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Dewey Defeats Truman


President Truman and Thomas Dewey

President Harry Truman (left) and Thomas Dewey (right). Photograph courtesy of National Archives.

On the morning after the 1948 presidential election, the Chicago Daily Tribune's headline read "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN." That's what the Republicans, the polls, the newspapers, the political writers, and even many Democrats had expected. But in the largest political upset in U.S. history, Harry S. Truman surprised everyone when he, and not Thomas E. Dewey, won the 1948 election for President of the United States.

Truman Steps In

A little less than three months into his fourth term, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died. Two and a half hours after his death, Harry S. Truman was sworn in as President of the United States.

Truman was thrust into the presidency during World War II. Though the war in Europe was clearly in the Allies' favor and nearing an end, the war in the Pacific was continuing unmercifully. Truman was allowed no time for transition; it was his responsibility to lead the U.S. to peace.

While completing Roosevelt's term, Truman was responsible for making the fateful decision to end the war with Japan by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; creating the Truman Doctrine to give economic aid to Turkey and Greece as part of a containment policy; helping the U.S. make a transition to a peace-time economy; blocking Stalin's attempts to conquer Europe, by instigating the Berlin airlift; helping create the state of Israel for Holocaust survivors; and fighting for strong changes toward equal rights for all citizens.

Yet the public and newspapers were against Truman. They called him a "little man" and often claimed he was inept. Perhaps the main reason for the dislike for President Truman was because he was very much unlike their beloved Franklin D. Roosevelt. Thus, when Truman was up for election in 1948, many people did not want to the "little man" to run.

Don't Run!

Political campaigns are largely ritualistic.... All the evidence we have accumulated since 1936 tends to indicate that the man in the lead at the beginning of the campaign is the man who is the winner at the end of it.... The winner, it appears, clinches his victory early in the race and before he has uttered a word of campaign oratory.1
--- Elmo Roper
For four terms, the Democrats had won the presidency with a "sure thing" - Franklin D. Roosevelt. They wanted another "sure thing" for the presidential election of 1948, especially since the Republicans were going to choose Thomas E. Dewey as their candidate. Dewey was relatively young, seemed well-liked, and had come very close to Roosevelt for the popular vote in the 1944 election.

And though incumbent presidents usually have a strong chance to be re-elected, many Democrats didn't think Truman could win against Dewey. Though there were serious efforts to get famed General Dwight D. Eisenhower to run, Eisenhower refused. Though many Democrats were not happy, Truman became the official Democratic candidate at the convention.

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