Dewey Defeats Truman
No political photo is more famous than W. Eugene Smith’s shot of Harry Truman holding aloft a newspaper with the (erroneous) headline, DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.
Just after the 1948 election, President-Elect Harry S. Truman stepped off a train in St. Louis and, with a large grin on his face, held up a copy of the November 3 edition of the Chicago Tribune for reporters and photographers to see.
“Dewey Defeats Truman” was the famously incorrect banner headline on the front page of the first edition of the Chicago Tribune on November 3, 1948. Incumbent United States President Harry S. Truman, who had been expected to lose to Republican challenger and Governor of New York Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 presidential race, won the election. A delighted Truman was photographed at St. Louis Union Station holding a copy of his premature political obituary. Only a few hundred copies of the paper were published before the Tribune issued a second edition that backed off from proclaiming a winner. The headline is a cautionary tale for journalists about the dangers of being first to break a story without being certain of its accuracy. It is also a caution about allowing editorial preference to cloud judgment; the Tribune had been strongly against Truman throughout the campaign.
The newspaper had most definitely gotten the story wrong. The headline became known as the most infamous blunder in American newspaper history.
The reason for the picture’s immortality? It’s not the headline itself—although that titanic error is, in its own way, rather marvelous. Instead, the picture endures because of the look of unabashed, in-your-face delight in Truman’s eyes.
It is the greatest photograph ever made of a politician celebrating victory. Period.
Presidential candidate, Gov. Thomas Dewey of New York was not a glad-hander, not a flesh-presser. He was stiff and tended toward pomposity. “The only man who could strut sitting down” was the crack that made the rounds. But on Nov. 2, Election Day, an overwhelming sense of inevitability hung about the Republican nominee. The polls and the pundits left no room for doubt: Dewey was going to defeat President Harry S. Truman. And the Tribune would be the first to report it.
The Tribune, which had once referred to Truman as a “nincompoop,” was a notoriously Republican-leaning paper but, to be fair, the erroneous headline had nothing to do with national politics. For almost a year before the 1948 election, the printers who operated the linotype machines at newspapers all over Chicago had been on strike. Around the same time, the Tribune had switched to a method in which copy for the paper was composed on typewriters, photographed, and then engraved onto printing plates. This process required the paper to go to press several hours earlier than usual.
On election night, the earlier press deadline required the first post-election issue of the Tribune to go to press before even the states on the East Coast had reported all the results from polling places.
As the first-edition deadline approached, managing editor J. Loy “Pat” Maloney had to make the headline call, although many East Coast tallies were not yet in. Maloney banked on the track record of Arthur Sears Henning, the paper’s longtime Washington correspondent. Henning said Dewey. Henning was rarely wrong. Besides, Life magazine had just carried a big photo of Dewey with the caption “The next President of the United States.”
So the paper relied on its veteran Washington correspondent and political analyst Arthur Sears Henning for the prediction of the winner. Henning had correctly picked the winner in four out of fine presidential contests over the past 20 years. The scuttlebutt in Washington, based on the polls, was that a win by Thomas Dewey was “inevitable.” The New York Governor, almost everyone believed, would easily win the election. The first edition of the Tribune for November 3 therefore went to press with the banner headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.
When Truman went to bed on November 2, he was losing the election. When he woke up the next morning he learnt he had won. He travelled to back to Washington, D.C. that day by train, and on a short stop in St. Louis, he was confronted by a copy of Chicago Tribune. “This is one for the books,” quipped an elated President Truman as he held up the erroneous front page of the paper.
The story by reporter Arthur Sears Henning also reported Republican control of the House of Representatives and Senate that would work with President Dewey. Henning wrote “Dewey and Warren won a sweeping victory in the presidential election yesterday. The early returns showed the Republican ticket leading Truman and Vice President Alben W. Barkley pretty consistently in the western and southern states” and added that “indications were that the complete returns would disclose that Dewey won the presidency by an overwhelming majority of the electoral vote.” As it turned out, Truman won the electoral vote by a 303-189 majority over Dewey and Strom Thurmond (though a swing of just a few thousand votes in Ohio, Illinois, and California would have produced a Dewey victory), and the Democrats regained control of both the House and the Senate. Truman was handed a copy of the paper and displayed it to a crowd of well-wishers from his train in St. Louis, Missouri.
