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In this persuasive reappraisal of Truman’s 1948 victory, Harold Gullan argues that it was neither the “greatest upset in American political history” (as popular mythology would have it) nor merely a successful extension of the coalition built by Franklin Roosevelt (as many historians contend). Aided by so many fortuitous circumstances, Gullan declares, Truman should have won by an even larger margin. Despite the near unanimous opinion of polls, pundits, and publications favoring Thomas E. Dewey, a win by Dewey would have been the authentic upset. Making his case, Mr. Gullan surveys Truman’s background and recreates the happy but anxious years just after the war, as well as the events of this remarkable campaign. He shows why, in retrospect, the results of 1948 make it—along with 1932 and 1968—one of the three most important elections in the twentieth century. Party loyalties gave way to independent voting, personal campaigning to the primacy of television; the cold war was enshrined as policy; and the bulwarks of New Deal legislation were preserved but little expanded. The Upset That Wasn’t was published on the fiftieth anniversary of this historic election.
of a Politician
In 1948 Harry Truman had been a professional politician for twenty-six years. As promising as his prospects appeared to be at the beginning of that year, Truman well understood the vagaries of public opinion. His nearly three years in the White House had been a jarring roller-coaster ride. The president's decision to run in 1948 could not have been easy. He was nearing sixty-five, his wife, Bess, longed to return to a life of relative normalcy, and Truman had often voiced his own frustration with the demands of "the Great White Jail." In his memoirs he stresses "unfinished business" but dwells more on continuity--his responsibility to preserve the gains of the New Deal and continue to "lead from strength" with the Soviet Union. But to a career politician who had reached the pinnacle of his profession, the recognition that he was still viewed as an "accidental president" must have helped shape Truman's determination in 1948 to win on his own.
Perhaps he had also been an "accidental politician," but Truman took more naturally to politics than to any of his earlier pursuits. In the presidential candidate of 1948 there was still much of the instinctive Truman of 1922, the stubborn Truman of 1924, the rebounding Truman of 1926, the confident Truman of 1930, the tireless Truman of 1934--and, most of all, the tenacious Truman of 1940, fighting for his political life against long odds. Anyone who imagines that 1948 represented the greatest challenge of Truman's electoral career should consider these earlier contests and even Truman's pre-political life--that is, his first thirty-eight years, when politics were not at the center of everything.
IN retirement, Truman would often tell groups of students who visited his presidential library that three experiences represented the ideal preparation for a career in public service: farming, finance, and the military. This must have seemed archaic to young people in the 1960s, but it corresponded to Truman's own experiences. Farming was not a matter of choice. The first of three children, he was born in 1884 in the agricultural community of Lamar, Missouri, to a family more Southern than Midwestern in its origins and outlook. His parents were in the second generation of families who had moved to western Missouri from Kentucky, with antecedents in Virginia and North Carolina, deriving from the "yeoman gentry" of England. His father, the feisty, restless, diminutive John Anderson Truman, both a livestock trader and a farmer, was a man of immense ambition. The one interest he shared with his shy, bespectacled, bookish elder son was a love of politics. The two would travel together to the picnics, barbecues, torchlight parades, and rallies that were staples of turn-of-the-century political campaigning--politics as entertainment.
Truman's books and spectacles (and piano lessons) reflect the influence of his strong-willed mother. When Harry was six, Mary Ellen Young Truman insisted the family move from her own parents' spacious farm in Grandview to the county seat of Independence, a long-established town with excellent schools. Harry proved a dutiful and conscientious if not brilliant student. Although he won no honors at his high school graduation, he expected to continue his education. But poor eyesight precluded his appointment to a service academy, and his father's folly finally ruled out college of any kind: John Truman had gambled and lost everything in commodities trading.
The family moved to Kansas City. There Harry held a succession of jobs, ultimately working as a bookkeeper and clerk at major banks, where his industry and demeanor were much praised. The bright lights of the city held an immense attraction for young Truman, especially its music halls and theaters. Settling in a lively boardinghouse, he became more gregarious and with his friends joined a newly formed National Guard artillery battery. If Truman had a plan for his life, Kansas City provided an introduction to both its financial and military components. It was with some regret that Truman heeded his father's call to return with the rest of the family to the Grandview farm. Its six hundred acres had become too much for Harry's maternal grandmother to continue to manage. Harriet Louisa Young lived into her ninety-first year; her unreconstructed sentiments were passed on to her receptive grandson. Truman's Democratic loyalty was as much a part of his inheritance as his Baptist faith.
William Kemper, a prominent banker and investor from Kansas City who supported the emerging Pendergast political organization there, enlisted John Truman to help promote its candidates in the rural regions of Jackson County. Thus when Harry Truman finally ran for political office, even his factional loyalties were inherited. Except for his years in the army and in Washington, Truman lived his entire life within Jackson County. A microcosm of American expansion, its western end was anchored by the metropolis of Kansas City, whose population was already more than 200,000 when the Trumans moved there in 1903. The rural eastern end of the county, homogeneous and Protestant, still included more than 40,000 residents spread over twenty-five towns and villages and more than three hundred farms in the fertile Missouri River valley. The diverse immigration that built Kansas City was more internal than foreign--poor whites and blacks moving up from the South. That the Pendergast brothers and most of their competitors for political power were Catholics of Irish extraction is more a tribute to their enterprise than their numbers.
Working in partnership on what was now the Truman farm forged a closer bond between father and son. Harry invested ten years in farming, surprising even himself. But he also spent a great deal of time off the farm, making the rounds of county socials and suppers, and sometimes returning to the diversions of Kansas City, just fifteen miles away. He renewed his acquaintance with Elizabeth Virginia Wallace of Independence, whom he had admired since childhood. He joined everything from the Masons and Farm Bureau to the community band, almost as if he were running for office.
"I was familiar with local politics," Truman recalled. He had been a page at the 1900 Democratic National Convention in Kansas City. He served as Democratic elections judge, a school director, postmaster of Grandview, and after the death of his father in 1914 he inherited his position as road overseer. By 1915 Harry was a frequent visitor to the Tenth Ward Democratic Club run by Mike Pendergast, the brother responsible for the eastern district of Jackson County. At his behest, Truman ran for his first political office as the Pendergasts' candidate for Washington Township committeeman. "I got licked," he recalled, "but I learned how the situation was worked out and profited by it."
