Choosing Truman: The Democratic Convention of 1944

Choosing Truman: The Democratic Convention of 1944

by Robert H. Ferrell

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As Franklin D. Roosevelt's health deteriorated in the months leading up to the Democratic National Convention of 1944, Democratic leaders confronted a dire situation. Given the inevitability of the president's death during a fourth term, the choice of a running mate for FDR was of profound importance. The Democrats needed a man they could trust. They needed Harry S


As Franklin D. Roosevelt's health deteriorated in the months leading up to the Democratic National Convention of 1944, Democratic leaders confronted a dire situation. Given the inevitability of the president's death during a fourth term, the choice of a running mate for FDR was of profound importance. The Democrats needed a man they could trust. They needed Harry S. Truman.

Robert Ferrell tells an engrossing tale of ruthless ambition, secret meetings, and party politics. Roosevelt emerges as a manipulative leader whose desire to retain power led to a blatant disregard for the loyalty of his subordinates and the aspirations of his vice presidential hopefuls. Startling in its conclusions, impeccable in its research, Choosing Truman is an engrossing, behind-the-scenes look at the making of the nation's thirty-third president.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Ferrell, an author ( Ill-Advised: Presidential Health and Public Trust , LJ 9/15/92) and editor of numerous books relating to Truman, here gives his account of how the ruling powers of the Democratic Party came to choose Truman as their vice presidential candidate at the 1944 Chicago convention. The stakes were unusually high in 1944 because all key players understood that FDR's plummeting health would all but guarantee the presidency to the man chosen as his running mate. Ferrell presents a thoughtful and well-researched account of the events that installed Truman as FDR's heir apparent. With its brief text, however, this work may have worked better as a chapter in a larger book. In addition, Ferrell's habit of rebuking and confirming points of fact in David McCullough's Truman ( LJ 6/1/92) detracts from his effort. Given the book's limited scope, few collections would benefit from its purchase.-- Robert Favini, Bentley Coll. Lib., Waltham, Mass.
Gilbert Taylor
Chicago Stadium, a place doomed to the wrecker's ball this year, echoes with history. The Democrats gathered in that reverberant cavern in 1944, less to reannoint FDR than to select hi successor. For the party barons--machine operators named Flynn of New York, Kelly of Chicago, and Hannegan of St. Louis--knew Roosevelt could not survive a fourth term. They also disliked the VP candidates and heirs apparent: Henry Wallace (too liberal); William Douglas (ditto); James Byrnes (too racist); and Alben Barkley (too old and unknown). So the pooh-bahs met at the White House on July 11, 1944, to handicap matters. Ferrell begins on that date, a hot summer night, a scene of martinis mixed and tobacco smoked, and tries to cut through the fog to explain how dark-horse Truman came away with the prize. Ferrell, who is author or editor of a number of books on Truman, turns over every bit of evidence about the event and ties it together in the manner of a mystery investigation. Ferrell's is a rather technical specialty monograph, but he nonetheless has a dramatic story to work with, and David McCullough's prizewinning biography of 1992 has certainly paved the way.
Brings together a story scattered through the presidential libraries and several collections of personal papers: how Roosevelt came to choose Truman, a man whom he admitted he hardly knew. Provides an unusual glimpse of Oval Office machinations and insight into the Truman administration. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
From the Publisher
"Ferrell captures all of the excitement and rumors and back-room dealing, telling a riveting story of political intrigue and expediency that climaxed in the rejection of Byrnes."—The State

"In this pungent examination of one of the century's great political stories, Ferrell analyzes the crucial meeting of July 11, 1944, in which Roosevelt and his lieutenants rejected both the sitting Vice President Henry Wallace and adviser James Byrnes in favor of a relatively unknown senator from Missouri."—Publishers Weekly

"Robert Ferrell has established himself as one of the most distinguished Truman scholars at work today. Choosing Truman is a pleasure to read and easily supersedes any earlier studies of Truman's nomination and the intrigue that surrounded it."—Gateway Heritage

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University of Missouri Press
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Choosing Truman

The Democratic Convention of 1944

By Robert H. Ferrell

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 1994 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-7298-0



The nomination of Senator Harry S. Truman of Missouri for the vice-presidency in the summer of 1944 was tantamount to election as successor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was a devious, furtive, roundabout business: at the outset, nothing was clear, and even after a White House summit meeting of leaders of the Democratic party, in which the president opted for Truman, the nomination remained uncertain.

