Dewey Beats Truman: A Cautionary Tale for 2020

I just finished an excellent book titled Dewey Beats Truman: The 1948 Election and The Battle for America’s Soul by AJ Baime. It serves as a cautionary tale of what could happen, particularly to the unpleasant surprise for Democrats, in this year’s Presidential election.

First, my admiration for Truman as a President continues to grow. His administration was dealing with post Second World War relations and issues with the Soviet Union. There was a genuine concern there may be war between the two countries, particularly when the Soviets tried to blockade food and supplies getting into Berlin. Civil Rights was a huge issue as black soldiers returning home from the war demanding equal opportunity and equal justice. Truman initiated a number of civil rights legislation that infuriated the Southern Democrats in his own party. Truman was an early supporter for the state of Israel. This angered many in his party who were concerned that the Arab states would cut back on the distribution of oil to the United States.

Second, there are some corollaries between candidates Truman and Trump. Polls showed that both candidates were/are behind 15-20% of their challengers. Political pundits and writers almost unanimously picked Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate to win. Dewey was so confident of winning that he was focusing on who would be members of his Cabinet when he won in November. Major newspapers including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post endorsed Dewey. Both Trump and Truman were characterized as unpopular candidates. Congressional candidates running for reelection avoided having their endorsements or helping their campaigns with joint appearances. There were also concerns about one candidate winning the popular vote but the other winning the electoral college and causing a crisis. (Fortunately Truman easily won the popular and electoral college vote.)

Third, there were concerns in 1948, like today, of Soviet Union involvement in the election. During the campaign, Joseph Stalin exchanged letters with the progressive candidate, Henry Wallace. Stalin’s involvement intimated that he could work on building a peace with Wallace. The Soviet Union also engaged in certain military and political activities that were intended to discredit the Truman presidency and campaign.

Fourth, Truman’s path to victory was more problematic. Southern Democrats bolted the party as they opposed civil rights for blacks. They nominated Strom Thurmond as their choice for President. (Ironic that Strom was such a huge segregationist as he fathered a black daughter. To his credit, he did support and take care of her, surreptitiously.) The progressive wing of the Democratic Party nominated Henry Wallace as President. Wallace was not afraid to identify with the communist party. Wallace portrayed himself as a peace candidate, he was afraid that Truman would declare war on the Soviet Union.

Since Truman was not expected to win, campaign funds were very low. Customary Democratic party contributors decided to sit out this presidential election. This impacted Truman’s ability to get out his message, particularly with the advent of election coverage by television networks.

Sadly there were some things that happened in 1948 that still occur today. There were a number of incidents where innocent black men were killed by white mobs and gangs in southern states. These murders were often taken to suppress black voting turnout in the South. Despite overwhelming prosecution evidence presented at the trials of the of the people responsible and charged for the crimes, white juries in those southern states would not render guilty verdicts.

There are differences between the campaigns of 1948 and today. In 1948, both Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey refused to engage in character assassination and both treated their respective opponent with relative respect. When the votes were counted, Dewey respectfully conceded the election and wished Truman well. We certainly have not seen that courtesy exhibited today. In addition, the incumbent, President Truman engaged in a whistle-stop tour sharing his plans on foreign and domestic affairs. His speeches were disciplined. Truman addressed voters concerns, he did not engage in vitriolic language and focused on policies, not personality.

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