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FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944

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Although the presidential election of 1944 placed FDR in the White House for an unprecedented fourth term, historical memory of the election itself has been overshadowed by the war, Roosevelt’s health and his death the following April, Truman's ascendancy, and the decision to drop the atomic bomb. Today most people assume that FDR’s reelection was assured. Yet, as David M. Jordan’s engrossing account reveals, neither the outcome of the campaign nor even the choice of candidates was assured. Just a week before Election Day, pollster George Gallup thought a small shift in votes in a few key states would award the election to Thomas E. Dewey. Though the Democrats urged voters not to "change horses in midstream," the Republicans countered that the war would be won "quicker with Dewey and Bricker." With its insider tales and accounts of party politics, and campaigning for votes in the shadow of war and an uncertain future, FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944 makes for a fascinating chapter in American political history.

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Prologue. An Evening at the Statler

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The night was clear and cool, a lovely early autumn Saturday evening, as the leaders of the Teamsters Union gathered at the Statler Hotel in Washington for their annual dinner. They looked forward to this gathering each year, but they especially anticipated this one. The President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was coming. He was going to make the main speech, to them and to a nationwide radio audience. Saturday, September 23, 1944, looked like an exciting night.

Roosevelt, in office since March 4, 1933, was the Democratic candidate for an unprecedented fourth term in the White House, nominated to run against the Republican hopeful, Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York. Dewey had been campaigning hard for several weeks, scoring points on a western swing while Roosevelt took care of the many burdens of running a world war (with a trip to Hawaii and Alaska concerning the war in the Pacific mixed in). Democratic Party leaders were becoming a little nervous about the campaign, and they looked forward to FDR's talk with even more anticipation than did the Teamsters in the Statler ballroom.

 

1. A Nation at War

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1944 was an election year in the United States. For the first time in eighty years, the country would go through the whole presidential electoral process while in the midst of a war.

In 1864, incumbent president Abraham Lincoln outpolled the Democrats, defeatism, and General George B. McClellan to win election to a second term, but it was no sure thing for old Abe until Sherman's capture of Atlanta early in September 1864.

In 1944, it was the Democrats who were in power, with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt nearing the end of his unprecedented third term. As 1943 came to a close, the American war effort appeared to be going well, but there was still much hard fighting ahead against Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan. Eleven years of a turbulent presidency had generated considerable opposition to Roosevelt and his New Deal, while recent elections and public opinion polls seemed to indicate a nationwide swing toward the conservative Republicans. Leo Crowley, high in the administration and in the Democratic Party, told Harold Ickes, Roosevelt's Interior secretary, he believed “the political situation, as it affects the President, to be very gloomy indeed.” The 1944 election, the shape of which was very clouded as 1943 drew to a close, was up in the air.1

 

2. Politics in Midwar

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The midterm elections, in 1942, had not gone well for FDR and his party. In October, the President sent Congress a message asking that the draft age be reduced to cover 18-year-olds. In normal times Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn would have sat on such a politically risky proposal until the election was safely past, but he knew that the military exigencies were great so he brought it up promptly. When it passed, an “avalanche of protests from parents” buried a number of Democrats who voted for the measure. The 18-year-old draft, the cumulative annoyances of wartime restrictions, regulations, and rationing, and a drift away from the spirit of the New Deal hurt Roosevelt's party. One historian has called the ′42 election “more an expression of apathy and of barriers to voting by displaced workers than the result of an electoral shift to the Republican party,” but to party politicians in November 1942 it sure looked like the Republicans had won. Out of about eighty million eligible voters nationwide, only some twenty-eight million voted. The Democrats lost seven seats in the Senate and forty-seven in the House of Representatives, leaving the Congress firmly in the control of a coalition of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats.1

 

3. The Republicans

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Harry Luce and Life magazine were not the only ones who felt that 1944 could be a Republican year. Homer E. Capehart, president of the Packard Company, spoke in early January to a luncheon of business executives at the Hotel Roosevelt in New York and said “any good Republican” could defeat Roosevelt. “The American people,” pronounced Capehart, who was himself running for a U.S. Senate seat in Indiana, “are sick and tired of the New Deal.” Charles Hurd, a political reporter for the New York Times, wrote that Republican leaders “assume and expect that the House will pass to their control” in the upcoming election and were “convinced that 1944 is a year in which their party can win.”1

As the year opened, there appeared to be four, possibly five, candidates on the GOP'S horizon; the party would have to weigh their respective merits and come to a choice at—or possibly before—its June convention. Those who were most seriously considered for the Republican presidential nomination at the start of the year were two governors, New York's Dewey and Ohio's Bricker, two military men, General Douglas MacArthur and Lieutenant Commander Harold Stassen (the former governor of Minnesota), and the party's surprise 1940 nominee, Wendell Willkie.

