Dewey Had It All – Except Maybe a Genuine Connection with Voters

Two scarce Tom Dewey buttons sold for $1,075 at a May 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The political tidal wave that washed over the American continent in November 1946 left in its wake a vastly altered landscape. The triumphant Republican Party had polled 3 million more votes than the Democrats, gaining 54 House seats and 12 in the Senate. Even Democratic President Harry Truman’s old seat would be occupied by a conservative Republican and Kentucky elected its first Republican Senator in 22 years.

It was a rout.

It was also a referendum on Truman’s two-year stewardship and a belated rejection of a New Deal without FDR. Senator J. William Fulbright suggested Truman appoint a Republican Secretary of State and then resign, turning the country over to a president the electorate preferred. U.S. News & World Report declared the president’s chances of winning another nomination at less than 50 percent and predicted Tom Dewey of New York would be in the White House in two years.

Dewey then went on the offensive, attacking the Truman Doctrine as inadequate – “Unthinkable we would surrender the fruits of victory after a staggering cost in blood and resources” – and citing the broken pledge to China, failure to give Chiang Kai-shek airplane parts, and grossly inadequate supplies of arms and ammunition. Also, allowing the Soviets to hold the northern half of Korea and building a well-trained army of 200,000, while the American half had no civil government and no military – a political void with ominous consequences. Dewey predicted “23 million Korean people would move from Japanese tyranny to Soviet tyranny and China would be next.”

America was in a hurry to disarm and Truman’s people were not standing up to the Soviets with sufficient conviction, distracted into debating Universal Military Training. Was it courage or inexperience?

Soon the answer would become apparent to everyone. First, labor leader John L. Lewis and 200,000 striking coalminers were humbled by a contempt citation, fined $3.5 million and ordered back to work immediately. “He couldn’t take the guff,” the president wrote. “No bully can. Now I have the autoworkers, steel workers and railroad men to look forward to. They will get the same treatment.”

This was followed by Truman’s promise to protect Greece and Turkey from the communist threat, the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (replacing the OSS) and the Marshall Plan to rescue Europe. Suddenly, the man who had seemed a political dead duck six months before was flying high. The polls reflected a remarkable comeback by the president. After trailing Dewey 50 to 28, he had drawn even with him in the polls!

Dewey was not naive. He knew the incumbent president would be a tough opponent and any future election would be closer than the pundits were predicting. But he was an experienced politician and had a terrific record of making government work on whatever level he was at. As New York’s famous district attorney, he made the judicial system work as he rounded up the city’s most powerful and infamous gangsters. As governor, he founded a state university, built a thruway, battled cancer and tuberculosis, and never submitted an unbalanced budget. When he left office, state taxes were 10 percent lower than when he had taken office.

Then, after he accepted the nomination to be the Republican candidate for president in 1948, he was buoyed by a steady stream of congratulations. Winston Churchill wired his discreet best wishes from “the English friend who met you on March 12, 1946.” The editors of Who’s Who sent an advance copy listing Dewey’s address as 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C. Pollsters and the press almost unanimously projected him as the winner. Ernest Lindley in Newsweek predicted “only a miracle or a series of political blunders not to be expected of a man of Dewey’s astuteness can save Truman from an overwhelming defeat.”

Even Truman’s closet advisors were worried. “We’ve got our backs on the one-yard line with only a minute to play,” explained presidential adviser Clark Clifford.

Amidst the euphoria, the “first lady of American journalism” Dorothy Celene Thompson – who in 1939 was recognized by Time magazine as the second most influential woman in America next to Eleanor Roosevelt – struck a cautionary note. She wondered aloud if Dewey was the man to rouse something more from voters. It takes understanding to really connect … human feelings, humor, compassion, loyalty – qualities that evoke affection and faith, which is different from confidence.

Thompson seemed to be saying only Dewey could defeat Dewey. We know now that may have happened in 1948, and it also may have happened again in 2016. Voters are savvy people and it takes a special quality to really connect – something polls can’t seem to capture.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

China’s Fall to Communists Launched Dark Period in American History

Andy Warhol’s screenprint Mao (With Orange Face), 1972, realized $47,500 at a May 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On April 4, 1949, the day the United States and 11 other nations signed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a Communist General by the name of Chu Teh began massing a million of Mao Tse-tung’s seasoned troops on the north bank of the Yangtze River. This was the last natural barrier between Mao and the few southern provinces still loyal to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT).

Three weeks later, Chu Teh’s veterans stormed across the Yangtze, but only met token resistance. Chiang had withdrawn 300,000 of his most reliable soldiers to form a rear-guard perimeter around Shanghai. A week later, Chiang fled across the Formosa Strait to Taiwan, along with a cadre of KMT, but it seemed clear that China was a lost cause.

Mao Tse-tung proclaimed Red China’s sovereignty on Sept. 21, 1949 – the same day West Germany declared its sovereignty – and this was followed by Chiang announcing the formation of his new government in Taipei. Chinese politician Sun Yat-sen’s 50-year-old vision for a democratic China was dead, and the U.S. expectation that Chiang would establish the non-communist world’s eastern anchor died with it.

The world now had two Chinas!

The American response was slow. Newspapers had carried regular accounts of the Chinese Communists and the KMT’s slow disintegration, but China was so vast, the geography so unfamiliar and movements of the unmechanized armies so slow, that Americans had lost interest in these distant battles.

However, when the KMT collapsed, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson decided to lay out the entire situation before the American people. On Aug. 5, 1949, the State Department issued a 1,054-page white paper, conceding the world’s largest nation had fallen into communist hands. The chain of events leading to this tragic end was also explained, including the $2 billion that had been largely wasted and the 75 percent of American arms shipments that had fallen into Mao’s hands.

The American people were stunned by this admission. Everything American diplomats had achieved in Europe – the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO – seemed to have been annulled by this disaster in Asia.

The burning question was … who was responsible for losing China?

Richard Nixon of California flatly blamed the Democrats. On Feb. 21, a young congressman from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, said that at Yalta, a “sick” Franklin Roosevelt had given strategic places to the USSR. This, Kennedy concluded, “is the tragic story of China, whose freedom we fought to preserve. What our young men saved, our diplomats and our presidents have frittered away.”

Thus began one of the darkest periods in American history. President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9835 created the “Loyalty Order” program and in 1947, the FBI began stalking “disloyal and subversive persons” by conducting name checks on 2 million federal employees and background checks on 500,000 annual applicants for government jobs. During the program’s five years, the FBI screened over 3 million Americans and conducted 10,000 field interviews. Preliminary indictments were filed against 9,977, of whom 2,961 were arraigned.

Seth Richardson, chairman of the Subversive Activities Control Board, summed up his findings for a Congressional committee: “Not one single case or evidence directing toward a case of espionage has been found by the FBI indicating that a particular case involves a question of espionage.”

In the entertainment industry, “blacklisting” became a form of blackmail and took its toll on a small group for a full decade.

Time has blurred the sharp contours of the Age of Suspicion, but it was a dark period that must never be allowed to recur.

We still don’t know, or agree on, who lost China.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].