Yet when Truman left active farming in 1915 his objective was not votes but wealth. In partnership with others, he plunged everything he could scrape up into a series of entrepreneurial ventures--land, lead and zinc mining in Oklahoma, and oil drilling in Kansas. Remarkably, the last of these risky, undercapitalized investments nearly made Truman a millionaire. After he sold his share of the drilling enterprise to a major oil company, their deeper drilling capacity struck immensely profitable pools of oil. By then Harry was a soldier in France, enjoying the first unqualified success of his life. He later wrote, "My whole political career is based on my war service and my war associates."
As a thirty-three-year-old with poor eyesight, ostensibly still engaged in the vital occupation of farming, Truman was under no obligation to volunteer when the United States entered the Great War in 1917. He did so, however, with clear enthusiasm. Rejoining the National Guard, he was surprised to be elected a first lieutenant, one victory for which he was not obliged to campaign. Within a year he was promoted to captain in the regular army and placed in charge of Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery, composed largely of tough Irishmen from areas of Kansas City little less foreign to Truman than France. Somehow he won the respect of these "wild men," and ultimately their affection. The challenges of command and combat confirmed--most importantly to Truman himself--his capacity to lead others. A bond was formed that lasted throughout Truman's lifetime; the veterans of Battery D would be with him in every campaign. A young lieutenant whom Truman saw frequently in France was Mike Pendergast's son Jim.
Within weeks of Truman's return to Kansas City in 1919, he married "Bess" Wallace and sold his share of the farm. With the proceeds and a bank loan, he opened an upscale Kansas City haberdashery in partnership with Eddie Jacobson, an army buddy experienced in retailing. Using the store as a base, Truman pursued other activities, particularly in newly formed veterans' groups. His establishment became a sort of headquarters for former servicemen when they visited downtown. For the first year the store prospered, but in 1921-1922, like many others, it fell victim to a severe business recession. The value of inventory plummeted. Truman would be paying off his debts for the next fifteen years. The causes of this postwar recession were complex, but to Truman they could be traced directly to the deflationary policies of one man: Warren G. Harding's austere secretary of the treasury, Andrew Mellon. "Old Mellon" became Truman's prototype of Republican reaction and indifference. Clearly the store was "going bust." Truman needed a job.
EIGHT years before Truman was born, an ambitious second-generation Irish-American named James Pendergast traveled downriver from St. Joseph, Missouri, to the more promising environs of an already burgeoning Kansas City. An iron puddler by trade but a risk-taking entrepreneur by inclination, Pendergast bet everything he had on a horse named Climax. With his winnings he opened a hotel and saloon near the Kansas City railroad station. Business prospered, but politics became Pendergast's true vocation. Expanding from his base in the immigrant bastion of "West Bottoms," Pendergast built the first viable political organization in the city, was elected alderman, and sent to St. Joseph for his three brothers to join him. Tom, the most talented, sixteen years younger than "Alderman Jim," would become his brother's true heir. He became known as "T.J." and preferred the urban environs of Kansas City. His brother Mike was dispatched to organize the rural eastern part of Jackson County. "Boss" was a term the Pendergasts always disdained, insisting that political power was based on nothing more complicated than making and keeping friends. In return for the timely distribution of commodities that poor people needed--a load of coal, a Thanksgiving turkey, or even a job--all they asked for was one's vote. As their neighborhood organization expanded, it exercised every form of election-day excess, but it was most noted for block-by-block organization. In time the Pendergasts would outdistance their less sophisticated rivals, become the dominant political machine in the area, and form alliances of mutual benefit with Kansas City's emerging business elite. In 1922, however, this was yet to be realized. The Pendergast "Goats" still vied with the "Rabbits" of the other major faction, run by Joseph Shannon, and with other less colorful Democratic configurations, as well as with the smaller Republican party. Temporary alliances abounded, based on the patronage that fueled all factions. A candidate running on his own had virtually no chance of winning.
In mid-1921 Mike Pendergast joined his son Jim in a visit to "Captain Harry" at the haberdashery. He made Truman an offer. Would he like to run for the Democratic party's nomination for Eastern District judge of the Jackson County Court? An ostensibly incredulous Truman said he would think about it. Even if he was not yet fully aware of his store's imminent problems, Truman recalls, "I liked the political game." It didn't take him long to decide to run.
This judgeship was an administrative, not a judicial, office. The three members of the Board of Judges that governed Jackson County were akin to powerful county commissioners. They levied taxes, built and maintained roads, ran the county courthouse and extensive facilities, dispensed a budget in the millions, and controlled some nine hundred patronage jobs. One judge from each of the eastern and western districts was elected every two years only by the residents of each region, giving the sparsely populated east political clout equal to Kansas City's. The presiding judge, however, was elected every four years by the entire county. In 1922 all three positions were up for election. Winning at least two of the three was the focus of every political faction.
The circumstances were ideal for someone with Harry Truman's credentials. Boasting deep roots in the region, Truman had a foothold in all three areas of Jackson County--farm, town, and city. His exemplary military record and leadership in veterans' affairs could translate into support from an important new constituency. As a former farmer, birthright Baptist, and active Mason, he was everything the Pendergasts were not. And while he had long been interested in local affairs, Truman carried little political baggage. Even his business failure would put him in the sympathetic company of many others who had striven beyond their means and were denied success by circumstances.
Truman's candidacy was announced in March 1922 at a raucous meeting of hundreds of veterans. Official Pendergast support was not confirmed until three months later, but there is no way Truman would have run without it. In future years he would make much of the fact that both his political benefactors, the Pendergasts in 1922 and Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, had come to him. But in 1922 Truman had not even met the true boss, T. J. Pendergast, and Roosevelt's decision was more pragmatic than personal.
However it happened, Truman had found his true vocation. Facing four other candidates in the 1922 Democratic primary, all older and more experienced in government or commerce, Truman demonstrated four characteristics that would mark his future campaigns:
--He devised and carried out his own strategy.
