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Truman Defeats Dewey

Truman Defeats Dewey

by Gary A. Donaldson
"Although the story of Truman's triumph is well-known, Donaldson, thanks to his wide-ranging research into a variety of fresh primary and secondary materials, provides the readers with a detailed and clear account of how and why Truman won that election".--William C. Berman, University of Toronto. 12 photos.


"Although the story of Truman's triumph is well-known, Donaldson, thanks to his wide-ranging research into a variety of fresh primary and secondary materials, provides the readers with a detailed and clear account of how and why Truman won that election".--William C. Berman, University of Toronto. 12 photos.

Editorial Reviews

Truman Defeats Dewey makes a persuasive case that the 1948 election was a watershed event in American political history and began the modern political era. An associate professor of history at Xavier University in New Orleans, Gary Donaldson presents a fresh and informative examination of how Harry Truman took the 1948 race and what Thomas Dewey did (and didn't) do that resulted in his losing the election. In summary, Truman did a better and more effective job of connecting with the American public whereas Dewey was fairly inept as both a public speaker and in understanding/presenting the issues that concerned constituent voters. Truman Defeats Dewey is a superbly written and presented treatise that will prove a welcome addition to 20th Century American political science and electorial history reading lists and reference collections.
Kirkus Reviews
A new study or the 1948 election that has long been called the greatest upset in American political history. Donaldson, (History/Xavier Univ.) provides persuasive analyses of postwar politics, the tactics of contending political parties that marked the breakup of the old FDR New Deal coalition after WWII. To many voters, "Plain Harry" Truman was a drastic letdown after the charismatic and innovative FDR. Truman had little use for New Dealers and was heard to call them "crackpots" and "the lunatic fringe". He replaced the FDR cabinet with his political cronies and old war buddies. Donaldson finds that only FDR could hold together his unlikely coalition of leftists, liberals, aggressive labor unions, conservative farmers, newly united northern African-Americans, professionals and right-wing southern white supremacists. Truman walked a tightrope between these contending forces. In addition, Donaldson points out that Republicans drew away many old FDR voters who perceived the Yalta conference as a sellout to the Soviet Union. The GOP captured Congress in the 1946 elections as Truman's popularity declined. All polls predicted a Republican landslide in 1948. Truman found he couldn't please all factions and decided to abandon the far leftists and the extreme southern white supremacists, both of whom formed new parties led respectively by Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond. Truman's feisty "whistle stop" train campaign and "give them hell, Harry" speeches endeared him to millions of Americans In the west and south and in large cities. He regained many lukewarm voters with no other place to go except to the newly animated Harry. Donaldson argues that the overconfident Dewey lost the election withhis bland, boring campaign speeches as much as Truman won it in a close popular vote. An excellent history of a remarkable event in a tumultuous time in America. (For another look at this election, see Harold I. Gullan, The Upset that Wasn't, p. 1432.) .

From the Publisher
"Donaldson focuses on why Truman won rather than on how Dewey lost.... An excellent study." — Choice

"Unlike earlier studies of the 1948 election, this book examines the tactics of the Republican Party.... Argues that Dewey did nearly as much to lose the election as Truman did to win it." — Educational Book Review

"Shows that the election had less to do with folklore than with conventional political maneuverings, appeals to the normal components of the Democratic coalition assembled by Franklin D. Roosevelt, bruising battles over the shape of the post-New Deal, postwar political economy, and rising Cold War tensions." — Indiana Magazine of History

"Offers surveys of two areas that are often omitted from the story of 1948 — an excellent section on the role of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) and their abandonment of Henry Wallace for his procommunist leanings, and a strong piece on the attempt to euchre Dwight D. Eisenhower into running for president some four years before he planned on doing so." — Journal of American History

"Donaldson provides persuasive analyses of postwar politics, the tactics of contending political parties that marked the breakup of the old FDR New Deal coalition after WWII.... An excellent history of a remarkable event in a tumultuous time in America." — Kirkus Reviews

"Here in painstaking, exhaustive detail are the election's competing strategies, ideological party divisions, shifting political alliances and clash of issues." — Lexington Herald-Leader

"Significantly, the author shows how the well-known split from the Democratic party of segregationalist Dixiecrats and Communist sympathizers actually contributed to Truman's victory by dislodging extremists, thereby boosting his mainstream appeal." — Library Journal

"Donaldson takes a fresh look not only at how Truman took the 1948 race but at what Dewey did (or didn't do) that made him lose the election." — McCormick (SC) Messenger

"Should replace previously published popular works dealing with the 1948 election. Donaldson's research is comprehensive; his analysis impeccable; his thesis compelling." — Missouri Historical Review

