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August 31st, 2019

Originally posted on May 28, 2019 as part of our "Elections With Incumbents" series.

Probably more has been written about the election of 1948 than any other. It, perhaps along with 2016, remains as the biggest surprising result in Presidential electoral history. 1948 was a year when a lot of people were upset with the political establishment, or so it seemed. Discontent seemed so bad that the incumbent Democratic Party split into three factions. It looked like victory in November would be a sure thing for the Republicans and right up until the votes were counted, the polls were predicting that Republican Thomas Dewey would be the next President. People were fed up with politics as usual, and many assumed that this discontent went all the way up to the White House. But instead of seeing himself as a victim of voter resentment, incumbent President Harry Truman adopted a brilliant electoral strategy to attract votes of those fed up with politicians: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Truman portrayed the Republican controlled Congress, or as he called them, the "do nothing Congress", as the villains of the story and himself as the champion of the little guy. And it worked!

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Truman's victory is considered to be one of the greatest election upsets in American history. Virtually every prediction (with or without public opinion polls) was that he would be defeated by Dewey. The Democratic Party had a severe three-way ideological split, with both the far left and far right of the Party (Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond) running third-party campaigns. From the left came Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party, and from the right came Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats. Truman's surprise victory was the fifth consecutive presidential win for the Democratic Party, the longest winning streak in the history of the party, and second-longest in the history of both modern parties (second only by the Republicans' six consecutive victories from 1860 to 1880). Not only did Truman win the Presidency, but the Democrats also regained control of both houses of Congress, which they had lost in 1946. Truman's feisty "give 'em hell" campaign style energized his base and carried him to a victory that only he alone imagined.

Going into the election, Truman looked like a dead duck. He had an approval rating of just 36%. Southerners were angry with him over his perceived pro-civil rights position. Labor was upset with him because he had seized the railways to combat a railroad strike. The transition from wartime to peacetime economy had created all sorts of problems for Truman, as laborers expected wage increases in return for the wartime sacrifices they had made, but that were sure to result in rampant inflation.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the most popular general from World War II and the man that most people wanted to be their next president, according to the polls. Both parties tried to entice Eisenhower to run as their candidate for President. Truman even offered to serve as Eisenhower's Vice-President if Ike ran as a Democrat. But Eisenhower declined to run and requested that the grassroots draft movement to draft him for the presidency cease its activities. After a number of failed efforts to get Eisenhower to reconsider, the organization disbanded.

With Eisenhower refusing to run, the contest for the Republican nomination was between former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, Senator Robert A. Taft from Ohio, California Governor Earl Warren, General Douglas MacArthur, and Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg from Michigan. Dewey had been the Republican nominee in 1944, and he was seen as the frontrunner when the primaries began. Dewey was a part of the Republican Party's eastern establishment. In 1946 he had been re-elected governor of New York by the largest margin in state history. But many Republicans disliked him on a personal level. They saw him as cold, stiff, and lacking in interpersonal skills. Taft was the leader of the Republican Party's conservative wing He advocated abolishing many of the New Deal welfare programs, something that did not make him popular outside of business circles. Vandenberg and Warren were mostly just favorite son candidates. General MacArthur was serving in Japan as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers occupying that nation, and was unable to campaign for the nomination.

The 1948 Republican National Convention was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was the first presidential convention to be shown on "national" television. At the time there were 27 television stations in full operation in the US and an estimated 350,000 TV sets in the whole country. Dewey nearly won on the second ballot and was then nominated unanimously by acclamation on the third. Dewey chose popular governor (and future Chief Justice) Earl Warren of California as his running mate. Following the convention, most political experts in the news media rated the Republican ticket as a cinch to win the election in November.

For the Democrats, things did not go so smoothly. On July 12, the Democratic National Convention convened in Philadelphia in the same arena where the Republicans had met a few weeks earlier. Spirits were low as the Republicans had taken control of both houses of the United States Congress and a majority of state governorships during the 1946 mid-term elections. Public opinion polls showed Truman trailing Republican nominee Dewey, sometimes by double digits. Many liberal Democrats had left the party to join former Vice-President Henry A. Wallace's new Progressive Party. It was feared that Wallace would take enough votes from Truman to give the large Northern and Midwestern states to the Republicans.

