The Democrat Party controlled national politics from 1932 through 1952. This was based largely on the personality of one man – Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), who was elected to four terms as president and who led the country through The Depression and World War II. However, FDR died early in his fourth term. FDR was succeeded by Harry S. Truman, his Vice-President. Truman had to stand for election in 1948. The Republicans nominated Thomas E. Dewey, then Governor of New York, to run against Truman. Dewey had run against FDR in 1944 and lost in a close election.
Because Truman proposed civil rights legislation and a law making lynching a federal crime during his first term, Southern Democrats considered Truman to be anti-southern. This resulted in the defection of the southern wing of the Democratic Party, who formed their own party (“Dixiecrats”), and nominated Strom Thurmond, Senator from South Carolina as its candidate for president. Their strategy was to split the Republican and Democratic vote so that neither got a majority of the electoral college votes, forcing the decision into the House of Representatives, where they thought the Southern states voting as a block would have an advantage. (McCullough, Truman, p.645.)
Henry Wallace, FDR’s Vice-President, led a rebellion of the liberal/progressive wing of the Democrat Party. He campaigned on socialist issues such as nationalization of coal mines and railroads and financing the post-war reconstruction of the Soviet Union. The Progressive Party platform “was virtually no different from the Communist Party Platform” on many issues. (McCullough, p. 595, 646.) Wallace criticized the anti-radicalism inherent in Truman’s liberalism. He called for stronger action on civil rights and more open efforts to work with, not against, communist actors at home and abroad. Wallace’s vision echoed “social democracy” in Italy and France, where communists and socialists were part of multifaceted ruling coalitions, not the American tradition of two-party government.
Truman was reluctant to move fast on racial integration for fear of alienating white voters. He did, however, respond to the growing movement of organized African Americans demanding equal rights. Led by the venerable labor and civil rights organizer A. Philip Randolph, numerous African American groups around the country came together to demand more access to the middle-class values promised by the GI Bill. African Americans and other minorities had served in combat during the Second World War, they had “proven” their patriotism, and they now had a strong argument for equal citizenship.
As the November 1948 presidential election approached, Truman recognized that he had to secure African American votes for his election. Despite opposition from many military leaders, on July 26, 1948, Truman signed Executive Order 9881, requiring “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” This, of course, desegregated the military. Truman also called for the creation of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission (first created by President Roosevelt in 1941), the elimination of poll taxes that denied voting rights, and the passage of new anti-lynching legislation. Although congressional Democrats from the South stalled most of these initiatives, Truman sent a strong message about the legitimacy of minority claims to equal treatment.
The actual desegregation of the armed forces took more than five years to complete. It created a model for fair employment and access to middle-class status for minorities in the United States. It was the first major piece of successful civil rights law after the Second World War, and it empowered a new coalition of African American citizens demanding a voice in the nation’s politics, particularly within the Democratic Party. Truman’s narrow victory in the 1948 election probably would not have been possible without the support of African American voters.
According to the polls, Truman had no chance of being elected in his own right. (McCullough, p. 622.) In mid-October, several weeks before voting, Newsweek magazine took a poll of 50 political writers about who was going to win the election; not one of them picked Truman. (McCullough, p. 694.) Professional gamblers had the odds in favor of Dewey by 15-1, and as high as 30-1. (Id. at 697.)
Truman took to the rails and conducted a “Whistle-stop Campaign.” His “Presidential Special” consisted of 16 railroad cars. Truman’s personal railroad car, “The Ferdinand Magellan”, was outfitted like a palace. There were many support cars for dining, communications, speech writers, press, etc. Truman’s “Whistle Stop Campaign” consisted of two trips, the first from June 3 – June 18, covered 9,500 miles through 18 states. He gave 73 speeches, many from the back of the train. He was seen by 3 million people. The second trip lasted 33 days, starting September 17 through October 20, and covered 21,928 miles. (McCullough, p. 654.)
Dewey also had a campaign by train. His train was called “The Victory Special.” Dewey’s train was first class; it made Truman’s train look like coach class. The contrast between the two was reflected in the accommodations for the Press. On Dewey’s train the reporters were catered to much better than on the Truman train – their laundry was done for them, snacks and sandwiches were always available, luggage was transferred to hotels for them. The reporters characterized Truman as a “rube,” “one of the folks,” while Dewey was “slick” and formal. (McCullough, p. 668-69, 675.)
Much to everyone’s surprise, Truman defeated Dewey. He carried 28 states with 303 electoral votes. He gained 2,100,000 more popular votes than Dewey. (McCullough, p. 710.) Dewey won 16 states with 189 electoral votes. Thurmond received 1,100,000 votes with 39 electoral votes. Wallace obtained 1,100,00 popular votes, but no electoral votes. (Id.) The Democrats also won the Senate and the House. It was one of the greatest upsets in the history of presidential politics. An iconic photo from the presidential campaign illustrated the shock of Truman’s victory; it was a picture of Truman, grinning from ear-to-ear, holding an early election-day copy of the Chicago Tribune that had a banner headline that read “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
The major accomplishments of the Truman presidency included significant gains in standard of living, specifically income (raise in minimum wage), education (G. I. Bill), housing, and employment at all-time low; desegregation of the armed forces and federal civil service, and the establishment of the Federal Commission on Civil Rights; farm income and corporate income were at all-time highs, and, in foreign policy, Truman’s administration saw the creation of NATO, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, and the Korean War. (McCullough, p. 915-16.)