between the southern and northern wings by having the convention adopt a relatively mild platform plank on civil rights. The platform committee went along with the President’s wishes, despite the bitter protests of a group of liberals led by Hubert H. Humphrey, the outspoken young mayor of Minneapolis, who that year was running for the U.S. Senate.
When the platform reached the floor of the convention, Humphrey presented a minority report urging adoption of a stronger civil-rights plank and demanded a roll-call vote. After a tumultuous floor fight, the liberals carried the day, 651½ to 582½. Immediately, thirty-five delegates from Mississippi and Alabama stalked out of the convention—and the party—in protest. But the majority of southern delegates, however dejected they felt, stayed in their seats.
As for Truman, although his plans had gone awry the convention’s decision was hardly unacceptable. The new civil-rights plank echoed many of the proposals that he himself had made to Congress in February in his special civil-rights message. In his memoirs, Truman proudly cites an exchange between a newsman and South Carolina’s Governor J. Strom Thurmond on the convention floor. “President Truman is only following the platform that Roosevelt advocated,” the reporter pointed out. “I agree,” Thurmond replied. “But Truman really means it.”
At last the convention had come to its main order of business, the nomination of a presidential candidate. The southern delegates remaining at the convention threw their support behind Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. But it was a token gesture. On the first roll call, Russell received only 263 votes. Truman got 947½ and the nomination.
It was nearly two o’clock in the morning when the balloting ended and Democratic National Chairman J. Howard McGrath sought out the candidate, who was waiting in the wings. Did the President want a recess until a more civilized hour the next night? In a few moments McGrath returned to the platform with the answer. “The boss doesn’t want to wait,” said McGrath. “He wants to get at them as soon as he can.”
And get at them he did. Marching jauntily into the stifling heat of the auditorium, Truman waited until the welcoming demonstration subsided and then brought the delegates right back to their feet with his opening thrust. “Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it,” the President declared. “Don’t you forget that.”
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.
In his nationally broadcast speech, the President lost no time in bringing up Taft-Hartley, which, as he reminded his listeners, the Eightieth Congress had promptly passed over his veto. “If the congressional elements that made the Taft-Hartley law are allowed to remain in power,” Truman warned, “… you men of labor can expect to be hit by a steady barrage of body blows. And if you stay at home, as you did in 1946, and keep these reactionaries in power, you will deserve every blow you get.” A Republican victory, the President went on, threatened the welfare of the entire nation. “I would fear not only for the wages and living standards of the American workingman, but even for our democratic institutions of free labor and free enterprise.” The President obviously was swinging wildly. But judging from the cheers and shouts of “Give ’em hell, Harry!” that went up from the crowd, some of his blows were striking home.
From organized labor and its discontent with TaftHartley, Truman now turned his attention to the farmers, who had their own reasons for grumbling that year. All summer, grain prices had been dropping steeply; corn, for example, had fallen from $2.46 a bushel in January to $1.78 in September. Blaming the Eightieth Congress for the price slide was more complicated than blaming it for the Taft-Hartley Act, but Truman managed to do it.
The basis of the farmer’s trouble was the enormous crop surplus produced in 1948. Ordinarily, the farmer could store his surplus grain in government silos until prices rose, when he could sell it at a profit on the open market; the federal government, or more specifically the Commodity Credit Corporation, loaned the farmer money on the crops stored. But in renewing the C.C.C.’s authorization in 1948, Congress failed to give it the power to acquire additional storage bins. When the bumper 1948 harvests came in, the C.C.C. ran out of storage space and the farmers were forced to sell at the low market price.
The whole problem seems to have stemmed as much from oversight and confusion over the complexities of the farm program as from anything else. Truman had never raised the issue until the campaign. Now he brought it up in his first major farm speech, at the National Plowing Contest at Dexter, Iowa, on September 18. “This Republican Congress has already stuck a pitchfork in the farmer’s back,” the President declared. “They tied the hands of the administration. They are preventing us from setting up storage bins that you will need in order to get the support price for your grain.” Whatever the oversimplifications of this argument, it had a powerful appeal to the farmers who were feeling the pinch of depressed grain prices.
Using the Taft-Hartley Law and the storage-bin issue like blunt weapons, the President swept across the land, bludgeoning the Republicans. He travelled in the Presidential Special, a seventeen-car train that also carried the press and a retinue of advisers and Secret Service men. A converted Pullman car, luxuriously fitted and protected with armor plate and bullet-proof glass, was set aside for the President, his wife, Bess, and his daughter, Margaret. The car was called the Ferdinand Magellan , and in it Truman covered more distance than the Portuguese explorer who circled the globe. Counting his “nonpolitical” trip to California in June, the President reckoned that he travelled 31,700 miles, made 356 prepared speeches and 200 more extemporaneous talks, and was seen by twelve to fifteen million people.