"Solid political history.... Strips away the mystique surrounding the 1948 campaign and compels the reader to think seriously about the critical issues at stake and about Harry Truman's role in defining the postwar political order." — North Carolina Historical Review

"A nitty-gritty political handbook to the issues of the election of 1948." — Publishers Weekly

"An engaging narrative, which also provides a framework for making claims about the changing nature of liberalism in the postwar years." — Reviews in American History

"Donaldson deserves substantial credit for combing far-flung manuscript collections and writing a genuine page-turner." — South Carolina Historical Magazine

"Gives a clear account of the election." — South Dakota Review

"Comprehensive in its examination of major U.S. postwar political developments." — Southern Historian

"Harry S. Truman's victory in 1948 remains one of the great events in American political history. Although the story of Truman's triumph that year is well-known, Donaldson, thanks to his wide-ranging research into a variety of fresh primary and secondary materials, provides the reader with a detailed and clear account of how and why Truman won that election." — William C. Berman

"Makes a persuasive case that the 1948 election was a watershed event in American political history and began the modern political era." — Wisconsin Bookwatch

Product Details

University Press of Kentucky
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.36(w) x 9.58(h) x 0.95(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"Had Enough?" The Elections of 1946

If there is anything akin to a natural phenomenon in American political history it is that the minority party generally gains congressional seats in an off-year election. Some call it merely a swing of the pendulum, a natural cycle of events, but clearly American voters are prepared to register their disenchantment with the administration they elected two years earlier and to voice their dissatisfaction with the progress of their politicians' programs and promises. It is always a strong signal to the embarrassed majority party: it must either alter course or expect more defeats in the general election, just two years away.

    Consequently, as the 1946 congressional elections approached, the Republicans prepared for a significant gain in their congressional power. As early as June, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was willing to admit privately that the Democrats might lose control of the House. For that to occur, they would have to lose twenty-six seats. To lose control of the Senate, the Democrats would have to give up nine of sixteen seats up for reelection.

    Minority party victories in midterm elections may be common in American political history, but that pattern was regularly broken by the Democrats themselves between 1932 and 1946. In those fourteen years, the all-powerful FDR-built New Deal coalition remained strong, and the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress with large majorities. In fact, the Democrats had maintained a majority in Congress since 1930, when they took control of both housesin the midterm elections two years into Herbert Hoover's first and only administration. For the Republicans in 1930, the outcome of the midterm elections was a warning that a change would come if Hoover and the Republicans failed to solve the nation's growing economic problems. In November 1932 that threat was made good when FDR and the Democrats swept into office on a wave of anti-Republicanism. In 1946 President Truman and the Democrats faced much the same situation that the Republicans had faced in 1930. The problems of the volatile postwar economy were not being solved. American voters would send a message in 1946: alter course or face big losses in the general election in 1948.

    The Democrats were burdened with a variety of problems in 1946, not the least of which was President Truman's crashing popularity ratings, which had dropped from 87 percent when he took office in April 1945 to 50 percent a year later. By November, as voters were casting their ballots, the numbers had plunged again to a pathetic 32 percent. Much of this decline had to do with the perception that Truman lacked leadership ability. Of course, part of the problem was that he was constantly measured against his talented predecessor. FDR oozed leadership qualities and charisma, and he was a dynamic speaker who inspired the nation. When it became apparent that Truman lacked these qualities, America began to see him as little more than a caretaker president, filling out FDR's fourth term. Truman himself did little to dispel this image, and the passivity showed.

    Truman also suffered from inexperience, a poor image, and bad advice. Between his first days in the White House and the 1946 elections he spent most of his time learning the ropes of the office and finding his way. His choices for cabinet officers and advisers were not always popular, and as the old New Dealers fell away, the White House took on a new appearance that was a far cry from the image of efficiency, urbanity, and intellectualism of the Roosevelt presidency. After twelve years with Roosevelt, many Americans disliked the contrast of Truman's homespun, ward-heeler style of leadership. Then as the nation's economic problems worsened, Truman's image became so tarnished that Democratic National Committee chairman Robert E. Hannegan decided that the party would best be served by keeping the president out of the public eye in the months before the elections. Consequently, Truman did not campaign for the party. In the last days before the balloting, Hannegan resorted to radio broadcasts of old FDR speeches, each a supposed response to how the great man would have dealt with the problems of the day. Newsweek called the strategy "defeatism." Republican National chairman Brazilla Reece called it "one of the cheapest and most grisly stratagems in the history of American politics." At a time when American voters believed they needed strength and leadership in Washington, their president was directed by his own advisers to sit out the election.

