Harry Truman entered the 1948 presidential campaign an almost certain loser. As America moved from war to peace, the economy was faltering. The country suffered through strikes and shortages of consumer goods. Two years earlier, in the 1946 midterm elections, voters had delivered solid majorities in both houses of Congress to the GOP. Now Truman, known as a lackluster campaigner, faced an uphill battle against Republican Thomas Dewey, the popular governor of New York. Every poll, every journalist, and even Bess Truman, the president's wife of 28 years, predicted that Truman would lose by a landslide. But Harry Truman would not give up.
The president began an unofficial campaign early in June, during a cross-country train trip to the University of California at Berkeley, where he was scheduled to receive an honorary degree. Along the way, Truman made a series of what came to be known as whistlestops -- quick stopovers in cities and towns along the path of the railroad. At each whistlestop, Truman made a brief public appearance, often speaking to crowds from the back of the train.
The whistlestop tour proved an unexpected success. During the trip West, a new Harry Truman emerged, one who spoke casually, yet confidently, one who relaxed in front of a crowd. The president smiled and laughed. He introduced his family to audiences, so people got to know him as a family man. And he peppered the Republican Congress with accusations of laziness, incompetence, and bias toward the rich and influential. People loved the new Truman, yet he returned to Washington weeks later, still an underdog.
In his nomination speech at the Democratic national convention, held in Philadelphia that July, Truman rallied a weary crowd by hammering the Republicans with the charge that their 1948 platform was built only for the purposes of the election. He vowed to call Congress into a special session to give Republicans a chance to make good on their campaign pledges. He also promised a Democratic victory.
The Democratic party had problems of its own. Henry Wallace, Roosevelt's former vice-president and secretary of commerce, had left the Democrats to run as the Progressive party candidate. His candidacy threatened to draw some traditional Democratic voters -- liberals and African Americans -- away from Truman. Conservative Southerners, angered at Truman's support for civil rights, split from the Democrats after the convention to form the States' Rights Democratic party, with Strom Thurmond as their candidate. The defections, from the right and the left, meant trouble for Truman.
The Republicans chose New York governor Thomas E. Dewey as their candidate. Confident, handsome, and a polished public speaker, Dewey had run as the Republican presidential candidate four years before, losing to the revered Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But Harry Truman was no FDR. Dewey seemed capable of losing the election only by shooting himself in the foot.
When the official phase of Truman's 1948 campaign began, the president repeated the whistlestop strategy he had honed on his trip to California in the spring. He blasted the Republicans in speech after speech, telling voters that Dewey and the GOP wanted to dismantle Roosevelt's New Deal and make America a nation by the rich and for the rich. "Give 'em hell, Harry" became the battle cry of his supporters.
Meanwhile, Dewey focused on looking good, speaking in platitudes, and being inoffensive. And his strategy seemed to be working. Just days before the election, the media still gave him a big edge. Some of his aides had even bought houses in Washington, D.C., anticipating work in a Thomas Dewey White House.
On the evening of the election, November 2, Truman stepped out of the spotlight, retiring to a hotel suite in Excelsior Springs, Missouri. He ate dinner, had a drink, and went to bed early. At midnight, an aide awakened Truman to tell him that he was ahead, but still expected to lose. At 4 am, the president was awakened again. This time, he found his lead growing, not shrinking as expected. It seemed that the impossible -- a Truman victory -- was about to happen.
At just after 10 am, Thomas Dewey conceded defeat. Harry Truman had refused to surrender, and he had engineered the greatest upset in the history of American politics. But for Truman, perhaps the most triumphant moment of 1948 was yet to come. On his way back to Washington by train, Truman was handed a copy of the November 3 Chicago Tribune . "Dewey Defeats Truman," the headline read. As photographer's flashbulbs exploded, a beaming Truman held the paper aloft. The headline -- and the campaign of 1948 -- would become political legend.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?