Joe Donahue: New York Times best-selling author AJ Baime's new book "Dewey Defeats Truman" gives us the story of what happened to Truman's presidency after the bomb was dropped. The chronicles the story of the 1948 presidential election, one of the greatest election stories of all time, as Truman mounted a history-making comeback and staked a claim for a new course for America. On the eve of the 1948 election, America was a fractured country, racism was rampant foreign relations were fraught and political parties were more divided than ever.
Americans were certain that President Harry S. Truman's political career was over. The only man in the world confident that Truman would win was Mr. Truman himself, and win he did. AJ Baime is the author of "The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World," and is a longtime regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal.
It is great pleasure to welcome him to The Roundtable this morning. AJ Baime, thank you very much for being with us.
A.J. Baime: Well, a pleasure. Thank you.
Very nice to have you on the program. What brought you to this 1948 election?
Well, you know what I wrote a book called "The Accidental President", I guess it came out in 2017. And it was about the first four months of the Truman administration. So I spent a lot of time in the Truman library. And even before that book was done, I knew I wanted to write about the 1948 election, because I was just so drawn to the story. I knew that if I worked quickly that the book could come out during this election cycle, which I thought was important. And there was a way to write this book about the 1948 election in the way that it hadn't been written before. And by that, I mean, I wanted to- There were four candidates and all the books, they tend to just focus on Truman, whereas I thought it would be really fascinating to follow all four candidates through the election cycle.
So given that we are on the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb, let us talk for a moment about the last book and just where Truman was politically and, as far as popularity goes, at the end of the war, and, and then how he gets to 1948 in such political trouble?
Well, that's a great question. So "The Accidental President" that, this book that came out in 2017 talks about the four, first four months of the Truman administration. So Truman, FDR dies, it's April 12 1945, actually spend the first 38 pages of that book on one day, April 12 1945. And Truman, who never expected to be the vice president who never should have been really a Senator to begin with. We've sort of fell into politics, suddenly finds himself the President of the United States. And he doesn't think he's up to the job. The whole country is shocked, not just because FDR is dead, but because this unknown person who has never owned his owned home, never had the money to own his own home, never governor of a state never mayor of city, never- no college degree. But suddenly the most powerful man in the history of the world that didn't even have any knowledge of the, of the atomic bomb when he became president. So and during the first four months, he really unites the nation. It's this incredible feel good story. And this new book, "Dewey Defeats Truman", takes off right where that ends and you see the exact opposite happen. So the Truman- Coming out of the war, the Truman administration sort of collapses and the Democratic Party shatters. So coming up into 1948, it appears that there's no way he can win.
What is Truman's role in that, in the sense how much of it was outside forces of a change in culture and people had been, if you want to- You know, suppressed by war for so long, and things were blooming and things were changing, and how much was Truman- This due to Truman himself?
I think that's another great question. To my mind, given all the research I've done, it really wasn't his fault. I think the president- The country was coming out of the war. It was looking like- We were looking at 16 years of New Deal politics. And I think people were sick of it. And coming out of the war, we had to transfer from this wartime economy in which the whole country was really dedicated to winning this war and the transference back to a peacetime economy, economy was a very difficult thing for any president to manage. And there was no way to please everybody, labor unions, farming communities, everyday Americans who saw the, their, their, their prices, rising of all the things that they needed to buy every day. And there was no way to manage it. And, and his own party was falling apart in the process, because you had these forces that were thrust upon him, the conservatives, excuse me, conservatism of the South, the, the progressivism of the West. And, you know, people really just thought Truman was ineffective. And so the 1946 midterms were really, really devastating to his administration. So of course, as we went into the 1948 election cycle, again, the pollsters, the newspaper writers, the politicians, and of course, we're just in the new television age, people watching this stuff on the television machine. Everybody was saying that Truman was toast.
Even his wife, Bess Truman, thought he was toast. But the Truman was confident.