Conservatives dominated the party in the South, and they were angered by the growing voice of northern labor unions in the party. They hoped that Truman would reverse course, but in 1947, Truman had vetoed the Taft-Hartley Law to control union power. Truman's appointment of a liberal civil rights commission convinced Southern conservatives that Truman did not represent their interests. As a result of Truman's low standing in the polls, several Democratic party bosses began working to "dump" Truman and nominate a more popular candidate. But they could not find g a candidate acceptable to all sides, so the leaders of the dump-Truman movement reluctantly agreed to support Truman for the nomination.

At the Democratic Convention, Truman proposed a civil rights plank that was seen as not going far enough by northern liberals and as going too far for southern conservatives. The liberals were led by Minneapolis Mayor (and future Vice-President) Hubert Humphrey. In his speech, Humphrey memorably stated that "the time has come for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!" When the civil rights plank passed by 651.5 votes to 582.5, three dozen Southern delegates, led by South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond, walked out of the convention. The Southern delegates who remained nominated Senator Richard Russell, Jr. from Georgia for the Democratic nomination. Nonetheless, 947 Democratic delegates voted for Truman as the Democratic nominee, while Russell received 266 votes, all from the South.

Truman selected Senator Alben W. Barkley from Kentucky, who had delivered the convention's keynote address, as his running mate. This nomination passed by acclamation. Truman gave an energetic acceptance speech, stating that "Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make the Republicans like it, don't you forget it! We will do that because they are wrong and we are right." He told his audience that the Republican Party was "under the control of special privilege, and they have completely proved it in the Eightieth Congress." Truman had convinced his party that the Democrats had a chance to win in November.

From the fragmented Democratic party, a new Progressive Party was created. The name "Progressive Party" had been used earlier by Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and Robert M. La Follette in 1924. It nominated of Henry Wallace as its candidate for President. Wallace had served as Secretary of Agriculture, Vice President, and Secretary of Commerce under Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1946, Truman had fired Wallace as Secretary of Commerce when Wallace publicly opposed Truman on the issue of relations with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Wallace's 1948 platform opposed the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine. The Progressives proposed stronger government regulation and control of Big Business. They also campaigned to end discrimination against African-Americans and women, backed a minimum wage, and called for the elimination of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating the issue of communist spies within the U.S. government and labor unions. Wallace said that the committee was violating the civil liberties of government workers and labor unions.

The Progressives did not enjoy widespread support because of the perception that they were controlled by Communists who were more loyal to the Soviet Union than the United States. Wallace himself denied being a Communist, but he repeatedly refused to disavow their support. He once said, "Communists are the closest thing to the early Christian martyrs." Walter Reuther, the president of the influential United Auto Workers union, strongly opposed Wallace's candidacy. Reuther said of Wallace, "people who are not sympathetic with democracy in America are influencing him." Philip Murray, the president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), went even further, stating in April 1948 that "the Communist Party is directly responsible for the creation of the third party [Progressive Party] in the United States." Wallace's credibility suffered a blow when Westbrook Pegler, a prominent conservative newspaper columnist, revealed that Wallace as vice president had written coded letters discussing prominent politicians such as Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill with his controversial Russian New Age spiritual guru Nicholas Roerich. The letters were nicknamed the "Guru letters."

At the Progressive Party Convention, which was also held in Philadelphia, several famous newspaper journalists, such as H. L. Mencken and Dorothy Thompson, publicly accused the Progressives of being controlled by Communists. Rexford Tugwell served as the Chairman of the party's platform committee. He became convinced that the party was being manipulated by Communists and later disassociated himself with the Progressive Party and did not participate in Wallace's fall campaign. A number of other Progressive Party delegates and supporters quit the party in protest over what they perceived as the undue influence that Communists exerted over Wallace. This included the prominent American socialist Norman Thomas, who himself ran as the Socialist Party presidential candidate to offer liberals a non-Communist alternative to Wallace.