--He outworked everyone else.
--He stuck to a few simple themes.
--He viewed himself, justifiably or not, as an underdog.
Truman turned his inexperience into an asset, censuring the records of three of his opponents who had held county jobs. He campaigned tirelessly from June to August, visiting every precinct and township in the county, traveling in his old Dodge roadster over rutted roads. He made those roads the focus of his campaign, distributing leaflets that read: "My platform: good roads, a balanced road fund, economy, a day's work for a day's pay, fewer automobiles and more work for county employees. Harry S Truman." He even came to one rally in a friend's airplane; he threw up but managed to make his most effective speech of the campaign. Public speaking was an immense problem for Truman. It was never to come naturally to him, but he learned by constant repetition how to address large audiences with the same apparent simplicity and spontaneity as if he were talking with a few friends. It could be awkward but effective. "Plain speaking" began in 1922, not in 1948.
Truman won the primary by only 279 votes out of a total of 12,071 cast, narrowly defeating the Shannon candidate, a respected banker less vulnerable than the others to accusations of mismanagement. The close race was another precursor of Truman's political future. His victory was literally saved by a former artillery officer Truman had known in France. Now county marshal, he foiled Shannon's attempt to stuff ballot boxes. To the historian James David Barber, this primary election already put Truman's "foot on the first rung of his ladder to the presidency. His style was formed: aggressive rhetoric, swift decision, and, among men of good will, loyalty lasting to the final mile." Campaigning just as strenuously but spending even less money than in the primary, Truman won the general election by a more comfortable 2,749 votes. It was a fortuitous victory for the Pendergasts. Their candidate in the western region, Henry McElroy, also won, but the victorious presiding judge was a Shannon man. Truman's would be the deciding vote in the county court.
Without missing a beat, Truman examined "every road, bridge, lane, and county institution." As his biographer David McCullough writes, "Under McElroy and Truman a county debt of more than a million dollars was cut in half. The county's credit rating improved. So did county services and, most notably, the quality of work on the roads." Truman was also learning the practical lessons of politics, but here he deferred to McElroy. There was no split of patronage among the elected judges. Virtually all the jobs went to "Goat" Democrats loyal to T. J. Pendergast, alienating the other factions.
Even with the support of so normally an anti-Pendergast newspaper as the Kansas City Star, Truman faced a formidable challenge to his reelection in 1924. In the Democratic primary he won another narrow victory over a single opponent--6,757 to 5,119. In the general election, opposed not only by the Republicans but by every non-Pendergast Democratic organization and even the Ku Klux Klan (which Truman had refused to join due to its anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish bias), he managed to lose by only 877 votes. Other than his prewar race for Democratic committeeman, this was the only electoral defeat Truman ever suffered. The highlight of 1924 was the birth of the Trumans' only child, Margaret.
Despite making a substantial income selling memberships in the Kansas City Auto Club and attending law school at night, Truman continued to build relationships that would enhance his effectiveness as a candidate--in the Masonic Order, the Army Reserve, and the Old Trails Association. His two years out of office only reinforced Truman's commitment to a political career. In 1926 he finally met Thomas J. Pendergast, whose organization was primed for its greatest years. Their relationship would give Truman as much anguish as opportunity.
When Pendergast and Shannon decided to bury the hatchet in 1926 and form a united party, politics in Jackson County became predictable. That same year voters approved a new Kansas City charter establishing a city-manager form of government. The first city manager was none other than Henry McElroy. Although McElroy was well on his way to becoming a millionaire, Truman was still paying off his haberdashery debts. In 1926 Pendergast slated Truman to run for presiding judge of the Jackson County Court. This time there was no primary opposition and only token opposition in the fall. Under these circumstances even Truman could scarcely feel like an underdog. He beat his Republican opponent by more than 16,000 votes. Running for reelection in 1930, in a contest enlivened only by the use of radio, Truman won by 58,066 votes.
Truman's record on the court, despite having to overcome the mendacity of his associate judges, was one of remarkable achievement. His comprehensive master plan for a modern highway system throughout Jackson County was decades ahead of its time, and he succeeded in passing bond issues to finance it. He organized a Greater Kansas City Regional Planning Association, which was later expanded to the entire state. He promoted tax reform and improved facilities for the black residents of the county. His bond issues financed new hospitals and retirement homes, a remodeled courthouse in Independence, and a new one for Kansas City, fronted by a statue of his childhood hero, Andrew Jackson.
Truman's greatest challenge lay in keeping T. J. Pendergast's hands off these projects, especially in view of Pendergast's concrete company and his commitments to his contractors and cronies. It was an ethical dilemma Truman never fully resolved. He had the patronage to trade for honest contracts, but it was a constant, wearing struggle. Obliged to pad his payroll with hacks and incompetents, Truman looked the other way at their felonies to keep the bulk of his bond money secure. The pressure became more intrusive after the death in 1929 of Mike Pendergast, his buffer with T.J. Although Boss Tom called Truman "the contrariest cuss in Missouri," eventually the two made their own bargain. Truman's achievements rendered more likely the passage of projects run by others less scrupulous.
With increasing frequency between 1930 and 1934, Truman went to his hideaway in Kansas City's rundown Pickwick Hotel, where for hour after hour he would chronicle the emotional costs of this arrangement. "Am I an administrator or not? Or am I just a crook to compromise to get the job done? You judge it. I can't." Writing it all down became a form of self-therapy that Truman carried into his later career. He was concerned not only with moral ambiguity but with his own future. After the election of Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency in 1932, Truman took on the additional task, at no salary, of heading the Federal Reemployment Service in Missouri, reporting directly to Harry Hopkins in Washington. Truman hoped to be considered as Pendergast's candidate for governor or for a congressional seat. Both nominations went to others. The depression had deepened cuts in local programs, and with the rise of organized crime in Kansas City, Pendergast's venality turned more ominous. Having served his maximum two terms as presiding judge, Truman was obliged to leave the court in 1934. His Pickwick papers reveal the state of his mind: "I could have had $1,500,000, but I haven't a hundred and fifty dollars. Am I a fool or an ethical giant? I don't know ... I'll go out of here poorer in every way than when I came into office." Now turning fifty, Truman had yet to achieve lasting success.