 

4. The Democrats

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For the Democrats, the problems for 1944 were of a different magnitude than were those of the Republicans. They knew who their presidential candidate would be—who it had to be—but he was taking his time agreeing to run. The Republicans gave next to no thought to a vice presidential candidate—the second spot on their ticket would most likely be filled, in a manner all too common, by a last-minute decision, as their convention was winding down and the delegates were preparing to go home. For the Democrats, on the other hand, the vice presidency was an all-consuming issue.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was serving his twelfth year as president of the United States in 1944, longer than any man before him. The clamor, the noise, the arguments over the third-term precedent were far behind him by now. Vice President John Nance Garner, Postmaster General James Farley, and other good Democrats had opposed Roosevelt on the third-term question and lost. The Republicans had flooded the country with their pins and buttons—“No Third Term,” “No Man Is Good Three Times,” “Fight the Third Term-ites,” and so on—and they had lost, even with a candidate as appealing as Wendell Willkie. The international crisis had been added to normal Democratic strength and FDR's great popularity, and he was elected handily to a third term. The fourth-term question promised to be an issue only among those who were inveterate Roosevelt-haters already.

 

5. Willkie Pushes Hard

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While the polls and their own investigations told the leaders of the GOP that Governor Dewey was safely ahead in the race for the presidential nomination, their fears in the night still spelled out the name W-I-L-L-K-I-E. They had been burned badly in 1940, when the Hoosier utility magnate came seemingly out of nowhere to sweep away the party's nomination, and they worried that something like that might happen again. They all read Life's editorials, proclaiming that Willkie was out in front; they didn't really believe that, but what if Harry Luce was on to something? What, for example, would happen if Dewey honored his pledge to stay in Albany for four years?

Weymouth Kirkland, counsel for the Chicago Tribune, told a luncheon audience in December that if Willkie ran against Roosevelt, the Tribune would support Norman Thomas, the Socialist. No one could predict what Bertie McCormick really might do, but it was clear the loathing of Willkie by the party's right wing went deep.1

 

6. President and Congress

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Franklin D. Roosevelt and the 78th Congress were not functioning on the same wavelength. Although the Congress was nominally controlled by Democrats, it was actually run by a coalition of conservative Southern Democrats and conservative Northern Republicans. Committee chairmanships were held by Democrats, but because so many of the southerners served year after year without any meaningful opposition, their seniority gave them most of those chairmanships.

Columnist Ernest Lindley, analyzing the differences between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, wrote that “the prevailing attitude in Congress has been that the home front and the war front are separate and that the home front is an open field for politics as usual.” The administration's efforts to reverse this attitude had been less than successful, and congressional leaders were catering “to the narrowest and most selfish economic interests of voters.” In addition to Republican opposition, Roosevelt faced such Democrats as Texas Senator W. Lee “Pappy” O'Daniel, who announced that “I'm a Democrat but the one-eyed mule they're riding around here is not our Southern donkey” and called for the defeat of FDR and his congressional followers.1

 

7. Wendell in Wonderland

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In the second week of January 1944, the Republican National Committee and numerous Republican state chairmen and vice chairmen met at the Stevens Hotel in Chicago, ostensibly to select the site of their national convention but also to talk politics among themselves, to gear up for a very political year, and, perhaps, to enjoy Chicago.

Chicago in the middle of a great war was still a “toddlin' town.” Some activities were less gamy than others. A troupe of Gilbert and Sullivan players had just opened The Mikado at the Studebaker Theatre, although they had substituted for the line “we are gentlemen of Japan” the wartime words “we are gangsters of Japan.” The long-running and ever-popular Good Night, Ladies, with Stu Irwin, was at the Blackstone Theatre, a sex farce in a Turkish bath on ladies' night. The Black Hawks were playing ice hockey, although not very well (they had a six-game losing streak), and Willie Hoppe was playing a three-cushion billiard exhibition. And there were still plenty of bars, nightclubs, and strip joints for those so inclined.1

 

8. The Bandwagon Rolling

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There were all the expected reactions to Willkie's withdrawal. Robert Taft exulted that “Mr. Willkie has apparently recognized the inevitable.” His fellow Ohioan, John Bricker, was a bit more gracious, calling the withdrawal “an unselfish and patriotic act.” Senator Warren Austin of Vermont, an internationalist, said, “I hope there will be someone who will come into the field to take up the torch and carry it forward.” Allen Drury described Willkie as “a man who, scorning the use of the airplane, tried to fly by flapping his arms and when that didn't work gave up in disgust.” Willkie's favorite antagonist, Bertie McCormick, scoffed in the Tribune, “from today on Mr. Willkie can be dismissed as a minor nuisance.”1

