As the torch passes to Harry Truman, our Month of Roosevelt reaches its end. Unfortunately, Truman was tasked with the unenviable challenge of living up to Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy, all while taking on America’s greatest rival – the damn Commies! If he wins this one, it would be the greatest polling upset of all time!
The Last Four Years
Despite concerns about his health, President Roosevelt was elected to a fourth term in 1944. The end of World War II was near and Americans wanted him to finish the job. Early into his final term, on April 12th, 1945, Roosevelt collapsed while sitting for a portrait at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia. He died that day of a cerebral hemorrhage. Vice President Harry Truman, who had just joined the presidential ticket the year prior, immediately took the oath of office.
Luckily, Allied forces captured Berlin soon after Roosevelt’s death. Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30th. The continent celebrated the official Victory in Europe Day on May 8th. In the Pacific, however, Japan showed no signs of backing down. Military advisors believed that total victory would require an invasion of mainland Japan, costing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of American lives. In fact, so many Purple Heart medals were made in preparation for such an invasion, that the US still draws from that stockpile today. President Truman chose a different option. The Manhattan Project was a secret research team led by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer to develop nuclear weapons. Truman opted to use nuclear bombs to bring the war to a swift end. On August 6th, the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. 100,000 people died instantly. Days passed and there was indication of Japanese surrender. Meanwhile, Soviet forces also joined the war, invading Japanese-controlled Manchuria. Truman approved the use of a second bomb on August 9th, this time on Nagasaki. Finally, Japan finally agreed to end the war. On September 2nd, 1945, World War II was officially over.
For the first time in nearly two decades, the United States was not facing a world-threatening crisis. Truman had two outstanding issues to resolve: the future of the New Deal, and the reconversion of the economy to peace time. He proposed maintaining and building upon Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, but faced too much opposition from conservatives of both parties in Congress. Truman also received the blame for economic difficulties as troops returned to the labor force and wartime production ended. Consumer goods were slow to return to shelves and showrooms. Prices shot up as federal controls ended. The controls had to be reinstated, only serving to anger producers. To top it all off, there was a wave of labor strikes. Truman took a tough and aggressive stance against the unions. They backed down, but their relationship with the president was damaged.
As Europe recovered from the war, the US and USSR emerged as the strongest world powers. Although Germany had been defeated, the Soviets remained paranoid about future invasions. Joseph Stalin quickly rescinded his promise to support freely elected governments after the war. Starting with Poland, they used their influence to spread Communism across Eastern Europe, providing a buffer for Russia. That strategy proved to be pretty easy, since Soviet troops still occupied most of these regions. Winston Churchill referred to their domination as an “Iron Curtain” over the continent. Americans worried that the Communism was unstoppable. The Capitalist world needed Western Europe to recover in order to stabilize the global economy. Most US politicians agreed that Communism needed to be contained.
Truman initially believed that a peaceful relationship with the Soviet Union was possible, but his attempts at compromise were only met with further aggression. The next countries under threat were Turkey and Greece. Truman responded with the aptly named “Truman Doctrine,” a pledge to support “freedom-loving” nations against Communist influence. Likewise, Secretary of State George Marshall devised the “Marshall Plan” to provide economic recovery to Western Europe. The strategy was essentially a New Deal for Europe in order to boost their economies and strengthen Capitalism’s position on the continent. In 1948, the crisis reached a boiling point in Germany. After the war, the country was divided by the Allies into four occupied zones, controlled by the US, Britain, France, and the USSR. The city of Berlin was similarly divided. The Soviets blockaded roads linking the isolated Democratic portion of Berlin to the rest of West Germany. Truman airlifted aid to the stranded Berlin residents. America’s active stance against the Communists following the Truman Doctrine marked the beginning of the Cold War.
As the economy struggled at home, and international relations deteriorated, Truman faced an abysmal 36% approval rating. He was seen as weak compared to his predecessor, one of the most popular presidents of all time. Some joked, “To err is Truman.” After sixteen years of Democratic domination of the White House, Republicans finally had their chance to take it back. They won control of Congress in the 1946 midterms using the slogan, “Had enough?” One of the top priorities of the Eightieth Congress was the 22nd Amendment, establishing a two-term limit on the presidency. It was approved by Congress in 1947, and was ratified by the states a few years later. Finally, the tradition set by George Washington was now law.