The scale of Truman’s campaign was all the more remarkable for the fact that it was plagued by severe financial troubles. The overwhelming pessimism about Democratic chances cut the normal flow of campaign contributions down to a trickle. Finance Chairman Johnson was often forced to reach into his own pocket to meet day-to-day expenses. At the very start of the campaign, a radio network threatened to cancel the scheduled broadcast of the Labor Day speech unless it got its $50,000 payment in advance. But a lastminute phone call to Oklahoma Governor Roy Turner, who managed to raise the money in a few hours, saved the day.
As time went on, the Democrats learned to make a virtue of their financial adversity. On several occasions Johnson, to dramatize the party’s financial plight, allowed the networks to cut the President off the air before he had finished a speech. Once, when a network official warned that Truman would be cut off unless the Democrats put up more money, Johnson told him: “Go ahead. That will mean another million votes.”
The financial uncertainties contributed to the helter-skelter atmosphere that prevailed on the Presidential Special. “Things were done… as if we were operating just one jump ahead of the sheriff,” Charles G. Ross, Truman’s press secretary, recalled. “Many of the speeches were written as we went along.… We were understaffed. The White House girls sat up night after night, typing and retyping.”
None of these practical problems seemed to discourage the candidate. He was too busy campaigning, and he got better at it as he went along. At first, his delivery of speeches was as unimpressive as always. But by early October, Truman was writing the final drafts of all his major speeches, shaping raw material provided by his staff to his own style. He abandoned attempts at rhetorical flourishes and relied on short, punchy sentences and straightforward construction. His delivery also became noticeably more relaxed and effective.
The President was at his best making brief impromptu speeches at whistle-stops along the way. After blazing away at the Republicans from the train’s rear platform for ten or fifteen minutes, he would ask: “Howja like to meet the boss?” Then he would usher out Bess Truman, while the crowd applauded warmly. Next, with a sly wink, he would present “the boss’s boss,” and Margaret Truman would appear, to be greeted by more cheers and, occasionally, a wolf whistle. Day after day the President repeated this performance at country depots, sidings, and water tanks, wherever a crowd could be gathered. He averaged ten speeches a day, and one day he spoke sixteen times.
His staff and the newsmen complained of exhaustion, but the sixty-four-year-old Truman seemed to thrive on the hectic pace. He was plainly enjoying the battle, and even those who admired neither his politics nor his style had to respect his pluck. “I’m going to fight hard, and I’m going to give them hell,” Truman vowed when the campaign began, and he was certainly doing that. But he had also pledged to make the campaign the most important “since the LincolnDouglas debates.” It was a promise he was finding impossible to keep, because it takes two to debate, and the frustrating fact was that no matter how furiously he lashed out at the Republicans, the Republican candidate simply ignored him.
Dewey also was travelling around the country in a campaign train, the Victory Special, with his staff of experts and speech writers. The two men spoke at many of the same places. Judging from the tone of Dewey’s utterances, however, he seemed to be conducting not an election campaign but rather a triumphant tour of good will.
Dewey’s decision to give Truman the silent treatment was based on his firm conviction that his victory was all but certain. It was a reasonable conclusion, for every important indicator pointed in that direction. The most persuasive evidence was supplied by the major public-opinion polls conducted by George Gallup, Elmo Roper, and Archibald Crossley. Their surveys, which had correctly predicted the outcome of every presidential election since 1936, were regarded with unqualified awe. Ever since the nominating conventions, all three had predicted Dewey’s victory. On September 9, Elmo Roper had blandly announced that “my whole inclination is to predict the election of Thomas E. Dewey by a heavy margin and devote my time and effort to other things.” The fact that the campaign was barely a week old made little difference to Roper. “Past elections,” he explained in his nationally syndicated newspaper column, “have shown us that normally there is little change in the final standings between early September and Election Day. Therefore, unless some major convulsion takes place in the next month and a half … Mr. Dewey is just as good as elected.”
It was hard to find a dissenting opinion. Of America’s newspapers, sixty-five per cent, representing nearly eighty per cent of the nation’s total circulation, supported Dewey, and their editors and correspondents were confident they were backing a winner. In its October 11 issue, Newsweek published the results of a poll of fifty top political reporters, every one of whom predicted that Dewey would be the next President.