ON HIS fiftieth birthday Truman found himself in the midst of a speaking tour, stumping the state for a bond issue. At his hotel he was surprised by a phone call from the Boss's nephew, his old friend Jim Pendergast, who was with Jim Aylward, Democratic state party chairman. Driving over to meet them in a nearby town, Truman was told that T. J. Pendergast wanted him to run for the United States Senate, an uncommonly ambitious transition for a county judge. Whatever had determined Pendergast to make this extraordinary decision, Truman had the presence of mind to ask a few direct questions. Even with organization support, he realized, he would need all its resources to win a statewide race, including seed money to launch the primary campaign. Aylward assured Truman he would have everything necessary, including the chairman's influence throughout the state. In a matter of weeks Truman had gone from despair to what might well be the culmination of his career.
In 1934 the Pendergast organization ruled Kansas City but hardly all of Missouri. T.J.'s senatorial candidate only two years before had been handily defeated by a rival Democrat, Bennett C. Clark, the ambitious son of legendary House Speaker "Champ" Clark, who went on to win in the general election. It was customary in Missouri to have one senator from the western part of the state, around Kansas City, and one from the east, around St. Louis. In 1934 that was not the case. Clark came from the east, as did the senior senator, a colorless conservative Republican named Roscoe Conkling Patterson. Out of tune with the times, Patterson seemed a vulnerable target to the Democrats. Two popular congressmen vied with Truman for the nomination. Clark induced Jacob L. "Tuck" Milligan, who represented a rural district only fifty miles from Kansas City, to declare for the seat. The later entry of John J. Cochran of St. Louis, even more of a proven vote-getter than Milligan, worked against Aylward's help in the east. Truman would have his hands full, but a three-cornered race also split the anti-Pendergast (or "good government") forces.
Pendergast was the issue in the primary, with Milligan, Cochran, and Clark all charging that Truman was little more than the Boss's office boy, a characterization that would linger long after the 1934 election. If locally the issue was one of independence, nationally it was the opposite. Each of the three candidates fervently supported the New Deal and claimed he could best bring its benefits home to Missourians. The only substantive difference on issues was the veterans' bonus, which Truman favored and his two rivals (and the administration in Washington) opposed. This scarcely handicapped Truman with Missouri's hardpressed veterans. Just as he had in 1922, Truman turned his lack of experience into an asset, culling the congressional records of Milligan and Cochran for local relevance and denouncing both for their failure "to support the best interests of farmers in bankruptcy legislation."
Once again Truman outworked and outplanned his opponents, delivering six to sixteen speeches a day in 60 of the state's 114 counties, despite fierce midsummer heat, in the automotive equivalent of whistle-stopping. He made perfunctory appearances in Kansas City, where he couldn't lose, and entirely avoided St. Louis, where he couldn't win, focusing his efforts on the rural heartland of the state. Truman's homegrown connections were unmatched--in farm, Masonic, and veterans' organizations, but most of all through his eight years as presiding judge of the Jackson County Court, culminating in the presidency of the Missouri County Judges Association. The support of many of these politically connected judges and their "courthouse gangs" proved of immense value.
The senatorial election was won in the small towns and hollows of the "out country," just as Truman had anticipated. His overall plurality in the Democratic primary was 40,745. Even allowing for the organization's overkill in Kansas City, had there been a single anti-Pendergast candidate rather than two, Truman would have lost. In the general election Truman won by more than a quarter of a million votes. The state's media accorded him little credit for his victory. From the Kansas City Star to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, major newspapers lamented this latest manifestation of machine politics. As for the lopsided general election, the popularity of President Roosevelt, the unpopularity of Senator Patterson, and the impact of federal relief funds were viewed as more decisive factors than Truman's skillful and energetic campaign. In his first statewide election, Truman's triumph was widely viewed in the context of another man's electoral coalition. The shadow of Roosevelt dominated in 1934, just as the shade of Roosevelt would dominate in 1948.
STILL, Truman could not be denied an immense satisfaction upon taking his seat in the Senate chamber in January 1935. Although some members of that august body might view him as merely "the senator from Pendergast," he was greeted warmly by most of his new colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Following the admonition of Senator Carl Hayden to be "a workhorse" rather than a "showhorse," Truman sought to earn his place within the inner circle of conscientious men who managed legislative affairs. His major committee assignments, Appropriations and Interstate Commerce, reflected his experience in budget building and his interest in planning. His first term culminated in the writing of the Transportation Act of 1940 and the passage of the Civil Aeronautics Act.
Truman had campaigned on the premise of his support for the New Deal. He was a Democrat, however, who believed in balanced budgets. While he may have blamed the collapse of his own retail establishment on the villainy of Republicans, the experience also cemented his abiding aversion to deficit spending. First and foremost, Truman was a pragmatic politician with one eye always trained on his constituents at home and the other on gaining acceptance in Washington. In a rare instance of public introspection, Truman in his memoirs related his preoccupation from childhood with calculating how to please others. In 1934 Truman's acceptance of the New Deal was based more on its popularity in Missouri and on his sense of party loyalty than on any deep ideological commitment. "Over the next ten years," the historian James W. Hilty writes, Truman "carefully and selectively supported New Deal initiatives, sensibly responded to the interest groups upon which the fortunes of the Democratic Party rested, and patiently and adroitly maneuvered into a position of influence within the Senate."
In this context, Truman's advocacy of civil rights reflected the reality of 250,000 black voters in Missouri. His support of the Wagner Labor Act reflected the influence of powerful railroad brotherhoods at home. His voting record of moderate liberalism encompassed the enactment and perpetuation of Social Security, the Public Works Administration, and housing legislation but opposed the costly expansion of many New Deal programs. Whatever his stance, he was rarely outspoken. Sometimes his loyalty overcame his sentiments, as in his reluctant approval of Roosevelt's 1937 bill to "pack" the Supreme Court by adding justices more sympathetic to New Deal legislation.