    Truman's poor image also hurt his ability to hold the diverse Democratic party together, and that contributed significantly to the party splits that would plague the president and the Democrats until November 1948. FDR had built a coalition that only he could hold together. U.S. News wrote that "Mr. Roosevelt built the organization and it kept him in power as long as he lived. But he built it of such diverse and divergent fragments that no other hand could make it function. Perhaps even Mr. Roosevelt could not have won another election with it." By the summer of 1946 it seemed to many in nearly every camp of the New Deal coalition that Truman was unable to hold the party together. Liberals, southerners, African Americans, organized labor, farmers, all had strong complaints, and Truman could do little to solve the problems and patch the differences.

    When Truman took office, he told FDR's cabinet members and chief advisers that they could stay on indefinitely, that America was in a time of crisis and it was important not to make changes in the front line. But Truman had no use for Roosevelt's New Dealers, social reformers, and Ivy League-trained economic planners. Privately, he called them "crackpots" and "the lunatic fringe." Consequently, through the rest of 1945 and into 1946, several old New Dealers became annoyed with the new way of doing things in the White House, and they slowly fell way. Within four months of FDR'S death, Truman had accepted the resignations of all cabinet officers except Henry Wallace and Harold Ickes. Certainly, Truman needed his own people at his side and not the advisers to another president, but to American liberals and old New Dealers who expected FDR's programs to move forward, the spirit of the New Deal seemed to be gone from Washington. To make matters worse, Truman then replaced the venerable New Dealers with Missouri cronies, old war buddies, and political lightweights such as Harry Vaughan, Ed McKim, Fred Vinson, Edwin Pauley, and Tom C. Clark. To the press they became the "Missouri Gang," supposedly reminiscent of Warren Harding's corrupt "Ohio Gang."

    Not only did the nation's liberals dislike Truman's attitude toward FDR's New Deal and the New Dealers, they also believed he was too tough on the Soviets, too tough on labor, and not moving fast enough to achieve civil rights for African Americans. Just as this disenchantment was setting in, Truman fired his secretary of commerce, Henry Wallace, the august leader of the American left, just six weeks before the 1946 elections. For liberal America it was the last straw. The scorn this action brought Truman and the Democrats could be measured in a lackluster turnout by liberals in November. Truman and his advisers would learn a lesson that would serve them well as the general election approached in 1948. The president would have to make amends with the liberals.

One important aspect of the 1946 election was that it was the origin of the Republican party's postwar anticommunist campaign against the Democrats. This campaign lured away many political conservatives who had spent the Depression and the war at FDR's side to vote Republican. One month before the election, J. Edgar Hoover told an American Legion convention in San Francisco that there were as many as one hundred thousand communists running loose in America. He added that ten sympathizers stood behind every Red cardholder "ready to do the party's work. These include their satellites, their fellow travelers and their so-called progressive and liberal allies." U.S. News characterized the Republican anticommunist campaign as "accusing the Democratic party of being one that preaches radical doctrines and engages in radical practices. The main tenor of the Republican campaign theme is that the Democratic Party is leading the country toward Communism." Two weeks later, the magazine added: "Republicans are still accusing the Administration of being pro-Russian in its policies and are accusing the Democrats of permitting men with communistic ideas to dictate the Administration policy. This is a clear note of the campaign." Through the summer and fall of 1946, the Republicans accused the Democrats of being "red fascists" and of the "Three Cs": "Confusion, Corruption and Communism." After the campaign, Marquis Childs concluded that the anticommunism issue "was one of the most potent forces in the shift from the party in power to the opposition." Clearly, Republicans campaigning on the issue of anticommunism struck a nerve in the American postwar electorate.

    A major part of this Republican anticommunist attack on the Democrats was grounded in Cold War foreign policy, specifically in the events surrounding the Yalta Conference. It was at Yalta, the Republicans argued, that Roosevelt tried to appease Joseph Stalin by handing over Eastern Europe. There was no truth to the claim; by February 1945, when the Yalta Conference convened, Stalin was in firm control of Eastern Europe and refused to withdraw his troops. Roosevelt's only options were to accept the situation or remove the Soviets by force, which he was unwilling to do. But the Republicans saw it as a blatant act of appeasement and constantly accused the Democrats of being soft on communism for their willingness to negotiate with the Soviets. As the Cold War hardened through the late 1940s, the Republicans continually blamed the Democrats and their Yalta decisions for causing the world's problems.