So overwhelming was the belief in a Republican victory that any evidence to the contrary was mistrusted and rejected. For example, the Staley Milling Company, a Kansas City feed supplier, conducted an informal poll of its customers that showed that fifty-four per cent of them preferred Truman to Dewey. The farmers registered their preference by buying sacks of chicken feed marked with either a donkey or an elephant. In September, after 20,000 farmers in six Midwestern states had been polled in this way, the company called off the survey. “We read the Gallup and Roper polls that were all for Dewey,” a company official explained, “and we decided that our results were too improbable.”
The same logic was used by the reporters accompanying Truman’s campaign train when they discounted the significance of the large crowds that gathered to hear the President almost everywhere he spoke. Reporters who travelled with both candidates agreed that Truman was attracting much bigger audiences than Dewey, and some mentioned this puzzling phenomenon in their stories. The answer that satisfied them was that the voters were turning out to see President Truman and his family, rather than Democratic candidate Truman.
No wonder, then, that Dewey and his advisers found it easy to believe that the Presidency was within their grasp. Believing that, it was logical for them to reason that Dewey had nothing to gain and possibly a great deal to lose by hitting back at Truman. Such a response, the Dewey camp feared, would only lend credibility to the President’s charges. Besides, Dewey and his advisers saw distinct advantages in conducting what came to be called a “high level” campaign. By avoiding specific issues, Dewey could avoid antagonizing Republican conservatives, with whom he disagreed sharply on a broad range of foreign and domestic problems. By not committing himself to one policy or another, Dewey would also enjoy more flexibility in dealing with the nation and the world once he moved into the White House.
Accordingly, as Dewey’s campaign train rolled across the nation (he travelled 18,000 miles and made 170 speeches), the candidate let fall one glittering generality after another. In Des Moines, where his campaign began, he pledged that “as President, every act of mine will be determined by one principle above all others: Is this good for our country?” And in Phoenix he candidly assured his audience that “your future is still ahead of you. And that’s exactly what I believe about every part of our country. That’s what I’ve been saying to our people.”
Obviously there would have to be some changes made in the government, Dewey asserted. But when he talked about change he sounded more like an office manager than a potential chief of state. “We are going to have a big house-cleaning in Washington,” he promised, “the biggest untangling, unsnarling, weeding and pruning operation in our history.” Over and over, Dewey stressed his main theme—national unity. “Our future and the peace of the world are staked on how united the people of America are,” he proclaimed.
In the interest of unity, Dewey managed to take a remarkably tolerant view of Democratic sins. “I will not contend that all our difficulties today have been brought about by the present national administration,” he said in Des Moines. “Some of these unhappy conditions are the results of circumstances beyond the control of any government.”
The march of events in the summer of 1948 had presented the Republicans with singular opportunities to embarrass the Democratic administration. Abroad, the Russians launched their prolonged blockade of Berlin. Dewey was known to believe that the precarious Western position in Berlin was due in part to U.S. bungling at postwar international conferences. But after conferring with John Foster Dulles, one of his foreign-policy advisers, he decided not to make Berlin a campaign issue. Instead, he praised the Berlin airlift, ordered by Truman, as “proof of our determination to stand by the free peoples of Europe until united they can stand by themselves.” As for Democratic blunders in foreign affairs, Dewey limited himself to casting passing slurs. “It wouldn’t serve any useful purpose,” he explained in his major foreign-policy address in Salt Lake City, “to recall tonight how the Soviet has conquered millions of people as the result of the failures of statesmanship.”
At home, the House Un-American Activities Committee aired sensational charges of Communist espionage reaching into the upper echelons of government. Among the federal officials implicated in the Red spy ring by witnesses like Elizabeth T. Bentley and Whittaker Chambers were Harry Dexter White, former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, and Alger Hiss, who as a State Department official had been instrumental in the establishment of the United Nations.
Truman promptly derided the charges as “a red herring.” But the committee hearings made glaring headlines all summer long, and Americans, already fearful of the menace of Communist aggression overseas, were deeply disturbed about the suggestions of subversion at home.
Here was an issue, Republican National Chairman Hugh Scott argued, with which Dewey could set the prairies ablaze. But Dewey refused to get “panicky” about the Red threat. Instead of pounding away at Truman for negligence, he offered only mild reproofs, meanwhile promising a safe and sane solution to the Communist problem when he moved into the White House. “So long as we keep the Communists among us out in the open, in the light of day,” he declared, “the United States of America has nothing to fear from them within its own borders.”