He was. He was the only one who believed he could win. And, you know, I let- I spent a lot of time in this new book, I was able to, there's so much information at the Truman library. Everybody on the campaign train; wrote a diary, including Truman's daughter, including at times, Truman himself. So there was, it was really, I was able to really get inside these people's heads and hopefully put the reader on the campaign trail. And one of the things I liked about this book is that no matter where you live in the country, certainly in New England, certainly in New England, there's a part of this book that enters your hometown, like for example, I live in a small town in California and the Truman train came here. And I get to listen to that speech on the Truman Library website, as you know, as can, others who live all over the country.
It is fascinating because it was really that that ultimately worked for him, if you look back, right? I mean, that's, it's the coming to the towns talking to the people. And, and he was doing something that he saw town to town that the pollsters, and even his own wife did not see.
That's right. Bess didn't think he could win, his own daughter didn't think he could win. And he goes from town to town. And it's fascinating. A lot of the speeches, he would give eight or nine speeches a day, he would come out at six o'clock in the morning and his pajamas and, and speak off the cuff to everyday Americans. He would be armed with little pieces of information. Like for example, if he came into, you know, Framingham, Massachusetts, he would know there's a new sausage factory there. And he would address these people off the cuff, on the back of his campaign train, and in the end, there was the surge, surge of a will and, and excitement. And so by the time you get to Election Day that the president had really become an American folk hero.
So let us talk about the other candidates. As you said, many of these books do not focus on those other candidates. Obviously, these are the, the many he's running against, but they are very important. Lay out the race for us, if you will.
Sure. So one, one of the many reasons why nobody thought Truman could win is because two, two politicians, quite powerful, bolted the Democratic Party, split with Truman and ran their own campaigns. So imagine this, this is very relevant today, because one of the things that Truman really ran hard on, he was the first presidential candidate to really, really push the civil rights issue and court African-American voters. Nobody had ever done that, Roosevelt did but not nearly to the degree that Truman did. So you have one democratic governor, South Carolina, Strom Thurmond, who bolts the party and runs this campaign on one issue, white supremacy, and he wins four states. Can you imagine that today? I wonder what would happen if one of our politicians ran on white supremacy? Would he win? What states, we don't know. Henry Wallace, his campaign was secretly being run by a click of communists and his rallies were- His politics were so controversial, that sometimes his rallies would see violence and stabbings and he would go out on the lectern. And he campaigned through the South. And he said, "I will not speak at anywhere where whites and blacks can't sit next to each other. I will not stay in any hotel where black people are not allowed." And so by the time he gets down there he has these rallies where people are just hurling, literally hurling eggs and tomatoes and ice cream cones at him. And he did not fare so well in the end. But still, we can learn a lot from these sort of political misfits today, as much sometimes as the winners. And then of course, you have Thomas Dewey, who everybody expected to be the first Republican president in 16 years. And even on election night, he's on his campaign train headed back to the Governor's Mansion in Albany. And he gets an off the record, talk to all of these reporters explaining who's going to be in this cabinet because he was sure that the next day he was going to be elected. It's fascinating.
What were his pluses? In the sense of what Dewey was able to bring to the campaign, and what was the contrast between Dewey and Truman on the campaign trail in those months and weeks leading up to election day?
Well, one of the reasons Dewey lost is because he decided, he made a strategic decision early in the campaign, that he was going to run this eloquent, you know, campaign. And he came up with this concept of unity and so he was- Everywhere he went he spoke about unity, "How America was going to be united again, in a way it hadn't been in the past." And he really didn't tell Americans much about what his policies were. And at the same time, he was very much a centrist, he was a liberal Republican. And so in the end, it was really the farming community that drove a stake into his, his election. He didn't win because the farmers abandoned him. And he didn't see that coming. I often hear from readers who say he would have made a great president. And I think that's true, I think he would have. He probably would have served two terms and America would have done well under him.