    The Republican frontal assault against communism in 1946 was directed most often at Henry Wallace, certainly the most liberal and supposedly even the procommunist figure inside the Truman administration. Even though Truman fired Wallace in September, the Democrats had to carry the considerable weight of his liberal leanings into the election just a few weeks later. Wallace spent the time between being fired and election day traveling about the country, speaking on behalf of liberal Democratic candidates. The left wing flocked to his side. As the election approached, however, most Democratic candidates generally shunned Wallace, and many even hoped that his ouster from the Truman administration would help them with conservative voters who saw Wallace as far too liberal. By November it was clear that Wallace had kept large numbers of both liberal and conservative Democrats from voting Democratic. The conservatives saw the party as too liberal because of the influence of Wallace and the far left, while the liberals saw Wallace's removal as a sign that the party was moving to the right. The liberals generally stayed away from the polls, while conservative Democrats voted Republican in overwhelming numbers. In 1948 Truman and his advisers would look back on 1946 and see the potential disaster that a loose cannon like Wallace could cause and keep him as far away from the campaign as possible.

Conservative Democrats in the South joined the other groups in the Democratic party with their own criticisms of the administration. Truman's 21-Point Plan, laid out before Congress in September 1945, was a liberal blueprint to extend the New Deal, but it quickly alienated southern conservatives. They feared the growth of organized labor, but they especially feared the power a growing northern liberal-labor coalition in the Democratic party that by 1946 had come to include an important contingent of African Americans.

    During the war, southerners had vehemently opposed FDR's Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) that was designed to end racial discrimination in the war industries. FDR, however, had recognized that African Americans (particularly those moving to northern cities) were quickly becoming an important factor in American politics. The result was concessions from the White House, including the establishment of a wartime FEPC, the naming of prominent African American William Hastie as assistant to Negro affairs in the War Department, and in the military the establishment of the Tuskegee Airmen and the commission of the first African-American general. Southerners complained, but FDR made certain that the South was appropriately appeased. The New Deal continued to pump aid into the South, and war industries and military bases helped the southern economy during the war. Although the president's wife made overtures to African Americans, Roosevelt continued to toe the line on most issues dear to the South. Then as the 1944 election approached, Roosevelt folded under pressure from powerful southern congressmen (in coalition with northeastern urban bosses) and abandoned Henry Wallace for Truman as his vice-presidential candidate. In effect, FDR worked to keep the South in line while successfully laying the groundwork for a political relationship with northern urban blacks.

    When President Truman came to office, he wanted to continue FDR's success of winning African-American votes while maintaining control of the South. Truman was not unfamiliar with this strategy; as a Missouri politician he had received support from both black voters and the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and when he ran for the Senate in 1934 he received as many as 130,000 black votes in a state that maintained strong southern values and prejudices. But despite his past successes at balancing these groups, President Truman, at least before 1946, showed that he either had not learned from FDR's wisdom or he lacked FDR's political savvy for maintaining such a delicate balance. In Truman's defense, however, that balance was much more difficult to sustain in the postwar years than before 1945. By the time Truman became president, African Americans were making greater demands, their leadership was stronger, and their position as a political force in the northern cities had increased considerably. In addition, conservative southern Democrats voting with the Republicans were capable of wielding a conservative majority in both houses of Congress, and that coalition was powerful enough to halt Truman's domestic programs. Truman was thus placed in another pincer as the 1946 elections approached.

    The president's response to this political problem was to mollify the South at the expense of black voters, or more exactly, to pay lip service to the demands of African Americans while making sure that their demands were not met. The best example of this ill-conceived attempt at fence-riding was Truman's handling of the FEPC. It was scheduled to expire in June 1946. Several times Truman called for a permanent FEPC, but he never confronted the powerful congressional opponents of the bill for fear they would desert him on other issues. In December 1945 the president issued an executive order removing the FEPC's only effective enforcement weapon, its power of "cease and desist," thereby reducing the FEPC to an impotent fact-finding agency. Finally, in June the members of the FEPC resigned when funds were cut; thus the FEPC was sacrificed to the cause of politicai unity in the Democratic party.

    In November, the South remained solidly in the Democratic column. Democratic victories in the South were so secure in 1946 that several of Truman's advisers began to speculate that the region would surely hold in 1948 even if the president made major overtures to civil rights.

