Book Review: 1948

AKIE BERMISS: The news of David Pietrusza’s new book, 1948, made me sure I was about to read all about the under-dog Truman narrative wherein he defeats Tom Dewey against all odds to win the Presidency of the United States.  After all, for those of us who are amateur history buffs, that *is* what the year 1948 is about. Its Truman and Wallace and Dewey and knock-down, drag-out fight to be the executive of the freshly victorious super-power that was America in the late 40s.  And yet, underneath that cosmetic drama, there is so much more to the period between FDR’s death and, yes, the election of Truman against Tom Dewey against all odds in 1948.  And the great success of Pietrusza’s 1948 is that it brings all the roiling darkness beneath out into the open — a feat which is much easier said than done and, once done, gives such a clarity to all that has happened these last 60+ years since then.

If you know your 20th Century history, then you know how the roll is called.  It goes: FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II.  And you know that in that short span there were three of those presidents who first obtained the title because another president either died in office (FDR, JFK) or, as in the case of Nixon, was impeached and disgraced and resigned.  That makes three unlikely VPs who took office in times of great strife: Truman, LBJ, and Ford.  Of those three, I’d say Ford was the weakest, assuredly, and the fire-eater LBJ was clearly ready for the role — and in between those two you have the incredible, unlikely, uncomfortable story of Harry S. Truman.  On the other hand, in the 20th century, you quite a few of what one might call legacy presidencies.  That is, presidents who seem to have ruled over an entire era of American life for whatever reason.  Obviously, there is FDR who was president for some 12 years!  But there are people like the influential LBJ who was president for, well, most of the 1960s, it seems like.  And someone like Ronald Reagan who, as far as I’m concerned, is the 1980s.  Even Bill Clinton, in hindsight, with his somewhat perfectly placed 2-terms is kind of emblematic of the 90s and the last great care-free days of the 20th Century.  Take those extremes and you can pretty much write the book on post-war to millennial America.  At least you can tell what happened.  If you want to get and understanding of why you have to check out those complicated liminal Presidencies.  They tend to brief and auto-contradicting and hard to explain.  Jimmy Carter was a gentleman and a scholar and great president.. but also kind of a failure.  JFK was a fire-brand of the new, liberated, progressive America… and yet his Cold War blunders are among our most embarrassing.  And, my personal favorite is Harry S. Truman, the unlikely Vice President who become the unlikely successor to JFK and then, even more unlikely: he actually managed to be elected back into office.

Truman is a great conundrum but, for my money, he is too often ignored.  He’s been written-off quite broadly as sort of an affable, dopey president.  Someone who didn’t really know what they were doing and was jostled around by the incredible forces of the time.  But Pietrusza’s book looks rather deeply at the significance of the era over which Truman resided (this dopey, affable, quasi-dixiecrat was president for what amounts to nearly two full-terms).  It is the Truman era in which we see the first implementation of nuclear weapons, the rise of the Marshall Plan, the beginning of the Cold War, the start of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (when England was still the major player), the rise (and fall) of American Communism, and — strangely enough — the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement.  That’s a lot to take in for such a seemingly unimportant guy.  His name is rarely mentioned with the same import as presidents like Nixon or Reagan — and yet, much of the course of the last 60s years was plotted out in those Truman years.

So I applaud Pietrusza for not shying away from drawing a complex portrait of Harry Truman.  A democratic who rose to power in his home state with mob-backing, who played both to Civil Rights leaders and the KKK, who was a casual racist in his spare-time, who was a somewhat devout jingoist while also being a bleeding-heart human rights advocate.  For lack of a better word, Harry Truman is weird.  And yet, he is a product of the times.  And Pietrusza goes to great lengths to show us just how weird those times were.  You have the old guard still being very powerful: Eleanor Roosevelt, William Randolph Hearst, and even W.E.B. Du Bois. And yet there’s a new cast of contemporaries and up-and-coming characters who are just starting to make their way into the national scheme: Joe McCarthy, J. Strom Thurmond, Dwight Eisenhower (freshly celebrated for being the orchestrator of the European victory), a young Democratic Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Baines Johnson (in his days as Representative from Texas) — the list goes on and on.  And its really a heady mixture of strong personalities who are all making and breaking alliances this way and that.  No one seems to know what’s really going to happen with the future.  Everyone presents a different solution and the American people swing wildly from enthusiasm to disenfranchisement with every new face that comes their way.

It is a frighteningly close situation to that which we have in present-day America.

Both parties are fractured.  Truman is being challenged on the left by Henry Wallace who is an open Communist sympathizer and continues to lambast Truman as some sort of murderous tyrant.  Meanwhile, there are also the Dixiecrats (led by Thurmond) who are fed up with Truman’s liberal way and his prioritizing Civil Rights.  In the Republican party its a great big mess, with Dewey in an intrenched primary battle with the likes of Harold Stassen, Douglas MacArthur (in absentia, kind of), Robert Taft, Arthur Vandenburg, (some guy named) Joe Martin.  No need to look up all those names — it was a mess.  A huge, honking mess.  Remind you of anything, 2011?