By 1939 Roosevelt needed help to pass even a watered-down bill to reorganize his executive offices. Senator Truman was summoned to return from Jefferson City, Missouri, to vote for the bill. A furious Truman, weary from a perilous overnight flight in a snowstorm, complied but informed the president's press secretary that he was tired of being treated as a functionary. The next day the president himself invited Truman to the White House "for a friendly conversation." After expressing his belated appreciation for Truman's support, the president turned to the political situation in Missouri, about which he seemed to know a great deal. He wanted it cleaned up.
Truman's loyalties were about to collide. When he went to Washington he had agreed with Pendergast on a separation of Senate and non-Senate business. Indeed, Boss Tom's only call on "Senate business" was at the behest of the White House--a clumsy attempt to ask Truman to support Alben Barkley as Senate majority leader. Truman had pledged his vote to another, and stuck with it. By the end of his first senatorial term, it was more the residue than the reality of his connection with Pendergast that imperiled Truman's prospects for reelection.
Between 1936 and 1939 everything had collapsed for the Boss. His health had failed. His gambling had turned from an avocation to a runaway addiction. The organization foundered without his hands-on leadership. Both the local business community and the administration in Washington decided against further association with so overtly corrupt a political machine. By 1938 T. J. Pendergast's activities were being investigated by everyone from the Treasury Department and the FBI to a local reform group spearheaded by U.S. District Attorney Maurice Milligan, whose brother had run against Truman in 1934. The probes were supported by Governor Lloyd C. Stark, who had been elected in 1936 with the support of both Truman and Pendergast. In the spring of 1939 Boss Tom was convicted of income-tax evasion and sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary. Released on parole after a year and a day, and barred from political activity, he died less than five years later. Harry Truman said at Pendergast's funeral, "He was my friend and I have always been his."
As 1940 approached, Truman determined that he would run for reelection to the Senate. It is less certain whether Franklin Roosevelt had yet decided to run for an unprecedented third term as president of the United States. Not only Republicans but many Democrats were opposed to the idea--either vocally or, like Harry Truman, quietly. Among the alienated were Vice-President John Nance Garner and Roosevelt's key political strategist, Jim Farley, both of whom had their own ambitions, as well as Secretary of State Cordell Hull. To his confidant Harry Hopkins, a tired Roosevelt revealed the desire to return to his Hudson Valley home at Hyde Park, write his memoirs, and oversee construction of the first presidential library. Only a deterioration of world events would induce him to run again. If this was so, the German blitzkrieg in the spring of 1940 made up the president's mind.
In what looked to be a difficult race, Roosevelt needed allies as reliable as Truman had proven to be, but the president preferred someone in Missouri with less dubious associations. Nearing the end of his term, Governor Stark, a wealthy apple grower who could finance his own campaign, stepped forward to volunteer. Stark and the president determined to get Truman out of the race by offering him a seat on the Interstate Commerce Commission, an overture that Truman bitterly rejected.
Instead he called a meeting of his supporters. According to Truman biographer Robert H. Ferrell, "Half of those he asked did not show up, and the other half saw only defeat facing the senator. Truman then said he would run even if he received only his own vote." Thus began Truman's "loneliest campaign"--in 1940, not 1948. Running on a shoestring, he exceeded even his frenetic pace of 1934, speaking in 74 of Missouri's 114 counties. He ran a positive campaign in the Democratic primary, stressing his record of promises fulfilled--to labor, farmers, and small business--and dwelling on the need for a program of national preparedness. He also emphasized giving every citizen a fair break, including Negroes, a stance that contrasted with Stark's insensitivity and rallied black leaders to Truman. The railroad brotherhoods distributed half a million copies of a special Missouri edition of their newspaper, promoting Truman as a friend of labor and off-setting his scant newspaper support. Despite the tacit endorsement of Stark by their president, Democratic senators from around the nation interrupted their summer schedules to go to Missouri and speak for Truman, illustrating the esteem in which he was already held in that body.
Still, it was an uphill struggle against the well-entrenched Stark until another Milligan came unintentionally to Truman's aid. This time it was the prosecutor of Pendergast, District Attorney Maurice Milligan, who entered the race. He may well have been encouraged to do so, as had his brother in 1934, by Senator Clark. In his desire to dominate Missouri politics, Bennett Clark no longer had Pendergast to worry about but a new opponent in Lloyd Stark, who viewed himself as a personification of reform. In this new three-sided primary, characterized by Truman as "the most bitter, mud-slinging campaign in Missouri's history of dirty campaigns," he wasn't slinging much of the mud. With Clark urging on Milligan and Stark denouncing them both, Truman had the high road to himself.
As Milligan faded and Stark began to blunder, both Clark and the president shifted gears. An ardent isolationist, Clark differed with Truman on policies, but six years together in the Senate had engendered a personal rapport. As for Roosevelt, he knew what he had in Truman, but Stark's irrepressible ambition gave him pause. At the Democratic National Convention in July, which Truman also attended, Stark in mid-campaign also seemed intent on running for the vice-presidency or any other office that might be available. How dependable would he be in the Senate?
It was a most peculiar convention. Apparently also influenced by world events, the Republicans had bypassed such established isolationists as Senator Robert A. Taft to nominate for president a political newcomer, Wendell L. Willkie. An engaging forty-eight-year-old utilities executive from Indiana who had criticized the New Deal but stood for collective security, Willkie had been dubbed "the barefoot boy from Wall Street" by Roosevelt's acerbic secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes. Willkie appeared to be a formidable opponent.
With Mayor Edward J. Kelly of Chicago, Roosevelt now engineered a "draft." Convention chairman Barkley read to the assembled delegates an extraordinary message from the president saying that he had no desire to continue in office and that they were "free to vote for any candidate." With polls indicating Roosevelt to be the only prominent Democrat who could win in 1940, even disgruntled delegates had little choice but to go along with the orchestrated nomination. Yet they still harbored the impression they could name their own vice-presidential candidate to replace the departing Garner. A host of hopeful contenders were lining up support, including Lloyd Stark, busily distributing bushels of his apples. But Roosevelt, who communicated daily only with Harry Hopkins in Chicago, had no intention of relinquishing this decision. Wanting someone who supported his views, and having been rebuffed by Hull, the president settled on his secretary of agriculture, Henry A. Wallace. Wallace, a former progressive Republican, whose loyalty was to the New Deal and Roosevelt rather than to the Democratic party, did not even enjoy the support of his own Iowa delegation. When informed of Roosevelt's wishes, the convention neared a stare of insurrection, not even ameliorated by the visit of the president's wife, Eleanor. Roosevelt finally settled the matter by threatening not to accept his own nomination unless the delegates named Wallace as his running mate. A disappointed Stark returned to Missouri, confident that at least he could beat Harry Truman for the Senate.
