I didn't set out to write a book about American politics. In fact, I was trying to avoid it. I've been in the thick of it as a former aide in the Clinton-Gore White House, the Democratic Party's platform director in 2000, then a senior advisor in the 2004 Kerry campaign, and now as editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. When I wrote my first book, The Next Deal, it was all about American politics and history. And when I started writing The Candy Bombers - in the aftermath of the Kerry disappointment - I wanted a break from thinking about American politics.
But I couldn't escape it.
Not to get all Michael Corleone, but it turned out that I couldn't truly tell the tale of how America under President Truman turned around its failing occupation of postwar Germany, inspired people around the world to believe we were a force for good, and generally became the nation we know we need to be again today without looking at what was happening at the very same moment here at home: Harry Truman's miraculous 1948 campaign.
Along the way, I discovered something: much of what is commonly believed about that campaign is just plain myth. The conventional wisdom is that Harry Truman won reelection with a "Give 'Em Hell" campaign of populist economics and paeans to the New Deal. Or that he won because of the farm crisis or by appealing to labor voters. Or that he won because, in the famous quote, Thomas Dewey looked like the little man on the wedding cake. And all these, it is true, played a part.
But it turns out that Harry Truman won in 1948 on the issue of national security - by exploiting a very real fear of war and by battling for the soul of the Democratic Party.
In the dozens of books and accounts I've read of the 1948 campaign, nowhere is this case fully made before The Candy Bombers. In fact, most historians will tell you the opposite. The most recent popular chronicler of that campaign wrote that "though conducted against the backdrop of the Cold War, the election of 1948 saw remarkably little debate between Dewey and Truman over it." Two of the most acclaimed historians of twentieth-century America concluded that, "foreign policy had not been an issue between the major parties in the 1948 campaign." These are excellent historians, but the evidence speaks for itself.
The truth is that the conflict with the Soviet Union, the fear of an approaching war, and the siege of Berlin shaped most every aspect of that election and were subjects of vociferous argument between the candidates. They determined the strategies of each of the various contenders -- with the exception of the single-issue campaign of the segregationist Strom Thurmond. The daily banner headlines of dire news from Berlin dominated newspapers' front pages and weighed on the minds of the voters. And it was the issue of war and peace that would ultimately decide the election.
Some of the ways in which national security was used in 1948 could be ripped from the political noise of our post-9/11 campaigns. Today it is jihadism, then it was communism. The RNC chair at the time said Americans had a choice "basically between Communism and Republicanism" and that the Democratic Party's heart had been captured by "a radical group devoted to Sovietizing the United States." Republican campaign pamphlets showed the Democratic donkey wearing a turban decorated with a hammer and sickle. Harry Truman got in on the act and continually castigated Dewey and the Republicans as tools of the Communist Party -- or fascists. He once even compared Dewey to Adolph Hitler.
But there were some differences -- and even these are instructive. Then we really were on the brink of World War III. And in 1948, one candidate really was in the pocket of the Communist Party: former Vice President Henry Wallace. If there was a reason that pundits and politicians thought that Harry Truman was sure to go down to defeat it was because the Democratic Party was split between these two former Vice Presidents of FDR. Indeed, for a long period, more Democrats wanted Wallace than Truman to be the 1948 nominee.
Over the course of 1947, the year before the election, Henry Wallace filled stadiums across America with hundreds of thousands of adoring supporters who each paid to see him speak. It was a political phenomenon that was even bigger that what we saw with the Dean campaign of 2003 or Obama in 2007. At his third party convention, young liberals such as George McGovern thrilled to his oratory. But what he preached -- that America should abandon Berlin to the Soviets, that America's foreign policy initiatives such as the Marshall Plan were unilateralist, and we should not interfere with Russian actions in Eastern Europe -- was very much at odds with Truman's policies.
To win in November, Truman had to convince Democrats and liberals that he - not Wallace -- had the right approach to dealing with the Soviet threat. The Berlin Airlift -- neither appeasement nor a disastrous war -- was a big part of that message.
As The Candy Bombers retells, it was only by winning this battle for the soul of the Democratic Party that Harry Truman could win reelection. If he had not succeeded, we would live in a very different America today. Perhaps this is a reminder as we look toward this year's election...
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