The Loneliest Campaign: The Truman Victory of 1948.
by Irwin Ross.
New American Library. 304 pp. $6.95.
The last few months have inured the American public to surprises in Presidential politics. No recent astonishments, though, can surpass those of 1948. Before the election of that year, experts and laymen seemed unanimous in agreeing that President Truman had not a ghost of a chance against Governor Thomas E. Dewey—or practically anyone else the Republicans might have nominated. A good many Democrats did not even feel that “Back Porch Harry” merited a win. The average Democrat appeared apathetic; the more disaffected talked of voting quixotically for the Socialist candidate, Norman Thomas, or for Henry Wallace of the new Progressive party, or—if they were Southerners—for the rebellious Dixiecrats led by Strom Thurmond.
Then came the shock of the actual election. Truman lost New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey, half of New England, a chunk of the South. Yet he won, against every reasoned and reasonable expectation. The reaction, while less predictable, was hardly less extreme. Pundits groveled, pollsters investigated themselves for a change. The Missouri ex-haberdasher began to emerge as a folk-hero instead of a twanging, clownish mediocrity. His triumph was epitomized in the photographs that showed him waving aloft the edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune whose banner headline proclaimed DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. There was delight at the confusion of the soothsayers. There was delight at the victory of the little guy, the plucky underdog. It was as if William Jennings Bryan had beaten McKinley in 1896: the Western farmers, the plain people, versus the Eastern moneybags, the overwhelmingly Republican newspaper proprietors. Truman's subsequent “image” (to use a word not yet current) vastly improved. What had previously been regarded as clumsy indiscretions now tended to be admired as examples of sturdy independence—indeed leaderlike courage, as when he dismissed MacArthur. Truman could be viewed as an accidental but not unworthy heir to F.D.R., where hitherto his accession had been cited as an instance of the bizarre risks of picking nonentities to be Vice President. In those silly yet irresistible tables of Presidential fame he has edged up among the “superior” and even the “near great.”
In writing about 1948, Irwin Ross, an experienced journalist, could have given us a nostalgic stroll down memory lane; the period is already remote enough to qualify for such treatment. Or he could have produced a detached, ironical account of yesterday's vulgarities, when people turned to Norman Vincent Peale for pop inspiration and Philip Wylie for pop jeremiads. Certainly time has not been kind to the oratory, the gestures, the appearance of the main quartet of Presidential contenders of 1948. Twenty years on, they have the exaggerated, tinny anthropomorphism of animals in an old Hollywood cartoon. Seen in unfriendly retrospect, Truman has the yoyo bounce of a wirehaired fox terrier (a breed already passé in 1948); Dewey resembles a well-kept but not-quite-pedigreed pussycat; Henry Wallace is an old teddy-bear whose stuffing has come loose; Strom Thurmond is a liverish polar bear, white all over, barging around in the confines of Dixieland.
But Mr. Ross is too intelligent to play with the past in these cheap ways. He is not exactly wild about Harry (one of the few survivors who declined to be interviewed); he notes the lack of candor in some portions of Truman's published memoirs. Perhaps he is too hard on the Wallaceites; Gar Alperowitz's Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam (1965) shows that apportioning responsibility for the origins of the cold war is still a matter for argument. Still, this is an excellent, cool analysis of what happened, why it happened, and what were the long-term results.
To some extent Irwin Ross confirms that Truman's own brassy assurance may in truth have given him the edge over Dewey. Truman carried Ohio, California, and Illinois by slender margins. Fewer than thirty thousand votes, if they had gone to the Republican instead of the Democratic candidate in these three states, could have given Dewey the election. Dewey would almost certainly have secured Illinois, but for the fact that the name of Henry Wallace was excluded from the state's balloting forms. So it is plausible to assert that Truman's hectic whistle-stop campaigning tipped the balance. In some ways he performed better as a campaigner than as a President, while Dewey acted the part of next President better than that of contestant. There was a curious reversal of roles. The actual occupant of the White House bustled about with the manic energy of a long-odds challenger, giving 'em hell and pouring it on; Dewey by contrast conducted himself with statesmanlike demureness (and, it must be said, fairness: unlike Harold Stassen, a rival claimant for the Republican nomination, he refused to exploit the anti-Communist line).
