'Battleground 1948' recalls pivotal election

By D.G. Schumacher

President Harry Truman surprised a lot of folks in 1948 by winning election to his own term after serving most of the fourth term of President Franklin Roosevelt. The former U.S. senator from Missouri was elected vice president in 1944 and became president after FDR died.

A famous photo shows a smiling Truman holding a copy of The Chicago Tribune with a banner headline incorrectly declaring Republican Thomas Dewey the winner of the election. Dewey had been widely proclaimed as the frontrunner. In the photo, Truman was on the platform of the presidential railroad car that carried him across the United States in a whistle-stop campaign that showed how badly wrong conventional political wisdom and election pundits can be.

"Battleground 1948: Truman, Stevenson, Douglas, and the Most Surprising Election in Illinois History'' is Robert E. Hartley's account of that pivotal election in which Democrats Adlai E. Stevenson and Paul Douglas won the governorship and a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Hartley, a resident of Arizona, had a newspaper career, most of it in Illinois, before he worked in public relations in Seattle. Since retiring, he has written several books on Illinois subjects, including U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, Secretary of State Paul Powell and coal mine tragedies in Centralia and West Frankfort. The 1947 disaster at Centralia figured in the 1948 election.

"Battleground 1948'' was published this year by Southern Illinois University Press. The book includes eight pages of photos, many from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.

Some necessary disclosure: I read the manuscript a couple of years ago for my former colleague in Lindsay-Schaub Newspapers, which for years published The Courier of Champaign-Urbana and other daily newspapers in Decatur, Carbondale, East St. Louis and Edwardsville.

After one term as a reform governor, Stevenson was the Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and '56, losing to Dwight Eisenhower. At the time of his death, Stevenson was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Douglas served several terms in the U.S. Senate.

"The 1948 election altered the political landscape in a way no one could predict," Hartley writes. "A fresh generation started to make its mark.''

Hartley recalls starting work on "Battleground 1948'' about six years ago.

"I always have work under way on books, magazine articles and history papers,'' he wrote in an email. In researching Illinois political history, "I am constantly discovering material that supports new ideas. At some point, it struck me that pieces of the 1948 story were flying about, but no comprehensive work had surfaced.''

Hartley also recalls "several conversations with Alan Dixon (the former U.S. senator,) and he encouraged me.'' Folks interested in Illinois' fascinating history will thank Dixon for his encouragement.

Events of 65 years ago surely aren't in the memories of most Illinoisans today, and elections are far different in the modern age of instant communications and social media. However, one need not be a political junkie or government wonk to enjoy this account of a surprising election that in some ways resonates today.

D.G. Schumacher, a resident of Little River, S.C., is on the editorial board of The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He is a former resident of Champaign and was the editor of The Courier from 1968 to '76.

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