    At the same time, Democratic congressional candidates lost in several northern urban districts at least in part because African Americans chose either to vote Republican or to stay at home on election day. Many were disenchanted by Truman's lack of enthusiasm for civil rights, while others were put off by Democrats running white racist campaigns in the South during the summer of 1946. Southern Democrats Governor Eugene Talmadge of Georgia and Senator Theodore Bilbo and Representative John Rankin of Mississippi conducted overtly racist campaigns in 1946, and they were elected because of their views. U.S. News reported that the election of these southern Democrats had "sent many Negroes to wondering why they have been voting a ticket that embraces these men. So they are returning back to the Republicans." In addition, Truman made it clear by his lack of support for such initiatives as antilynching and anti-poll tax legislation that southern white votes meant more to him than northern African-American votes. For large numbers of black Americans (even those in the North who had escaped the racism of the South) a Democratic party that harbored such a powerful racist wing and an obviously sympathetic president held little appeal—and in November 1946 many African Americans either voted along the old Reconstruction loyalty lines for the party of Lincoln or did not vote. The gains that the Democrats had made in the Roosevelt years in bringing African-American voters into the New Deal coalition all seemed lost in 1946. "With Mr. Roosevelt gone and Mrs. Roosevelt no longer in the White House to offset the outburst of rampant Southerners, the Negroes are shifting away from the Democratic Party in many areas," reported U.S. News just before the election. All this, together with the GOP's active attempt to court black votes through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) by promising postelection concessions and a "square deal" for African Americans, brought Republican victories in close races in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago. After the election, Fortune reported that 15 percent of African-American voters switched to the Republican party in 1946, and most of those were in the northeastern and midwestern urban areas. Again, the lesson to Truman and the Democrats was clear. Significant voting strength in these cities could win for the Democrats in the 1948 election the large electoral votes of such states as New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois. The African-American vote was crucial for 1948. The South, it seemed clear, would hold.

    The Republicans, however, missed a golden opportunity to wrap up the northern African-American vote in 1948; they let it slip away because of their own overconfidence as a result of the 1946 victory. After the 1946 elections, the new Republican Speaker of the House, Joseph Martin, told a group of African-American leaders what they could expect from the Republican party in the future: "I'll be frank with you. We are not going to pass an FEPC bill, but it has nothing to do with the Negro vote. We are supported by New England and Middle Western Industrialists who would stop their contributions if we passed a law that would compel them to stop religious as well as racial discrimination in employment.... We may as well be realistic." African Americans learned their own important lesson from the election: the Republican party had nothing to offer them. Just as Truman had learned that he needed African-American votes to win in 1948, African Americans realized that they needed the Democratic party if they were to win any civil rights concessions in the future. Everyone learned.

The problems facing organized labor added to Truman's troubles. The labor situation in the immediate postwar era is an excellent example of the dramatic changes in the years after the war and how Truman, the first leader in this new age of American history, came face to face with entirely new situations. Truman's problems with labor also exhibited the new president's confrontational style, which was a hindrance in the first few months of his presidency but would become an asset after 1946 as he went head-on with the Republicans on almost every issue and almost always to his own political advantage. FDR had not succeeded by butting heads with the opposition, and to Americans who had lived since 1933 under the peaceful coexistence in American politics, Truman's confrontational posture was annoying, if not unacceptable. In no other situation was this more true than his handling of the nation's exasperating postwar labor troubles.

    A clash was inevitable. Wartime price controls had kept prices low, and most unions had agreed to refrain from wage demands until the war ended. But when Japan surrendered in August 1945, strikes broke out in nearly every industry. By October, 275 strikes were under way, four hundred thousand workers were out, and the National Labor Relations Board had received notification of 416 additional strike votes. By January 1946, 4.6 million workers were out on strike. In the spring Truman seized several industries, including coal, oil, meatpacking, and the railroads. The war's end brought an almost immediate rise in the cost of living, while the president seemed determined to keep wages down to wartime levels. In May 1946 labor leaders felt Truman went too far when he demanded the power to draft strikers. In September he fired Henry Wallace, labor's self-appointed representative in the White House, and organized labor responded by staying away from the polls on election days, just a few weeks later. Others went farther. A.F. Whitney of the Trainmen vowed to raise millions of dollars to end Truman's political career, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations's Political Action Committee (CIO-PAC) began a campaign to brand Truman a "fascist" and a "labor-hater." From all this Truman and his advisers had learned lessons taught over and over by the factionalism in the Democratic party: the coalition must be maintained at all costs, and disenchantment can keep voters at home on election day.

    At the same time, the incessant strikes that had paralyzed the country between the summer of 1945 and early 1946 had angered voters, and Truman received most of the blame. The strikes had taken the nation to the verge of economic collapse, had caused power cuts and brownouts, and resulted in shortages of basic consumer goods. Annoyances seemed to reach a boiling point on the eve of the 1946 election, when a dockworkers' strike in New York caused a national shortage of sugar while sugar sat rotting in ships in New York Harbor. Then John L. Lewis called a strike of the United Mine Workers (UMW) just one week before the election. In a desperate effort to avoid the rancor that would accompany a UMW walkout, Truman gave in to Lewis's demands at the last minute and averted the strike. Organized labor was satisfied, but to moderates in the party the president appeared weak and conciliatory while Lewis seemingly had wielded extreme power at the expense of the administration.

