Historical Figures Series: Thomas Dewey and The Battle for The Republican Party

David B Morris
9 min readJun 6, 2023

Part 1: His Rise to Prominence and His Failed 1940 Run For The Republican Nomination

He did more than (not) defeat Truman.

Thomas Dewey does have a place in history. Unfortunately, it’s being the prime example of just how bad political prognostication can be. One of the most famous photographs in history is of a beaming, just elected President Harry S. Truman holding up a copy of the Chicago Tribune bearing the headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.

That headline, as we shall eventually see, had more to do with Truman’s unpopularity and the medias unwillingness to admit their pre-judgments were wrong and far less to do with Thomas Dewey. Needless to say, Tom Dewey was far more than just that.

As a resident of New York, I have a reason to respect and admire Tom Dewey and his accomplishments — and they were manifold. When he became District Attorney of New York, he was the first man to challenge the corruption of New York Government, which had been legion for more than a century and the first DA to challenge organized crime when many federal officials refused to acknowledge it even existed. Elected governor in 1942, the first Republican to hold that office in nearly twenty years he helped passed stringent reforms in welfare, got rid of corruption in the State House and produced an agenda so liberal that it included one of the first bills in the country to argue for integration. Thanks to his work, Republicans would hold on to the governorship of the state with only one brief interval for the next forty years.

He was also one of the most dominant figures when it came to rebuilding the Republican Party in Presidential politics after FDR’s landslide victory in 1938. During the 1940s, he would be one of the most visible head of a major bloc of the GOP at the time and would fight a series of battles for control of it. He would become the youngest man to ever earn the Republican nomination for President (he was only 42 when he received in 1944) and is one of only two non-incumbents to receive the Presidential nomination in consecutive elections in the twentieth century. It was because of the vision that he build that later on Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon would manage to become President in their own right.

So why isn’t Thomas Dewey remembered today or respected much at the time? Because he had the appearance of being cold, standoffish and humorless in public appearances, something that did not help him when he was campaigning against such forces of nature as FDR and Harry Truman. That behavior, in effect, was one of the major factors that ended up hurting Dewey’s 1948 campaign: compared to Truman’s whistlestop, barn-burning effort, Dewey tended to speak in platitudes and was rarely warm. This also frequently led him to mockery from his opponents: his neatly groomed mustache and dapper appearance led to Alice Roosevelt famously calling him: “the man at the top of the wedding cake.” (No major political candidate has had facial hair since then.)

There is much in Dewey’s life to appreciate and admire, but in this series of articles I intend to discuss the battles he waged in the Republican party over the course of three Presidential runs and four eventual campaigns which he had direct influence over. The most famous biography of Tom Dewey says that he was the maker of the modern Republican party. Looking at the GOP today and indeed for the 21st century, that is not true anymore. What is true is that for most of his life as Republican, Thomas Dewey would be the major figure in a series of struggles between the two blocs of the Republican party that emerged while FDR was in office: the more liberal bloc and the conservative won. It would be glib to say that Dewey won the battles but lost the war because in truth the real battle did not begin until after Dewey — and most of the men who thought these battles — were either dead or long gone from the political stage.

What is clear is that Tom Dewey and the people who supported him had a vision for what the Republican Party should be and what it should do. That vision managed to prevail long after he was gone from office and if anything, may be a real model for how to proceed going forward — if it’s possible.

After the 1936 election, many political onlookers thought the Republican Party might be on the verge of extinction. FDR had just won the biggest landslide in electoral history over Alf Landon, winning over 60 percent of the popular vote and carrying every state except Maine and Vermont. Landon had only gotten eight electoral votes, the fewest of any losing candidate in the history of Presidential elections.

They were also practically extinct in Congress. In the House, there were only 88 Republicans in office. In the Senate, there were only 17. The Democrats controlled ¾ of the House of Representatives and 4/5 of the Senate.

FDR ended up damaging much of his own goodwill in what would be his fight to pack the Supreme Court and an effort to purge the Democratic Party of New Deal Opponents. It also helped that a recession in 1937 damaged much of the growth the New Deal had promised. In 1938, the Republicans began to make up ground winning eight seats in the Senate and over 80 in the House.

The most important gain, in terms of the struggles that followed in the years to come, was Robert Taft who had managed to win a seat in the Senate in Ohio.

Taft was the son of William Howard Taft, former President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He was one of the most avowed conservatives in the Congress, which not only meant being a radical opponent of the New Deal, but also an isolationist. Taft was one of the most famous voices in the Senate arguing against involvement in World War II, refused to back the administration throughout the War and was famously opposed to almost every major international policy even as America became a superpower.

Taft was part of what would become the Midwest bloc of Republicans that represented a key branch of the Republican for the next thirty years, violent anti-Communist and labor, incredibly pro-big business and refusing to acknowledge international threats. Major members of this bloc during this period would include Taft’s Ohio colleague John Bricker, Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, Indiana Congressman Charlie Halleck, (the latter two would serve as minority leader in both the Senate and the House during the 50s) and Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg, though he would later drift away from the group.

