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BOOK REVIEW

‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ recalls when decency and courage triumphed

Harry S. Truman had the last laugh as he held up a copy of the Chicago Tribune at Union Station in St. Louis on Nov. 3, 1948, after winning the presidential election the previous day.
Harry S. Truman had the last laugh as he held up a copy of the Chicago Tribune at Union Station in St. Louis on Nov. 3, 1948, after winning the presidential election the previous day.St. Louis Globe-Democrat

Donald Trump’s stunning victory in 2016 led many to wonder how the pollsters and pundits got it so wrong and how the national media were so clueless about what was happening in America.

Well, it’s happened before, in 1948, and if anything, Harry Truman’s upset win over Thomas Dewey was even more inconceivable than Trump’s. Thank goodness no newspaper jumped the gun four years ago and published the headline: “Hillary Trounces Trump.”

But “Dewey Defeats Truman,” from the Chicago Daily Tribune, is perhaps the most memorable headline in American political history, and it is the title of A.J. Baime’s well-paced book on the 1948 presidential race. Campaign narratives have been a publishing staple since Theodore H. White’s “Making of the President” series that began in the 1960s, and such volumes, typically released within two years of the election, often feature candidates who are cast as heroes or villains, depending on the author’s own point of view.

Not so with “Dewey Defeats Truman: The 1948 Election and the Battle for America’s Soul,” in which Baime avoids passing judgment on any of the four principal candidates. The approach allows readers to form their own opinions while soaking up the politics of another era — intensely competitive but relatively civil, when television was in its infancy, nominating conventions were high drama, and presidential aspirants relied on long, sweaty train rides through towns and farms, making their case to thousands of voters at dusty whistle stops. In Truman’s case, his daughter, Margaret, would toss a red rose into the crowd as the train pulled away.

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At stake in 1948, according to Baime, was America’s soul, but his account is also a rendering of the deep fissures in American life.

There was Truman himself, the “accidental president” who succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt upon his death in 1945 — the plain-spoken Missourian who wanted to continue FDR’s liberal domestic agenda while maintaining a strong footprint abroad. There was Dewey, the young, energetic Republican governor of New York whose progressive views did not differ dramatically from Truman’s but who was more eloquent, more polished, and seemingly more politically astute than the incumbent (in 1948, Dewey was an honorary pallbearer at Babe Ruth’s funeral, before 75,000 people in Manhattan).

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There were two protest candidates: Henry Wallace, who had been FDR’s vice president from 1941 to 1945, only to be unceremoniously replaced by Truman. Unnerved by the awesome power of the atomic bomb, Wallace ran as the peace candidate, urging accommodation with the Soviet Union and becoming the darling of the far left, including self-described Communists.

Finally, there was Strom Thurmond, the pugnacious governor from South Carolina who bolted the Democratic Party and ran as a Dixiecrat to repel Truman’s civil rights efforts. Thurmond argued that the mixing of races would lead to the “onward march of totalitarian government,” which made him a bigot, a demagogue, and a hypocrite — he was the father of a Black daughter, whose parentage he kept secret his entire life.

The campaign took place beneath a pall of fear and uncertainty. Alger Hiss’s espionage charges set off the “Red Scare,” while Black Southerners who sought to vote were met with brutal resistance. The founding of Israel triggered a war between Jews and Arabs. The Soviets cut off land access between West and East Berlin. Another war seemed inevitable.

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Though he successfully ended World War II, Truman lacked the vision, charisma, and leadership that the moment required. That, anyway, was the consensus. After 16 years of Democratic rule, America was ready for a smarter, more dynamic — and duly elected — president.

Few doubted Dewey’s triumph. On Sept. 5, less than two months before the election, a Roper poll had Dewey winning 46.3 percent of the vote to Truman’s 31.5 percent. Roper stopped polling five weeks before the election because there was no point. The New York Times endorsed Dewey, even though it had supported only three Republicans for president in the past 17 elections. The two largest newspapers in Truman’s home state — the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Kansas City Star — also opposed their favorite son.

Undaunted, Truman railed against the “do-nothing” Republican Congress, and his “give ‘em hell, Harry” style ultimately caught fire. He won the Electoral College 303 to 189, notching 28 states to Dewey’s 16, while Thurmond carried four Southern states. Wallace was shut out. Farmers and labor turned out in force for Truman, which proved decisive in Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa, while Black voters were critical in California and elsewhere.

Baime, who has written a previous book on Truman, skillfully leads readers to conclude what he surely had in mind from the outset: In an election, substance matters, as does courage and decency, and Truman displayed them all in 1948. He authorized the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. He was the first leader in the world to recognize Israel. He ordered the Berlin Airlift to bring food and supplies into West Berlin. He issued an executive order desegregating the military, he was the first American president to address the NAACP, and — despite coming from a family of slave owners and against the wishes of many in his own party — he pushed for civil rights.

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If 1948 holds any other lessons for 2020, it’s that Truman also benefited from a strong economy. Incumbents rarely lose when incomes are rising and jobs are plentiful.

Pollsters, beware.

DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN: The 1948 Election and the Battle for America’s Soul

By A.J. Baime

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 419 pages, $30

James S. Hirsch is an author living in Needham.