    Organized labor had been an important link in the Democratic party coalition since the mid-1930s. Thus it should not be surprising that American voters blamed the Democrats for the nation's problems with labor, and in November they responded by turning the Democrats out in droves. Of the eight most liberal labor-supporting senators, only one survived the election. All five senators supported by the CIO-PAC were defeated. Of the sixty-nine most liberal representatives, thirty-seven were defeated. As the general election approached two years later in 1948, Truman and his advisers would remember this lesson and push to win labor votes by opposing Republican antilabor legislation, but they would also work to keep labor in line by neutralizing such disruptive labor leaders as John L. Lewis.

    Labor had learned a valuable lesson as well. By staying away from the polls (which then gave a Republican Congress the power to pass antilabor legislation) it became obvious to organized labor that a moderate Democrat like Truman was far better than trying to deal with the Republicans. As the 1948 election approached and labor had felt the sting of Republican antilabor legislation, organized labor was willing to accept Truman at nearly any cost.

Another factor in the 1946 loss was Truman's handling of reconversion, the process of converting the nation's economy from wartime back to peacetime production. And Truman and the Democrats learned from that lesson as well. During the war the federal government maintained an elaborate system of controls designed to focus the economy on the war effort. This system, managed by the Office of Price Administration (OPA), regulated wages and prices and also controlled wartime production. To most Americans the inconvenience of such a system was a necessary cost of winning the war. At the same time, the controls allowed the average American worker to build up considerable savings during the war years at least in part because there were few products on the market to buy. In addition, much of the savings that accumulated were invested in war bonds. By 1945, $48 billion in war bonds were in the hands of American consumers, and most of that was readily cashable. Spendable wealth was thus at an all-time high; Americans were chafing at the bit to spend the money they had been saving for four years. In addition, more Americans were working than ever before. But when the war ended (more abruptly than anyone expected), the war industries ground to a halt, laying off as many as eight million workers. Add to that figure twelve million soldiers who were demanding a discharge and a job, and it became clear to most observers that the United States was headed for a dual shot of high inflation and unemployment—at least until industry could begin meeting the growing consumer demands and hiring the workers. Several of Truman's advisers, particularly Chester Bowles of the OPA, believed that problem would not occur for at least two years. Bowles convinced Truman to hold the line, to maintain wage and price controls through 1946 until industry could retool, reconvert, rehire, and get back to the American way of meeting consumers' demands.

    For the old New Dealers who had dug the country out of economic depression in the 1930s by inflating the currency and spending the money on liberal programs, the postwar economic situation was a perplexing turnabout. Reconversion replaced the New Deal as the management plan for the nation's economy, at least for the moment. And that meant keeping prices and wages artificially low, the very reverse of the New Deal strategy. In his State of the Union message in January 1946, Truman called for a balanced budget to deal with the country's economic problems. From FDR's wartime budget of over $67 billion, Truman proposed a budget of $35.9 billion and an ultimate end to the $4.3 billion deficit. Such a plan was no less Keynesian than the New Deal (economist John Maynard Keynes had called for balancing the budget in times of inflation), but for many liberals the turnaround brought fears that New Deal social programs might be sacked as the price of the new economic tack. Truman spent much of 1946 trying to belay such fears by cutting military spending rather than social programs.

    On August 18, 1945, just three days after V-J Day, Truman called for Americans to "hold the line" against inflation; wage and price controls would continue. Consumers, however, had come to believe that when the war ended they would put all the economic hardships behind them. Now, their new president was telling them that the products they had been denied for so long would remain unobtainable for just a while longer. American consumers complained bitterly at first, but when the OPA lifted controls on a few products and prices immediately shot up, public opinion polls showed that consumers were generally willing to live with price controls for a while longer to keep inflation under control.

    Much of Truman's problem with reconversion can be blamed on organized labor. After four years of agreeing to hold the line during the war, labor refused to do so when the war ended. As strikes erupted throughout the country and in nearly every corner of industry, wages and then prices rose. Steelworkers, for instance, received a 15 percent wage increase that translated into a $45 per ton increase in the cost of steel. The price of automobiles immediately rose, followed by price increases in other industries using steel. Truman moved to curb such obvious snowball effects by trying to stop the strikes, but it badly damaged his relationship with labor.

    One troubling result of reconversion was the growth of an active black market. This illegal activity subverted the intentions of the OPA, making it impossible to control prices in many sectors of the economy and in many areas of the country. For example, at least half the lumber sold in 1946 found its way to the black market, and nearly 80 percent of the butchers in New York City sold their meat illegally, above the price limits assigned by the OPA. As consumers continued to buy more and more products on the black market, the OPA's authority dwindled and the entire program began to appear unenforceable. Black market activities also gave Republicans ammunition to blame the Democrats for the economic problems of the average American, while warning the voters that all the regulations and government intervention in the economy was just a few steps from the deprivations and shortages of communism.