The other branch would be known as the Eastern Establishment, mostly connected with Wall Street. Tom Dewey would be the most dominant figure in this group but most of those members would be governors. In 1938, the most well-known members of that group were Harold Stassen, who had become the youngest governor in the Union when he won election in Minnesota at the age of 32, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. of Massachusetts who was now a Senator and Charles McNary of Oregon, the current Minority leader.

In 1938, Thomas Dewey had run for Governor against the incumbent Herbert Lehman. The race had been exceedingly close and he lost by 70,000 in out of 4.5 million cast. It was the closest a Republican had come to winning the governorship in nearly sixteen years and he had gotten more votes in certain parts of New York than Herbert Hoover had when he had carried the state in a landslide a decade earlier. A Gallup poll taken a few days after his defeat showed him the first choice of Republicans for their Presidential nominee with 33 percent of the vote, comfortably ahead of many of those of those names mentioned.

Had things been normal in America, Thomas Dewey might very well have earned the Presidential nomination in 1940 and gone on to victory that November. The problem was the world was not normal and that was reflected in the divide in the GOP. The Midwest was the home of the greatest cadres of isolationists, such as North Dakota’s Gerald Nye, former President Hoover, Vandenberg and Bob Taft.

Dewey and Taft would be the major combatants in the political war that followed for the next fifteen years. Taft’s biggest problem was one similar to Dewey: he was so cold in affect that he could barely manage to initially stumble through speeches. Dewey was initially better at that but the bulk of the party as 1940 campaign began, thought that the coming Presidential campaign would focus on ‘local issues’. As a definition as to what many in the party considered ‘local’, when a group of the New York Young Republicans asked the former President about the proper American response to a Nazi invasion of France, Hoover dismissed it as irrelevant.

Dewey spent much of the spring and summer of 1940 trying to demonstrate his popular support among primary voters. Unlike the Old Guard, he did not campaign that the New Deal would destroy America but that he could a better job than the Democrats. (It was still not certain if FDR was going to try and run for a third term yet. He did very well in most of the primaries, but he had a bigger problem.

Dewey tried to hold a middle ground as to the best action to the Nazi invasion and take over of Europe. The problem was the rest of the Party was pretty devoted to taking the isolationist form and that much of the country did not want to get involved in a European war. It did not help that one of his major advisors was John Foster Dulles, who believed that Communism was the greater threat to the world and that Hitler was a ‘passing phenomenon who would disappear. Allen, his brother, bluntly told him how he wrong was, but Dewey heeded Foster more.

By May 10th, when Germany invaded France the middle course that Dewey was taking was no longer going to be effective. At the same a Wall Street lawyer named Wendell Willkie, who had never held elected office and had been a Democrat until 1939 had been embraced by Wall Street and had become an overnight sensation. Alone among Republicans he flatly declared that Britain and France were America’s first line of defense. The war in Europe propelled him like a rocket in the polls.

On May 16, Dewey led with 62 percent while Willkie had only 5. Two weeks later, Willkie was at 17 percent to Dewey’s 52. As the Republican Convention began in Philadelphia on June 20th, Willkie was at 29% to Dewey’s 47%. Going to the convention Dewey knew he had one strategy — demonstrate overwhelming strength early or risk being stampeded by Taft or Willkie. The problem was the Willkie momentum was everywhere: this convention went down in history for the unending chorus from the galleries of “We Want Willkie!”, staged in part by Willkie’s backers who kept admitting them.

On the first ballot of the convention Dewey led with 360 delegates to Taft’s 189 and Willkie’s 105. (501 were needed to nominate. But on the second ballot, Dewey lost 22 delegates and lost even more on the third when a member of the New York delegation who had been backing Willkie undercut Dewey’s count. As Dewey would say with rare humor in the aftermath of the convention, “I led on three ballots but they were the wrong three.” On the next ballot, Willkie surged ahead for the first time, and Dewey saw the writing on the wall. He urged his delegates from Wisconsin to support Taft. It didn’t work and Willkie got the nomination on the sixth ballot.

Willkie’s nomination was the high point of his candidacy. While Willkie was immensely appealing to many Americans, they were not members of the Republican Old Guard. His tendency to talk rashly and make statements that were easily made use of by the Democrats. Dewey campaigned hard for Willkie and the Republicans in 1940, but the situation in Europe did more to undercut Willkie than the issue that FDR was running for a third term. Willkie got more votes than any Republican candidate to that time, but still lost to FDR by more than five million votes and only carried ten states.

In the aftermath of the loss, Dewey began to strike a different note in his speeches as he readied himself to run for governor in 1942. Taft took a position that was adamantly isolationist, refusing to vote for Lend-Lease and against extending the draft. Dewey called for all out aid to Britain and to revise Lend-Lease as well as speaking out for medical insurance for the poor. He argued that Republicans must accept the New Deal or they would perish. Conservatives preferred to just view with FDR with contempt. Dewey was taking a view of an internationalist as well, something that bothered Republicans as he began to run for Governor.

In my next article, I would look at how Dewey gained the Republican nomination for President in 1944, the kind of campaign he waged — and how the lessons he took from it shaped how he would run again four ye

--

--

David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.