Thomas E. Dewey, in Albany, said he had no comment on “political questions,” and Roosevelt, asked at his weekly press conference if he could comment on Willkie's withdrawal, responded, “I don't think so.”2

With Willkie out of the race—the race, such as it was—there still remained, with Dewey, four men: John Bricker, Douglas MacArthur, Harold Stassen, and, somewhere between a favorite son and a serious contender, Everett McKinley Dirksen, the Illinois congressman. The Stassen people hoped that Willkie's followers might now fall into their camp; Stassen's stand on most issues was closer to Willkie's than was that of any other candidate, and the two men had once been close. Willkie, however, had resented as a sort of personal betrayal Stassen's entry into the 1944 race as a contender against the 1940 standard-bearer. And Stassen seemed to be, at best, a quasi-candidate, off there with the navy in the South Pacific.

 

9. It Looks Like Dewey

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While the Dewey forces worked on accumulating delegate commitments, and John Bricker's people did what they could to put together an anti-Dewey bloc, the national party officers worked on making sure that the national convention itself unrolled smoothly and as planned. Harrison Spangler, the Republican national chairman, got together his twenty-six-member arrangements committee in Chicago on April 18 and 19, to see where they stood.

Joe Martin of Massachusetts, the House minority leader, was pretty much agreed on by everyone as the permanent chairman of the convention. Martin had served in this role in 1940, and there were no complaints about his fairness and efficiency. The question of the convention's temporary chairman, however, was very much up in the air. The principal function of the temporary chairman was to give the keynote address the first night of the convention. The keynoter gave to the nation, in his speech and even more in his persona, the image of the party which its leaders wished to present.

 

10. The Republican Convention

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As the delegates rose for breakfast on Monday morning the 26th of June, before their trek to Chicago Stadium, they were greeted with an editorial in the Chicago Tribune calling upon them to remember “how they were tricked and humiliated in 1940,” in what the editorial called “the Crime of Philadelphia.” “This convention must be sternly American,” it thundered. “If we have a fourth term, it will be the fault of this convention, and the Republic will fall.” With this ominous load imposed upon it, the convention gathered.1

Chairman Harrison Spangler called the first session to order at 11:16 A.M., although half the spectators' seats were empty. After a singing of the national anthem and an opening prayer, Spangler introduced Governor Dwight Green of Illinois for a speech of welcome. Green started with a standard denunciation of “the fascist minded federal bureaucracy” and called for a Republican victory in November that “will strike dread into the hearts of the enemy.”

 

11. Meanwhile, the Democrats

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For the Democrats, their concern began and pretty much ended with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They felt fairly confident of victory if FDR headed their ticket in 1944, and they hated to think of what would happen if he did not.

As far back as December 1942, presidential secretary Marvin McIntyre, in a conversation in the White House with Jonathan Daniels, said that “nobody but the President or someone on whom the President put his finger could be elected in 1944.” Daniels responded that he “doubted if anybody but the President could be elected in 1944.” But he said that FDR just had to build somebody else up.1

One problem, of course, was that Roosevelt had not built anyone else up, so that the question seemed to come down to Roosevelt or nobody. The President was keeping his intentions very much to himself, but he had a frank discussion at lunch with Frank Walker in December 1943. He told Walker, his postmaster-general (and at the time also Democratic national chairman), “that if they nominate Bricker or even Dewey we should try to get Willkie on our side.” When Walker asked him whom he wanted as his vice presidential candidate, Roosevelt replied, “We have three candidates—Sam R[ayburn], Jimmie Byrnes and Wallace.” He went on, “We could give Wallace some international assignment—Sam would be all right but I don't know whether he would be helpful politically.” Then the President told Walker, “We have to talk politics once a week from now on.”2

 

12. The Ailing President

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Franklin Roosevelt was not well over the winter of 1943–1944. He had come back from the Big Three conference at Teheran in December 1943 looking to concentrate his energies on the war effort, only to find domestic affairs occupying far too much of his time and mind, including a recalcitrant Congress and a threatened railroad strike. He contracted a rather severe case of influenza, called colloquially “the grippe,” and he had difficulty shaking it.

The Teheran conference seemed to mark some sort of watershed in Roosevelt's health. While at the meeting in the Iranian capital, the first with both Churchill and Stalin, the President had an attack of some kind. Charles Bohlen, a State Department official who was present at the first dinner there on November 28, recorded that FDR “suddenly, in the flick of an eye…turned green and great drops of sweat began to bead off his face; he put a shaky hand to his forehead.” Harry Hopkins gestured to the attendants, Roosevelt was wheeled to his room, and Admiral Ross T. McIntire, his physician, said it was indigestion. The next morning Roosevelt seemed fine, and nothing was made of whatever had happened the night before.1

 

13. Will Roosevelt Run?

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As the Democrats worked toward their Chicago convention, their unsettled picture was confused in several ways. The first big question was whether Franklin D. Roosevelt would again be their candidate for president; a negative answer to this one, they knew, would be devastating to the party's chances in 1944. The other question was that of his running mate, and there were several things that seemed somewhat clear as the time for decision approached:

(1) Henry Wallace was the incumbent, favored by labor, liberals, and an unknown mass of the general public, perhaps simply because he was the incumbent. He was bitterly opposed by leading big-city Democratic bosses and the South.

