An American Editor

October 19, 2011

Thinking About Presidents: The Election of 1948

One of the discussions that takes place in my household with some frequency revolves around the questions “who were our greatest presidents and why?” Over the years, Harry Truman has ranked among my top presidents. (I also admit that I love that classic photograph of Truman holiding the Chicago Daily Tribune newspaper with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”)

The issue is not do I agree or disagree with what a president did, but rather the impact of the president on the United States. I cannot imagine making the decision to drop the second atomic bomb after having witnessed the destruction of the first.

Truman was a leader in many ways. Barack Obama’s national health care plan got its first breath of life under Harry Truman. Just as today’s Republicans oppose Obama’s plan, the Republicans opposed Truman’s plan in the late 1940s.

Truman broke the ground on civil rights, too. When the Republican Congress refused to integrate the U.S. military, Truman did it by executive order.

Perhaps, most importantly, I think Truman saved the United States from a crisis that could have been as impacting as was our Civil War. General Douglas MacArthur was a World War II hero and commanded a lot of attention among GIs. In fact, MacArthur was put forth as a nominee for president in the 1948 election by those who were seeking anyone but Truman.

But MacArthur had an ego that was significantly larger than deserved or appropriate, with the result being that he instigated a constitutional crisis during the Korean War. At the time, MacArthur was much more popular than Truman, which helped lend credence to the crisis.

MacArthur was ordered not to cross the Yalu River. Truman was fearful that doing so would bring Russia into the war and potentially could lead to atomic war. Truman preferred to use a “containment strategy” that would limit the scope of the Korean War. Because MacArthur made it publicly clear that he disagreed with Truman’s strategy, Truman ordered MacArthur to clear his plans with Truman, an order he was entitled to give as commander-in-chief. MacArthur disobeyed  Truman’s order by privately communicating with Congress and disparaging Truman in those communications. Consequently, on April 11, 1951, Truman relieved MacArthur of his command.

This firing raised the issue of whether the military was subordinate to the president, something that was part of the American tradition of military-civil relations, but which was strained as a result of the firing. Truman’s firing and its subsequent confirmation by a congressional committee established to determine whether the firing by the president was lawful finally firmly established civilian and presidential superiority over the American military.

What brings all this to the table today? I just finished reading 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory by David Pietrusza. This is a well-written fascinating look at presidential politics of 1948.

Within months of winning the 1944 election, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died and Harry Truman became president. Although Truman successfully completed World War II, albeit not without controversy largely over his use of the atomic bomb, he rapidly became a rejected-by-his-party president. In 1947-1948, the Democrats tried to convince Dwight Eisenhower to run as their candidate. Polls showed that no matter who ran against Truman, Truman would lose the 1948 election.

In the end, as we know, Truman won. Why he won makes for a fascinating story, especially as his Republican opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, even on election day as ballots were being counted, was prognosticated to win the election handily. Surprisingly, it was Truman who won handily. The reasons were many, not least of which was that Americans liked Truman’s feistiness, which was in contrast to Dewey’s play-it-safe posture during the campaign.

Truman’s 1948 victory has lessons for Barack Obama. With the contempt that many prior supporters are showing for Obama, it is clear that Obama needs to do something if he wishes to resurrect himself and be reelected in 2012. He could do much worse than to read about Truman’s approach, especially as Truman faced greater opposition within his own party than Obama currently does.

Regardless, Pietrusza’s 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory is not only well-written, but it is one of the best edited books I have read in a long time (definitely 5-star) — at least the print version is; I did not buy the ebook version as I wanted this for my library. I have ordered The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election by Zacharay Karabell (2000) in hardcover and am planning on ordering Irwin Ross’s The Loneliest Campaign: The Truman Victory of 1948 (1968) so I can compare author insights into this fascinating election.

I highly recommend Pietrusza’s 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory for anyone interested in true life, come-from-behind, against-all-odds stories.

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