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Why Didn't All Democrats Support Harry Truman in 1948?

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn why some Democrats chose not to support Democratic President Harry Truman in his re-election campaign in 1948. We will explore the roots of division within the Democratic Party at this time and analyze how this impacted the election.

A Stunning Upset: Harry Truman in the Election of 1948

Some of you have probably seen the famous photograph of Democratic President Harry S. Truman smiling and holding up a newspaper that reads ''Dewey Defeats Truman.'' This is one of the most famous images in American political history. But do you know the story behind it? In the election of 1948, Harry Truman was running for re-election against Republican challenger Thomas Dewey.

Dewey was expected to win, and some newspapers were so certain he would win that they printed headlines of his victory ahead of time. But in a stunning upset, Truman won re-election. Following his big win, while passing through St. Louis on his way to Washington, D.C., Truman posed for a photograph while holding up the erroneous Chicago Daily Tribune headline.

This famous photograph shows Harry Truman holding up an erroneous newspaper headline claiming he had lost the presidential election to Thomas Dewey.
trumanpaper

This photograph became the defining image of the election of 1948. But you may be wondering: why was Truman expected to lose in the first place? Let's dig deeper and learn more about this interesting presidential election. Specifically, we want to figure out why some Democrats chose not to vote for Harry Truman.

Background: Democratic Winning Streak

Before we answer this question, let's look at some context. If you remember, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) had been president before Harry Truman. He had been president for a long time, serving from 1933 until his sudden death in 1945. Roosevelt led the U.S. through the Great Depression and World War II, two of America's most challenging times. When Roosevelt died in April 1945, Truman was vice president and assumed the presidency.

So what can we learn from this background information? The Democratic Party had been doing well for itself throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, this period saw the longest winning streak in the party's history: the party won five consecutive presidential elections. Even so, by the mid to late 1940s, splits within the party were arising.

The Left and the Right: Ideological Splits Within the Party

So why didn't all Democrats vote for Truman in the election of 1948? In a nutshell, the answer is factionalism, or splits within the party. Leading up to the election, some Democrats felt Harry Truman was too conservative. They wanted a more progressive, more liberal candidate, and they rallied around Henry Wallace, who had been FDR's vice president from 1941-1945.

Under Truman, Wallace had been named Secretary of Commerce, but in 1946 he stepped down from this position over differences of opinion with the president. He began to publicly criticize Truman, which led some left-wing Democrats to call on him to create a third party. And that is what he did.

In the summer of 1948, Wallace and other leftist leaders founded the Progressive Party. This left-wing, ''anti-war'' party embodied many of the ideals of socialism, and while not formally connected to the party of the same name created in 1912, many of the ideas were similar. It supported a broad, expansive welfare system, nationalized health care, government control over industry, racial equality, and perhaps most importantly (and controversially), close relations with the Soviet Union. Because of its pro-Soviet stance, many communists approved of the party. In fact, Wallace was actually endorsed by the Communist Party USA. Because of its ties with communism, the party was highly controversial.

Some left-leaning Democrats chose to support Henry Wallace, who led a third-party called the Progressive Party.
wallace

Now let's shift to the other side: the right. There were some Democrats who chose not to vote for Truman because they felt he was too liberal and not conservative enough. These were mainly Southern Democrats. These Southern Democrats supported segregation and believed each state should have the right to determine its own policy on issues of race. They believed Truman was too progressive on the issue of race.

Breaking away from the Democratic Party in 1948, Southern Democrats formed the States' Rights Democratic Party, more commonly known by their nickname, the ''Dixiecrats''. In the election of 1948, the right-wing Dixiecrats fielded Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as their presidential candidate.

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