(2) Jimmy Byrnes was the next most probable candidate, although his Southern roots and his religious orientation gave pause to some Democratic leaders.

(3) A few other possibilities existed—Alben Barkley, Justice William O. Douglas, Scott Lucas of Illinois, Sam Rayburn, Governor J. Melville Broughton of North Carolina, Judge Sherman Minton of Indiana, Harry Truman of Missouri, Paul McNutt, and several others—but no one knew what their respective strengths might be.1

 

14. Who Runs with Roosevelt?

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For some time Roosevelt had been feeling much pressure from various parts of the Democratic Party concerning his choice for the vice presidential nomination. The CIO-PAC'S Sidney Hillman met with him on November 8, 1943, for forty minutes, telling him that labor was losing confidence in the conduct of domestic policy as part of the war effort and that the only man around Roosevelt favored by labor was Henry Wallace. Roosevelt realized that labor was crucial to Democratic success in 1944, but at the same time he was getting repeated versions of a different message, from party leaders who talked of the damage Wallace would cause to the national ticket if he were a part of it.1

Roosevelt had done little to straighten out the vice presidential mess, and the party, just days before its Chicago convention, opening on July 18, had to face again the question which had been vexing its leaders for so long: who would run on the ticket with Franklin Roosevelt?

 

15. The Democrats Arrive in Chicago

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Though the Democratic National Convention was scheduled to open on Wednesday, July 19, Chicago was abuzz with it for days in advance, as the pundits and politicos made their way to the Windy City on the banks of Lake Michigan. And, with the question of the presidential nomination taken off the table by FDR's announcement of July 11, most of the talk was about the vice presidential nod—with some concern about Southern attitudes.

In the latter regard, Senator Burnet Maybank of South Carolina, a protégé of Jimmy Byrnes who was not opposed to Roosevelt, talked about what he expected—and hoped for. “It's my opinion that the southern people as a whole are opposed to the renomination of Wallace,” he said. He did not realistically expect to get the two-thirds rule reinstated, as some Southern die-hards demanded, but he felt “that the convention will carry out the wishes of the southern people and there will be no racial equality plank in the platform. If there is such a plank,” he warned, “the repercussions in the South will be severe.”1

 

16. Democrats in Convention

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On Wednesday, July 19, at four minutes past noon, Robert Hannegan banged his gavel and called the 1944 Democratic convention to order. The temperature in Chicago Stadium was in the low 80s, still warm but far more comfortable than the 100-degree heat that the Republicans had to contend with in the same building. The seats were about half filled when Hannegan got things under way. A Catholic monsignor delivered an invocation, soprano Eleanor Steber of the Metropolitan Opera sang the national anthem, and the national committee secretary read the official call of the conclave.

Hannegan then introduced Chicago's Mayor Kelly, whose speech of welcome was followed by one from Illinois Senator Scott Lucas. After Lucas came Thomas Courtney, the Democratic candidate for governor of Illinois, who was followed by party treasurer Ed Pauley (who reported the party's poor financial condition) and Chicago Congressman William L. Dawson, the only black member of the House. With a recess until the evening, the first and most peaceful session of the convention was over.

 

17. Campaign on the High Seas

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The nation's media had a fine old time with the Democrats' convention. The New Yorker, for instance, had this to say:

Radio listeners found the latest Chicago convention louder and funnier than the GOP one. The brash Democrats have an engaging way of broadcasting their family squabbles so that the whole nation can listen in.1

Life magazine commented that the Democrats, even with one eye on the war, still put on “one of their rousing, old-fashioned political jamborees, complete with parades, mobs, wirepulling and loud, irritable bickerings.” It was, the writer continued, “unlike the Republican convention where harmony and dullness prevailed.” Everybody was heard: “labor leaders, southerners, political bosses, visionaries, and reactionaries followed each other to the platform. Delegates cheered first one, then the other. Sometimes they cheered just to hear themselves cheer.”2

Jonathan Daniels, a White House staffer, was “appalled by the ruthlessness with which Hannegan carried out” the elimination of Henry Wallace. “So were many other New Dealers,” Daniels wrote. “And Wallace was not the only personage who felt he had a right to feel that he had been done in in the dark. Jimmy Byrnes, believing he had a go sign from the President, definitely felt that way.”3

 

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