    The image of Americans purchasing products on the black market, illegally; openly, and with an attitude of accomplishment in their ability to circumvent the controls, conjured up recollections of Prohibition, when the portrait of the American government became tarnished for its inability to enforce unpopular laws. Fortune said that such activity lowered the moral standards of the American people. As the 1946 elections approached, the economic demands of the OPA became untenable, even ridiculous in some quarters, with strawberries rotting in the fields because the OPA refused to lift the controls on the production of wood cartons. Veterans were living in cars because of the scarcity of building products. Automobiles were being sold at the OPA price but with a spare tire thrown in at an additional $500. Store owners sold controlled products only if certain other products—not controlled and at highly inflated prices—were purchased as well. By November, Truman's reconversion was a popular joke.

    Truman did not help. One of the OPA's biggest problems was controlling the price of meat. In the summer of 1946, Truman went along with farmers' demands to lift controls on meat prices. Overnight, the price of veal went from forty to ninety cents per pound and steak rose from fifty-five cents to a dollar per pound. In late July, Truman tried to plug the break by reimposing price controls on meat and rolling prices back to wartime levels. By October just one month before the election) a virtual farm strike broke out against Truman's policy. Livestock producers held their stock off the market with the result that beef and pork became an unattainable luxury outside the black market. The press reported experiments with horse meat and soy curd as substitutes. Finally, on October 14, with his back to the wall, Truman again lifted the controls on meat. By then, however, both farmers and consumers were mad and blaming the administration. Three weeks before the 1946 election, the president once again appeared weak and indecisive, even foolish.

    In the days before the election, U.S. News reported that a majority of congressmen believed that the most important issue was price controls, followed by shortages and then foreign policy and the threat of domestic communism. After the election, Time reported that America had spoken out against "price muddles, shortages, black markets, strikes, Government bungling and confusion, too much Government in too many things. The majority of the people were fed up with all that." On November 9, four days after the election, by executive order, Truman removed all controls on wages and prices. On the economy, the people had spoken. Truman would not move on toward the 1948 election with the millstone of wage and price controls around his neck. The OPA was dissolved in the first months of 1947.

In the weeks before the 1946 election, the smell of defeat for the Democrats was clearly in the wind. The only surprise was the severity of the loss. Life had predicted a Republican landslide, and a Gallup Poll had reported that 56 percent of the voting public was unhappy with the Democratic party's track record. But when the smoke cleared, no one expected such a debacle. The Republicans won twelve seats in the Senate and fifty-five seats in the House. Only four of eleven Democratic incumbents in the Senate won outside the South. The Democratic party's three most renowned champions of reform were cast out of the Senate: Joseph Guffey of Pennsylvania, James Mead of New York, and Orrice Abram Murdock of Utah. In the House, the Democrats lost over 40 percent of the contested seats outside the South. In addition, the Republicans won a majority of the nation's governorships, something that had not occurred since the 1920s. Of the eight most liberal senators, only one survived; of the sixty-nine most liberal representatives, only thirty-two won. Of the seventy-seven congressmen who were rated at or above "80 percent liberal" by the New Republic, forty-one were sent home. And of one hundred candidates supported by the political capital of the administration, forty-seven were voted out of office.

    Organized labor was hurt worse than any interest group. Five of the top laborites in the House were defeated and another four in the Senate, while three states voted to bar the closed shop. Of the 78 candidates rated by the CIO-PAC at "100 percent" in support of labor, 42 were defeated, while 108 of the 132 the CIO-PAC stumped against were reelected. Newsweek reported that railway workers sat out the election because Truman broke their strike in the spring and that the CIO stayed away because Truman had fired Henry Wallace. Time suggested that large numbers of voters may have voted Republican because the Republicans had promised to weaken organized labor and stop inflation. Simply, it was an astounding victory for the Republicans and a horrible defeat for the Democrats.

    Truman even suffered a humiliating personal defeat in his home state. Congressman Roger Slaughter, a Missouri Democrat, managed to incur Truman's wrath by standing in the way of several of his domestic bills, including the bill to establish a permanent FEPC. Truman had supported Slaughter when he first ran for Congress in 1942 and then again in 1944, but in 1946 Truman pushed to have Slaughter defeated for the Democratic nomination. Truman's big mistake was asking the Pendergast machine in Kansas City to aid in Slaughter's defeat. Of course, it was Tom Pendergast and his unscrupulous Kansas City machine that had catapulted Truman to national prominence in the 1930s, and Truman had always had to face accusations that he was a dupe and a puppet of that organization. In the 1946 Democratic primary in Missouri, Truman's candidate, Enos Axtell, defeated Slaughter for the Democratic nomination, but the Kansas City Star uncovered election irregularities tied to the Pendergast machine, and Truman suffered the consequence in the press. After all the trouble and all the political chips spent by Truman on Slaughter's ouster, Axtell lost in November to a conservative Republican.