Yet the important point was not the flimsiness of the electoral majority. Losers in American Presidential elections are often tempted to brood over what might have been, if a handful of voters here and there had acted otherwise. Bryan's supporters after the 1896 defeat protested that a redistribution of twenty-thousand votes in six marginal states would have made him President. What they failed to stress was that Bryan would still have got fewer popular votes than McKinley, and so would not have been the “legitimate” victor. In 1948, Truman's popular vote exceeded that of Dewey by over two million. He benefited, in other words, from the concealed effects of a basic shift in voter preferences dating back to 1932. Bryan had been fatally handicapped by a basic Republican popular majority that persisted up through 1928. Truman's success demonstrated that the Democrats (who also regained control of both houses of Congress) remained numerically dominant.
This feature of American political life had not been grasped. One reason was the not altogether unfounded belief that Democratic administrations had gone stale, corruptly stale, through too long in office. A second reason was the apparent collapse of the Democratic party. The Dixiecrat movement seemed to have canceled out the traditional allegiance of the Democratic Southern wing. Wallace's Progressive party was bound to make inroads into the Northern urban and liberal vote which formed the other principal Democratic base. The double defection was expected to strike a mortal blow. In the event, it probably had the opposite effect. The swarming of left-wing partisans around Wallace took “the Communist curse” off Truman, reassuring his potential Catholic supporters. And the Dixiecrat secession drew back to him the wavering loyalty of large numbers of Negro and white liberal voters. Ironically, Truman had sanctioned a feeble, compromised civil-rights plank at the Democratic nominating convention; a less cowardly one was forced upon the delegates only at the vehement insistence of liberal spokesmen, like Hubert Humphrey, of the ADA variety.
Here lay another concealed source of strength for Truman. Mr. Ross discloses that after a spell of infighting the President's liberal advisers prevailed over the conservatives in his entourage. Having gained his ear they pressed the advantage. Truman owed a great deal to the astuteness of his special counselor Clark Clifford (who has recently stepped into the full Washington limelight as McNamara's successor). In a remarkable memorandum of November 1947, Clifford showed how Truman could win. He was, after all, President; emulating F.D.R., he could exploit the prestige of office by staging “non-political” tours and in general appropriating the headlines. He could seize the initiative from the 80th (Republican) Congress by slanging it, by introducing handsome welfare legislation which it was sure to reject, and by then (a subsequent masterstroke) hauling it ignominiously back into special session. Stunts, but canny and effective ones, which Truman adopted.
Dewey proved to have far less room for maneuver. He was a colorless leader. But what did he have to be colorful about? There was no real party disagreement over foreign policy. The domestic record of Congress was too dismally negative for Dewey to enthuse over. He had no personal objection to New Deal-ish welfare programs. His blandness was to a large degree obligatory: he had no other tack to follow, except scurrility.
In short, hindsight reveals that Harry Truman was by no means the frail little guy of legend. Mr. Ross's fascinating final chapter takes us yet further away from nostalgic folklore. He suggests that Truman's victory, despite the joy it brought to faithful Democrats, was a misfortune for the liberal cause. This idea has been mooted before,1 but never with such precision and force. The contention is that by 1948 Democratic administrations had used up their stock of good will, and that the G.O.P. had become dangerously soured. If Dewey had held office from 1949 to 1953, he might well have induced a more cooperative, responsible mood in Congress than Truman was able to do. If so, the Republicans would have reentered the field of constructive government. There would probably have been no Joe McCarthyism: that ugly American would have had no axe to grind or swing.2 There would probably have been no recourse to Eisenhower in 1952. The Republicans would not have continued to nourish the delusion that laissez-faire conservatism was the party's proper message and best Presidential strategy. Hence, no recourse to Barry Goldwater either.
Having opened a few doors in these cunning corridors, Irwin Ross sensibly refrains from proceeding further into the speculative maze. If Truman had lost in 1948, might Adlai Stevenson have won in 1952 or 1956, or Nelson Rockefeller in 1964? Pure speculation, intriguing but profitless. History might have unwound more satisfactorily: for all 1948 could tell, it might have brought us worse things. Going back to 1948, it still seems that Harry Truman was right to do his damnedest; and that the Republicans deserved to lose.
1 For instance, in an unsigned review-article (Times Literary Supplement, November 17, 1966) which bears the stamp of Denis Brogan's style: “It can be argued that Mr. Truman's astonishing victory was a disaster, for it embittered the Republicans even more than the long exclusion from office had done. . . .”
2 A claim indirectly bolstered by Michael Rogin's impressive book, The Intellectuals and McCarthy (1967), which insists that McCarthyism was a conservative right-wing phenomenon, not a manifestation of distorted radicalism.