American Elections and Campaigns – 1945 to 1948: The Onset of Television and the Cold War

After the radio’s ascent to global prominence in the early 20th century, the television was the next major step in telecommunications technology. Much like the radio, the earliest television prototypes emerged among different inventors and scientists across the world in the 19th century. While their methods differed, the common idea was to transmit moving images through the same wires that carried telegraph and telephone signals. The very first television broadcasting station on the planet was W2XB in 1928, under the management of the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York. Eleven years later, RCA introduced the world’s first regular television service in New York City. The project was conducted through RCA’s NBC division, where the broadcasting antenna was prominently featured on the top spire of the Empire State Building. In contrast to the radio, the first television sets were few in number, expensive, and lacked consistent entertainment and advertising programs. In the years after World War II ended, more televisions and network programs were commissioned, increasing their demand and lowering their costs for the average customer. By the 1950s, the television superseded the radio as the dominant media platform in the United States. As was the case with the radio before it, the telecommunications potential of the television was picked up by political leaders and their parties.

RCA advertisement promoting television broadcasts in New York City, 1939. (Public Domain).
Portrait photograph of Ernst Alexanderson, an electrical engineer who received the first television broadcast in the United States while working for General Electric. (Public Domain)

The 1948 presidential election saw two major changes in American political proceedings: The introduction of television broadcasting for political purposes, and the first divisions in America’s mainline political parties in the new Cold War era. The incumbent Democratic president Harry S. Truman had taken the place of Franklin D. Roosevelt after his death in April 1945. At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, the party’s leaders announced its adoption of a new civil rights platform. The tenets were rooted in Truman’s previous advocacy for expanding civil rights. As president, Truman eliminated racial discrimination in both the civil service and the armed forces. For the military, Truman was infuriated by stories of African American veterans returning home from World War II, only to face the very same injustices and discrimination that the United States and its allies proclaimed to be fighting against. Truman – often nicknamed the “Second Missouri Compromise” because of his southern origins – publicly remarked that anyone who was willing to come to the country’s service should be allowed to enjoy the same rights and privileges as anyone else, regardless of their ethnic or cultural identity. Another major influence on Truman’s civil rights platform was the Charter of the United Nations. To promote international cooperation and to prevent a global war from happening again, the newly-created United Nations called for its member states to maintain “higher standards of living,” and to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” The ideals of the United Nations raised questions in the United States, specifically regarding the importance of upholding the ideals fought for in World War II. The new civil rights platform was met with divided reception within the Democratic Party. Liberal Democrats from the northern and western states felt that Truman’s policies did not go far enough to pursue full civil rights for all Americans. As for conservative Democrats from the southern states, the majority felt alienated from the new civil rights platform. Conservative Democratic strongholds still permeated the Deep South almost a century after the Civil War, and the notion of their pro-segregation political tenets suddenly changing to being pro-civil rights alienated many of their constituents. In response, several southern Democratic leaders broke away from the mainline party and formed the States’ Rights Democratic Party, nicknamed the “Dixiecrats.” Faced with a divided party, Truman opted to maintain his proposed goals, asserting that the pursuit of civil rights was too important of a moral issue to be stripped down. Truman ultimately won the Democratic nomination alongside his running mate Alben W. Barkley. His acceptance speech managed to reinvigorate the divided party and reestablished general mainline Democratic support for Truman’s campaign.

United Nations poster calling for international unity and acceptance as per its Charter, c. 1945. (National Archives and Records Administration)
Soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division in the Korean War, the first armed conflict of the Cold War era, and the first American war after the armed forces were desegregated, 1950. (Public Domain)

At the same time, the Republicans enjoyed general ideological cohesion throughout the 1948 election cycle. They initially wanted Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for president on their ticket. Eisenhower was beloved by the American public for his war-time leadership as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. He notably declined the offer, remarking his personal belief that “a soldier should not be involved in politics.” The Republican Party then selected New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey to run for president. Famously in his campaign for the primaries, Dewey engaged Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen in a political debate. The very first presidential debate to be recorded and broadcasted by radio, the Dewey-Stassen debate focused on the question of if the Communist Party of the United States should be outlawed. While Stassen argued that communism was the era’s greatest threat to political and social life, Dewey defended the party, arguing that such a ban would be in direct violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution. The debate was widely popular, with estimates ranging between 40 to 80 million listeners tuning in to hear it. In keeping with their early adoption of new technologies for political advancement, the Republicans were the first party to broadcast their national convention by way of television in 1948. In a joint-broadcast by NBC and CBS, twenty-seven stations relayed the convention to 350,000 television sets. In the months leading up to Election Day, the Republicans were convinced that the divided Democrats would easily secure a victory for Dewey. While the Republicans ran a low-intensity campaign in their stronghold states, the Democrats ran an intensive campaign in their secured states and swing-states, garnering unexpected support across the Midwest. In a surprise turnout, Truman won the 1948 election with 303 electoral votes. Dewey had won 189 votes, while “Dixiecrat” candidate Strom Thurmond secured 39 votes from the Deep South. Truman’s victory was so unexpected that there were reports of certain newspapers erroneously publishing headlines of Dewey winning. One such erroneous headline was from the Chicago Daily Tribune, of which the victorious Truman famously took and posed for a campaign photograph with.

Satirical political cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman highlighting doubts of Truman winning the 1948 presidential election. (Public Domain)
Photograph of the victorious Harry S. Truman holding a newspaper erroneously claiming that Dewey won the 1948 presidential election. (Associated Press)

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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