The Democratic primary in Missouri, however, had tightened to a race that newspapers now viewed as "too close to call." It would be determined, as happened so frequently in Truman's career, by the unexpected intervention of others concerned with their own priorities. The "plain folks" appeal of Truman contrasted with the urbane egotism of Stark, but it was not the farm vote that would resolve the outcome in 1940. The political machine in Missouri that still retained its influence was no longer in bustling, wide-open Kansas City but in staid St. Louis. Just as capable of padding voting rolls and "delivering" districts as the Pendergast organization had been, it was run by Mayor Barney Dickmann and an ambitious young county chairman named Robert E. Hannegan. Initially the St. Louis bosses favored Stark. Their priority, however, was not the senatorial race but the election of the next governor, the state's prime dispenser of patronage and favors. Their own candidate, a political hack, paled beside his competitor in the primary, a respected state legislator supported by most of the reform elements in Missouri. Truman and Stark endorsed neither, but many of Stark's associates could not contain their enthusiasm for the good-government candidate.
At this juncture Senator Clark intruded. With his own candidate for the Senate, Milligan, almost out of the running, Clark not only took to the stump for Truman, he also took to the telephone. Supported by some of Truman's friends from Jackson County, Clark told Dickmann and Hannegan in St. Louis that if they did not come through for Truman, and if their candidate for governor were to win the primary, "We'll cut his goddamn throat in the fall." Old "Alderman Jim" would have been pleased by how little the tenor of Missouri politics had changed. It is unclear whether Dickmann deserted Stark, but Hannegan took Senator Clark at his word and induced his own supporters to switch to Truman.
St. Louis made the difference, giving Truman a lead of 8,391 votes; his statewide margin was only 7,976. The final result was Truman, 268,557; Stark, 260,581; Milligan, 127,363. Just as in 1934, had a Milligan stayed out of the race, Truman's opponent would have won. As it turned out, the St. Louis bosses' candidate for governor lost in the general election (to a Republican friend of Truman's), but Hannegan had earned the gratitude of both of Missouri's senators.
This time the general election in the fall was a challenge. Stark, who had earned Truman's enduring enmity, sat on his hands. The Republican candidate, Manvel Davis of Kansas City, had no shortage of targets. It must have seemed strange to Truman to be portrayed as the stooge not only of Franklin Roosevelt and the fallen Pendergast but now of the Dickmann-Hannegan machine as well. Would he never be taken seriously on his own? Truman simply ignored Davis, as he would future opponents, and focused on the need for continuity in Washington. Even more than in 1934, Roosevelt was the issue--his accumulated power, the third term, and his increasing involvement in Europe's war. Davis had earlier criticized Truman as a county executive whose predilection for planning bordered on socialism, but his emphasis in 1940 was on the man in the White House. Roosevelt won Missouri by 87,467 votes, and won the election, although by a much smaller margin than in 1936. Truman won by only 44,399 votes out of 1,817,657 cast. In a remarkable reversal of its earlier prediction that "Truman is through in Missouri," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch concluded, "Senator Truman has been on the whole a satisfactory Senator. Now seasoned by experience, he should make an even better record in his second term." With his previous benefactor ailing and inactive, and his future benefactor opposing his reelection, Truman's triumph in 1940, not in 1948, was the great upset of his political career.
Taken together, Truman's primary campaigns in 1934 and 1940 area precursor of his victory in the presidential election of 1948. Missouri's urban-rural mix was more representative of the nation as a whole than that of many states west of the Mississippi. Truman demonstrated his ability to win in both regions. In 1934 the farm vote was vital, in 1940 the support of organized labor. Big-city bosses were significant in both elections, in Kansas City in 1934 and in St. Louis in 1940. In both campaigns Truman enjoyed the backing of minorities, most importantly the black vote, and survived overwhelming media opposition. He took advantage of the mistakes of a smug, overconfident opponent in 1940 and more experienced opponents in 1934. In both elections Truman outworked and largely ignored his actual competitors and faced more than one major candidate. In both he benefited from the aid of people with their own agendas, such as the Milligans, and in 1940 Clark and Hannegan. In both primaries Truman's victory margins were slender.
Dominating in both the general elections in these years was the imposing figure of Franklin Roosevelt, the issue even in absentia. Roosevelt's domestic policy was endorsed in 1934, as was his foreign policy in 1940. Even without FDR's sanction, Truman may have enjoyed something closer to a New Deal electoral coalition in his senatorial contests than in the 1948 presidential election. He slept soundly on that dramatic election night, with the outcome still in doubt, just as he had eight years before. It was hardly a new experience.
EVEN before the end of his first term in the Senate, Truman had little doubt that the United States would be drawn into the war. Since Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall suggested that fifty-six was rather an advanced age for active duty, Truman determined to aid the cause of preparedness from his Senate seat--or, more accurately, by leaving it to travel throughout the nation. When constituents complained of waste and mismanagement at Missouri military bases and the inability of small firms to obtain government contracts, Truman decided to see for himself. By 1941 an unprecedented national defense program was under way throughout the country. Reflecting public opinion, Congress was still predominantly isolationist but agreed on the necessity for American preparedness. The resulting effort, uniting business, government, and labor, finally helped pull the nation out of the depression. Truman set out to determine how this immense investment was being spent, traveling to factories and military installations as distant as Florida and Texas. His unhappiness with what he saw led in March 1941 to the establishment of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. It came to be known as the Truman Committee, and its activities dominated Truman's second term in the Senate. The committee would last until 1948, but its most productive period was under Truman's chairmanship from 1941 to 1944.
