Dewey Defeats Truman: The 1948 Election and the Battle for America's Soul

Dewey Defeats Truman: The 1948 Election and the Battle for America's Soul

by A. J. Baime


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From the New York Times best-selling author of The Accidental President comes the thrilling story of the 1948 presidential election, one of the greatest election stories of all time, as Truman mounted a history-making comeback and staked a claim for a new course for America.

On the eve of the 1948 election, America was a fractured country. Racism was rampant, foreign relations were fraught, and political parties were more divided than ever. Americans were certain that President Harry S. Truman’s political career was over. “The ballots haven’t been counted,” noted political columnist Fred Othman, “but there seems to be no further need for holding up an affectionate farewell to Harry Truman.” Truman’s own staff did not believe he could win. Nor did his wife, Bess. The only man in the world confident that Truman would win was Mr. Truman himself. And win he did. 

The year 1948 was a fight for the soul of a nation. In Dewey Defeats Truman, A. J. Baime sheds light on one of the most action-packed six months in American history, as Truman both triumphs and oversees watershed events—the passing of the Marshall plan, the acknowledgement of Israel as a new state, the careful attention to the origins of the Cold War, and the first desegregation of the military. 

Not only did Truman win the election, he succeeded in guiding his country forward at a critical time with high stakes and haunting parallels to the modern day.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780358522492
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 04/27/2021
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 210,896
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

A. J. BAIME is the New York Times best-selling author of The Accidental President,The Arsenal of Democracy, and Go Like Hell. A longtime regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, his articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Men’s Journal.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: “Whither Harry S. Truman?”

     It was 7 p.m. on August 14, 1945. A White House usher closed the door to the Oval Office and Harry Truman stood from behind his desk, staring out at a crowd of some two hundred perspiring radio and newspaper reporters who had just pushed their way in. Klieg lights from newsreel cameras glared off the president’s wire-rim spectacles. A row of cabinet officials stood behind him, and at the edge of the room, the First Lady, Bess Truman, was seated on a couch, her hands folded in a ball on her lap. Truman held up a statement in his right hand and began to read. All in the room knew what this address would communicate, but still, the words had the effect of an electric shock.
     “I have received this afternoon a message from the Japanese Government,” Truman said, “in reply to the message forwarded to that Government by the Secretary of State on August 11. I deem this reply a full acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration which specifies the unconditional surrender of Japan.”
     The president’s full statement took a few minutes to read. His final words were, “That is all.”
     When the doors to the Oval Office opened, reporters holding notepads dashed out to spread the news around the globe. World War II—the most destructive conflagration ever, a war that had consumed some sixty million human lives—was over.
     Within minutes the news hit the radio. Outside on the streets of the nation’s capital, the doors of churches, offices, theaters, and bars burst open, pouring frantic Washingtonians into the hot August night. Impromptu jitterbug contests broke out on street corners. Drunks swung bottles while standing atop cars. At the White House gates, people began to amass, and within an hour of Truman’s declaration, a crowd bigger than the capacity of Yankee Stadium—some seventy-five thousand people—stood out on Pennsylvania Avenue. They began to chant: “We want Harry! We want Harry!”
     Inside the executive mansion, Truman was busy making phone calls. He called his ninety-three-year-old mother, at her home in Grandview, Missouri. (“That was Harry,” Truman later recalled, “that in this hour of triumph I wished that it had been President Roosevelt, and not I, who had given the message to our people.”
     Meanwhile, the “We want Harry!” chanting grew in decibels. The din became irresistible, and so Truman and his wife stepped out onto the White House lawn. Looking fit in a creased and buttoned double-breasted blue suit, the sixty-one-year-old president made a V sign with his fingers as Secret Service men hustled around him. A news photographer jumped forward and froze the moment in black-and-white celluloid. “[Truman] was on the White House lawn pumping his arms like an orchestra conductor at tens of thousands of cheering Americans who suddenly materialized in front of the mansion,” recalled one person present in the crowd. It was “the wildest celebration this capital ever saw.”
     White House aides brought out a microphone and a loudspeaker and placed them in front of Truman. He had always been an awkward public speaker, but on this occasion, it did not matter. No one cared. When he began to speak, the crowds instantly hushed.
     “This is a great day,” Truman said, “the day we’ve been waiting for. This is the day for free governments in the world. This is the day that fascism and police government ceases in the world. This is the day for Democracy.” He paused, taking in the moment. He had spent a lifetime reading history, studying the sagas of past presidents, never in his wildest dreams imagining that he would become one of them. He knew then that the challenges awaiting him in the near future were beyond anything any president had ever confronted before.
     “We are faced with the greatest task with which we have ever been faced,” Truman said into the microphone. That task was to bring freedom to humanity all over the world and cultivate peace and prosperity at home. “It is going to take the help of all of us,” the president stated. “I know we are going to do it.”

