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The Election of 1948
To examine the election of 1948, I believe one must start briefly with the democratic convention of the previous election. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for his fourth consecutive term, but there was some changing done to the ticket by the Democratic Party. Then Vice President Henry Wallace was passed over for the nomination, and the position was given to a Senator from Missouri who had served Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policies well and had been very helpful to his administration while chairing the Senate Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program in the early 1940’s. This selection was more than a formality. Rumors of the President’s health deteriorating were abounding in Washington and “each delegate kept in mind that his selection for Vice President might become President” (Reichard 2). Roosevelt’s Death on April 12, 1945, only weeks after inauguration, elevated Truman to the highest office in the land for as close to a full term as could be imagined without having run for the position. The country was at war. Truman had no choice but to hit the ground running, and he did, at first. “The American People, eager to see that Truman could govern effectively, endorsed his first six weeks with an 87 percent approval rating, with only 3 percent disapproving, figures never achieved by any other president” (Pemberton 38). Only a little over three months later on the 22ND of July, he and Winston Churchill came to the decision to drop the nuclear bomb on Japan, not once, but twice.
As the 1948 election approached, it became evident that the front-runner for the Republican Party would be moderate Thomas Dewey, the Governor of New York. Dewey had opposed Roosevelt in 1944. Things looked good for the Republican Party. The Democrats had lost control of both the House and Senate in the 1946 election, and support for Truman seemed to be at an all time low. Indeed, the incumbent President had a rough time securing his own parties nomination for re-election. He had split the party into three separate sections. After the poor results of the 1946 elections, many liberal members of the party were unhappy with Truman. In December of 1946 a new movement was formed. This group was called the Progressive Citizens of America, and many of it’s members were liberal democrats who favored third-party action under Henry Wallace’s (the former Vice President under Roosevelt) leadership (McCoy 153). In January of 1947 many other democrats, mostly moderates who were concerned that Truman did not have what it took to get re-elected, formed the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). This groups main purpose was to find someone to take the place of Truman on the Democratic ticket in 1948. Several people were considered for this position including war hero and future Republican President General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower however refused the position, but a time so late as to not allow the ADA time to court any other candidates seriously.
So Truman was not only running against a very popular Republican opponent, but two other democrats running on third party tickets. The fight looked impossible to all but maybe two or three Americans, one of the believers though being Truman.
He raised civil rights issues, including establishing a permanent Commission on Civil Rights, providing federal protection against lynching, protecting more adequately the right to vote, and prohibiting discrimination in interstate transportation facilities. He also promised a bill prohibiting discrimination in federal employment and ending segregation in the military. This prompted a Southern revolt among Democrats. South Carolina Governor J. Strom Thurmond led this revolt and ran against Truman as a “Dixiecrat”, or a State’s Right Democrat, supported by many southern states. “Many Dixiecrats, Including Thurmond, saw the need to construct a campaign broader than mere recalcitrance on civil rights, but the splinter party never succeeded in developing a positive program, or raising an adequate campaign treasury” (Reichard 36). Although Thurmond was never considered a threat to win the presidency himself, his presence could only take away key democratic votes from Truman in the south. It appeared that civil rights would be a major issue in a presidential campaign for the first time since Reconstruction.
Another issue at the forefront of American Politics at this time was the beginning of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain. Truman was firm with the soviets, refusing to share the nuclear secrets with them, implementing a 400 million dollar foreign aid plan called the Truman Doctrine to help Greece and Turkey defend against communist insurgence. The issue of communism destroyed Wallace’s campaign. Many of his followers and endorsers were known communists. He was quoted as saying “If they want to support me, I can’t stop them” He condemned the Truman Doctrine for taking an overly Anti-Soviet attitude. Although he never endorsed communism, his ties to it destroyed his campaign.
