The story of Harry Truman – specifically how he became vice president, then president – is closely tied to the story of Henry Wallace.
An author of a book on Wallace takes a close look at the 1948 presidential campaign, which Truman won in stunning fashion. That author, Thomas W. Devine, is this year’s winner of the Truman Book Award, presented by the Truman Library Institute.
His book, “Henry Wallace’s 1948 Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism,” details Wallace’s third-party run for the presidency that year. It was a moment of progressive momentum – more emphasis on civil rights and economic justice while trying to de-escalate the Cold War – that fizzled dramatically by Election Day. The award was given Wednesday night in Kansas City, and Devine’s presentation was taped for C-SPAN.
Wallace was Franklin’s Roosevelt’s second vice president, being elected with FDR in 1940. But in 1944, FDR had led the country through nearly dozen years of depression and war, and he was sick. At this point, Devine challenges the common Truman narrative that it was Democratic Party big-city bosses who considered the very real possibility that FDR wouldn’t survive a fourth term and, unable to stomach the idea of the liberal Wallace as president, went to FDR with the need to find someone more palatable to the voters.
Devine puts all that on Roosevelt.
“Roosevelt knew that Wallace was a problem,” Devine said.
With Wallace out, the Democratic Convention in Chicago turned to Truman, who became vice president the next January, then president in April.
Devine’s book jumps ahead to 1948, when Truman is seeking a full term in his own right. There was animosity. Truman and Wallace had policy differences, and Truman removed him from his Cabinet in 1946. (Years later, Devine says, Wallace told Truman he had probably been right to do so.)
In 1948, Truman didn’t just defeat Republican Thomas Dewey. Two third-party candidates – Wallace of the Progressive Party and South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond of Dixiecrats, splitting with Democrats largely over segregation – were a serious part of the mix. Thurmond carried four states and their electoral votes.
In Wednesday’s presentation, Devine took a closer look at one part of that campaign, a seven-day swing through the Deep South in which Wallace hoped to rally farmers and laborers to his cause. Instead, Wallace averaged around 1,000 people per rally and was frequently met with anger and violence.
Wallace and his campaign simply ignored state laws against racially integrated public gatherings, and it didn’t sit well. The Wallace camp was often “idealistic but insufferably arrogant,” Devine said.
Much of the issue, Devine said, was the Progressives’ simple lack of comprehension. They viewed the South’s problems as essentially economic and thought rising prosperity would ease the racial divide. They didn’t see deep-seated racism on its own terms.
“To bring up the issue, one participant remarked, made us carpetbaggers,” Devine said.
Wallace himself was out of touch with the working-class he imagined himself reaching out to, Devine said.
“Nor did it occur to him that his patronizing remarks would further infuriate his audience,” Devine said.
None of it worked. Organized labor was wary, as were middle-class blacks. “They were skittish of the militance that some of the progressives were showing in the South,” Devine said.
The heckling, the throwing of eggs and tomatoes, and the violence were particularly bad at a rally in Burlington, North Carolina, in late August.
“There were people there that day who thought they were going to die,” Devine said.
And yet in all of this Wallace simply saw “a planned attack by big business.”
Wallace kept yearning for his idea of “the real South,” Devine said, where his populist message would resonate.
“It was a myth – a comfortable social construct,” Devine said.
In the end, Wallace was crushed at the polls. Truman won handily, with 24.1 million votes, 2.1 million ahead of Dewey. He carried 28 of the 48 states and got 303 electoral votes, to 189 for Dewey, 39 for Thurmond and none for Wallace, who got 1.5 million votes – a third of them from New York City – just behind Thurmond.
Devine said Wallace grew increasingly bitter as the campaign progressed that fall, convinced that he had been used by those around him, many of them communists who wouldn’t come out and say they were. In later years, that bitterness deepened. The man who had been the great progressive hope voted for Republican Dwight Eisenhower for president in 1952 and 1956.