As returns began to indicate a close race later in the evening, Henning continued to stick to his prediction. It was simply too late to turn back now – thousands of papers were rolling off the presses with the headline that predicted Dewey’s victory. Even after the paper’s lead story was rewritten to emphasize local races and to indicate the narrowness of Dewey’s lead in the national race, the same banner headline was left on the front page. Only late in the evening, after press dispatches began to cast doubt on Dewey’s victory, did the Tribune change the headline to DEMOCRATS MAKE SWEEP OF STATE OFFICES for the later edition.
The headline might well have been quickly forgotten but for a chance encounter two days later in St. Louis.
Truman, travelling by rail to Washington, stepped to the rear platform of the train and there, someone handed Truman a two-day-old copy of the Tribune. (One version has a staffer serendipitously finding the paper under a seat in the station.)
Maybe Truman had already heard about the Tribunes embarrassing snafu, but had not yet held a copy in his hands. Perhaps this was the first time he had any inkling of how huge—and how hugely mistaken—the headline actually was. However it shook out, in Smith’s photograph of that priceless moment, Truman’s elation upon coming face to face with the dead-wrong assertion of his defeat is positively palpable.
He had as low an opinion of the Tribune as it did of him. Truman held the paper up, and photographers preserved the moment for history. It’s the greatest picture ever made of a politician in the throes of remembering what sweet, improbable victory feels like, while holding aloft a document that, loudly and wrongly, shouts his defeat to the world.
In later years, the publishers of the Tribune were able to laugh about the blunder
Truman served as Franklin Roosevelt’s vice-president for only 83 days before becoming president in April 1945 upon Roosevelt’s death. A famously plain-spoken politician from Missouri, Truman was well liked for his blunt talk and lack of pretension. In his 1953 farewell address he said, “The President has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anyone.”
And few presidents have made such tough decisions; with his order to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Truman presided over the end of World War II and the beginning of the atomic age.
Truman beat the heavily favoured Republican governor of New York, Thomas Dewey, by a substantial Electoral College margin, 303 to 189, but by fewer than three million votes in the popular vote. (The right-wing, stridently segregationist “Dixiecrat” nominee, Strom Thurmond, won four states—Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and his home state of South Carolina—and 39 electoral votes in 1948.)
Instead of a Republican sweep of the White House and retention of both houses of Congress, the Democrats not only won the Presidency, but also took control of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Despite his popularity, Truman had been reluctant to assume the role of Vice Presidential candidate, telling a reporter, “Hell, I don’t want to be President.”
When Democratic Party leaders were determined to dump Vice President Henry Wallace from the ticket in 1944, they looked for a suitable replacement. They considered Wallace too unpredictable to serve another term under Roosevelt, whose health had visibly declined during the Second World War. There was no shortage of candidates: Majority Leader Alben Barkley, presidential assistant James F. Byrnes, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and others advertised their availability. But the nomination went to someone who did not want it. Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman had committed himself to nominating Byrnes. When a reporter asked why he did not become a candidate himself, considering that the next vice president might likely “succeed to the throne,” Truman shook his head and replied, “Hell, I don’t want to be President.” Harry Truman felt content to stay in the Senate, where he had spent the happy years.
I enjoyed my new position as Vice-President, but it took me a while to get used to the fact that I no longer had the voting privileges I had enjoyed for ten years as a senator.