Knowing that all these players can make your head spin, Pietrusza presents the read with a very handy dramatis personae, at the beginning of the book.  It gives the full names and nicknames of all the major players as well as a brief blurb letting you know what their alliances are.  Sounds dry, perhaps, but Pietrusza is aware of the humor involved in such a sticky, complicated situations.  For some he gives detailed and factual information.  For others, he is still informative, if a bit playful.  His description of Douglas MacArthur for example is: “Sixty-eight-year-old supreme commander of the Allied powers in the Southwest Pacific.  Darling of the GOP Right. ‘I do not actively seek or covet any office,” MacArthur announces from Tokyo–but he’s running anyway.”  And then sometimes Pietrusza is deliberately glib.  His description for Lauren Bacall (“…The legs on Harry Truman’s piano.”) is among the more droll entries.

At any rate, should the reader find themselves confused, they can always consult the handy reference in the front of the book.  It gets quite difficult to sort out who’s who — I know quite a bit about the post-war era and yet found myself consulting that character list with some frequency.

Its rare that a non-fiction book that is not a biography is both entertaining and highly informative.  1948 is, at its worst, painfully dense with data and, at its best, and entertaining romp through the politics and scandals of the 1940s.  The vast majority of the book rides the fence between those two extremes rather perfectly.  This is the kind of history I’d wished someone would write of the era.  Well informed, well-written, and thorough.  It is the kind of book I wish we might get for other contemporary cultural significances: 1948 is also the era of Bebop and Hardbop in Jazz, for example.  Its great to have an excellent political history, but the full story is also the every day lives of most Americans as well.  That’s my own cross to bear, I suppose.  Still I think it worth mentioning — to the would-be historians out there — find Pietrusza’s book and read and see how complex, twisting, auto-cannabalistic history can be made clear and compelling and instructive for future generations.  And as per those future generations, I do hope some of them have found this book — I do worry that there is some doomed repetition of history just around the corner for this young and often misinformed generation.  The subtitle of Pietrusza’s book is Harry Truman’s Improbably Victory and the Year That Transformed America.

If nothing else, I get a sneaking suspicion from reading this book that we are now in a similarly transformative time.  It would be wise for readers to beware.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Any political junkie would be crazy not to pick up a copy of David Pietrusza’s 1948, and I am certainly glad I got the chance to relive what is, for my money, the greatest election of the 20th century through his eyes.

The real strengths of the book for me are several-fold. The author manages to bring us, through copious research, into both the public forums that shaped the 1948 race, but also the private meetings. He managed to spend a huge portion of his book on the political climate in the years leading up to 1948-no real analysis of what happened in that year is possible without providing the reader with a full accounting of both the Democratic Party in and after The New Deal, and the response to that agenda from the GOP.

The writing is graceful, and no story feels like it is told to be filler- either an anecdote advances our understanding of the moment, entertains, and frequently, does both.

My issues with the book are two-fold. One is what feels like an awfully shabby treatment of Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate for president. From the initial mention of Wallace, we get almost no sense of just how revolutionary his thinking and innovations were for his time. Indeed, he was no legacy hire as Secretary of Agriculture- his methods had allowed farmers to exponentially increase production of corn. And while his spiritual views were out of the mainstream, Pietrusza was entirely too quick to therefore dismiss him as nothing more than a kook. The biography of Wallace, American Dreamer, presented a far more balanced view of the man, in my opinion.

That held for all of his supporters, too. Pietrusza couldn’t identify a Wallace supporter without noting that person’s ties to communism. Sometimes, this made perfect sense-if that person was working for the Soviet Union as a secret agent, for instance. Other times, the person’s connection to the Communist Party had been decades earlier, and tenuous at best- in one case, a man who’d briefly joined the party more than a decade earlier in Great Britain was tagged with the communist label on first reference.

Considering the extent to which the Communist Party did infiltrate the Wallace campaign, it would be ludicrous not to tell this aspect of the history. Rather, it was the relatively indiscriminate brush Pietrusza seems to use with the label that was troubling- particularly given the disgusting excesses in American political life that followed this campaign, using similar tactics. For a study that is so careful in all other areas, this was surprising to me.

The other notable discordant note was that while Pietrusza is ungenerous with nearly all of his characters, he seems to withhold criticism from Strom Thurmond, or to soften it when he does highlight anything negative. A passage in which he points out that Thurmond had little choice other than to publicly disown his African-American daughter because his political career had already begun was strange to read-the idea that Thurmond could take responsibility for his actions and pursue a different career somehow disappears as a possibility. Also odd wass was the extent to which Pietrusza points out that Thurmond was a relatively progressive governor pressed into service for the Dixiecrat cause. Whether intended or not, his lengthy discussion of the southern leaders who didn’t rally to this extra-party activity only reinforces that Thurmond’s actions were extreme among extremists. Yet Thurmond seems to avoid the scorn for pursuing Jim Crow Pietrusza regularly gives to Wallace for pursuit of peace.

But look, if that’s how Pietrusza sees it, that’s how he should present it. It doesn’t read like political bias, but simply the conclusions of the historian. And these are minor points in comparison to the exhaustive and fascinating work he’s produced here. It should come as no surprise to me that a man with such excellent taste in book subjects- other topics include his excellent 1960 election study, along with his works on the 1920 election, the 1919 World Series, and former baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis (all of which I intend to now pick up)- has done justice to this fascinating time in American life. Highly recommended.

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