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“I Hardly Know Truman”

June 2024
29min read

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.

It was in the early summer of 1943, one year in advance of the Democratic National Convention, that Sen. Harry S. Truman recorded on paper for the first time that in some circles he was being talked of as a candidate for Vice President, assuming the President was to run for a fourth term. He had been invited to Sunday lunch at the Washington home of Sen. Joe Guffey, a staunch New Dealer who took him out into the garden to ask “very confidentially” what he thought of Vice President Henry Wallace. Truman had smiled and said Wallace was the best Secretary of Agriculture the country ever had. Guffey, laughing, said that was what he thought too. “Then he wanted to know if I would help out the ticket if it became necessary by accepting the nomination for Vice President,” Truman recorded. “I told him in words of one syllable that I would not…”

And though the idea was talked about with increasing frequency thereafter, Truman, when asked his opinion, always gave the same answer. He wanted to stay in the Senate.

Truman: “The Vice President simply presides over the Senate and sits around hoping for a funeral.”

Moreover, Franklin Roosevelt had shown no sign of dissatisfaction with the Vice President or any inclination to abandon him. And even if Roosevelt was to change his mind, there were a number of others who were better known and more experienced and who would leap at the opportunity—Jimmy Byrnes, for instance. A small, tidy, vivid man whom Truman greatly admired, Byrnes was a Southerner, a lapsed Catholic, and sixty-six years old, all of which could count against him. But he had done virtually everything there was to do in government, his experience ranging across all three branches, beginning with seven terms in the House before going to the Senate. Named to the Supreme Court in 1941, Byrnes had resigned after only a term to become Roosevelt’s War Mobilization Director. Popularly referred to as “Assistant President,” he was the consummate insider. Roosevelt relied heavily on him and liked him. By contrast with such a man, Truman was small potatoes, as he well knew, and no closer to Roosevelt now than he had ever been.

Still the vice-presidential speculation continued, and with Truman’s name spoken often, for the reason that certain influential figures in the Democratic party had joined in a pact to keep Henry Wallace off the ticket.

They were only a handful, only a half-dozen men or so to begin with, but they were among the most powerful men in the party. They included the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Frank Walker, who had replaced Jim Parley as postmaster general; Ed Pauley, a wealthy California oil man who was treasurer of the National Committee; George E. Allen, a jovial man-about-Washington, a lobbyist, and the secretary of the National Committee; and Robert E. Hannegan, commissioner of internal revenue and not only a great favorite of the President’s but in line to replace Walker as national chairman.

But the key man in the “conspiracy” was Edward Joseph Flynn of the Bronx, New York, who was considered the most powerful political boss in the country and who in looks and manner bore little resemblance to the usual picture of a successful Irish politician. At fifty-two, Flynn was tall and handsome, with thinning gray hair and gray eyes, beautifully dressed, well educated, an ardent gardener, a student of history. Most important, he was a devoted friend of Franklin Roosevelt, and his influence on the President on political matters was second to none. It was Ed Flynn who ran Roosevelt’s successful bid for a third term in 1940, and it was Ed Flynn now, more than any of the others, who saw defeat in November unless something was done about the Vice President. For Henry Wallace was not their idea of a politician.

He Just Dropped into the Slot

Henry Wallace was one of the most serious-minded, fascinating figures in national public life, a plant geneticist by profession who had done important work in the development of hybrid corn and whose Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company was a multimillion-dollar enterprise. He was an author, lecturer, social thinker, firm advocate for civil rights, and thorough New Dealer with a large, devoted following. With the exception of Franklin Roosevelt, he was the most popular Democrat in the country. But he was also an easy man to make fun of, and to these tough party professionals, Wallace seemed to have his head in the clouds. They had never wanted him for Vice President. He was too liberal, too intellectual, a mystic who spoke Russian and played with a boomerang and reputedly consulted with the spirit of a dead Sioux Indian chief.

None of this would have mattered greatly had the President said Wallace was again his choice. But Roosevelt preferred to let things slide. His mind was on the war. He was also just as happy to keep everyone guessing.

The first meeting with Roosevelt to discuss the “advisability” of ditching Wallace took place at the White House in January 1944, six months in advance of the national convention, and Truman’s name figured prominently in a discussion of alternative choices that included Byrnes; the Senate majority leader, Alben Barkley; Sam Rayburn; Ambassador John G. Winant; Sen. Sherman Minton; and Justice William O. Douglas, who had replaced the late Louis D. Brandeis on the Supreme Court. Roosevelt declined to give a clear sign of what he wanted. As the historian James MacGregor Burns, then a member of the White House staff, later wrote, Roosevelt never pursued a more Byzantine course than in his handling of this question.