In the fall campaign Wallace made a Southern tour, where Wallace insisted on speaking to racially integrated audiences, in defiance of Southern law at the time. In several North Carolina cities Wallace was hit by eggs, tomatoes, peaches, and lemons. He ate in unsegregated restaurants, and in Mississippi he had to be escorted by police for protection. His goal was to stir up controversy for the publicity it would receive in more liberal areas of the country. As the campaign progressed, however, Wallace's crowds thinned. His support was hurt by the successful effort of labor unions to keep their members in the Democratic column, and by controversial statements from Progressives supporting Russia.

In some southern states Strom Thurmond had managed to appear on the ballot as the candidate for the Democratic Party line, but in the majority he had to run under the label of the States' Rights Democratic Party. Southern Democrats were upset about Truman's support of civil rights, particularly following his executive order racially integrating the U.S. armed forces and a civil rights message he sent to Congress in February 1948. At the Southern Governor's Conference in Wakulla Springs, Florida, on February 6, Mississippi Governor Fielding Wright proposed the formation of a new third party to protect racial segregation in the South. On May 10, 1948, the governors of the eleven states of the former Confederacy met in Jackson, Mississippi, to discuss their concerns about the growing civil rights movement within the Democratic Party. The Southern Democrats who had walked out of the Democratic National Convention to protest the civil rights platform approved by the convention met at Municipal Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama, on July 17, 1948, and formed the States' Rights Democratic Party, more commonly known as the "Dixiecrats". The party's main goal was continuing the policy of racial segregation in the South and retaining the Jim Crow laws. Governor Thurmond, who had led the walkout, became the party's presidential nominee and Governor Wright of Mississippi received the vice-presidential nomination. The Dixiecrats could not get on the ballot in enough states to win the necessary electoral votes. Their strategy was to take enough Southern states from Truman to force the election into the United States House of Representatives, where they hoped to extract concessions from either Truman or Dewey on racial issues in exchange for their support. But many Southern Democratic leaders refused to support the party.

Truman's sinking popularity and the seemingly fatal three-way split in the Democratic Party made Dewey appeared unbeatable. Top Republicans believed that all their candidate had to do to win was to avoid major mistakes. In keeping with this advice, Dewey avoided taking any risks and spoke in generalities and platitudes. He avoided controversial issues, and was vague on what he planned to do as president. His speeches contained empty and meaningless statements such as "You know that your future is still ahead of you." An editorial in The (Louisville) Courier-Journal proclaimed: "No presidential candidate in the future will be so inept that four of his major speeches can be boiled down to these historic four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead."

Truman's campaign strategy was directed at four distinct interest groups: labor, farmers, African-Americans, and consumers. Truman ran a slashing, no-holds-barred campaign. He ridiculed Dewey by name, criticized Dewey's refusal to address specific issues, and targeted the Republican-controlled 80th Congress with relentless partisan assaults. Truman told his audience "the Communists are rooting for a GOP victory because they know it would bring on another Great Depression." He quipped "GOP stands for gluttons of privilege", and he called Republicans "bloodsuckers with offices on Wall Street." At the National Plowing Contest in Dexter, Iowa, Truman told 80,000 farmers in attendance that "this Republican Congress has already stuck a pitchfork in the farmer's back." He nicknamed the Republican-controlled Congress as the "do-nothing" Congress.

Conversely, Dewey rarely mentioned Truman's name during the campaign. His strategy was to appear to be above petty partisan politics. Under Dewey's leadership, the Republicans had enacted a platform at their 1948 convention that called for expanding Social Security, more funding for public housing, civil rights legislation, and promotion of health and education by the federal government. But these positions were not acceptable to the conservative Congressional Republican leadership. Truman took advantage of this rift in the opposing party by calling a special session of Congress. He dared the Republican Congressional leadership to pass its own platform. The 80th Congress played into Truman's hands, when very little substantive legislation was passed during this session. Truman continued to rail against what he characterized as the conservative, obstructionist tendencies of the unpopular 80th Congress.