Although initially granted only limited funding, by August 1941 Truman's investigators had already uncovered massive fraud and waste in the nation's billion-dollar camp-building program. In 1942 the committee's appropriations increased and its scope widened. The Truman Committee is still viewed as a model for responsible congressional oversight. Truman, who knew something of the value of coalitions, carefully selected the four other Democratic and two Republican senators who joined him, all serious "workhorses" like himself. Still, it was inevitable that media attention would focus on the no-nonsense chairman, especially after the United States was plunged into World War II by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Truman's face appeared on the cover of Time, and he was rated one of the ten most influential men in Washington. Even President Roosevelt, initially suspicious of such intrusive investigation, gave Truman high marks for his evenhanded performance. The Missourian's most notable senatorial achievement was also his most visible.
New Vice-President Henry Wallace was also busy, doing far more than presiding over the Senate. The president entrusted him, unlike his predecessor, with major responsibilities. Roosevelt's first vice-president, "Cactus Jack" Garner of Texas, an experienced politician who held a low opinion of the office, agreed to run in 1932 only to help assure a Democratic victory. He ran again with Roosevelt in 1936 despite his disagreement with most of the New Deal. Garner's presidential ambitions were finally terminated by Roosevelt's decision to run for a third term. But because of his many friends in Congress, Garner had been valuable to Roosevelt as a reliable barometer of congressional sentiment.
The polar opposite of his predecessor, Wallace supported the president unreservedly. Wallace's ideas in fact went well beyond the New Deal, but he was exceedingly uncomfortable in the company of politicians. When Roosevelt named him to the Board of Economic Warfare, Wallace soon fell into conflict with more practical-minded cabinet members. Such disputes were not uncommon in the loose structure of the Roosevelt administration, but wartime conditions impelled greater unity. A more successful experience was Wallace's secret role as the president's direct link with scientists working on the atomic bomb, whose existence Truman would be unaware of until he became president. When his committee's investigators uncovered mysterious installations in Tennessee and Washington State, Senator Truman was warned off by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. "I can't tell you what it is," Stimson told Truman, "but it is the greatest project in the history of the world."
Truman admired Wallace's performance as secretary of agriculture but was critical of the Iowan as vice-president, citing his utter lack of rapport with senators. Given Wallace's background, this should not have been surprising. Wallace had inherited his family's farm magazine and progressive proclivities. A skilled plant geneticist, he developed hybrid corn that made him a millionaire but also heightened his concern for a more abundant society. A visionary and something of a mystic, Wallace had little practical political experience when he joined Roosevelt's cabinet.
Particularly during the war, the scope of Wallace's reflections expanded to worldwide dimensions. In May 1942, with the ultimate outcome of the conflict still in doubt, Wallace delivered an address that spelled out his vision of the postwar world. This time, he declared, universal peace must usher in a "people's revolution ... a better standard for the common man ... international monopoly under control ... no privileged peoples," free trade, and subordination of "lesser interest" to the "general welfare throughout the world." Such utterances, as well as articles espousing the "century of the common man," developed a constituency for Wallace that was peculiarly his own: a diverse assemblage of academics, youthful idealists, human-rights activists, iconoclastic journalists, liberal clergy, left-leaning labor leaders, and progressives from an earlier era. For a time even Eleanor Roosevelt viewed Wallace as her husband's logical heir, a man who could reinvigorate and extend the New Deal and preserve world peace.
To the leadership of the Democratic party, however, Wallace's pronouncements were redolent of socialism or even communism, especially in view of the vice-president's empathy with the Soviet Union, which went far beyond the acknowledgment of a wartime alliance. In his only election Wallace had been foisted on the party faithful by Roosevelt. Democratic leaders such as the new national chairman, Bob Hannegan, who had taken the job at Truman's urging, were as uncomfortable with the vice-president as he was with them. When the 1942 off-year elections produced Republican gains that exceeded expectations, it was, in the words of the political writer Michael Barone, "taken as a repudiation of New Deal policies and the mobilization effort at home." Democratic leaders determined to make the highly visible Henry Wallace a casualty of this conclusion.
By 1944 the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt. Unlike in 1940, there was no question that Roosevelt would run for a fourth term. He was billed as "the indispensable man" who would lead the nation through to a secure peace. Wallace, however, was viewed as eminently dispensable by the party bosses and strategists who had supplanted men like Pendergast and Farley--not only Hannegan but Mayor Kelly of Chicago, Frank Hague of New Jersey, Ed Flynn of the Bronx, wealthy party treasurer Edwin Pauley, Postmaster General Frank Walker, and George Allen. Primarily nonideological, they wanted a vice-president they knew and could work with. Their motives, however, were not entirely self-serving. They viewed Wallace as a dreamer, temperamentally unsuited to be president of the United States.
Although concealed as much as possible from the public, it was clear to anyone who saw President Roosevelt with any frequency that he was seriously ill. Whomever the Democrats nominated to run with him in 1944 would almost surely be president before his term ended. Somehow Roosevelt had to be convinced that Wallace would be a detriment to his reelection. But much had changed since 1940. Wallace's idealism helped buoy the nation, and he was far more popular with delegates to the upcoming Democratic National Convention than he had been four years earlier. National party leaders, now virtually conspirators, found a powerful ally in the White House. "Pa" Watson, Roosevelt's appointments secretary, shared their opinion of Wallace. As Roosevelt's gatekeeper, Watson initiated a policy of admitting anti-Wallace visitors to see the president and largely keeping out those with pro-Wallace sentiments.
The Republican party also proved helpful to Hannegan and his associates. Meeting first, as it normally did, the GOP nominated as its candidate for the presidency no political amateur but the youthful, progressive governor of New York, Thomas E. Dewey. The vigorous Dewey had made his reputation as a racket-busting district attorney, and he proposed to put the Roosevelt administration itself on trial. This would be no easy task in wartime, but efficient reconversion to peace would also be on the minds of the electorate. Dewey vowed "an end to one-man government," declaring that Roosevelt "has been able to bury his blunders in foreign affairs under the march of mighty events. He has not been able to bury his domestic blunders." When popular Governor Earl Warren of California declined to join him, Dewey acceded to the nomination of conservative Governor John Bricker of Ohio as his vice-presidential candidate. As in 1940, the Republican ticket thus reflected both wings of the party. Early polls indicated considerable Republican strength. Roosevelt might be well advised to consider a running mate unlikely to alienate any sizable bloc of voters.