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.”

I Don’t Want It

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.

The next day, Tuesday, July 11, the President announced formally that he was running for another term. (He would never forget, wrote the young Alien Drury, the look on the faces of Democratic senators when the news reached the Hill. “It was as though the sun had burst from the clouds and glory surrounded the world. Relief, and I mean relief, was written on every face. The meal ticket was still the meal ticket and all was well with the party.”)

That night, following dinner, in the President’s blue oval study on the second floor of the White House, the full anti-Wallace coalition —Flynn, Hannegan, Walker, Alien, Pauley, plus one more exceptionally influential “practical” politician, Mayor Ed Kelly of Chicago—gathered with the President for what they were to regard as the decisive meeting.

Because of the muggy heat, everyone was in shirt sleeves. Drinks were passed, and again the full list of vicepresidential possibilities was taken up one by one. Again Byrnes and Rayburn were rejected. Now, for the first time, Barkley, too, was ruled out, and by Roosevelt, because Barkley was too old. Like Byrnes, Barkley was sixtysix, which made him Roosevelt’s senior by only four years, but the Republicans at their convention in Chicago had just nominated for President Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, who was all of forty-two.

Roosevelt thought a young man was needed on the Democratic ticket, and again, to the surprise of the others, he proposed William O. Douglas, an idea none of them had ever seriously entertained. Douglas, he said, was youthful (he was fifty-three), dynamic, a good liberal, and he had a kind of Boy Scout quality that would appeal to voters. Besides, Roosevelt thought, Douglas played an interesting game of poker.

But the idea fell flat. No one wanted Douglas any more than Wallace.

Again the talk turned to Harry Truman, Roosevelt contributing little to the conversation except to observe that he had set Truman up in his committee (which was not so) and thought he was doing a commendable job. Truman was able and loyal to the administration, Roosevelt agreed, and “wise to the way of politics.” Reportedly the question of Truman’s sometime association with Boss Tom Pendergast’s powerful Kansas City political machine was “thoroughly discussed” and dismissed as irrelevant.

As for which candidate might be best suited and prepared for the burdens and responsibilities of the Presidency, there appears to have been little or no discussion. Apparently only Roosevelt touched on the subject, saying again that, all in all, Jimmy Byrnes was the best-qualified man.

It would also be remembered how tired and listless the President was all through the stifling evening. Frank Walker commented later that he had never known Roosevelt so willing to “let others carry the ball.”

At last, turning to Hannegan, Roosevelt said, “Bob, I think you and everyone else here want Truman.”

Roosevelt had not said yet whether he himself wanted Truman, but at this point Ed Pauley rose and suggested they break up, then hurried everybody out of the room before the President had a chance to say anything more. Downstairs, as they were about to leave, Hannegan decided to go back up and get something in writing. By several accounts he returned with a note that Roosevelt had scrawled on an envelope: “Bob, I think Truman is the right man, FDR.”


“We Have to Be Damn Careful about Language”

At first chance on the morning of Wednesday, July 12, Hannegan went to see Henry Wallace at Wallace’s apartment at the Wardman Park Hotel—a mission made, according to Hannegan ‘s later account, at the request of the President. He told Wallace he would be a detriment to the ticket and must therefore withdraw. Wallace said they might as well understand each other. He was not withdrawing as long as the President preferred him.

On Thursday, the thirteenth, Wallace met for lunch with Roosevelt, who reported on the meeting of the night of the eleventh in some detail, explaining the preference of the professional politicians for Truman as “the only one who had no enemies and might add a little independent strength to the ticket.” Wallace showed him a new Gallup poll reporting 65 percent of Democratic voters in favor of Wallace, while Byrnes had but 3 percent, Truman 2 percent.

It was his intention, Roosevelt said, to send a letter to the chairman of the convention, Sen. Samuel Jackson, saying that if he were a delegate, he would vote for Wallace. Would he offer any alternative name? Wallace asked. No, Roosevelt assured him, he would not. “Well, I am looking ahead with pleasure to the results of next week no matter what the outcome,” Wallace said.

Roosevelt, his head up, beaming, drew Wallace close and with a vigorous handclasp said, “While I cannot put it just that way in public, I hope it will be the same old team.”