The president was going to run again, for a fourth term; that was a certainty. He enjoyed the office, for its convenience and ceremonial, of course, but also for its power—he enjoyed wielding the power. As the years passed after his first inaugural in 1933 he came to believe that he was necessary for the country, that he was irreplaceable, that no other individual in the United States could manage affairs, foreign and domestic, with the verve, the high ability, he could muster for the task.

And as Roosevelt himself desired the presidency, so did the party leaders want him to run again in 1944. That year the Republicans were running the former "buster" of rackets in New York City, Thomas E. Dewey, a young man of forty-two, by then governor of New York, an office in which he had been as successful as that of district attorney. Dewey was a formidable candidate. His youth bespoke activity that the tired Roosevelt could not imitate, even in appearance; in reality, to be sure, the president was tired indeed. Dewey could claim to be a new broom after eleven years of the Democracy, wherein the party of Roosevelt had worn itself out in meeting the challenges of the Great Depression and, now, World War II. Against those claims, in which there was more than a grain of truth, only "the champ," the Democrats' greatest vote-getter since President Andrew Jackson a century and more before, could have assured victory. No other Democrat could have stood against Dewey and won.

The physical problem remained. The leaders were not sure what was ailing Roosevelt, why he seemed to have more bronchitis than usual, why after the Teheran Conference of November-December 1943 he came home ill and had not bounced back. He was obviously tired, and the tiredness was showing around his eyes, the dark circles widening. He had suffered a stomach upset at Teheran. Early in 1944 during a stay at the South Carolina estate of the financier Bernard M. Baruch, he had two more such attacks. His weight was dropping. There was talk of cancer. The party leaders were no medical men and were guessing, and for the most part guessing wrongly, because what ailed the president was far-advanced cardiovascular disease. His systolic pressure was up to alarming proportions, the diastolic up too. On March 27, 1944, he underwent a general physical examination at Bethesda Naval Hospital and was seen by the staff cardiologist, Lieutenant Commander Howard G. Bruenn, who found him in heart failure. His personal physician, Vice-Admiral Ross T. McIntire, surgeon general of the U.S. Navy, an ear, nose, and throat man, had been misdiagnosing him. Bruenn put him on digitalis, which helped his heart, making it more efficient. He could do little for the pressure (this was before the era of blood-pressure pills) other than place the president on a diet. At 180 pounds he was overweight, all his weight being in his arms and chest, his legs and hips having atrophied. From the wrong evidence—the tiredness and stomach upsets and weight loss—the leaders came to the right conclusion: Roosevelt could not survive the rigors of a fourth term that would include ending the war and taking the nation through the toils of reconversion to peacetime pursuits.

One would have thought it possible to explain all this to Roosevelt and get him to pay attention to whomever he chose as his running mate. That, however, was not possible. He was such a difficult mixture of traits. Immensely intelligent, his mind was a gigantic trap for any unwary visitor to the oval office; he could catch all the nuances of conversation. And he was hypersensitive to criticism of any sort. As Truman would remark after the president had passed on, he was an enormous egotist. Moreover, he was manipulative; he enjoyed pushing people around. He also delighted in keeping people unsure of his intentions. Perhaps his daughter, Anna, who knew him well, certainly better than her mother, from whom he had been estranged for many years, put these latter two qualities best in a description to a friend of Vice-President Henry A. Wallace: "He is cold, calculating and shrewd and you can't tell what he will do." He was not planning for any collapse of his health. He never gave any thought to the possibility of death. "No, I don't think he had the slightest idea that he was going downhill in the way he was," his daughter told an interviewer years later. He believed he would continue in the White House for not merely a fourth term but a fifth, maybe more.

It was impossible to get through to the president, to tell him exactly what was at issue. This reduced everything to indirection. It opened the way to a dangerous—the presidency itself was at stake—uncertainty.


As best they could, the leaders of the Democratic party sought to prepare for a presidential succession, which meant placing a reliable person in the vice-presidency. They knew they did not want Vice-President Wallace, for they believed him an unfit successor to the president, and they engaged in a virtual conspiracy to get him out of the running. The White House meeting of July 11, in which they and the president chose Truman, was the culmination of this movement. The plan had begun when the secretary and acting treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, a California oilman named Edwin W. Pauley, got together with the president's appointments secretary, Major General Edwin M. (Pa) Watson, to bring in people who would speak ill of Wallace to the president, and keep out of the oval office those individuals who might be Wallace supporters. As Pauley remembered what happened, "It was during one of my visits to the White House I had a huddle with Pa. We decided then that he should arrange appointments with Roosevelt for all potential convention delegates whom we knew were opposed to Wallace. That way, the word would really get to the President." To this end the conspirators enlisted the party's national chairman, Robert E. Hannegan, an erstwhile city chairman from St. Louis to whom Truman was greatly beholden for eight thousand machine votes during his close primary race in 1940 (he carried the state by less than eight thousand votes). Hannegan brought in the postmaster general, Frank C. Walker, his predecessor as national chairman, a longtime Roosevelt partisan, and co-owner of a theater chain headquartered in Scranton and New York City.

