by Gerald Boerner
“The buck stops here.”
— Harry Truman
“Give ‘em hell, Harry!”
— Crowds cry at whistle stops during 1948 Campaign
“If you can’t stand the heat, you better get out of the kitchen.”
— Harry Truman
“The only man who could strut sitting down.”
— Time Jones, Chicago Tribune, on Governor Thomas Dewey
“…first president to lose in a Gallup and win in a walk.”
— Fred Allen, comedian
“the time has come for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!”
— Hubert Humphrey, Minneapolis Mayor
“A call was made to the paper’s Washington correspondent, Arthur Sears Henning, who had been wrong just once in the previous 20 years. He stuck by his prediction that it would be Dewey.”
— Tribune reported in a 2006 article
“We have a custom on The News and Observer when there is a great Democratic victory — this goes back to my father’s time — of printing a red crowing rooster across the front page, and so the night of the election, I asked the managing editor, ‘Have you got that rooster out?’ ”
— Jonathan Daniels, the editor of the Raleigh News & Observer
“Give ‘em hell, Harry!” [Truman’s Victory in 1948]
Harry S. Truman was the 33rd President of the United States (1945–1953). As President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third vice-president and the 34th Vice President of the United States, he succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, when President Roosevelt died less than three months after beginning his fourth term.
During World War I Truman served as an artillery officer, making him the only president to have seen combat in World War I (his successor Eisenhower spent the war training tank crews in Pennsylvania). After the war he became part of the political machine of Tom Pendergast and was elected a county commissioner in Missouri and eventually a United States senator. After he gained national prominence as head of the wartime Truman Committee, Truman replaced vice president Henry A. Wallace as Roosevelt’s running mate in 1944.
Truman faced challenge after challenge in domestic affairs. The disorderly postwar reconversion of the economy of the United States was marked by severe shortages, numerous strikes, and the passage of the Taft–Hartley Act over his veto. He confounded all predictions to win re-election in 1948, helped by his famous Whistle Stop Tour of rural America. After his re-election he was able to pass only one of the proposals in his Fair Deal program. He used executive orders to begin desegregation of the U.S. armed forces and to create loyalty checks which dismissed thousands of communist supporters from office, even though he strongly opposed mandatory loyalty oaths for governmental employees, a stance that led to charges that his administration was soft on communism.
Truman’s presidency was also eventful in foreign affairs, with the end of World War II and his decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan, the founding of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, the Truman Doctrine to contain communism, the beginning of the Cold War, the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the Korean War. Corruption in Truman’s administration reached the cabinet and senior White House staff. Republicans made corruption a central issue in the 1952 campaign.
President Harry Truman with
"The Buck Stops Here"
sign on his desk
Truman, whose demeanor was very different from that of the patrician Roosevelt, was a folksy, unassuming president. He popularized such phrases as "The buck stops here" and "If you can’t stand the heat, you better get out of the kitchen." He overcame the low expectations of many political observers who compared him unfavorably with his highly regarded predecessor. At different points in his presidency, Truman earned both the lowest public approval ratings that had ever been recorded, and the highest approval ratings to be recorded until 1991.
Despite negative public opinion during his term in office, popular and scholarly assessments of his presidency became more positive after his retirement from politics and the publication of his memoirs. Truman’s legendary upset victory in 1948 over Thomas E. Dewey is routinely invoked by underdog presidential candidates. Most American historians consider Truman one of the greatest U.S. Presidents.
1948 Presidential Election Victory
The United States presidential election of 1948 is considered by most historians as the greatest election upset in American history. Virtually every prediction (with or without public opinion polls) indicated that incumbent President Harry S. Truman would be defeated by Republican Thomas E. Dewey. Truman won, overcoming a three-way split in his own party. Truman’s surprise victory was the fifth consecutive win for the Democratic Party in a presidential election. Truman’s election confirmed the Democratic Party’s status as the nation’s majority party, a status they would retain until 1968.