In another exchange earlier that same morning, Roosevelt had told Jimmy Byrnes that he was certain Wallace could not win at Chicago but that he would endorse no other candidate. Byrnes pointed out that he had not allowed himself to become seriously interested until Bob Hannegan had told him, in effect, that he was the President’s first choice. “You are the best qualified man in the whole outfit, and you must not get out of the race,” Roosevelt told him. “If you stay in, you are sure to win.”

Meeting with Hannegan and Walker for lunch the next day, Byrnes repeated what Roosevelt had said. Hannegan was incredulous. “I don’t understand it,” he said. Neither did Byrnes, who, determined to settle the matter, returned to his White House office and put through a call to Roosevelt, who by this time was at his home in Hyde Park, New York. Byrnes, who had once been a court stenographer, took down their conversation in shorthand.

Roosevelt said again he was not favoring anybody: “I told them so.…When we all went over the list I did not say I preferred anybody or that anybody would cost me votes, but they all agreed that Truman would cost fewer votes than anybody and probably Douglas second…”

W allace told Hannegan he was not withdrawing as long as FDR preferred him.

Byrnes pressed him. If Hannegan and his friends were to release any kind of statement saying the President preferred Truman and Douglas, that could make things very difficult for his own cause.

“We have to be damn careful about language,” Roosevelt answered. “They asked if I would object to Truman and Douglas, and I said no. That is different from using the word prefer . That is not expressing a preference, because you know I told you I would have no preference.”

Roosevelt asked Byrnes whether he would try for the nomination. Byrnes said he was considering it, but he needed to know the President’s views. Roosevelt replied, “After all, Jimmy, you are close to me personally and Henry is close to me. I hardly know Truman.”

Byrnes then phoned Harry Truman and asked if he was serious when he told the newspapers he did not want the vice-presidential nomination. Yes, Truman replied, absolutely. He was not a candidate. Byrnes said he had been given the “go sign” from Roosevelt and would like nothing better than to have Truman make the nominating speech for him at Chicago. Truman accepted at once, saying he would be delighted.

Truman had no sooner put down the phone than it rang a second time. Alben Barkley now wanted him to make his nominating speech at Chicago. He was sorry, Truman replied, but he had just said yes to Jimmy Byrnes.

“I Think, Senator, That You’re Going to Do It”

The turmoil at the Chicago convention was entirely over the Vice Presidency and at no time did the outcome appear inevitable. Ambitions were too large, the opportunities for deceit and maneuver and the play of emotion too plentiful, the dictates of Franklin Roosevelt too capricious for there to have been even a momentary sense of events moving as if on a track. Things could have gone differently at any of several points, and with the most far-reaching consequences. The common, realistic, and not unspoken view was that they were there to pick not one but two Presidents, and if the identity of the first was clear, that of the second was not. It was politics for the highest stakes, politics at its slipperiest, and the only real drama of either national convention that summer.

Looking back on what happened, Alben Barkley would conclude that he had been sadly naive about the whole business. He had been in politics nearly forty years, this was his eleventh national convention, but he had never seen anything like what went on.

Truman drove to Chicago from Kansas City on Saturday, July 15, four days before the convention was officially to open and the same day the President’s westbound train made an unscheduled stop at Chicago.

Roosevelt was en route to San Diego, where a cruiser would take him to Hawaii for meetings with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. But at three that afternoon his train was shunted onto a siding so that Bob Hannegan could come aboard for a private talk in the President’s new armor-plated private railroad car, the Ferdinand Magellan . They were together approximately half an hour. Though nearly everything said between Roosevelt and Hannegan was kept secret, one request by Roosevelt would become the best-known line of the convention. Whatever was decided, said the President, Hannegan must first “clear it with Sidney,” meaning that Sidney Hillman was to have the final say—Hillman, who now ran the CIO’s well-heeled Political Action Committee, or PAC, which was something new in American politics.

Hannegan also came off the train with a letter on White House stationery, which, in lieu of a briefcase, he carried inside a copy of National Geographic magazine. It was postdated July 19:

Dear Bob:

You have written me about Harry Truman and Bill Douglas. I should, of course, be very glad to run with either of them and believe that either one of them would bring real strength to the ticket.

Always sincerely, Franklin Roosevelt

Whether it had been written earlier in Washington or was produced to order that day is not certain. Ed Pauley, who claimed to have been with Hannegan when he went to see Roosevelt, said later that Hannegan was back at his hotel before he discovered to his horror that Douglas was even mentioned.