All the while Pauley personally sought to influence the president. He saw Roosevelt frequently, and sought to ingratiate himself. Pauley was an attractive individual, a mover and shaker if ever there was one. Tall, muscular, physically impressive, as calculating and shrewd as the president but without the coldness and secretiveness, he was accustomed to figuring the odds, whether in the oil business or anything else; his modus operandi was to decide how to proceed, and move in a beeline. He usually talked politics in the blue oval room in the White House itself, right next to FDR's bedroom, a part of the house that, Pauley wrote, was the president's private province where he seemed always happiest. Often he saw him in bed, where the president liked to lounge in mornings and receive his personal physician, Admiral McIntire, together with staff members and sometimes important visitors.

The Pauley-Roosevelt talks divided almost equally between politics and what the oilman described as "our few common bonds," which Pauley did his best to emphasize. He had been in a bad plane crash in 1928 and at that time seemed relegated permanently to a wheelchair. So many bones were broken that the doctors believed he was going to be paralyzed. His third, fourth, and fifth vertebrae were fused for the rest of his life. He was in a hospital for four months and wore a Thomas collar on his broken neck for a year. Earning $250 a month when injured, he came out of the hospital owing $11,000. "The president, proud of the way he had overcome his own tremendous handicap, liked to talk to me as one who knew how the world looks from a wheel chair." Pauley also had won a Class A yacht race from San Francisco to Honolulu in 1939, and that too attracted Roosevelt.

During such talks he and Roosevelt edged their way around the coming decision over the vice-presidency, and several names came up. Prominent among them was the former senator from South Carolina and former associate justice of the Supreme Court, James F. Byrnes, who was Roosevelt's "assistant president" (as Roosevelt described him) in the White House. At the president's request Walker took Byrnes home one night, and while passing through Rock Creek Park asked him point-blank if he would be interested in becoming vice-president. As Walker remembered the answer, "Barkis indeed was willing."

Another possibility was William O. Douglas, associate justice of the Supreme Court. Roosevelt told Hannegan that Douglas was a wonderful fellow. Like one of the president's other court appointees, Felix Frankfurter, Douglas never let court business preoccupy him, and he took a large interest in politics, even though he was not, strictly speaking, a party man. In his mid-forties, husky, athletic, he was a great outdoorsman, and he enjoyed hiking and mountain climbing in the West, especially the Pacific Northwest. He also was an inveterate gossip and teller of off-color stories, both of which must have appealed to the president.

Senator Alben W. Barkley of Kentucky, the party's majority leader, was interested in the vice-presidency. Barkley had been eyeing it for years, wishing he could have it, and the more so in 1943–1944 when Roosevelt's health turned down and the office began to mean much more than just the vice-presidency. A paunchy orator from Paducah, who needed a half hour to get started, he appeared to be only a remote possibility. Behind his senatorial bonhomie he was acutely intelligent and would have been a good choice.

There was talk of the Pacific coast shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser, who had a reputation for being a whirlwind-like character, just the man for the vice-presidency, until the president's speechwriter, Judge Samuel I. Rosenman, known officially as his "special counsel," turned up the fact that Kaiser had made a speech in favor of a sales tax.

Pauley favored Sam Rayburn of Texas, Speaker of the House of Representatives. Pauley and the Democratic leader of the Bronx, Edward J. Flynn, a longtime Roosevelt associate, a tall and handsome man who enjoyed classical music and whose tastes paralleled those of the president, arranged to have lunch with Rayburn and explained their problem with Wallace and the president. Rayburn instantly understood it. He liked the idea of becoming president, but thought the possibility of the vice-presidential nomination remote, for too many people were in the field. He told them to go ahead, if they thought it would do some good.