If there was little in Dewey’s pronouncements to offend the voters, there was equally little to arouse their enthusiasm. Nor, for that matter, was the candidate’s own personality the kind that moves multitudes. Dewey was the first presidential nominee to be born in the twentieth century, and he was very much a man of his age. Nearly everything he did, and the way he did it, crackled with modern efficiency.
The smooth routine aboard Dewey’s Victory Special presented a sharp contrast with the slapdash operation of the Truman campaign. Every stopover and speech was carefully timed, and Dewey’s staff saw to it that everything went off on schedule. For these technicians, no detail was too trifling. There was, for example, Mrs. Dewey’s favorite hat, a red-felt affair with black trim. As attractive as the colors were to the eye, they did not photograph well. The problem was taken under advisement, and after duly discreet discussion, a compromise was worked out: Mrs. Dewey could wear the nonphotogenic hat at whistle-stops where there were no photographers; in the bigger towns she agreed to don something else before the flashbulbs started to pop.
The trouble with such precise planning was that when things occasionally did not go exactly according to blueprint, Dewey exhibited an all-too-obvious exasperation. Somewhere in Illinois, as Dewey began to speak, his train suddenly lurched backward a few feet, nearly injuring some bystanders. “Well, that’s the first lunatic I’ve had for an engineer,” the Governor exploded. “He probably should be shot at sunrise, but we’ll let him off this time since no one was hurt.”
Newsmen, bored with the awesome dullness of Republican efficiency and the lack of fresh fodder in Dewey’s speeches, naturally seized upon the remark; and so, when he heard about it, did Truman. “We’ve had wonderful train crews, all across the country,” the President declared, explaining that they “are all Democrats.” The Republican candidate “objects to having engineers back up,” Truman taunted. “He doesn’t mention that under the great engineer [Herbert] Hoover, we backed up into the worst depression in history.” It may provide some insight into Dewey’s character that he denounced a careless railroad engineer yet held his temper under the rhetorical barrage fired at him by Truman.
Although the President never mentioned his opponent by name, his references were entirely clear. He called for an end to “mealy-mouth unity speeches” on domestic issues and jeered at Dewey’s talk of bipartisan foreign policy. “The unity we have achieved required leadership,” Truman said. “It was achieved by men—Republicans as well as Democrats—who were willing to fight for principles, not by the people who copied the answers down neatly after the teacher had written them on the blackboard.”
In Pittsburgh, Truman complained that his opponent had “set himself up as a kind of doctor with a magic cure for all ills of mankind.” Then Truman acted out a brief playlet in which the American people paid an office visit to Doctor Dewey for the “routine four-year check-up.” Stroking an imaginary mustache in pantomime of young Doc Dewey, Truman prescribed a “special brand of soothing syrup—I call it unity.” When the patient demanded to know exactly what was wrong, the Doctor replied: “I never discuss issues with a patient. What you need is a major operation.”
Alarmed, the patient asked: “Will it be serious, Doc?”
“No,” said the Doctor. “It will just mean taking out the complete works and putting in a Republican Administration.”
This skit, written and performed by the President of the United States, was as close to a dialogue as the two major candidates were to come during the campaign.
As for the standard-bearers of the Progressive and the States’ Rights parties, they also went their separate ways. In both cases, their courses seemed to take them further and further from the American mainstream. The Wallace party had begun with high hopes of waging a populist crusade that would gather support from the farm and labor groups which in the 1924 presidential election had rallied behind “Fighting Bob” La Follette of Wisconsin. But by his sweeping attacks on “Republican reaction,” Truman had stolen most of the old populist thunder on domestic issues.
Wallace was left with only one main issue—peace. But in the summer of 1948, what Wallace called “peace” was regarded by many Americans as appeasement. Wallace’s pleas for conciliation with the Soviet Union were undermined by the stark evidence of the Soviet’s aggressive intentions: first the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February and then the Berlin blockade in June. Moreover, Wallace’s refusal to disavow Communist support, and the prominent role Communists and their sympathizers played in the councils of the Progressive party, smeared his whole campaign with a Red brush.
The Dixiecrat insurgency was faring no better. To start with, Thurmond had been virtually assured thirty-eight electoral votes, in four southern states where the Democratic organizations had made him the party’s official candidate. Striving to build on that foundation, Thurmond barnstormed through the South, evoking the spirit of the Confederacy with his battle cries of “racial purity” and “states’ rights.”
