In this presidential election year, historian and journalist A.J. Baime has given America a winner — “Dewey Defeats Truman,” subtitled “The 1948 Election and the Battle for America’s Soul.”
The picture on the book’s cover explains the title. It shows a beaming Harry S. Truman at St. Louis Union Station, holding up a copy of an early day-after-the-election edition of the Chicago Tribune. The picture — taken by W. Eugene Smith of the old St. Louis Globe-Democrat — became an instant classic because of the paper’s headline: “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
Still, the Trib hardly stood alone in its misjudgment. Going into the election season, most pundits called Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey (then the governor of New York) an easy winner. The pundits wrote Truman off as a flyover-state flop, an accidental president at best. And in truth, Truman faced some challenges that few thought he could stand up to. Among them:
• The Berlin Blockade, which many thought would lead to a war with the Soviet Union.
• The Red Scare, featuring scandals like the outing of Alger Hiss as a tool of the Soviets.
• Violent unrest in the Middle East over the birth of Israel — and, at home, debates pitting Israel’s supporters against those fretting about the potential loss of Arab oil.
• Growing tension in the southern United States about a rising swell of support for civil rights for Blacks.
And Truman had more to worry about than the urbane Dewey. Truman’s own Democratic Party gave rise to two offshoot parties, one on each flank. On the left stood former Vice President Henry Wallace and his ultra-liberal Progressive Party. On the right, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond and his Dixiecrats, sworn to dig in against civil rights advances.
While nobody thought Wallace or Thurmond could win, most pundits thought they could drain away enough Democratic votes to cost Truman the Oval Office.
But in breezy, easy-to-read English, Baime recounts how Truman all but ignored Dewey. Instead, Truman aimed his fire at the Republican-controlled Senate and House — “the do-nothing Congress,” as he called it.
And when Truman took to the rails with his whistle-stop speeches late in the campaign, some reporters began to sense that something odd was happening. One reporter recalled: “Indiana was normally a Republican state, but in towns where you knew the population was 20,000, in several instances, there would be a hundred thousand to see Truman. They would be jammed in for blocks around where loud speakers would have been set up. They had some from towns in the whole surrounding countryside, maybe as far away as a hundred miles … You didn’t have to be very smart to say, ‘Look here, something is going on.’”
Even so, few reporters had the good sense to go with their guts. Instead, they went with the polls, which put Dewey unbeatably ahead. Even such liberal beacons as the Post-Dispatch and the New York Times gave their editorial-page endorsements to Dewey.
And then came Election Day. Baime covers it in a chapter with prose to delight in. He quotes Truman friend Tom Evans as phoning Truman to say that he had to carry either Ohio, Illinois or California. Truman said to cut off all calls because he was going to bed.
“‘What the hell do you mean you’re going to bed,’ Evans said. ‘You can’t go to bed until you carry one of the states.’
“‘Why, I’m going to carry all three,’ Truman said.”
Let’s hope — nay, pray — that this year’s Election Day gives us all a reason to sleep easy.
Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.
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