All around the globe on this night, chaos reigned.
     In the Far East, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still smoldered under radioactive clouds from the atomic bombings on August 6 and 9. Two days before Truman announced Japan’s unconditional surrender, the first aerial photos of Hiroshima post-detonation appeared on the front page of the New York Times. It was almost impossible to understand what this new weapon was, how it could harness the power of the universe, and what it would mean for the future. The secretary of commerce, Henry Wallace, put the situation in perspective, writing in his diary the day after the Hiroshima bombing, “Everyone seemed to feel that a new epoch in the world’s history had been ushered in. The scramble for the control of this new power is going to be one of the most unusual struggles the world has ever seen.”
     In Europe, surviving populations clawed out of the rubble from nearly 2.7 million tons of bombs dropped by Allied airpower between 1940 and 1945. Huge numbers of people were without food and water. In France, according to the nation’s Ministry of Public Health, more than half of the children living in industrial areas had rickets. A third of the children in Belgium were tubercular. The US State Department estimated that nine million displaced persons were homeless in Europe—many of them Jews who had survived Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Some of the most gruesome death camps—Ausch­witz, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück—had only recently been liberated, revealing the true depth of Nazi madness. At Auschwitz, the liberating Red Army had discovered more than fourteen thousand pounds of human hair.
     In June 1945 the State Department had sent a lawyer named Earl G. Harrison to investigate the concentration camps, and his now-famous report—delivered to Truman just days after the president announced the surrender of Japan—painted a picture of a desperate situation. The occupying Allied forces in Europe had little resources to help the hundreds of thousands of displaced Jews, who were still dying in large numbers, right before their eyes. “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them,” Harrison wrote.
     In the Middle East, Soviet, French, British, and American troops occupied the homelands of increasingly bitter ethnic and sectarian tribes. China was on the brink of a Communist revolution. The British government was destitute and desperate for loans. The United States and Soviet Union, meanwhile, were emerging from the war as history’s first two global superpowers, and relations between the two were declining profoundly.
     “Secular history offers few, if any, parallels to the events of the past week,” reported CBS radio news anchor Edward R. Murrow, at the time of Japan’s surrender. “And seldom, if ever, has a war ended leaving the victors with such a sense of uncertainty and fear, with such a realization that the future is obscure and that survival is not assured.”
     In Washington, the nation’s elite politicians and officials were set to confront a scintillating mystery. Truman was a new president, a vice president who had risen to the Oval Office just four months earlier upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt. His obscurity confounded the world. What exactly did he intend to do as president of the United States? The atomic bombs had ended the war so unexpectedly quickly, there had been no time to plan for the postwar future, and the American people knew little about their new president’s politics.
     How would the administration handle the staggering challenge of converting to a peacetime economy? What would be the administration’s policy regarding the Soviets and the bomb? What was Truman going to do about the millions of American workers who would now be laid off from domestic wartime jobs and pushed out of factories? How many of the 12.2 million men in uniform would be allowed to come home and resume their lives, and when?
     Many of Truman’s friends on Capitol Hill were sure he would bring conservatism to a Democratic presidency, as so many had hoped for so long. Others were convinced he would maintain the path of FDR and embrace Roosevelt’s liberal New Deal policies.
     “Whither Harry S. Truman?” asked the columnist Edward T. Folliard in the Washington Post, days after the war ended. “Is he going to the left, the right, or down the middle of the road?”
     Politically, Truman had to know: This was not going to go well for him. Roosevelt had held the White House for over 12 years, and there is a natural tendency in democratic societies for periodic change. Churchill was unceremoniously swept from power in London in July 1945. In all of America’s 169-year history, only twice before had a vice president been elected following a two-term presidency. And in those years, the political environment was hardly as fraught as it was now, in the aftermath of World War II and at the dawn of the atomic age. “The President’s task was reminiscent of that in the first chapter of Genesis,” noted Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson, “to help the free world emerge from chaos without blowing the whole world apart in the process.”