But even in the heart of Dixie, the old Rebel yells had lost much of their appeal. “We will pay through the nose for the Dixiecrats,” warned the Atlanta Constitution , “as we still pay for the leadership which took us into the War Between the States to ‘save us.’ ” Practical southerners, moreover, saw no point in hurting Truman to help Dewey, whose racial views were fully as abhorrent to them as the President’s and whose party they intensely mistrusted.
The evidence that the Progressive and Dixiecrat campaigns were faltering was ignored by the pollsters, who insisted that Dewey would win no matter how the splinter parties fared. The final Gallup poll, just before the election, gave Truman 44.5 per cent of the vote, to 49.5 per cent for Dewey. Gamblers quoted odds of fifteen or twenty to one against the President, and the verdict of Democratic state leaders just before the election was: “In the time left, he can’t make it.”
As the campaign entered the closing days, Dewey appeared increasingly impatient to assume the prerogatives of the office. His attitude prompted one newsman to ask facetiously: “How long is Dewey going to tolerate Truman’s interference in the government?” In his last campaign speech, in New York’s Madison Square Garden, the Republican candidate radiated confidence and harmony: “I am very happy that we can look back over the weeks of our campaign and say: ‘This has been good for our country.’ I am proud that we can look ahead to our victory and say, ‘America won.’” Truman kept slashing until the end. In one of his last speeches, he said he had been puzzled at first by Dewey’s refusal to discuss the issues. “But after I had analyzed the situation,” the President went on, “I came to the conclusion that the record of the Republican party is much too bad to talk about.”
On the afternoon of Election Day, having made his closing speech from his home in Independence the night before, Truman slipped away to Excelsior Springs, Missouri, a resort town thirty-two miles away. He took a Turkish bath and went upstairs to his room. There the President of the United States dined alone on a ham sandwich and a glass of buttermilk, listened to some of the early returns, turned off his radio, and went to sleep.
The results that Truman had heard showed him in the lead. This was not surprising, because they came from traditional Democratic strongholds in the big cities of the East. But, as Republicans happily noted, Truman’s margins were far from impressive. He carried Philadelphia, the first big city to report, by 6,000 votes, compared with Franklin Roosevelt’s 150,000-vote majority there in 1944. Thus, at about 10:30 P.M. in Washington, while Truman slept in Excelsior Springs, Republican Chairman Scott confidently announced to the press: “Now we have come to the Republican half of the evening.”
The trend Scott was waiting for, however, was notably slow to develop. While running neck and neck with Dewey in the East, Truman was showing surprising strength in the Republican bastions in the Midwest. One farm state after another—even, of all places, Iowa—was reporting Truman pluralities. It was past midnight in Excelsior Springs when the President awakened and tuned in commentator H. V. Kaltenborn. “I was about 1.2 million ahead on the count,” the President remembered, “but according to this broadcaster, was still undoubtedly beaten.” He switched off Kaltenborn and went back to sleep.
Meanwhile, Republican anxiety was growing, while the Democrats were finding more reason for hope. Truman had lost the three eastern kingpins, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. But in the hinterland beyond the Alleghenies, in the farm belt, the mountain states, and along the Pacific coast, he was more than making up for it. The South, most of it anyway, was proving itself loyal to the Democratic party.
In Excelsior Springs it was 4 A.M. when the President awoke again. On the radio, Kaltenborn continued to hold out against the Democratic tide. But the President was ahead by more than two million votes. He needed only Ohio or California to assure his triumph, and he was leading in both. That was enough for him. “We had better go back to Kansas City,” he told his Secret Service guards; as he later wiote, “it looked very much as if we were in for another four years.”
The issue remained in doubt until 10:30 A.M. eastern time, Wednesday, November 3, when Dewey formally conceded.
Truman received 303 electoral votes and 24.1 million popular votes to Dewey’s 189 and 21.9 million. Thurmond and Wallace each got slightly more than 1.1 million votes, and Thurmond took 39 electoral votes —all from the South. With only 49.3 per cent of the popular vote, Truman was the first President since Woodrow Wilson in 1916 to be elected with less than a majority.
The most extraordinary thing about the election—other than the final outcome, of course—was the small turnout. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, evidently persuaded that their votes would make little difference in the net result, stayed away from the polls. The total presidential vote in 1948—48,687,607—was more than one million below the vote in the 1940 presidential election, although the population had grown by nearly 15 million (to 146 million) during the intervening eight years. And the 1948 vote was less than one million above the totals in the 1944 presidential election, although in 1944 the total population was smaller by 8 million, and 5.5 million Americans were overseas in the armed forces.
