Harry Truman’s Train Ride

Our Govt. is made up of the people. You are the Govt. I am only your hired servant. I am the Chief Executive of the greatest nation in the world, the highest honor that can ever come to a man on earth. But I am the servant of the people of the United States. They are not my servants. I can’t order you around, or send you to labor camps, or have your heads cut off if you don’t agree with me politically. We don’t believe in that. —Harry S. Truman, “Whistle-Stop” speech, San Antonio, Texas, September 28, 1948

President Harry S. Truman on the rear platform of the presidential train, speaking to a crowd in Parkersburg, West Virginia, July 1948. Photograph by Abbie Rowe. National Archives and Records Administration.

by Michael Liss at 3 Quarks Daily: He was going to lose and lose big. “Dewey Defeats Truman” seemed more a certainty than what later became a meme. Trailing badly in political polls, dismissed by savvy media figures, beset by multiple crises, both foreign and domestic, he was written off by elected officials even in his own party, who feared he would take down the entire ticket. Perhaps the only person who, in the summer of 1948, actually believed Harry Truman could win in November was Harry Truman.

Why he believed this is hard to say, but why his doubters doubted makes perfect sense: Truman was widely seen as a mediocrity, a product of a corrupt local political machine, undereducated (the first President since McKinley not to have a college degree), a former haberdasher, and even a bankrupt. Perhaps above all, Truman was a commoner, and commoners did not become Presidents, at least not in the 20th Century.

It was an accident that Truman was in this situation. He was FDR’s third Vice President in four terms. Roosevelt’s first, John Nance Gardner, served two terms before the two men had a falling out. Gardner’s replacement, Henry Wallace, was brilliant, accomplished, eloquent, and ultimately what can only be described as a flake. Roosevelt, showing that ice-in-the-veins quality of which he was capable, had others deliver the message to Wallace that he wanted a change. FDR had a favorite choice as well: James Byrnes, whom he had appointed to the Supreme Court in 1941, then convinced to return to the Executive Branch to help with the war effort. But Byrnes had some liabilities—he was perceived as anti-labor, and, while Senator, had helped spearhead Southern opposition to a federal anti-lynching law. For these reasons, FDR considered but ultimately rejected Speaker Sam Rayburn (Texas), and finally turned to Truman. Truman seemed safe, if not particularly distinguished. He had performed well on an important Senate committee looking at the budget (it came to be known as the Truman Committee). He was also liked, a hard worker, a person to be trusted, a loyal Party man, and, well, if not quite Presidential timber, it wasn’t going to be a long-term and possibly even a consequential choice. Truman it would be, if he could get the nomination.

In those days, the Conventions and not primaries would decide the nominees (at least for non-incumbents), and the Conventions were the place where men of immense local power heavily influenced the selection of the nominees. Wallace had loyalists, and Wallace had a devoted following that approached cult status. The 1944 Convention first rhapsodically greeted FDR’s bid for a fourth term, and then got down to grappling with the choice of Veep. The trick at a Convention was to keep the frontrunner from amassing enough votes to win in the first round. If you could manage that, you could convince uncommitted/favorite son/powerbroker-controlled delegations to flip afterwards. How you did that—through strategic use of the Convention’s Chair’s gavel, who got tickets, whom the Chair would recognize, when adjournments could be taken, and sheer influence peddling was not for the faint of heart. Wallace might have had enthusiasm, but the Truman forces had the Chair (Sam Rayburn) and  many more strings to pull. On the second ballot, after a dizzying number of yanks, Truman got the nod.

The strategy behind this was both clear and deeply puzzling. The public did not know of Roosevelt’s health problems, but certainly the insiders did. They had to be aware that whoever became Vice-President had very good chance of “inheriting” the Presidency. If Wallace was too wild for many (and he was, being way out there on issues like relations with Russia and domestic policy, including Civil Rights), Truman was untested and lackluster.

Consciously or not, FDR’s approach to Truman reflected that evaluation. We all know that FDR kept the development of the Atomic bomb away from Truman before his death. More generally, though, he kept Truman at arm’s length, even where he might have been useful, such as acting as liaison to Congress. It’s difficult to be certain why he did that—it may have been his sense of Truman’s skills and limitations, perhaps mixed with a confidence (or at least a hope) that he, FDR, could physically soldier on long enough to make the issue moot. It’s an interesting, if abstract question: Did FDR run for a fourth term because he thought he would survive it or was he already counting on the war’s end and thought he needed to be there to make the crucial decisions, regardless of whether he would last the full four years? To place this in time, it was two years into the Manhattan Project, and the Convention itself occurred the month after D-Day.

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1 thought on “Harry Truman’s Train Ride

  1. He was elected after he made a deal on the recognition of Israel. Even then money and influence was significant.

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