The handsome, gregarious Hannegan—Mr. Busyman Bob, as he would be remembered—was playing an extremely deceitful game at this, his first national convention, possibly at Roosevelt’s direction, and possibly not. For his next move was to call Jimmy Byrnes in Washington and tell him that the Vice Presidency was all set. Byrnes was the one.

Byrnes left Washington at once. Arriving in Chicago on the morning of Sunday, the sixteenth, he found a bright red fire chief’s car and driver waiting at the station for him, courtesy of Mayor Kelly. He was taken directly to the mayor’s apartment on Lake Shore Drive for a breakfast meeting with Kelly and Hannegan, who assured him he was the chosen man. “Well, you know Jimmy has been my choice from the very first. Go ahead and nominate him,” they quoted Roosevelt as having instructed.

T he common and realistic view was that they were there to pick not one but two Presidents.

The company spent most of the day with Byrnes mapping out strategy; Hannegan even ordered “Roosevelt and Byrnes” placards printed. By late afternoon the word had spread among the delegates and reporters milling about in the hotel lobbies.

The Roosevelt letter to Hannegan was kept secret. Hannegan was showing it to no one, and no one apparently had said anything about it as yet to Senator Truman, who by now had his nominating speech for Byrnes all prepared.

Sitting beside an open window in his hotel room that evening, the flat gray-blue panorama of Lake Michigan in the distance, Truman talked at length to a St. Louis reporter, with the understanding that most of what he said was off the record. Although Bess and Margaret, due to arrive on Thursday, would be staying at the Morrison Hotel, the senator had taken a suite in the Stevens, across the street from the venerable Blackstone, so that his “politicking” would not disturb their sleep. Jimmy Byrnes, his candidate, was also in the Stevens, six flights up on the twentythird floor, in the hotel’s plush Royal Skyway, the same rooms occupied a few weeks earlier by Thomas E. Dewey.

He was determined to stay out of the running, Truman said. The reporter remarked that as Vice President he might “succeed to the throne.” Truman shook his head. “Hell, I don’t want to be President.” Then, with what the reporter described as the sharp memory of a professional historian, the senator described the failures and scorn experienced by every Vice President who had succeeded to the highest office, beginning with John Tyler and apparently overlooking the most obvious example to the contrary, Theodore Roosevelt.

Truman’s Kansas City friend Tom Evans, an old Pendergast loyalist who had grown rich with a chain of drugstores that also sold quantities of Pendergast beer and whiskey, had come to Chicago at Truman’s request for the supposed purpose of helping him fend off the nomination, as had Eddie McKim and John Snyder. Scowling, heavy-handed Fred Canfil, too, was on hand in his role as general factotum and looking, noted one reporter, “as if he could throw a bull in two falls out of three.” (Canfil would later complain of missing much of the drama on the convention floor because “somebody else wanted some booze and I had to help him.”) Yet they all seem to have spent most of their time talking Truman up as the ideal choice—McKim liked to say it was a question of destiny—and trying to persuade Truman to change his mind.

As McKim remembered, they “got Truman in a room and…explained the situation to him.” After much talk McKim told him, “I think, Senator, that you’re going to do it.” What gave him that idea? Truman snapped. “Because,” said McKim, “there’s a little, old ninety-year-old mother down in Grandview, Missouri, that would like to see her son President of the United States.” Truman, in tears, stomped out of the room.

“Clear It with Sidney”

Reflecting on Truman’s frame of mind years later, John Snyder would say that it wasn’t so much that Truman didn’t want to be President as that he didn’t want to succeed Franklin Roosevelt, which was different.

For Truman, in memory, the convention would always be “that miserable time” in Chicago, the most exasperating experience of his life. Marquis Childs, a practiced Truman observer, described him as plainly “scared to death.”

The sensation of Monday, July 17, was the release by the convention chairman, Samuel Jackson, of Roosevelt’s letter about Wallace. A hundred reporters or more fought for the mimeographed copies. It had been written at Hyde Park on Friday, the same day of Roosevelt’s reassuring telephone conversation with Jimmy Byrnes: “I have been associated with Henry Wallace during his past four years as Vice President [so read the key paragraph of the instantly famous document], for eight years earlier while he was Secretary of Agriculture, and well before that. I like him and I respect him and he is my personal friend. For these reasons I personally would vote for his nomination if I were a delegate to the convention.”