Spirits were low: the Republicans had taken control of both houses of the United States Congress and a majority of state governorships during the 1946 midterm elections by running against Truman, and the public-opinion polls showed Truman trailing Republican nominee Dewey, sometimes by double digits. Furthermore, some liberal Democrats had joined Henry A. Wallace’s new Progressive Party, and party leaders feared that Wallace would take enough votes from Truman to give the large Northern and Midwestern states to the Republicans.
As a result of Truman’s low standing in the polls, several Democratic party bosses began working to "dump" Truman and nominate a more popular candidate. Among the leaders of this movement were Jacob Arvey, the boss of the Chicago Democratic organization, Frank Hague, the boss of New Jersey, James Roosevelt, the eldest son of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Senator Claude Pepper of Florida.
The primary target of the rebels was General Dwight Eisenhower; in 1947, Truman had offered to run as his running mate if General Douglas MacArthur won the Republican nomination. Despite their efforts, however, Eisenhower refused to become a candidate (in 1952, he revealed that he was a Republican). Rebuffed, the leaders of the "dump" Truman movement then reluctantly agreed to support Truman for the nomination. At the Democratic Convention, a group of Northern liberals, led by Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey, successfully pushed through a platform (over vigorous Southern opposition) that promoted civil rights for blacks. In his speech promoting the civil rights platform, Humphrey memorably stated that "the time has come for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!"
Ironically, while Truman and his staff were ambivalent about supporting the civil rights plank, it did receive strong support from many of the big-city party bosses, most of whom felt that the civil rights platform would encourage the growing black population in their cities to vote for the Democrats. The passage of the civil rights platform caused some three dozen Southern delegates, led by South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond, to walk out of the convention; the Southern delegates who remained nominated Senator Richard Russell, Jr. of Georgia for the Democratic nomination as a rebuke to Truman. Nonetheless, 947 Democratic delegates voted for Truman as the Democratic nominee, while Russell received only 266 votes, all from the South. Truman then selected Kentucky Senator Alben W. Barkley as his running mate, with this nomination being made by acclamation.
With Eisenhower refusing to run, the contest for the Republican nomination was between New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen, MacArthur, Ohio Senator Robert Taft, California Governor Earl Warren, and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, the senior Republican in the Senate. Governor Dewey, who had been the Republican nominee in 1944, was regarded as the frontrunner when the primaries began. Dewey was the acknowledged leader of the GOP’s powerful eastern establishment; in 1946 he had been re-elected Governor of New York by the largest margin in state history.
Dewey’s handicap was that many Republicans disliked him; he often struck observers as cold, stiff and calculating. Senator Taft was the leader of the GOP’s conservative wing. He opened his campaign in 1947 by attacking the Democratic Party’s domestic policy and foreign policy. In foreign policy, Taft was an isolationist who blamed Truman for implementing the Morgenthau Plan in occupied Germany, thereby wrecking the European economy which (in his view) thus required rescue from U.S. taxpayers in the form of the Marshall Plan.
In domestic issues, Taft and his fellow conservatives wanted to abolish many of the New Deal social welfare programs that had been created in the 1930s; they regarded these programs as too expensive and harmful to business interests. Taft had two major weaknesses: he was seen as a plodding, dull campaigner, and he was viewed by most party leaders as being too conservative and controversial to win a presidential election. Taft’s support was limited to his native Midwest and parts of the South. Although both Senator Vandenberg and Governor Warren were highly popular in their home states, both men refused to campaign in the primaries, which limited their chances of winning the nomination. However, their supporters hoped that in the event of a Dewey-Taft-Stassen deadlock, the convention would turn to their man as a compromise candidate.
General MacArthur was serving in Japan as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers occupying that nation; as such he was unable to campaign for the nomination. However, he did make it known that he would not decline the GOP nomination if it were offered to him, and some conservative Republicans hoped that by winning a primary contest he could prove his popularity with voters. They chose to enter his name in the Wisconsin primary.
