We’ve all seen the photo: A beaming President Harry S. Truman holds aloft a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune from Nov. 3, 1948. The headline: “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”
The image was snapped in St. Louis’ Union Station just two days after Truman had defied public opinion polls and media predictions to win election to the job he’d inherited three years earlier. It was, Time magazine decreed, “the greatest photograph ever made of a politician celebrating victory” — and the perfect symbol of the upset victory no one saw coming but the president himself.
But if the photo has achieved icon status, the election that preceded it has largely been forgotten. A.J. Baime’s new book seeks to correct that.
“Dewey Defeats Truman: The 1948 Election and the Battle for America’s Soul” tells the story of the campaign leading up to the famous photo — a chaotic affair that featured not only Truman and his Republican opponent Thomas Dewey, but two former Democrats running under the auspices of new parties, for vastly different reasons.
As Baime explains in his smartly paced, richly detailed narrative, former Vice President Henry Wallace, who’d been fired as Commerce secretary by Truman two years before, ran as a Progressive to assail Truman’s foreign policy. That was even while South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond launched the Dixiecrat Party to oppose Truman from the right.
Baime explained on St. Louis on the Air that Truman’s bold stance on civil rights alienated a large wing of his own party. After he ordered the military to be desegregated and proposed extensive civil rights legislation, much of the “solid South” abandoned the Democrats to support Thurmond and his Dixiecrats.
And at the time, the support of Black voters for Democrats was far from guaranteed. They’d long supported Republicans.
“Truman realized that it was very risky to go after the African American vote, and it worked in the end,” Baime explained. “But at the time, people were pretty sure it would not. And so for the rest of his life, people would ask him, ‘Was this a political move? Did you basically launch the modern civil rights movement because you thought it was a moral issue, or did you think it would win you the election?’ And in fact, it turned out to be both.”
Truman’s embrace of Black voters was even more remarkable in light of his background: Both his parents were part of slave-owning families; he grew up hearing racial slurs casually in the home.
“People did not think that Harry Truman would be the one to launch the modern civil rights movement, but he did,” Baime said. “And for the rest of his life, he said he didn’t do it for votes. He did it because it was the right thing to do.”
Baime also discussed Truman’s successful whistle-stop tour of the country. “He would speak eight, nine, 10 times a day, mostly off the cuff, making stuff up as he went,” Baime said. In so doing, he charmed the voters — connecting directly with the electorate in ways that were completely lost on the national media.
Truman made his final in-person speech of the campaign in St. Louis’ Kiel Auditorium, what Baime calls “the ultimate ‘Give 'Em Hell Harry' speech,” in which the president went off script to lambaste Congress, the media and his rivals. He brought down the house. And on election night, he retired long before returns were in, eating a ham sandwich, drinking a glass of milk and tucking into bed certain of his victory.
“He was fully confident that he was going to win,” Baime said. “Not even his wife, not even his daughter believed he could. But he knew he was going to win.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
Send questions and comments about this story to email@example.com.