—Harry S. Truman
Truman’s victory is considered to be one of the greatest election upsets in American history.Virtually every prediction (with or without public opinion polls) indicated that he would be defeated by Dewey. The Democratic Party had a severe three-way ideological split, with both the far left (Henry A. Wallace of the Progressive Party) and far right of the Party (Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond) running third-party campaigns. Truman’s surprise victory was the fifth consecutive presidential win for the Democratic Party, the longest winning streak in the history of the party, and second-longest in the history of both modern parties (surpassed only by the Republicans’ six consecutive victories from 1860 to 1880). With simultaneous success in the 1948 congressional elections, the Democrats regained control of both houses of Congress, which they had lost in 1946. Truman’s feisty campaign style energized his base of traditional Democrats, consisting of most of the white South, as well as Catholic and Jewish voters; he also surprisingly fared well with Midwestern farmers. Thus, Truman’s election confirmed the Democratic Party’s status as the nation’s majority party
Harry S. Truman was the thirty-third President of the United States (1945–1953); as Vice President, he succeeded to the office upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In domestic affairs, Truman faced challenge after challenge: a tumultuous reconversion of the economy marked by severe shortages, numerous strikes, and the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act over his veto. After confounding all predictions to win re-election in 1948, he was able to pass almost none of his Fair Deal program. He used executive orders to begin desegregation of the U.S. armed forces and to launch a system of loyalty checks to remove thousands of Communist sympathizers from government office. He did, however, strongly oppose mandatory loyalty oaths for governmental employees, a stance that led to charges that his administration was soft on Communism. Corruption in his administration reached the cabinet and senior White House staff; in one of many scandals, 166 of his appointees resigned or were fired in the aftermath of revelations of financial misbehavior in the Internal Revenue Service. Republicans made corruption a central issue in the 1952 campaign.
In 1950, the Senate, led by Estes Kefauver, investigated numerous charges of corruption among senior administration officials, some of whom received fur coats and deep freezers for favors. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was involved. In 1950, 166 IRS employees either resigned or were fired, and many were facing indictments from the Department of Justice on a variety of tax-fixing and bribery charges, including the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Tax Division. When Attorney General Howard McGrath fired the special prosecutor for being too zealous, Truman fired McGrath.
Historians agree that Truman himself was innocent and unaware—with one exception. In 1945, Mrs. Truman became the recipient of a new, expensive, hard-to-get deep freezer. The businessman who provided the gift was the president of a perfume company and, thanks to Truman’s aide and confidante General Harry Vaughan, received priority to fly to Europe days after the war ended, where he bought new perfumes. On the way back he “bumped” a wounded veteran being flown home. Disclosure of the episode in 1949 humiliated Truman, and he responded by vigorously defending Vaughan, who was involved in multiple influence peddling scandals from his White House office.
Charges that Soviet agents had infiltrated the government bedeviled the Truman administration and became a major campaign issue for Eisenhower in 1952. In 1947, Truman set up loyalty boards to investigate espionage among federal employees. Between 1947 and 1952, “about 20,000 government employees were investigated, some 2500 resigned “voluntarily,” and 400 were fired”.Truman himself later asserted that the loyalty program was the biggest single mistake of his presidency.
In 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy and Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr. alleged that Truman had known Harry Dexter White was a Soviet spy when he, Truman, appointed him to the International Monetary Fund.However, this has now been refuted by declassified documents through the Freedom of Information Act which attest President Truman and the White House had not known of the existence of the Venona project.
When Attorney General J. Howard McGrath fired the special prosecutor in early 1952 for being too zealous, Truman fired McGrath. Truman submitted a reorganization plan to reform the IRB; Congress passed it, but the corruption was a major issue in the 1952 presidential election.
On December 6, 1950, Washington Post music critic Paul Hume wrote a critical review of a concert by the president’s daughter Margaret Truman:
Miss Truman is a unique American phenomenon with a pleasant voice of little size and fair quality … [she] cannot sing very well … is flat a good deal of the time—more last night than at any time we have heard her in past years … has not improved in the years we have heard her … [and] still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish.
Harry Truman wrote a scathing response:
I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert. I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an “eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.” It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work. Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below! Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you’ll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.