That the president was wavering with respect to Wallace is indicated by FDR's decision to send his vice-president on a tour of Asia shortly before the Democrats were to convene. Meanwhile, with his advisers, Roosevelt considered potential replacements. He thought highly of James F. Byrnes, a former senator from South Carolina who had been named to the Supreme Court but left to accept a key post with the administration as a virtual "assistant president" for domestic affairs. But Byrnes was a conservative who lacked labor support, and a Catholic who had converted to the Episcopal church, and thus he would not be well received by many voters in major Northern states. Roosevelt also liked Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, but Douglas had little organization support.
At a White House dinner with Democratic leaders in July, the issue was resolved. Even Hannegan's original premise had been more anti-Wallace than pro-Truman, but as the alternatives were considered one by one, Truman emerged as the most viable choice for the vice-presidency. At sixty he was not too old. He had long been active in the party and was well respected in the Senate. His fiscal sanity appealed to conservatives while his close ties to labor, farmers, and minorities made him at least acceptable to liberals. The last thing Roosevelt desired was a recurrence of the 1940 convention debacle. Despite efforts to discourage them, Wallace and Byrnes went to the Democratic National Convention, again in Chicago, convinced they might still be in the running, as did Alben Barkley. Byrnes and Barkley both asked Truman to nominate them. Byrnes asked first, and Truman agreed not only to do so but to try to help bring others to his cause.
It is generally believed that a weary, weakened Roosevelt, preoccupied with his wartime responsibilities, was agreeable to any candidate approved by the party leaders who would not do the ticket serious harm. Roosevelt is even reputed to have said, "I hardly know Truman." But shortly before his death Hopkins confided to the writer Robert Sherwood that the president had long had his eye on Truman, particularly as someone who could help secure Senate ratification for the peace treaties.
Although Truman went to Chicago intent on helping Byrnes, as described by Truman biographer Richard Lawrence Miller, "Every time he went on a mission for Byrnes, he came away with another endorsement for Truman." The leaders of many delegations already had received the word. In his letters at the time and in his subsequent accounts, Truman claims he didn't want the vice-presidential nomination and did nothing to obtain it, but he had never firmly denied that he would accept it. When Hannegan finally asked Truman to his hotel room to hear the actual voice of the president calling from San Diego and asking, "Bob, have you got that fellow lined up yet?" Truman is reported to have replied, "Why the hell didn't he tell me in the first place?" With the galleries packed by Wallace supporters, it still took some maneuvering by Hannegan and his associates to exercise their control of the convention's machinery and secure Truman's nomination. The whole protracted exercise may seem a characteristic contrast between Roosevelt's deviousness and Truman's straightforward behavior, but as Barkley later remarked to Truman, "You may not have sought this office you have held, but whenever they were out looking for you, you were riding mighty slow."
At an August meeting, one of only three between the convention and the inauguration, Truman lunched with the president behind the White House under a great tree that had been planted by Andrew Jackson. Roosevelt made a rare reference to his mortality. Telling Truman that he would have to do the bulk of the campaigning, Roosevelt urged him not to fly because "one of us has got to stay alive." Thus began Truman's first campaign by train. After lunch Truman told the press that Roosevelt looked robust, was as fully in charge as ever, and had eaten heartily. In fact Truman was appalled by the president's appearance and his trembling hands, but he set out dutifully to reelect the man upon whom "the future of the peace and prosperity of the world depends." He traveled some 7,500 miles across the nation and made fifty-four speeches, but his efforts were overshadowed by Roosevelt's late forays into the campaign and by news from the battlefronts. It was Truman's easiest but also his least satisfying race, as a surrogate talking to modest crowds. In October Roosevelt had himself driven in an open car for 50 miles in the rain throughout the five boroughs of New York City to dispel rumors about his health. A month before, he had made his most memorable address of the campaign at a Teamsters dinner, whimsically scolding the Republicans for attacking even his "little dog Fala."
That address particularly galled Dewey. In a forceful response in Oklahoma City that galvanized his supporters, Dewey attacked the president for his unseemly levity. He accused the administration of having been woefully unprepared for war, quoting not only military leaders but Senator Harry Truman. Roosevelt was indeed indispensable, Dewey went on, but only to party hacks, bureaucrats, Communists, and others of his "motley crew." Previewing their role four years later, virtually the only Republicans who didn't like the speech were Dewey's wife and his closest advisers, who preferred a more statesmanlike stance. This Dewey had tried to effect in ways that would also foreshadow his campaign in 1948. He met with Secretary of State Hull to work out a "bipartisan" (Hull preferred the term "nonpartisan") agreement to take any debate about the role of the United Nations out of the campaign. In the interest of national security, Dewey also reluctantly yielded to a personal plea from Army Chief of Staff Marshall not to reveal that broken Japanese codes had informed the administration in 1941 that war was imminent in the Pacific.
The final Gallup poll before the 1944 election gave Roosevelt a lead of only 51 to 49 percent, with some 3.5 million service personnel an imponderable. As it turned out, Roosevelt won 53.39 to 45.89 percent, with a majority in the electoral college of 432 to 99. Dewey, however, won twelve states, two more than Willkie had in 1940, primarily in the Midwest, and came close in a number of major industrial states as well. Despite positive signs for the future of the GOP, there is no doubt that Roosevelt could have won just as readily with Wallace as with Truman. To try to make it up to his former vice-president, Roosevelt nominated him to be secretary of commerce. The president also tried to mend fences by being especially solicitous of Byrnes. To his new vice-president, Harry Truman, Roosevelt confided little. Two days after the inauguration he was on his way to Yalta to meet for the final time with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Roosevelt lived only another eighty days.
|1||The Making of a Politician||7|
|2||The Toughest Job in the World||38|
|3||The Campaign Takes Shape||60|
|4||The Conventions - Not at All Conventional||89|
|6||The Upset That Wasn't||147|
|7||The Legacy of 1948||189|
|A Note on Sources||219|