To many it seemed a kiss of death for Wallace—“the coolest and cruelest brush-off in all the long Roosevelt career,” in the words of one account. Unquestionably it threw the choice of a running mate wide open. He did not “wish to appear to be in any way dictating to the convention,” Roosevelt had also written. If anybody benefited, said several papers, it was Jimmy Byrnes.

Now, in response, Hannegan began by saying he, too, had a letter from the President that named Truman. But no one was allowed to see it.

Hannegan ‘s corner suite on the seventh floor of the Blackstone, rooms 708–709, had become the convention nerve center, since Hannegan alone claimed direct telephone contact with the President. In the red-carpeted hall outside, reporters and photographers set up a round-the-clock vigil to see who came and went. Mayor Kelly, who was in and out “continually,” kept mentioning the Roosevelt letter. But at a dinner that night arranged by Kelly in a private apartment on Chicago’s North Side, a location kept secret from the press, Byrnes was the man of the hour. It was only when everybody was about to leave that Hannegan casually mentioned one further detail, the need, as required by the President, to “clear it with Sidney.”

On Tuesday morning Senator Truman and Sidney Hillman had orange juice, eggs, and bacon sent up by room service to Hillman’s suite at the Ambassador East, “the fancy hotel,” as Truman called it. Born in Lithuania, educated to be a rabbi, Hillman had been an eight-dollar-a-week apprentice pants cutter in the garment district of New York when Truman was still riding a plow on the farm. He had led his first strike at twenty-three and founded the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America by the time he was thirty. To party chiefs like Hannegan and Kelly, he was an amateur and therefore not wholly trustworthy, whatever the power of his PAC or his allegiance to the President. Hillman wasn’t even a registered Democrat. In addition, as co-director of the former Office of Production Management in Washington, he had come under heavy fire from the Truman committee, which had been mainly responsible for his removal. And so Truman had no reason to expect much from him in the way of cooperation or favors.

Truman asked for Hillman’s support for Byrnes. Hillman declined and refused to be budged. He was working hard for Henry Wallace, Hillman said. If it could not be Wallace, then he wanted either Douglas or Truman.

Truman said he was going to nominate Byrnes. Hillman said that would be a mistake.

Truman reported directly to Byrnes all that Hillman had said, but Byrnes seemed not to care and with reason. By reliable reports he had already lined up more than 400 of the 589 votes needed to nominate.

F or Truman the convention would always be “that miserable time” in Chicago.

When Ed Flynn arrived in Chicago later that morning, Tuesday, the eighteenth, Hannegan rushed him into a corner to say it was all over. “It’s Byrnes!” Flynn said it was no such thing and demanded a meeting of the select committee, the same group as the night before, which convened again in the same secret North Side apartment, except that this time Sidney Hillman was included and Jimmy Byrnes was not.

There was only one man to nominate, Flynn insisted, and that was Harry Truman because Harry Truman was what they had agreed to with the President.

Flynn was extremely angry. “I browbeat the committee, I talked, I argued, I swore,” he later wrote. Hillman declared Byrnes unacceptable to organized labor. Flynn said Byrnes would cost no less than two hundred thousand Negro votes in New York alone. Byrnes was a “political liability.” Roosevelt could lose the election. Everyone agreed—Hannegan, the party’s chairman, Pauley, Walker, Alien, Hillman for labor, and Kelly, the big-city boss. Reporters were to call them “the Harmony Boys.”

Flynn put through a call to Roosevelt in San Diego, and one by one each man got on the line. In the end Roosevelt agreed it should be Truman.

Though accounts differ somewhat, this appears to be what happened next: Within a short time that evening Byrnes and Truman were individually told what the President had said. Truman heard from Hannegan, who came to his room at the Stevens, and an hour or so later he went alone to the Royal Skyway to square things with Byrnes. He asked to be released from his promise of support. Byrnes said he understood perfectly, given the circumstances. When Byrnes tried to get through to Roosevelt by phone, he was told the President was unavailable.

Word of the sudden turn in events spread fast. Ed Flynn had been in town less than a day, and everything had changed. Byrnes dropped out of the race, and the talk everywhere was that the bosses had killed his candidacy. In a release to the press, Byrnes said he was withdrawing “in deference to the wishes of the President.” He then left for home in a fury, feeling he had been betrayed by Roosevelt. In a parting conversation with Alben Barkley, who was scheduled to nominate the President, Byrnes remarked sourly, “If I were you I wouldn’t say anything too complimentary about him.”