Truman was criticized by many for the letter. However, he pointed out that he wrote it as a loving father and not as the president.
In 1951, William M. Boyle, Truman’s long-time friend and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was forced to resign after being charged with financial corruption.
Despite a long record of public service, the always underestimated Truman made an unlikely candidate for national office. He was at heart a farm boy, born in the rural village of Lamar, Missouri, on May 8, 1884. His father, John Truman, was a farmer and livestock dealer. For much of their childhood, Harry and his brother and sister lived on their grandmother’s six hundred-acre farm near Grandview, Missouri. Poor eyesight corrected by thick glasses kept him from playing sports but failed to hamper his love of books.
When the children were old enough for schooling, the Truman family moved to Independence. Then, in 1903, after John Truman went bankrupt speculating in grain futures, the family moved to Kansas City, where John Truman took a job as night watchman at a grain elevator. Harry applied to West Point but was rejected because of his poor eyesight. Instead of attending college, he worked as a timekeeper on a railroad construction crew, a newspaper wrapper, and a bank teller.
In 1905 the parents returned to the Grandview farm, and Harry and his brother followed the next year. After John Truman died in 1914, Harry Truman assumed the supervision of the farm, plowing, sowing, harvesting, and repairing equipment himself. For the rest of his life, Truman always enjoyed returning to the family’s farm (now subdivided into suburban housing, although the farmhouse stands as part of the Harry S. Truman National Historical Site). As president, he later asserted: “I always give my occupation as farmer. I spent the best years of my life trying to run a 600-acre farm successfully, and I know what the problems are.”
Farming meant hard work and isolation. Nor did it produce sufficient income for Harry to marry his childhood sweetheart Elizabeth (Bess) Wallace. Truman proposed in 1911, but Bess turned him down. Undaunted, he pursued the courtship for another eight years. After long days on the farm, Harry devoted his evenings to practicing the piano and reading history. He had other dreams as well: as a boy, he and his father had attended the Democratic National Convention in Kansas City in 1900 and watched William Jennings Bryan be nominated a second time for president. The “Great Commoner” always remained one of his heroes. Truman’s father loved politics. “Politics is all he ever advises me to neglect the farm for,” Harry wrote to Bess.
The United States entered the First World War in 1917. At thirty-three, Truman was two years over the age limit for the draft and would also have been exempted as a farmer. But he turned the farm over to his mother and sister and enlisted, overcoming his poor eyesight by memorizing the eye chart. Having served in the National Guard, Truman helped organize a regiment from a National Guard company in Kansas City and was elected first lieutenant. When the 129th Field Artillery went overseas, he was promoted to captain and placed in command of Battery D. The “Dizzy D” had a wild and unruly reputation, but Captain Harry whipped them into line. They encountered heavy fighting in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, from which Truman emerged with the undying respect of his troops and increased confidence in his own abilities. His exploits also lifted him in the eyes of Bess Wallace, who at last married him after the war, in June 1919.
Truman’s assets were his firm personal principles, his honesty, humility, and homespun character, and his ability to speak plain truths. Regardless of his lack of preparation, these qualities enabled him to face the challenges of the cold war, make portentous decisions, and retain the respect of the electorate, who accepted him as one of them. He could be magnanimous, as in his gesture of consulting with former President Herbert Hoover, long barred from the Roosevelt White House.
He could be intrepid, as in his determination to remove General Douglas MacArthur from command in Korea, in order to preserve the superiority of the civilian government over the military. In 1948 Truman won the most unexpected election upset of the century. Although he left the presidency in 1953 at a low ebb in his popularity, his standing rose again over the years. After his death on December 26, 1972, he achieved the status of folk hero. Songs proclaimed: “America Needs You Harry Truman.” A Broadway play, “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry” was based on his life story, and biographies of him became best sellers. Presidential candidates from both parties claimed Truman rather than Roosevelt as their model. In retrospect, his selection for vice president had been a wise move by the party leaders.