Then there was the possibility of Truman. Like Rayburn, he too was attractive. Pauley scheduled the two of them for a series of what he described as George Washington dinners, banquets for influential groups of people followed by intimate talk, at which one or the other spoke on patriotic themes. He reported that they made good speakers, enthused audiences, and helped bring in money for the forthcoming campaign. The party treasurer received a number of complaints from supporters of Vice-President Wallace, asking why Wallace could not be scheduled as a dinner speaker. The Californian found one excuse or another not to schedule him, and afterward remarked that he was divisive, tended to make people absent themselves from audiences. More to the point was the fact that Pauley did not like him and much admired party professionals like Truman and Rayburn.

As the weeks and months passed prior to the convention, Rayburn's star began to fall, through no fault of his own. In Texas there was much anti-Roosevelt sentiment, and the conservative Democrats rallied around a slate of delegates for the convention that won out against Rayburn and his friends. The Texas Supreme Court certified the slate as the state's legal delegation, against a group of disappointed opponents who promised to take the fight to the credentials committee at the convention. This meant a public fight over Texas's votes. More to the point, it meant that Rayburn could not control his own state. The dissidents indeed turned against him personally and sought to take his House seat, putting up $250,000 of oil money against him; as he described matters he had the "fight of his life." The primary in Texas was on the fourth Saturday in July, and he was so hard-pressed he could not even attend the convention. All this meant that nationally speaking he was in an impossible position. By the time the convention approached, his candidacy for the vice-presidency had much diminished.

Where did this put Truman among the candidates? There was, of course, much to recommend him. The Missouri senator came from a border state, meaning he was in the South but not of it; he could get the support of southern delegates at the convention without having associated with southern causes, especially the principal cause, the denial of civil rights to black Americans. Moreover, by 1944 he had spent nearly ten years in the Senate, and he had handled well his wartime committee to investigate the national defense program. The Truman Committee, as it was known, avoided criticism of the president, unlike the Civil War committee that bedeviled President Abraham Lincoln.

Roosevelt actually acquired the notion, presumably from thinking about it, that he himself had organized the Truman Committee. In actual fact he had nothing to do with it; a newspaperman from Kansas City, William P. Helm, suggested the idea early in 1941, and Truman seized upon it. The committee's work had not been helped by the initial parsimony of Senator Byrnes, who would be one of Truman's two principal rivals at the 1944 convention. One of Byrnes's duties in the Senate was to allot money to committees, and he allotted fifteen thousand dollars to investigate the expenditure of tens of billions. Roosevelt's hand might have been in that parsimony—what better way to kill a committee than give it no money? But when the committee became a great success the president took credit, rubbing his chin reflectively and saying to visitors, "Yes ... yes.... I put him in charge of that war investigating committee, didn't I?"

Too, Truman as vice-president could help with the peace treaties and the United Nations Charter when those instruments came before the Senate, unlike Vice-President Wallace, who as the Senate's presiding officer had managed to antagonize nearly every member of the Upper House by paying no attention to senators, singly or collectively. Aloof, even ethereal, Wallace spent much of his time on trips abroad, visiting foreign nations and peoples, representing the president.

Truman's earlier connection with the Thomas J. Pendergast political machine in Kansas City would not have bothered Roosevelt, for Truman had done nothing improper as a result of the association. The president sometimes pointed out to Rosenman that he, FDR, had graduated from the Tammany Hall district club led by James J. (Jimmy) Hines, who, like Pendergast, went to jail.

The trouble was that Roosevelt did not know the Missouri senator well. Speaking privately in the weeks before the convention he admitted, "I hardly know Truman. He has been over here a few times, but he made no particular impression on me." The later president liked to remember that during his wartime years in the Senate he saw Roosevelt a great deal, off the record. As chairman of the special investigating committee he was an important figure and afterward wrote, "I had been in the habit of seeing the President at least once a week, and more often if he thought it necessary, about matters that came before the committee." In 1952 he told an Indiana high-school principal that after the election of 1944 he saw him nearly every day. In a taped interview in 1959 he related, "I used to get in the back door once or twice a week. Nobody knew that." But Jonathan Daniels, a wartime White House staff member, later a Truman biographer, thought all this a great exaggeration. In remarks to newspaper reporters in 1944, Truman unwittingly agreed. At the convention the senator told reporters he had neither seen nor spoken with Roosevelt since March 5.


Excerpted from Choosing Truman by Robert H. Ferrell. Copyright © 1994 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Robert H. Ferrell is Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the author or editor of over fifty books, including Collapse at Meuse-Argonne: The Failure of the Missouri-Kansas Division and Five Days in October: The Lost Battalion of World War I. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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