Barkley was as upset as Byrnes, furious over Roosevelt and his games at their expense. He was sick and tired of trying to determine which shell the pea was under, Barkley told a reporter, and threatened to tear up his nominating speech and be done with the whole affair.

“Why the Hell Didn’t He Tell Me in the First Place’

For Truman events were out of hand. These were three or four of the most critical days of his life, and they were beyond his control, his destiny being decided for him by others. Speculation now centered on him. But as his stock rose, so did objections to him, because of the Pendergast connection. Running into his old high school classmate Charlie Ross, now a contributing editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch , Truman said, “Feel sorry for me. I’m in a terrible fix.”

How much faith he had in Hannegan at this point, he never said, but to many it looked as though the young party head was out of line in taking such an overtly partisan role. He appeared to be constantly improvising, seldom sure of his ground. To prove he really did have something in writing from Roosevelt about Truman, he at last released the muchtalked-of letter. But this only produced more grumbling and controversy. Why hadn’t he said it mentioned Truman and Douglas? His claim of an endorsement for Truman was only half true, and wasn’t a half-truth as good as a lie? And how much credence should be given to a letter released on July 18 that was supposedly written on July 19?

Among those most surprised by the letter when he later saw accounts of it in the papers was William O. Douglas, who at the time of the convention was in Oregon hiking in the mountains. No one had told him he was being considered.

Meantime, Henry Wallace had arrived in Chicago, and at a packed press conference at the Sherman Hotel, sitting on a table with his long legs swinging, Wallace said he was there to fight to the finish. His supporters were claiming 400 votes on the first ballot.

A sluggish, entirely routine first session of the convention opened just before noon inside Chicago Stadium, the same giant arena where Roosevelt had been nominated in 1932 and again in 1940. From steel girders overhead hung a huge Roosevelt portrait used in 1940, retouched a little to make him look a bit less pale. There was a prayer. There were speeches. The real business continued at the hotels.

Only narrow Balboa Street separated the Stevens from the Blackstone, and it was to the Blackstone, to Hannegan’s seventh-floor suite, that Truman was “summoned” that afternoon, Wednesday, July 19. Hannegan, collar open, his shirt damp with perspiration, had assembled the inner core- Pauley, Walker, Kelly, Flynn.

It was clearly a gathering arranged for effect, for Truman’s benefit. (Barkley would later refer to Hannegan as the “stage manager” at Chicago.) The time had come for a decision from the senator. They were placing a call to San Diego.

Truman sat on one twin bed. Hannegan, phone in hand, sat on the other. “Whenever Roosevelt used the telephone,” Truman remembered, “he always talked in such a strong voice that it was necessary for the listener to hold the receiver away from his ear to avoid being deafened, so I found it possible to hear both ends of the conversation.”

“Bob,” Roosevelt’s voice boomed, “have you got that fellow lined up yet?”

“No,” said Hannegan. “He is the contrariest goddamn mule from Missouri I ever dealt with.”

“Well, you tell the senator that if he wants to break up the Democratic party in the middle of the war, that’s his responsibility.” With that Roosevelt banged down the phone; the line was disconnected.

A s soon as the President finished speaking, the hall erupted with cries of “We want Wallace!”

Truman said later that he was completely stunned. “I was floored, I was sunk.” Reportedly his first words were “Oh, shit!” He himself recalled saying, “Well, if that’s the situation, I’ll have to say yes. But why the hell didn’t he tell me in the first place.”

“Christ Almighty, Let’s Get in This Thing”

On Thursday, July 20, an immense crowd filling the hall, the convention became a thundering, old-fashioned political circus. Alben Barkley, bathed in spotlights on the podium, his broad face streaming with perspiration, his anger at Roosevelt forgotten for the moment, delivered a tribute to the great leader that set off a forty-minute demonstration. In seconding the nomination, Henry Wallace gave one of the strongest speeches of his career, an impassioned, straightfrom-the-shoulder declaration of liberal principles that brought the audience to its feet time after time.

By evening, as time for the President’s address approached, the crowd had grown far beyond what the arena was built to hold. It was packed to the roof with perhaps forty thousand people. Reportedly fifteen thousand counterfeit tickets had been printed and distributed with the blessing of Mayor Kelly, who for all his apparent Truman fervor was secretly hoping for a Truman-Wallace deadlock, so the prize would go to his own candidate, Illinois’s favorite son, Sen. Scott Lucas. But the ticket ploy resulted in thousands of additional Wallace supporters, many supplied by the CIO, who jammed the galleries and worked their way onto the convention floor, while thousands more milled about in the corridors. The Wallace people were determined to see the nomination decided there in the hall and not by the “big boys” in a smoke-filled room. The idea was to stampede the convention.