Truman toured much of the nation with his fiery rhetoric, playing to large, enthusiastic crowds. "Give 'em hell, Harry" was a popular slogan shouted out at stop after stop along the tour. The polls and the pundits continued to believe that Dewey's lead was insurmountable. Truman's own wife Bess had private doubts that her husband could win. But Truman confidently predicted victory to anyone and everyone who would listen to him. Near the end of the campaign, Truman privately wrote a state-by-state electoral vote prediction and gave it to his aide George Elsey. Truman believed that he would win the election with 340 electoral votes, to 108 for Dewey, 42 for Thurmond, and 37 marked doubtful.

In the final weeks of the campaign, American movie theaters agreed to play two short newsreel-like campaign films in support of the two major-party candidates. The Dewey film, shot professionally on an impressive budget, featured very high production values, but somehow reinforced an image of the New York governor as cautious and distant. The Truman film, hastily assembled on virtually no budget, contained newsreel footage of the president taking part in major world events and signing important legislation. The Truman film reinforced the image of Truman as decisive. Historian David McCullough cited the expensive, but lackluster, Dewey film, and the far cheaper, but more effective, Truman film, as important factors in influencing undecided voters.

As the campaign drew to a close, the polls showed Truman was gaining. Dewey's lead in the Gallup Poll dropped from 17 points in late September to 9 points in mid-October to just 5 points by the end of the month, just above the poll's margin of error. Truman was gaining momentum, but most political analysts were reluctant to break with the conventional wisdom and say that a Truman victory was a serious possibility. Pollster Elmo Roper stopped polling voters until the final week before the election, when he took another poll. It showed a slight shift to Truman. Dewey considered adopting a more aggressive stance after noticing that his crowds were dwindling, but since all the polls still showed Dewey still leading, he was advised to stay the course.

In the campaign's final days, many newspapers, magazines, and political pundits were so confident of Dewey's impending victory they wrote articles to be printed the morning after the election speculating about the new "Dewey Presidency." Life magazine printed a large photo in its final edition before the election, entitled "Our Next President Rides by Ferryboat over San Francisco Bay". Newsweek polled fifty experts. All fifty predicted a Dewey win. Drew Pearson wrote that Truman's election was "impossible", and his column printed the day after the election stated that Pearson had "surveyed the closely-knit group around Tom Dewey who will take over the White House 86 days from now." Walter Winchell reported that gambling odds were 15 to 1 against Truman. More than 500 newspapers, accounting for over 78% of the nation's total circulation, endorsed Dewey. As Truman made his way to his hometown of Independence, Missouri, to await the election returns, some among his inner circle had already accepted other jobs, and not a single reporter traveling on his campaign train thought that he would win.

On election night, as the votes came in, Truman took an early lead that he never lost. Leading radio commentators still confidently predicted that once the "late returns" came in, Dewey would overcome Truman's lead and win. But Dewey realized that he was in trouble when early returns from New England and New York showed him running well behind his expected vote total. At 11:14 a.m. the next morning, he sent a gracious telegram of concession to Truman.



The Chicago Daily Tribune, a pro-Republican newspaper, was so sure of Dewey's victory that on Tuesday afternoon, before any polls closed, it printed "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN" as its headline for the following day. After the election, a study by the University of Michigan revealed that "14% of Truman's voters, or 3,374,800, had decided to vote for him in the last fortnight of the campaign."

The two third parties did not hurt Truman nearly as much as expected. Thurmond's Dixiecrats carried only four Southern states, a lower total than predicted. The civil rights platform helped Truman win large majorities among African-American voters in the populous Northern and Midwestern states and may well have made the difference for Truman in states such as Illinois and Ohio. Wallace's Progressives received only 2.4% of the national popular vote, well below their expected vote total. Wallace did not take as many liberal votes from Truman as many political pundits had predicted.



The 1948 election has given rise to a number of excellent books that have tried to decipher what actually happened in that election. Some of these are:

1948: Harry Truman's Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America by David Pietrusza
The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election by Zachary Karabell
Whistle Stop (How 31 000 Miles of Train Travel 352 Speeches and a Little Midwest Gumption Saved the Presidency of Harry Truman) by Philip White
Truman's Triumphs: The 1948 Election and the Making of Postwar America (American Presidential Elections series) by Andrew E. Busch

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