Last week I told you how I became interested in the 1948 presidential campaign. I was 16, so elections were not high up on my list of things I couldn’t miss. But when Senator Bob Taft of Ohio strolled into the bus station in New London where I was having a cup of coffee, sat down, shook my hand, and began to talk to me as cameras clicked and reporters ran around ... I will say, that got my attention. So I listened to some of the 1948 election campaign. On radio. They say that was the first presidential campaign ever to appear on television, but you can’t have proved it by me, Johnny. Never saw a minute of it.
Anyway, that was quite a year.
Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic mayor of Minneapolis, got up at the Democratic National Convention and made a comment that it was time for the party to quit worrying about states’ rights and start worrying about civil rights. That sent eight southern states out the door to hold their own convention, at which they nominated their own candidate. Not Harry Truman of course.
Also, Henry Wallace, who had been a vice president under FDR, started up a new party which was so far left it could have held its convention in Moscow. That bled off more Democratic votes.
On top of that, early in the campaign, Truman announced that he was withdrawing from the nomination, and some states, Illinois for one, held their primaries without his name on the ballet.
And then there was the matter of a minor recession caused by the return of our wartime economy to its peacetime status, which put thousands of war plant employees out of work. Not to mention all those GIs coming back home who needed jobs. And to put the icing on the cake, the war had put labor-management relations on the back burner, and now they flared up.
All-in-all, in 1948 Harry Truman was not the most popular president we had ever had. His approval rating that spring stood at just 36 percent. Even I, who knew nothing, thought he was done for. So everyone was amazed to see him nominated on the first ballot.
Polls taken in ’48 showed that Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate had the election sewed up. But in hindsight it can be seen that at least one major poll contained a fatal flaw. It was done by telephone at a time when some lower middle class families did not have a phone, and that skewed the results toward Dewey.
Anyway, Dewey, with his round face, brush mustache, and half-hearted smile, did not look like the average American, and his advisers told him his best policy was to say as little as possible because the Democrats were split into three arguing pieces, and the election was his as long as he didn’t screw it up.
Harry Truman — as we shall see in a minute — may not have been the brightest bulb on the tree, but he was a gutsy politician who came out of hardcore, and sometimes corrupt, Missouri politics. And he was not fond of the 80th Congress, which in 1946 had been more or less taken over by the Republicans.
So while Dewey went around saying he supported apple pie and motherhood, Truman made a whistle-stop tour of the nation, calling Dewey the perfect “do-nothing candidate” for a “do-nothing” Congress.
And he won. Not by much, but he won.
And if he had just learned a little something from Dewey — the keep-your-big-mouth-shut bit — he would have done all right.
That was not to be.
Truman, you see, was an old Army man from World War I days, and his idea of a good way to sail into the postwar era, and the imminent Cold War, which Churchill had clearly warned was coming, was to do it without ships.
Navy ships, that is.
You know? All those nice ships that helped win World War II?
On top of that, Truman was an old WWI artillery officer, who evidently had not been paying attention during WWII. He had this odd idea that as long as we had the atom bomb, we could handle the whole world, with or without — you are not going to believe this: A Navy.
And lest you think I have lost it, let me give you a direct, right out-of-the-mouth-of-fools quote.
Ready for this?
“Admiral, the Navy is on its way out. There’s no reason for having a Navy and a Marine Corps. General Bradley tells me amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.”
He also said, “The Marine Corps is the Navy’s police force and as long as I am president, that is what it will remain. They have a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin’s.”
Yes, that was the president of the United States speaking, our commander in chief. And in — get this — the spring of 1950.
So when on 25 June, 1950, the North Koreans invaded South Korea we had a small problem. Truman’s first order was to blockade North Korea, but thanks to him the Navy no longer had enough ships to blockade even a small Asian nation like North Korea.
And thanks to Truman and his far too-fast, and far too-deep, military cuts, we hardly had a viable Army or Air Force either. I know, I was in the Air National Guard in 1950, and went from there to active duty in 1951. We had nothing to work with. I swear to God this is true: I once spent two weeks straightening out used nails, and I spent six months as a radio operator and never once saw a radio. I got so disgusted with the whole thing I volunteered to be in food service so I’d have something to do besides picking the belly-button lint out of my navel.
In truth — again it’s hard to believe, but true — if it had not been for millions of letters written by ex-Marines and outraged citizens, Truman might have had his way with the Marines Corps.
Can you picture a United States without a Marine Corps? I can’t.
Yes, good old, “The Buck Stops Here,” Harry Truman.
Quite a guy. Not all wrong, but definitely not quite right.