Does, I'm skipping ahead here, but, but does the, the narrow win for Truman impact his decision not to run four years later?
Um, I don't think so. I think that he thought that a president should serve two terms and be done. So and you know, it's an interesting question and not one I, I've spent a lot of time thinking about 1952. I think he was old and tired, you know? I don't, I don't think that he, I don't think he really, really always enjoyed being president. I thought he, he, he was a public servant. And I think he thought it was his duty to do so. But a lot of times he called the White House the 'Great White Jail', because yeah, it was rough being president. It was so- He couldn't please everybody.
You certainly see parallels and impeachment headlines and Russian interference and the fights with Congress and so forth. But yet you still, at least for me, you read the book and you think, oh, compared to today, "Oh, how quaint." And I don't, I don't know if that's fair. Or it's just, it's, it's the time and that seems more immediate. But I mean, the direct question to you is, there are certainly parallels though.
Oh, of course, and some I expected and some I didn't. So I didn't. I knew there will be parallels, but I didn't expect there to be today, a surge in white nationalism the way we saw in 1948. Violence against African Americans, we, the way we saw in 1948. I didn't expect it to find that in 1948, both the Democrats and Republicans were very concerned that Moscow was going to try to interfere in our election. I'm actually I have it right in front of me. I'm going to read one sentence from the most surprising document that I found during my entire research in the in the Dewey papers. This is memorandum that says: "The United States of America is fair game for Moscow and has been for years. And as far as anyone is willing to see the year 1948 will be the year in which Soviet Russia will do everything in its power to influence the election here." That was surprising to me, that this was true of both the Democrats and the Republicans. The Democrats were fearful that Moscow was going to interfere and try to get the Republicans elected. The Republicans thought the same that Moscow was going to interfere and trying to get the Democrats elected. Of course, um, none of that, none of that ended up happening for many years until possibly 2016, depending on who you believe,
Right. And, and, but the, but did they take it seriously in the sense of, what were there then investigations as to if there was interference?
Yes. Only in so much is that Henry Wallace was such a controversial figure because he was the only person out there grandstanding saying that this new Cold War thing that everybody was talking about, was not Russia's fault. But it was the US, that it was the Truman administration that was leading the country toward World War Three. So the FBI began looking into the Wallace campaign big time and we have all that documentation.
So that brings us to the question that that becomes obvious at some point, if you're talking about a president, which is, is about legacy, so when does, does Truman really start to, to put his, his legacy, form the legacy that we know- And we're still learning, of course, as your book demonstrates, we're still learning about Truman. But, but the, here is a man who narrowly won in 1948, and in the top 10 List of presidents today, is, is on that list usually.
Well, that's, that's fascinating. And that's a whole other book, what, why that happened, because when he left office, you know, he was not popular at all. So why is it today that you have him usually ranked sixth or seventh all-time? And why is it today that you have Donald Trump quoting Truman? And at the same time, you have Nancy Pelosi, quoting Truman? Why is that? I think if this book answers one question, it's that, because during the 1948 election, what he accomplished with, through just pure effort and patriotism. What he accomplished was just, it was just fascinating. And I think that, that that story embodies his legacy more than anything. Now politically, one of the reasons he was so counted out in 1948 is because he really threw himself into the New Deal. Like he really aligned himself with FDR's legacy, what FDR had done, and liberal politics and by the time he came back from Europe, from the, the Potsdam Conference, he gives the speech in which he outlines his policy. This is my policy, and it was extraordinary, extraordinarily liberal to the left, and a lot of Americans were sick of that. And so, but that really, politically that is his legacy.
The name of the new book, "Dewey Defeats Truman: The 1948 Election and The Battle for America's soul". The book is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. AJ Baime, I thank you very much for spending time with us. A great pleasure to have you on the program.
It's such a pleasure. Thank you.
Be well, thank you. Again the name of the book, "Dewey Defeats Truman". You're listening to The Roundtable on WAMC.