Friday, February 03, 2012

What We're Reading: 1948 Harry Truman's Improbable Victory and the Year That Transformed America

1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year That Transformed America, by David Pietrusza

This book is about one of the more interesting Presidential elections in American History, one in which the outcome came as a surprise to most pundits and pollsters. It will perhaps always be best remembered by the iconic picture of winner Harry Truman holding up the copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune with the headline “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” The Tribune was owned by an inveterate Truman enemy, Robert McCormick, and Truman’s special delight is evident. Political junkies will of course enjoy this book, but readers less addicted are also likely to find this an engrossing and entertaining narrative. The reason for this is in large part due to Pietrusza’s cynical and Menckenesque irreverence in exposing the warts of the American political process. He isn’t a partisan of any person or candidate in his “cast of characters”--not even Truman--although he seems to have at least a grudging respect for Truman’s hardscrabble political skills. Pietrusza has a gift for showing all of the major candidates in the worst light . Some of the quoted statements, letters, and diaries are priceless.

America had just won World War II. The nation was at the zenith of its power internationally, but what seems remarkable about the election of 1948 is just how pedestrian its major politicians seemed to be. It is as if with the death of the larger-than-life Franklin Roosevelt, the nation was left with only lesser men. Certainly having to lead in his shadow was an exceptionally difficult one for Truman. The common crisis of the war had kept simmering political antagonisms in check, but after long years of one party and one President in power, things seemed to rapidly unravel in American politics. Truman had a reputation as a more moderate Democrat, a less ardent New Dealer than many of Roosevelt’s circle who remained in his cabinet. The story of how and why Roosevelt chose him in 1944 and removed his then Vice President, Henry Wallace, from the ticket is an interesting one. Roosevelt was in poor health, and had to have known that he was probably choosing the next President of the United States in putting Truman on his ticket. In 1946, amid troubles concerning the removal of wartime price controls and inflation, as well as major national labor strikes, Truman lost control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate to Republicans. Truman’s approval rating in 1946 was only 32%.

Truman’s unpopularity left him vulnerable to challenges from both the left and right wings of his party as the Presidential election of 1948 approached. He found himself attacked as a candidate who would bring the party down with him in further losses in 1948, but he was also set upon for ideological reasons. New Dealers felt he was not committed enough to the progressive Roosevelt programs and that his foreign policy was too harsh towards the Soviet Union and was likely to lead to war. On the right, the South was up in arms about Truman’s Civil Rights rhetoric and initiatives, and they were especially enraged after Truman adopted a strong Civil Rights plank for the party’s 1948 platform at the Democratic Convention, at the instigation of Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphery. After the convention, Democrats were divided three ways. Former Roosevelt Vice-President Henry Wallace launched the Progressive Party, and disgruntled Southerners in the perennially Democratic solid South formed the “Dixiecrat” party that ran South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond for President. While the practical hopes of the Progressives were never exactly clear (they seemed only to have hopes of costing Truman victory) the Dixiecrats had hopes that Thurmond would carry enough states in the South that neither Truman nor Dewey would have enough electoral votes to become President and that with the election thrown into the House of Representatives they would be able to broker the selection of the next President. With two estwhile Democratic rivals who were expected to take traditional Democratic support from him, Truman’s prospects against any Republican rival looked dim.

The three principal candidates vying for the Republican nomination were New York Governor Thomas Dewey, who had been the Republican nominee against Roosevelt in 1944, Harold Stassen, former governor or Minnesota, and Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, son of former President William Howard Taft. Dewey went into the convention the leader in delegates, but without the numbers he needed to secure the nomination. Deals were made. Dewey represented the more liberal wing of the Republican Party, and he had actually done more on Civil Rights during his governorship of New York than Truman had accomplished nationally. But his campaign brain trust had him run a campaign that seemed to be “safe,” one in which Dewey came across as aloof and noncommittal. Dewey had a large lead against Truman at the beginning of the campaign, founded largely on disaffection for Truman, and the strategy was to have him ride that wave carefully. Pietrusza faults his campaign for never really letting voters know what he stood for or who he was. Worst of all, Dewey never responded in kind as Truman slashed away at him and as Truman pilloried what he branded as the Republican “do nothing” Congress. Crucially, and unexpectedly, Dewey lost the farm vote to Truman in important states. Truman also won the black vote in states where it mattered most, and he received decisive support from labor in other states. The Dixiecrats failed to capture enough state electoral votes to throw the election into the House of Representatives. In the end, many more liberal Democrats and potential Wallace supporters balked at the prospect of casting their vote for a candidate unlikely to win and cast their vote for Truman rather than see a Republican in the White House. At the start of the campaign it was thought that Wallace might receive close to ten million votes nationally; in the end he received less than one and a half million. But perhaps most important to the outcome of the election, Wallace’s Progressive Party had not qualified to be on the ballot in several Midwestern states that were important battle grounds between Truman and Dewey, and where Truman won by narrow margins.

In 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year That Transformed America, Pietrusza certainly makes Truman’s victory seem implausible, and yet he is still able to offer a convincing explanation as to why it happened. It is less clear from the narrative, however, that this was a “Year That Transformed America.” We do get a new understanding of how politically restless the country was in the years immediately following World War II, and a sense of how that political dynamic affected American domestic policy and American foreign policy in the early and formative years of the Cold War. The Truman era was a lot more interesting and important than most of us are apt to think it was, and Pietrusza has left at least one reader wanting to learn more about this remarkable and volatile period of American political history.

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