The campaign trail seemed to be a formality for Dewey and an insurmountable task for Truman. The Polls showed that Dewey would win easily, and the papers handled it like it was already over. But one person knew that it was not yet decided. President Truman began a campaign the likes that no President had ever taken before. He traveled over 31,700 miles in a period of roughly four months, most of it in an armored presidential train car called the Magellan, and gave over 356 speeches. He stopped in big cities and gave speeches to huge crowds , and “whistlestops”, where he would speak to smaller crowds from the platform on the rear of the train car. Few times were any issues raised in these speeches. America actually was in a state of economic boom and Truman reminded the people that the last time there had been a republican in office was during the great depression. He reminded Rural America of his small town Missouri roots. He spoke to the farmers of restrictions placed on agriculture by the republican controlled 80TH congress. Not one speech was the same. He spoke TO the people. Many expressed sadness at the prospect that he had “no chance of winning” according to the papers and the polls. What the papers and the polls may have failed to notice were the huge crowds that the President was attracting everywhere he went. The only issue raised in every speech was the inability of the 80TH congress to get anything done. Opponents names were rarely mentioned, and the only time he spoke at any length at all of his civil rights platform was in Harlem, where he became the first Democratic Presidential Candidate ever to give a speech there. His aids and speech writers did an excellent job of knowing what the hot issues were in the particular area of the country where he was speaking, and his off the cuff style of speaking endeared him to the common man. One correspondant, Robert Donevan of the New York Herald-Tribune would later characterize the Truman campaign as “sharp speeches fairly criticizing Republican policy and defending New Deal liberalism mixed with sophistry, bunkum piled higher than haystacks, and demagoguery tooting merrily down the track” (McCullough 661). They spent more money than the well financed Republicans, and at times were only one day away from being broke.
Meanwhile, Dewey was on a campaign trail of his own. Dewey would travel nowhere near so far, and at a much more leisurely pace. And he would deliver far fewer speeches. As the candidate and his advisors proudly informed the press, nothing would be left to chance (McCullough 668). He was purposely noncommittal during all of his speeches about the issues as to avoid offending anyone. He and his advisors figured all they had to do was make appearances and look official. The papers and the polls were predicting a landslide victory, so Dewey just laid back and played defense. His big catch phrase in his speeches was a “call to unity”. Many people who were interviewed after Dewey speeches suggested that he seemed like a cold, hard man. On the occasions when he would appear in a town not long after Truman had been there it was noticed that the crowds were neither as large nor as enthusiastic.
As the campaign neared the November 2ND election date, the polls and the press continued to show Dewey in the lead, although the margin had dwindled. A final Gallup Poll showed that Dewey remained ahead 49.5% to 44.5% on election Day (McCullough 703). The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek and many others all predicted a Dewey win. Not one newspaper or publication contradicted this. Truman went to a resort in Excelsior Springs and waited for the news there in private. At 10:14 am the following morning, Dewey conceded the election. Truman carried 28 states with a total of 303 electoral votes, vs. Dewey’s 16 and 189. The popular vote was 24,105,812 for Truman and 21,970,065 for Dewey. Wallace and Thurmond each pulled a little more than 1,100,000 votes and Thurmond won four southern states worth a total of 39 electoral votes.` (McCullough 710).
I feel that Thurmond Strom waged a poor political campaign. The only platform he raised was anti-civil rights, and his only contribution was to take votes away from the other candidates. Henry Wallace was nothing more than a mad little boy who had his toy taken away from him. His campaign was inconsequential. Thomas Dewey on the other hand, may have been misled by the media to be a little too confident. If he had known how close the race was really going to be at the end he may have chosen to campaign more aggressively. Many said after the election that the Republicans were so sure of a victory that many didn’t bother to vote. But some democrats said almost the same thing, the felt it was hopeless, so why bother. The Media played a role in this election that it never should have. I think it is only justice that all of those publications, and the journalists had this blow up in their face. Harry Truman waged a campaign (according to some of the books I read anyway) worthy of a movie. (There may already be one, I don’t know). He fought adversity from every side and won a battle that the entire country said that he could not win, except on the day that it mattered, November 2ND, 1948.
Gosnell, Harold S. Truman’s Crises Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980
McCoy, Donald R. The Presidency of Harry S. Truman. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1984
McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992
Pemberton, William E. Harry S. Truman. Boston: Twayne, 1989
Reichard, Gary W. Politics as Ususal. Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harland Davidson, 1988
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