On election night – November 2 – Dewey, his family, and campaign staff confidently gathered in the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City to await the returns. Truman, aided by the Secret Service, sneaked away from reporters covering him in Kansas City and made his way to nearby Excelsior Springs, Missouri, a small resort town. There he took a room in the local hotel, had dinner and a Turkish bath, and went to sleep. As the returns came in Truman took an early lead which he never lost. However, the leading radio commentators, such as H. V. Kaltenborn of NBC, confidently predicted that once the "late returns" came in Dewey would overcome Truman’s lead and win. At midnight, Truman awoke and turned on the radio in his room; he heard Kaltenborn announce that, while Truman was still ahead in the popular vote, he couldn’t possibly win. Around 4 a.m. Truman awoke again, heard on the radio that his lead was nearly two million votes, and decided to ride back to Kansas City.
For the rest of his life Truman would gleefully mimic Kaltenborn’s voice predicting his defeat throughout that election night. Dewey, meanwhile, realized that he was in trouble when early returns from New York and New England showed him running well behind his expected vote total. He was also troubled when the early returns showed that Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond, the two third-party candidates, were not taking as many votes from Truman as had been predicted. Dewey stayed up throughout the night examining the votes as they came in. By 10:30 the next morning he was convinced that he had lost; he then sent a gracious telegram of concession to Truman.
Famous photograph of Truman grinning and
holding up a copy of the newspaper
that (erroneously) announced his defeat
The Chicago Tribune, a pro-Republican newspaper, was so sure of Dewey’s victory it printed “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” on election night as its headline for the following day. A famous photograph taken the next morning showed Truman grinning and holding up a copy of the newspaper.
Part of the reason Truman’s victory came as such a shock was because of as-yet uncorrected flaws in the emerging craft of public opinion polling. A political theory supported by many pollsters (and largely discredited by the 1948 election) held that voters had already decided who they would support by the time the political conventions ended during the summer, and that few voters were swayed by the campaigning done during the autumn. As a result many pollsters were so confident of Dewey’s victory that they simply stopped polling voters weeks before the election, and thus missed a last-minute surge of support for the Democrats. It has been estimated that some 14% of Dewey’s supporters-swayed by Truman’s claims that an economic depression could return under GOP rule – switched to Truman in the final days before the election. After 1948, pollsters would survey voters until the day before the election: they would also announce their results on television, in real time, more or less.
The key states in the 1948 election were Ohio, California, and Illinois. Truman narrowly won all three states by a margin of less than 1%. These three states had a combined total of 78 electoral votes. Had Dewey carried all three states by the same narrow margins, he would have won the election in the electoral college while still losing the popular vote. The extreme closeness of the vote in these three states was the major reason why Dewey waited until late on the morning of November 3 to concede. A similarly narrow margin garnered Idaho and Nevada’s electoral votes for Truman. Dewey countered by narrowly carrying New York and Pennsylvania, the states with the most electoral votes at the time, as well as Michigan, but it wasn’t enough to give him the election. Dewey would always believe that he lost the election because he lost the rural vote in the Midwest, which he had won in the 1944 presidential election; given the effect the dramatic drop in farm commodity prices in the fall of 1948, a year of record farm harvests, may have had on the political mindset of the rural vote that November, Dewey may well have been right.
Other Events on this Day
James K. Polk, the eleventh U.S. President, is born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.
Warren G. Harding, the 29th U.S. President, is born in Morrow County, Ohio.
North Dakota and South Dakota become the 39th and 40th states.
In one of the first radio reports of the presidential election, KDKA in Pittsburg reports that Warren G. Harding has defeated James M. Cox.
Howard Huges pilots his gigantic wooden airplane, the Spruce Goose, on its only flight, lasting about a minute, near Long Beach, California.
Dates and events based on:
William J. Bennett and John Cribb, (2008) The American Patriot’s Almanac Daily Readings on America. (Kindle Edition)
Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Harry Truman that can be found at…
The Truman’s Upset Victory in 1948 that can be found at…