For the first time in almost two decades, Republicans were excited for a presidential election. Truman’s low approval rating made victory almost guaranteed. Republicans courted Army Chief of Staff Dwight Eisenhower, but he declined, citing his belief that military generals should stay out of politics. 1944 nominee Thomas Dewey, now on his second term as New York governor, was the frontrunner for the nomination again. He was considered a moderate who best represented the party’s Eastern establishment. He faced several primary opponents, the most popular of which were conservative ohio Senator Robert Taft, and progressive Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen. Sensing that he needed a big victory, Dewey focused all of his campaign resources on the Oregon primary. Before the state’s election, he and Stassen participated in the first ever radio debate. In the most memorable moment of the debate, Dewey stood up for the legality of the American Communist Party, stating, “You can’t shoot an idea.” Dewey won Oregon, and thus, the momentum going into the convention. The event was another first – a nationally televised party convention. Dewey easily won the nomination. His running mate was California Governor Earl Warren. As the governors of the two most populous states in the nation, Dewey and Warren made a formidable ticket. The party platform promised a foreign policy with “firmness which welcomes cooperation but spurns appeasement.”
Democrats were not thrilled to run with Truman again. The president himself even privately offered to run as Eisenhower’s vice president. Eisenhower, of course, also declined the Democrats’ proposition. But as the election neared, Truman became more proactive. He went on a thinly-veiled “non-political” tour of the nation in June. He ditched prepared speeches, proved to voters that he was forthright and personable. He aggressively attacked Republicans for being the party of the upper class. The large, excited crowds provided a much-needed confidence boost. The Democratic convention itself had a rough start. Signs hung which read, “We’re just mild about Harry” (a play on a 1920s song), the music was notably poor, and when a flock of doves was released, one landed on the bald head of the former Speaker of the House, and one hit its head on the balcony and died. Despite a sense of the party’s inevitable defeat, Truman’s opposition failed to unite around an alternative. The president was re-nominated on the first ballot. He shared the ticket with Senate Minority Leader Alben Barkley from Kentucky.
Newspapers such as the New York Post joked that the Democrats should concede the election early to avoid the “wear and tear of campaigning.” But Truman gave a surprisingly confident acceptance speech, saying, “Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it, don’t you forget that. We’ll do that because they’re wrong and we’re right. The reason is that people know the Democratic Party is the people’s party, and the Republican Party is the party of special interests and it always has been and always will be.” His militant tone would have made William Jennings Bryan proud. In his speech, Truman also vowed to force Congress to return for a special session on July 26th, Turnip Day in Missouri, as he noted, to vote on a series of progressive bills. He pointed out that, per their party platform, the Republicans were committed to solving the nation’s ills, adding that they could do it all in fifteen days, if they wanted. According to Truman, “What the worst Eightieth Congress does in its special session will be the test. The American people will decide on the record.”
Truman’s competition didn’t end with the Republicans. His own party was fractured. Democrats to his left, unhappy with his nomination, broke off and formed the Progressive Party (not related to the earlier iterations under Teddy Roosevelt or Robert La Follette). The Progressive leader, and party nominee, was Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s vice president prior to Truman. Wallace was considered a radical and an eccentric by most of his peers. He served as Truman’s Secretary of Commerce, but was fired for criticizing the president’s foreign policy. Wallace believed that Truman was responsible for the Cold War. He rejected the Marshall Plan and argued that the US should negotiate with Russia. He appealed to pacifists, reformers, dissatisfied New Dealers, and some actual Communists. His running mate was Idaho Senator Glen Taylor, known as “The Singing Cowboy” for riding his horse up and singing on the Capitol steps (separate incidents). Wallace and Taylor made a point to speak in front of racially integrated crowds, which often resulted in rotten food and other trash being thrown on their stages.
Lastly, Truman also faced a additional split on the Right. They were outraged over Truman’s progressive stance on race. He was the first president to speak to the NAACP, where he committed to civil rights legislation. When delegates at the Democratic convention voted to adopt a statement praising Truman for taking a “courageous stand” and pledging Congressional support, thirty-five delegates (all of Mississippi’s and half of Alabama’s) walked out. They instead joined the States’ Rights Democratic Party, better known as the Dixiecrats. The Southern-based party nominated South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond, along with Mississippi Governor Fielding Wright. Dixiecrats didn’t expect Thurmond to win, but hoped that splitting Democratic loyalty would prevent an electoral majority. The election could then be decided by the House of Representatives, where segregationist members could have a greater say.