Probably the most important aspect of the 1946 election was that the Republicans misread its results. They felt they had been handed a mandate for change, that the era of New Deal liberalism had ended, and that they could now dismantle the New Deal programs. U.S. News reported that a new cycle in American political history was beginning and that the Republicans could be expected to remain in office for up to sixteen years. Newsweek speculated that the New Deal was at its end and announced, "An Era Begins." To Republican Senate leader Robert Taft, the Republican mandate was "to cast out a great many chapters of the New Deal, if not the whole book."

    The victory also gave the Republicans tremendous overconfidence. No party had ever won the midterm elections and then gone on to lose the White House two years later, and the Republicans began to plan for the probability of controlling both houses of Congress and the White House after 1948. Their attitude seemed to be that they could do as they pleased (at least on domestic issues) without worrying about suffering the repercussions in the presidential election. Thus the Republican-dominated Eightieth Congress had little concern for compromise or building coalitions outside its own conservative power base. Also, many Republicans were simply content to wait out the two years until one of their own would be elected president, to do nothing until they controlled both branches of government. By 1948, all this overconfidence would turn in Truman's favor.

    The election of 1946 also had a major impact on the balance of power inside the White House. Truman had chosen a cabinet that was basically conservative, and that group had maintained considerable influence over the president in the first eighteen months of his presidency. Men such as Secretary of the Treasury John Snyder, Secretary of Agriculture Clinton Anderson, and Truman's chief assistant John Steelman pushed for a conservative response to most important issues such as labor relations, race issues, and general economic policies. After the election, however, liberals in the administration including Special Counsel Clark Clifford, Leon Keyserling of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, and several others at the assistant secretary level were able to persuade Truman that the election results had shown that a move away from the basic policies of the New Deal had confused the American voter, that a liberal swing—a reaffirmation of the New Deal—would, in fact, bring voters back to the party in 1948. Truman was reluctant, but the 1946 defeat forced him to listen to Clifford and his liberal advisers in his administration.

The campaigns in 1946 had little to do with foreign affairs. In a spirit of postwar cooperation, the two parties were supposedly working together to solve the monumental problems that plagued the world after 1945. Any show of divisiveness, it was thought, would send the wrong signal in this crisis time. But to Truman, the results of the election had shown that American voters wanted something done about communism, both in the United States and abroad. Clear1y, voters had responded eagerly to Republican Redbaiting. Labor had taken big losses largely because of accusations by Republicans that the unions were lousy with communists. Henry Wallace's demands that the United States cooperate with the Soviets on several issues had obviously hurt liberal candidates, and Wallace himself was successfully labeled a communist by the Republicans and shunned by all but the most liberal Democratic candidates—and most of them lost. Although Truman said after the election that he did not see the results as a mandate to harden his policies against the Soviets, he must have believed that the voters had spoken against communism because he almost immediately began to take a tougher stance against Moscow. This hard line developed into the foreign policy of containment and military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey; finally in March and June 1947 the administration institutionalized the containment policy in the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. One result of the 1946 election was a hardening of the Cold War.

One month before the election, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. pointed out in Atlantic Monthly the gravity of the situation. It was, he said, the first election since FDR's death, the first since the atomic bomb, the first since the end of the war, "the first since the dark growth of the sense of irrepressible conflict between East and West. The most grave and consequential issues are poised for judgement." All of that was true, but the election also turned out to be a lesson to both parties that they needed to learn as the American political system moved into a new era in the years after the war. It was also Truman's nadir as president. His popularity in the polls was lower than for any president in the twentieth century. And to make matters worse, Democratic senator William Fulbright of Arkansas suggested immediately after the election that Truman name a Republican secretary of state (at that time next in line to succeed the president) and step down, like a British prime minister who had lost a vote of confidence in Parliament. The idea was taken so seriously in Washington that Truman felt compelled to respond, saying that he had no intention of relinquishing the presidency.

    The obvious deciding factor in the 1946 election was Truman himself. The Democratic party had been held together in one victory after another for sixteen years by the Roosevelt magic. Whatever charisma Roosevelt had, Truman lacked it, and the party factions responded by disintegrating. "The old groups that had been towers of strength for Franklin D. Roosevelt crumbled," reported U.S. News. "It will take long and arduous work for the Democrats to bring [the coalition] up to election-winning efficiency again." All Truman could do was move on to 1948, with the lessons of 1946 as a guide for the future.

What People are Saying About This

William C. Berman
Harry S. Truman's victory in 1948 remains one of the great events in American political history. Although the story of Truman's triumph that year is well-known, Donalson, thanks to his wide-ranging research into a variety of fresh primary and secondary materials, provides the reader with a detailed and clear account of how and why Truman won that election.

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