Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Revisiting Harry Truman's 1948 Campaign

Regarded as one of the great populist campaigns of American history, Truman's 1948 whistle-stop tours showed millions of Americans a common man battling for the rights of other common men.  But Truman, like FDR (especially in his 1944 SOTU address--see 6th paragraph from the end) was willing to denounce Republicans in the most strident terms, far meaner than what we see today (other than in lefty blogs), at least so far.  Here's a sample, from his October 25, Chicago speech:

We must not imagine, just because we love freedom, that freedom is safe--that our freedom is safe. Eternal vigilance is still the price of liberty.

Other people have also loved freedom, but have lost their liberty with tragic suddenness.

It happened in Italy 25 years ago. It happened in Germany 15 years ago. It happened in Czechoslovakia just a few months ago. And it could happen here.

I know that it is hard for Americans to admit this danger. American democracy has very deep roots. But, if the antidemocratic forces in this country continue to work unchecked, this Nation could awaken a few years from now to find that the Bill of Rights had become a scrap of paper.

My friends, that must never happen! Look back over history, and you will find that wherever ruthless men have destroyed liberty and human rights, certain economic and social forces had paved the way for them.

What are these forces that threaten our way of life? Who are the men behind them? They are the men who want to see inflation continue unchecked. They are the men who are striving to concentrate great economic power in their own hands. They are the men who are setting up and stirring up racial and religious prejudice against some of our fellow Americans.

I propose to state in simple, unmistakable language, just exactly how each of these three groups of men--working through the Republican Party, if you please--is a serious threat to the future welfare of this great Nation.

And it gets better, with references to the big businessmen behind Hitler and the other fascists and charges of racial and religious prejudice.  Watch out, whoever gets the Republican nomination for a Truman-style campaign.

Categories > Presidency

Discussions - 13 Comments

Whew! Tough stuff. Which raises an interesting question, two actually: When did campaign rhetoric get domesticated and why?

Well, that's why you should never believe all the whining about "mean-spirited campaigning" etc. It's always been nasty as hell.

If it does turn into a Trumanesque campaign, seems to me we have a lot more ammo than they do (e.g., Holder, Solyndra, spending on unions, etc.).

Did the Cold War and, for some, the lessons of McCarthyism mute the nastiness?

It would have amused Truman to learn that he is many Republicans' favorite Democratic president.

Steve, are you suggesting that Truman would be accepted in the Democratic Party today?

In a minute. . .well, maybe two.

Why wouldn't he? The current leader of the Democrat Party intervened in Libya without seeking Congressional approval. The president who sent U.S. troops to Korea without consulting Congress would feel right at home in today's party.

I interpret McCarthy as to some or even a great degree a reaction to FDR's labelling of conservative Republicans as fascists, a theme Truman takes up in the speech above.

McCarthy was not a 'reaction' to anything but his own ambition, lack of scruple, and dipsomania.

He was more accurate than FDR in his 1944 SOTU.

I wonder whether we are mistaken in our believing our times to be less partisan than those of the 1790s.


Here is a rendering of the State of the Union address delivered in January of 1944:

You will find a request for an ill-advised policy (price controls) and two rather ill-conceived rhetorical flourishes. One delineates a rather potted conception of justice and the other is a passing reference to the 'spirit of fascism'. Little of the address can be said to refer to the sort of discrete factual information that one would term 'accurate' or 'inaccurate'.

McCarthy was in Congress for 10 years, until the drink chewed him up. Four years and change were devoted to a headline grabbing crusade against Communists in government which incorporated serial instances of flat-out lies (his claim in February 1950 that there were 205 Communists employed in the Department of State), campaigns of defamation (against Sen. Millard Tydings and against the chain of command that ran from Ft. Monmouth to the Secretary of the Army) and sundry defamatory remarks (against Phillip Jessup, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, &c). The whole business has been very much overdone by advocacy historians. It was, however, a distasteful series of episodes and not worth one paragraph of apologia.

I'm about to read my second book on McCarthy. There's been a concerted effort to rehabilitate his memory, some I'm not so quick to condemn him at this point. The fact is, the government was full of communists, just like it is today.

The government is not 'full of Communists' today. The Communist Party has for more than fifty years an ineffectual remnant and has for twenty years had little more than a rumor of existence. There was a problem with Communist infiltration in public bureaucracies ca. 1945, in positions august (Harry Dexter White) and scruffy (Annie Lee Moss), but we are talking about numbers in the lower hundreds in a federal government which employed (after demobilization) around two or three million. It required careful and disinterested investigative work, not McCarthy's self-aggrandizing fraud.

While many of his Cold War policies are worthy of praise,Truman belongs in the "Academy of the Overrated." At various times in 1948 he compared his Republican opponents to fascists, and even suggested that they were allied with the communists in an attempt to throw him out of office. Truman paved the way for Joe McCarthy . . . We are all paying the price for David McCullough's work of hagiography, which attempted to elevate Truman into the pantheon of great American presidents. Truman was an insecure, petty little man who lacked even a smidgen of magnanimity. And McCullough's notion that Truman was honest to the core is something of a joke - - he had his wife on a "no-show" job in his Senate office, as Alonzo Hamby has noted.

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