Thoughts on a Book: 1948

The 1948 presidential election is a war for the soul of the Democratic Party, with accidental president Harry Truman pitted against Henry Wallace, his embittered leftwing predecessor as vice president, and stormy young South Carolina segregationist Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. On the GOP side, it’s a four-way battle between cold-as-ice New Yorker Tom Dewey, Minnesota upstart Harold Stassen, the stodgy but brilliant Ohio conservative Robert Taft, and the imperious but aged Douglas McArthur.

It’s an election year featuring a uniquely stellar supporting cast: Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, Richard Nixon, civil rights crusader Hubert Humphrey, GOP vice presidential choice Earl Warren, Paul Robeson, Lillian Hellman, Pete Seeger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Joe McCarthy, Clark Clifford, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson, H.L. Mencken, Harold Ickes, Clare and Henry Luce, and Ronald Reagan.

Everyone knows the iconic newsphoto: A jubilant underdog Harry Truman brandishes a copy of the Chicago Tribune proclaiming “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” But far more exists to 1948’s election than a single inglorious headline.

In this fascinating book, award-winning author David Pietrusza goes beyond the headlines to reveal the backstage events behind Truman’s stunning upset victory, placing in context a down-to-the-wire fight against the background of an erupting Cold War, the Berlin Airlift, and the birth of Israel, and a post-war America facing exploding storms over civil rights and domestic communism.


David Pietrusza is the author of 1960 – LBJ vs JFK vs Nixon; 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents (named a Best Book of 2007 by Kirkus Reviews); Rothstein: The Life, Times and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series; Teddy Ballgame: My Life in Pictures (with Ted Williams); and Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Pietrusza’s historical work has garnered media attention from such outlets as the New York Times, Newsweek, US News and World Reports, the Washington Post, NPR, C-Span Book TV, C-SPAN American History TV, MSNBC, SIRIUS-XM, The Fox News Channel, Bloomberg Radio, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, and others. He has served on the board of trustees of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. He lives in upstate New York.

  1. Ever the consummate student of history that he is, my father – and our town’s mayor back then – would regale me with stories about American politics. The Kennedy-Nixon election is oft-repeated and so is the tumultuous Watergate scandal. But of all his stories, none comes close in cornering my attention that the Alger Hiss-Whittaker Chambers episode. A bird. A bird killed the rising career of Alger Hiss. That captured my imagination and provided a positive layer on the controversial Richard Nixon whom I share my birthday. Hiss and his avian debacle is included in this book for he and Chambers are just a couple of stars in an incredible line-up of supporting players in the 1948 U.S. Elections. By the way, the pivotal bird in question is the prothonotary warbler. Remember that.
  2. 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America is a highly-entertaining work of literature with a surprising page-turning quality. It benefited much from the interactions of the four interesting major characters: incumbent President Harry Truman, Republican nominee Thomas Dewey, Dixiecrat standard-bearer Strom Thurmond and Progressive candidate Henry Wallace. Then of course the aforestated supporting cast added a more complicated socio-political dimensions to a national election that had profound effects to its nation long after Truman hoisted the ill-fated Chicago Tribune paper.
  3. Politics is crazy. Politicians even crazier. I cannot help but incessantly breathe deeply each time a secret is revealed. Segregationist Strom Thurmond fathering a Black daughter. Harry Truman revealing his disdain for his predecessor and the man who picked him as running-mate Franklin Delano Roosevelt . Roosevelt dumping his vice president Henry Wallace for safer choice Truman. My father was a five-term mayor and I have met political snakes and chameleons of all shapes and sizes. But these unfortunate regular interactions have not diminish shock from the revelations in the book. I guess the dirty side of politics has no expiration in churning my stomach.
  4. Learn from the past. The wealth of lessons from our history cannot be underestimated. A social media-fueled campaign can still gain numerous ideas from an election counting radio broadcasts and newsreels as the best form of media presence. Technology changes but the human psyche remains constant. It is from the decision and indecision of the past, people can acquire the indispensable tools for mastering the present.
  5. Author David Pietrusza summed up the incredible elections, “It came down  to so many factors: an underdog who refused to surrender, a presumed victor who refused to fight disgruntled Democrats – on the left and right – who, by deserting their party, merely strengthened it, and fearful Republican farmers, who in the end, proved more farmer than Republican.” It sounds so simple but politicians should remember the electorate adores a fighter; feels wary of boat rockers; and puts premium on the economy. The Give ‘Em Hell Harry Strategy may not work at present and may even be considered unacceptable on some levels but it still underscores the importance of confronting issues and posing one or more against  your opponents. Fight. Elections are competitions after all.
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