The outlook seemed grim for Truman. He had a low approval rating and his party was split three ways. His strategy was to focus less on his opponent, Dewey, and more on the Republicans who controlled Congress. He did, in fact, call them back to Washington on Turnip Day and introduced eight social welfare recommendations. What followed was two weeks of bickering with nothing accomplished. As a result, Truman was able to label them the “Do-Nothing Congress.” Unlike most sitting presidents of the time period, Truman campaigned aggressively. Supporters often yelled, “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” when he ranted about Congress.
Dewey took a much more conservative approach to the campaign. He knew his victory was almost guaranteed, so he went out of his way to avoid major mistakes and divisive issues. He rarely attacked Truman directly and did not heavily promote the progressive aspects of the Republican platform. In contrast to Truman’s specific policy proposals, Dewey was known for speaking in generalities, such as, “Our future lies ahead of us” (no duh). As a result, he came off as dull and pompous. Truman called it a “soothing-syrup campaign.” Dewey eventually got more direct, and accused Democrats of being Communists. Despite his criticisms, he generally stuck to the bipartisan agreement to not attack the president’s foreign policy. Wallace, on the other hand, did not hold back on this line of attack, making it the center piece of his campaign. However, he lost steam when the Soviets took control of Czechoslovakia, the last remaining Democracy in Eastern Europe.
As the year went on, there were some silver linings for Truman. He was praised for providing aid to Berlin and economy also showed signs of improvement. In the final days of the campaign, theaters played news-reel like promotional films for the candidates. Dewey’s team had lots of money to spend, giving their film a high production value. Truman’s campaign, working a much smaller budget, made a cheaper film that relied heavily on archival footage of the president. Surprisingly, this made Truman seem more down-to-earth and emphasized his experience in the job. In contrast, Dewey looked like a sleazy, professional politician.
By far, most pollsters and journalists believed that Dewey would win the presidency. Newsweek interviewed fifty political scientists and all fifty agreed on a Dewey victory. Journalists pre-wrote articles in his favor. Dewey himself was already planning his inauguration, but Truman remained optimistic.
As the East Coast results came in, Truman’s popular vote was higher than expected. He continued to win most states in the South and West. Throughout the night, reporters still insisted that Dewey would make a comeback, but the Truman wave kept rolling! He did well in Northern cities thanks to his stance on civil rights. Farmers, who had been largely ignored by Dewey, remained loyal to the president. Thurmond did not hurt him as much as expected, and although Wallace benefited Dewey in some Northeastern states, his radical supporters also diluted any accusations of Communism towards Truman. The swing states were ohio, Illinois, and California. If Dewey could have won even two of those states, he would have stopped Truman short of a majority.
Harry Truman remained president! He won 303 electoral votes, Dewey won 189, and Thurmond won 39 (four Southern states, plus one faithless elector). Truman won a little more than two million more votes than Dewey. Although Wallace did not win any electors, he and Thurmond both earned about 2.4% of the popular vote. It was the fifth Democratic victory in a row. Democrats also won back both houses of Congress. Pollsters were forced to admit that their work was still a growing science. They concluded that they underestimated undecided voters and last-minute shifts. Wilfred Funk, former editor of the Literary Digest, which ended after infamously predicting an Alfred Landon victory over Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, admitted, “I do not want to seem malicious, but I can’t help but get a good chuckle out of this.”
What Did It Say About America?
Dewey blamed his loss on low turnout thanks to overconfidence of his victory, but his boring campaign was also partly to blame. Truman energized his base while Dewey was playing it safe. He survived “dealignment” of the formerly Solid South and successfully held together Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition. He became associated with the emerging suburban middle class. Truman was the ultimate underdog, proving that, no matter how behind a candidate is in the polls, he or she always has a chance.
Was It The Right Decision?
Truman ran one of the smartest campaigns of all time, staying strong when all odds were against him. Thankfully, he made sure that Roosevelt’s version of the Democratic Party was here to stay and did not cater to the racists who dominated it for one-hundred years. Dewey comes off as an opportunist without any actual policy views. Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons and his handling of the Cold War shaped US foreign policy for the rest of the century, probably for the worse, but it’s difficult to say that Dewey could have done much to fix that. Much like Reconstruction after Lincoln, we can only wonder how the postwar world would have been different if Roosevelt had lived.