Neither the narrowness of his victory nor the low turnout of voters could diminish Truman’s achievement. He had held Dewey to a lower percentage of the popular vote (44.9) than the Governor had gotten running against Roosevelt in 1944 (46.03). Moreover, the party Truman led had recaptured firm control of both houses of Congress and had wrested a net total of five governorships away from the Republicans.
The voters who had participated in this miracle could hardly believe the count of their own ballots. “If incredulity was ever written across the face of the nation,” said Newsweek , “the election returns on Tuesday Nov. 2 certainly inscribed it indelibly there.” Many faces were not only incredulous but red with embarrassment. A quick glance at the newsstands revealed how wrong everyone had been. The Chicago Tribune won an unsought—but probably richly deserved—niche in the annals of journalism with its banner headline: “Dewey Defeats Truman.” In their nationally syndicated column that appeared the day after the election, the Alsop brothers had solemnly written: “Events will not wait patiently until Thomas E. Dewey officially replaces Harry S. Truman.” No major publication escaped the debacle, and one by one they apologized. On its front page, the Washington Post invited the President to a banquet attended by “political reporters and editors, including our own, along with pollsters, radio commentators and columnists. … The main course will consist of breast of tough old crow en glace. (You will eat turkey.)”
As for Dewey, he reacted with a grace and humor that would have benefited him during the campaign. On the day after the election, he told the press: “I am as much surprised as you are. I have read your stories. We were all wrong together.” Later, Dewey was to say wryly that he felt like the man who woke up in a coffin with a lily in his hand and wondered: “If I am alive, what am I doing here? And if I’m dead, why do I have to go to the bathroom?”
Meanwhile, the rest of the nation was pondering a riddle just as perplexing. How had Truman managed to win? Or, as Republicans put it, how had Dewey managed to lose?
There are a number of possible answers. Truman’s impassioned appeals to the labor and farm vote certainly played a major part in his victory. So did the natural appeal of the underdog and Truman’s emergence during the campaign as a vigorous personality in his own right. The Wallace and Thurmond candidacies probably helped the President nearly as much as they hurt him, the former by drawing the fire of zealous anti-Communists and the latter by lending credibility to Truman’s civil-rights programs.
Perhaps the most important single factor in Truman’s victory was simply that he was President. Because he was President, he was able to make a nationwide “nonpolitical” campaign trip free of charge, to summon Congress into special session, and, in general, to command the attention and loyalty of the nation.
But what about Dewey? With the aid of hindsight, the commentators quickly pointed out where the Republican candidate had gone wrong. Had Dewey waged a more aggressive campaign, it was contended, the result would have been different. Indeed, it might have. But Dewey had based his strategy on the commonly accepted assumption that his victory was inevitable—a decision which, under the circumstances, had ample precedent in American politics. The underlying basis for this assumption was, of course, the unanimous verdict of the opinion polls.
The pollsters suffered more from the election results than anyone else, perhaps even more than the Republican party. But their humiliation offers probably the most enduring and encouraging lesson to be learned from the great upset of 1948: the folly of taking the American electorate for granted.
To find out why the pollsters had been so far off in their calculations, the Social Science Research Council appointed a committee of prominent educators to conduct a five-week investigation. Boiled down, the panel’s 396-page verdict faulted the pollsters for neglecting to analyze the eventual decisions of undecided voters carefully enough, and for virtually ignoring shifts in sentiment at the end of the campaign. Finally, in presenting their results to the public, “the pollsters went far beyond the bounds of sound reporting.… They attempted the spectacular feat of predicting the winner without qualifications.” In other words, as Elmo Roper said, he and his colleagues had been “honest, but dumb.” Such predictions, the committee also charged, were not justified by the pollsters’ past records. To be sure, they had all correctly picked Franklin Roosevelt to win the preceding three elections. But the average of their findings had consistently underestimated the Democratic vote. They had been spared embarrassment in the past only because Roosevelt had always won by a substantial margin.
A few days before the 1948 election, Democratic Chairman McGrath had reminded pollsters Crossley and Gallup of their past miscalculations and asked that they adjust their 1948 findings accordingly. Crossley said he found McGrath’s objections “interesting” and expressed the hope that “we can sometime discuss these matters fully.” Gallup was not nearly so polite. In just three words he unwittingly laid down a maxim that anyone trying to forecast an American election might well keep in mind.
What Gallup said was: “Wait till Tuesday!”