Nominations for the Vice Presidency were scheduled for the next day, but as the evening wore on, with more speeches and fanfare for Roosevelt, the surge for Wallace kept growing. The heat inside the hall was nearly unbearable.

At the Blackstone Hannegan told Truman he might have to be nominated that night, if they had the votes. They would have to be ready to move fast. Bennett Clark was supposed to nominate Truman, but no one knew where he was. Clark, whose wife had died the year before, had been drinking even more than usual. Truman went to look for him. Hannegan started for the convention hall.

When the speeches and roll call ended, and the President was swiftly renominated, the delegates settled down to hear his speech. They were not to see their standard-bearer; FDR was speaking from his railroad car in San Diego. The familiar voice came booming from a cluster of amplifiers, as the huge crowd sat silently watching the empty podium. Absolute silence hung over the darkened hall, even during the President’s pauses. With no one onstage the effect was eerie.

“What is the job before us in 1944?” the great, disembodied voice asked. “First, to win the war—to win the war fast, to win it overpoweringly. Second, to form worldwide international organizations, and to arrange to use the armed forces of the sovereign nations of the world to make another war impossible…”

No sooner was the speech over than a Wallace demonstration erupted. From every corner of the stadium came the chant “We want Wallace!” The organist, catching the spirit, began pumping away at the Wallace theme song, “Iowa, Iowa, That’s Where the Tall Corn Grows.”

Bob Hannegan was seen hurriedly conferring with Mayor Kelly in the Illinois delegation. Then they both were up on the podium, heads together with Chairman Jackson. To several of the Wallace floor leaders it looked suddenly as if the time to nominate their man was then, that night, and the quicker the better.

“I sat there and watched the demonstration and I saw it growing in the volume,” remembered Claude Pepper, who, as head of the Florida delegation, was positioned on the aisle. “I stood up on my seat, and I could see the whole convention hall then. And I said [to myself], ‘You know, that’s a real demonstration.…’ So after it got into full speed and steam, I said, ‘If we could bring this nomination up right now, we could nominate Henry Wallace.’”

Desperate to get the chairman’s eye, Pepper tried hopping up and down on his chair, waving the Florida banner, but to no avail. His floor microphone had been turned off.

He jumped down and started up the aisle, fighting his way through the crowd. Reporters, hundreds of delegates, and spectators saw him and knew at once what he was trying to do. If he could get to the podium, he would make a nominating speech himself with no more delay. “I got up to about the second step from the top going just as hard as I could to get up that stairway,” remembered Pepper, “and I saw the chairman look over there. He had seen me coming up the aisle. And so, immediately…the chairman said, ‘Motion made. The convention adjourned. All in favor of the motion, let me know by saying “Aye, aye.”’ And, ‘That’s it.’ And, The convention’s adjourned.’ And I by that time was just about to the top step. And they started roaring, ‘No, no, no, no.’”


Jackson later admitted to Pepper that he had seen him the whole time and that he had hated to do what he did but that he had promised the newspaper and radio people to hold the vice-presidential decision until the next day when they would be better prepared. What he did not tell Pepper was that he and Bob Hannegan had already made an agreement to shut things down that night before the Wallace people could start the nominations. The public explanation was that the decision was a matter of necessity, because of fire laws.

Harry Truman had witnessed none of this. He had spent the night in search of Bennett Clark, finding him finally in a room where he was not supposed to be, at the Sherman, and too drunk to say much more than hello. By then it was past midnight. “So I called Bob [Hannegan],” Truman remembered, “and said, ‘I found your boy. He’s cock-eyed. I don’t know whether I can get him ready or not, and I hope to Christ I can’t.’”

The final session inside the stadium on Friday, July 21, lasted nine hours and would be described as the strangest, most bitter conclusion to a national convention in a very long time.

Sen. Bennett Clark, after a great deal of black coffee, a shower, and some food, had, with Hannegan’s help, pulled himself together sufficiently to appear on the podium. But his speech for Truman was short and had none of his usual flair. He moved the audience not at all.

Nor were the seconding speakers much of an improvement. A labor leader from Pennsylvania said that while he did not know the senator personally, he thought Truman would make the strongest possible running mate because he was a Democrat and an American.

