The End of the Roosevelt Era: 1948
Truman Succeeds Roosevelt
With FDR’s death on April 12, 1945, Vice President Truman became Chief Executive. Truman celebrated the end of the war in Europe in May and authorized the use of atomic bombs to bring the war with Japan to a close in August. He oversaw the sometimes bumpy transition back to a civilian economy and the start-up of the United Nations, which FDR had helped found, and appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to the first U.S. delegation to the UN. Truman navigated the early years of the Cold War with the Soviet Union with a “containment” policy and desegregated the U.S. military (and federal agencies) in 1948, a task FDR had felt unable to attempt during the war. Truman initiated the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and authorized the Berlin Airlift to feed the city when the Soviets closed access.
Facing the well-known Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, it looked as if Truman was destined to lose. But he took to the rails to whistle stop around the country, just as FDR had in 1932. He drew immense crowds everywhere, including a million-person ticker tape parade in New York City. He also had a solid portion of the electorate still willing to sustain the Roosevelt legacy through Truman’s policies, with the support of labor who resented the Republicans’ Taft-Hartley Act that had curtailed their organizing, and of farmers who sought federal assistance and failed to receive it from Republican legislators.
Historians believe that polling by telephone missed many Truman supporters because they didn’t yet have phones – thus the press predicted a victory by Dewey. One of the most famous newspaper mistakes in the 20th century was the Chicago Tribune’s headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
In the end, Truman won 24 million popular votes and 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 22 million votes and 189 electoral votes; Thurmond and Wallace got about 1.1 million votes each but Thurmond secured 39 electoral votes and Wallace none. After his loss, Dewey returned to being New York’s governor until 1955. He would not be a candidate in the next presidential election but was influential in the selection of his party’s nominee in 1952.
I’m Just Wild About Harry.
1948: The Candidates
Democrat Harry Truman ran in his own right as the Democratic candidate for President on a “Fair Deal” platform to augment the New Deal with national health insurance and other measures that favored working people. By convention time he faced strong opposition from within his own party: Strom Thurmond, the governor of South Carolina, left to run on the newly founded States’ Rights Democratic Party – “Dixiecrats” – in opposition to the regular party’s civil rights platform; and Henry Wallace deserted the Democrats to run on the Progressive Party line.
Progressive Henry Wallace had been FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture, then his vice president during his third term (1941-45). He was Truman’s Secretary of Commerce but was fired in 1946 because he opposed his president’s foreign policies. During his 1948 Progressive Party campaign Wallace emphasized his devotion to civil rights, which would of course cost him Southern votes. He also stressed the protection of civil liberties, worried about the increasing activities of the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), in which, of course, he was prescient. Tarnished with accusations of being a Communist, or a supporter of the Soviet Union, he refused to disavow such claims and was unable to keep or attract support from labor or even leftist groups that had supported FDR.
Dixiecrat J. Strom Thurmond wanted to perpetuate segregation and Jim Crow laws in the South. Teacher, lawyer, judge, state legislator, and veteran of World War II, Thurmond was elected governor of South Carolina in 1946. When the Democratic convention adopted a civil rights platform, he and fellow Southerners bolted to pursue their own agenda. They hoped to siphon enough votes to deadlock the Electoral College and force the decision into the House of Representatives where they could influence the outcome. The strategy failed but began to weaken the Democrats’ support in the South, which would have long-term consequences. Thurmond was elected to the Senate in 1954 as a write-in candidate and served 48 years, the longest tenure in history. He later became a Republican, and remained in the Senate until the age of 100. Only after his death in 2003 was it revealed that the fervent segregationist had fathered a mixed-race daughter 78 years earlier.
Republican Thomas Dewey ran a second time with California Governor Earl Warren as his vice-presidential running mate. After the split among the Democrats, it was Dewey’s election to lose. Since he supported many of Truman’s initiatives in foreign policy, including the Marshall Plan and the recognition of Israel, Dewey conducted a very restrained campaign, speaking in generalities and did not respond to Truman’s criticisms. Nor did he respond to conservative Republicans’ requests that he accuse the Democrats of harboring Communists or support outlawing the Communist Party.
Ben Shahn abandoned his loyalty to the Democrats to become a supporter of Henry Wallace in his Progressive Party run. Shahn’s poster, “The Duet,” was widely reproduced during the campaign. The image quotes a famous 1945 photograph of actress Lauren Bacall lounging on top of an upright piano that President Truman is playing. The poster suggests that Truman and Dewey are pals and so alike that they offer voters no real choice between them. Shahn took his title, “A good man is hard to find,” from a popular song written by Eddie Lee that was first recorded in 1919, and then many more times in the following years so its lyrics would have been quite familiar to voters.