Even before the war ended, Truman had begun to confidentially lay out a political philosophy of his own, what he called “the foundation of my administration.”
     In July 1945—the month before the atomic bombings of Japan—he had ventured to the Potsdam Conference in Allied-occupied Germany for a series of talks with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. It had been a grueling trip. When the conference was over, Truman flew in one of FDR’s most revered speechwriters, Judge Samuel Rosenman, so the two could begin to sketch out Truman’s postwar plans in language Americans could understand, while the men traveled back to the United States together aboard the navy cruiser USS Augusta.
     FDR had nicknamed Rosenman “Sammy the Rose.” The judge had helped fine-tune FDR’s public voice over the years. (According to some, it had been Rosenman who had coined the term “New Deal.”) Now Truman wanted Rosenman to do the same for him.
     One evening in the president’s cabin aboard the Augusta, as the two men huddled alone, Truman told Rosenman, “Sam, one of the things I want to do after we get home . . . is to get busy on my domestic program. I would like to submit most of it at the same time instead of on a piecemeal basis. Ordinarily that would be done in a State of the Union message next January, but I cannot wait that long.”
     “Fine,” Rosenman said. “What in general are the things you would like to say?”
     The judge leaned his bulky frame forward to reach for a pad and pencil, and he began taking notes while Truman spoke off the cuff on a variety of issues. There in the president’s cabin, with the dull drone of the Augusta’s engines in the background, the Truman presidency began to take shape.
     Rosenman’s eyes widened as he outlined Truman’s thoughts. “You know, Mr. President,” he said, “this is the most exciting and pleasant surprise I have had in a long time.”
     “How is that?”
     “Well,” the judge said, “I suppose I have been listening too much to rumors about what you are going to do—rumors which come from some of your conservative friends . . . They say you are going to be quite a shock to those who followed Roosevelt—that the New Deal is as good as dead—that we are all going back to ‘normalcy’ and that a good part of the so-called ‘Roosevelt nonsense’ is now over. In other words, that the conservative wing of the [Democratic] party has now taken charge.”
     Roosevelt had launched hugely controversial, expensive, and interventionist policies to steer America out of the Great Depression and through the war. For the most part, they had worked, but in the process they had inspired bitterness and rivalry—between the White House and Congress, and between the Right and the Left. Now Truman was planning to embrace similar left-wing policies in the postwar world. This was a brave move, Rosenman said, and a dangerous one.
     “It is one thing to vote for this kind of a program when you are following the head of your party,” the judge said. “It is quite another to be the head of a party and recommend and fight for it.”
     Back in the White House, upon Truman’s return from Potsdam, the West Wing resumed its usual pace of frenetic activity. During late nights and early mornings, bookending the long list of appointments that filled the president’s daily calendar, Truman continued to craft a message to Congress. He consulted advisers and all the major officers of the executive branch, and created in the process a buzz that could be felt throughout the halls of the Capitol. He wanted his message to land with all the weight of “a combination of a first inaugural and a first State of the Union message,” as he put it.
     On September 6, three weeks after he announced the surrender of Japan, Truman held his regular weekly press conference at 4 p.m. in the Oval Office, where he evaded questions on everything from the proposed Saint Lawrence waterway to his pick for an open seat on the Supreme Court. Afterward, when the door to the Oval Office closed and he was once again alone, he released his domestic plan, titled the “Special Message to Congress Presenting a 21-Point Program for the Reconversion Period,” via his press secretary, Charlie Ross. It was the longest message to Congress since Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, measuring sixteen thousand words.
     “The Congress reconvenes at a time of great emergency,” the message read. “It is an emergency about which, however, we need have no undue fear if we exercise the same energy, foresight, and wisdom as we did in carrying the war and winning this victory.”
     Truman asked Congress to create new laws to expand Social Security and unemployment and veterans’ benefits. He asked Congress to raise the minimum wage, currently forty cents per hour. He asked for programs to outlaw racial and religious discrimination in hiring, and for federal aid to farmers and small businesses. He wanted government spending on housing, funding for the conservation of natural resources, and financing of public works—highways, federal buildings, three thousand new airports, and a massive program of scientific research.
     “The development of atomic energy is a clear-cut indication of what can be accomplished by our universities, industry, and Government working together,” Truman’s message read. “Vast scientific fields remain to be conquered in the same way.”
     Truman asked Congress to maintain a large military “in a world grown acutely sensitive to power,” despite the cost. He even asked Congress to pass a law raising the salaries of its own members. The message ended with the following words:
     “The Congress has played its full part in shaping the domestic and foreign policies which have . . . started us on the road to lasting peace. The Congress, I know, will continue to play its patriotic part in the difficult years ahead. We face the future together with confidence—that the job, the full job, can and will be done. Harry S. Truman.”
     On September 7, Americans awoke to the realization that their new president was a full-on New Deal Democrat. As the United States’ chief executive, he would safeguard the welfare of the common man. As he once had said, “The President has to look out for the interests of the 150 million people who can’t afford lobbyists in Washington.”
     Truman’s 21-Point Program ignited a political firestorm. It was so vast, there was something in it to offend just about everyone, no matter their political sensibility. Most of all, Washington powerbrokers were shocked at the amount of federal spending recommended by the president. “Not even President Roosevelt of economic policies ever promulgated by a public authority in the United States in peacetime.”
     For years under Roosevelt, the political climate in Washington had been growing more hostile, the partisan tension mounting. By 1945, a Democrat had occupied the White House for nearly thirteen years. With the Depression subsided, the war over, and a new president deemed by many to be weak and inexperienced, Republicans believed that the nation was ripe for a return to conservatism. Truman’s 21-Point Program rallied the cause. Congressman Charles Halleck of Indiana summed up Republican reaction, the day after Truman released his domestic agenda.
     “This begins the campaign of 1946,” Halleck said, referring to the upcoming midterm election. “The gloves would be off from here on out.”

Table of Contents

Introduction ix

Part I The Disintegration of the Democratic Party 1

Part II The Surging GOP 45

Part III The Conventions 131

Part IV The Campaigns 167

Part V Election Climax 261

Epilogue 350

Acknowledgments 355

Notes 357

Index 404

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