By contrast, a vigorous speech for Henry Wallace, delivered by an Iowa judge named Richard Mitchell, touched off another noisy demonstration, and Claude Pepper, given a turn at the podium at last, made a moving plea to the Democratic party not to repudiate the man who more than any other symbolized the democracy of Franklin Roosevelt. Wallace’s delegate strength for the first ballot appeared to be gaining.

But Hannegan, Flynn, Kelly, and the others had been working through the night. No one knows how many deals were cut, how many ambassadorships or postmaster jobs were promised, but reportedly, by the time morning came, Postmaster General Frank Walker had telephoned every chairman of every delegation.

The strategy of the Truman forces was to organize as many favorite-son nominations as possible and thereby keep Wallace from winning on the first ballot. The result was a total of sixteen nominations for Vice President, and as the speeches continued through the long afternoon, delegates in groups of twos and threes were seen going to and from a private airconditioned room beneath the platform, Room H, at the end of a narrow, dark hall, where, for hours, Senator Truman stood shaking hands. Only later did he emerge to join Bess and Margaret in a box just behind the podium. Henry Wallace was waiting out the session in his hotel room, in keeping with custom, but Truman sat in full view, munching on a hot dog and enjoying the spectacle.

Ed Flynn and the New Jersey boss Frank Hague could be seen conferring on the platform, a tableau that caused some veteran observers among the press to recall earlier times when the “big boys” has been more discreet about their conniving. But the crowds in the galleries were nothing like the night before. Mayor Kelly’s police had been checking tickets, with the result that thousands of Wallace supporters had been kept out.

The first ballot began at four-thirty, and Wallace stayed in the lead the whole way, rolling up 429 ½ votes to Truman’s 319½, with the remainder divided among Alben Barkley and the favorite sons. By the time the tally became official, it was past six. The convention had been in session for nearly seven hours without pause, and the crowd expected to recess for dinner, before the night session. But then Chairman Jackson stepped to the microphones to announce that a second ballot would be taken at once. The convention was still in its afternoon session, which meant no tickets for the night meeting would be honored- and no more Wallace crowds admitted therefore. It was a daring stroke by Hannegan.

On the second ballot the excitement began to build almost at once. Wallace was ahead until suddenly, just as had been forecast for the second ballot, Ed Flynn delivered to Truman 74 votes from the New York delegation, which had been divided the first time around. Now Truman moved out in front.

For a brief, tense while, the count narrowed again, Wallace pulling to within five votes of Truman. Then the break came. Alabama’s favorite son, Sen. John Bankhead, withdrew his name and cast 22 Alabama votes for Truman, which gave Truman nearly 500. Delegates rose from their chairs. South Carolina switched 18 votes from Bankhead to Truman, and the stampede was on. Indiana, Wyoming, and Maine went over to Truman, while from the galleries came an insistent roar of “We want Wallace!” Photographers were clustering about the Truman box. The senator was smiling broadly. Even Bess, who had looked grumpy and skeptical through the first ballot, was seen beaming now and turning, as requested, to pose with her husband. Margaret was jumping up and down, cheering as if at a college football game. Over in the Illinois delegation Mayor Kelly shouted to Senator Lucas, “Christ Almighty, let’s get in this thing.” The whole crowd was on its feet.

Truman needed only one big state. Ohio announced for him, which would have been enough, but a delegate challenged the count and Ohio passed. Then Sen. David I. Walsh of Massachusetts declared that Massachusetts had changed its vote to 34 for Truman, and that did it. Sen. Harry S. Truman of Missouri, “unofficially but conclusively,” was the party’s nominee for Vice President.


Illinois, a little late, piled on another 55 votes for Truman, and more states followed. Bennett Clark started a Truman procession down the aisles, as a phalanx of police escorted the nominee to the platform. The official tally was running late, but at 8:14 Chairman Jackson formally announced the Truman victory. The final count was Truman 1,031, Wallace 105. William O. Douglas had 4 votes.

The acceptance speech, one of the shortest in American political history, lasted less than a minute. The nomination was an honor for Missouri, Truman said, and an honor he accepted “with all humility.” More than the speech, it was the shy, almost embarrassed way he stepped up to the bank of microphones, and the way he stood waiting for the crowd to settle down, that many people would remember. He looked out at the huge hall in tumult, his glasses glinting in the spotlight. Then he stepped back slightly.

“Now, give me a chance,” he said.


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