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Book Review: David Petruscini's '1948: The Election That Changed America'


Historians locate a decisive moment in the Republican Presidential campaign of 1940: The nomination the internationalist Wendell Wilkie, and in essence forever said goodbye to its’ isolationist wing. David Petruscini designates 1948 as a similar moment for the Democrats. That year, Democrats engaged in an inner-party debate, or as he puts it, “a battle for its’ soul,” between the accomodationist policies of FDR toward the Soviet Union and the containment faction.

Truman was truly besieged on every possible side of the political spectrum. Across the aisle, Republicans were seeking to capitalize on the President’s low poll numbers and the public’s exhaustion with 16 years of Democratic rule. Within his own Party, he faced threats on both right and left in Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats Party, who opposed Truman’s civil rights program. Then there was Henry Wallace, FDR’s former Vice President, who opposed his hard line toward the Soviet Union.

Of the two, Wallace’s campaign comes off as the most chilling, for it represented the best chance American Stalinists would ever have of capturing the White House. Not only did he garner the support of Communist Party Head William Foster, but he was also being manipulated by more sinister elements. Here, Petruscini benefits from Venona, a series of intercepted telegrams from America to Moscow. Speechwriter Charles Kane and Campaign Manager C. B. Baldwin were NKVD agents. Campaign filmmaker Carl Aldo Manzani was a KGB agent code-named Kollega.

Equally alarming was Wallace, who on his own perfectly fit the bill of useful idiot. He robotically supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslavikia, attacked the Berlin Airlift, and endorsed Stalin keeping Poland — whose sovereignity the Allies fought World War II over — in the dictator’s “sphere of influence.” His political attenea was amazingly dumb (he called Communists “the closet thing to the early Christian matrys”) and was testament to Stalinist Dashiell Hammett’s assertion that no one could “make a politician” of him.

Truman’s was better. He correctly gauged the public’s support of the Cold War and continuing the New Deal, but Petruscini shows a partisanship on Truman’s part that was alarming. He dismissed the Alger Hiss case as a “red herring.” Even after being shown conclusive evidence of Hiss’ guilt, Truman still kept his disgust private so as not to aid the Republicans who outed the Soviet agent.

If there are admirable figures in this book, it is the anti-Communist Democrats. Unlike the Hollywood stars who initially jumped on the Wallace bandwagon (i.e Gregory Peck, Gene Kelly) and who would jump off just as quickly, vital center liberals knew early on what Wallace represented. Hubert Humphrey, a fervent supporter of Civil Rights, refused to take Wallace anti-segregationist bait, and stated that “the century of the common man became the history of the Comintern.” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. saw Stalinist influence within the campaign and predicted Wallace’s stands on the Cold War issues of 48. It would have been so easy for these FDR partisans to go along with Wallace’s continuation of Grand Alliance policies, but their willingness to give ammunition to the enemy showed a rare political courage.

For those non-policy wonks, this book will lull into exposition of how Truman pulled it off. But for those pundits who have always claimed that their underdog candidate can still win a la Truman, this book will be their campaign guide. Truman narrowly won by adopting a populist approach, attacking Congress rather than his opponent, and by following advisor Clark Clifford’s model of running to Wallace’s left on social issues and to his right on foreign policy.

Petruscini is on shakier ground by claiming that the Democrats forever jettisoned their soft on communism wing. Twenty four years later, a former Wallace supporter, George McGovern, would do his candidate one better by capturing the Party nomination for President. Still, McGovern didn’t have NKVD agents controlling him.

All in all, Petruscini’s work is invaluable in not only showing how underdogs can still win the Presidency, but also in what a close call America had to putting a Soviet appeaser in the most powerful position in America.


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