An Interview with William E. Leuchtenburg, author of "New Faces of 1946"

William E. Leuchtenburg discusses the 1946 elections and how politics have changed

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Most history textbooks don't pay attention to midterm elections, and yet they are sometimes when a new era of politics begins. The best example would be that textbooks spend a lot of time on the McKinley against William Jennings Bryant race in 1896, but the big shift to a new Republican era actually comes in the midterm election of 1894. So I've been interested for a long time in midterm elections, and 1946 is interesting because it appears to presage a new era, and then it doesn't turn out that way. There's a second answer, and that is that the 1946 midterm election was the first midterm election in which I was old enough to vote, and I actually worked in that campaign.

Who did you work for?

The democratic candidate for the United States Senate that year was Herbert Lehman, and there were a lot of people in New York who were well-disposed for him but wouldn't vote for him on the Democratic Party line, which they associated with the corrupt Tammany Hall machine. So my job was to go county by county in upstate New York to get him on the Liberal Party ballot.

Did your guy win?

No! He was regarded as almost sure to win because he had been elected governor of New York state four times by as many as a million votes, and he was running against a not very well-known member of the New York state legislature. But the Republican tide was so great that Herbert Lehman went down to defeat. Later he was elected to the United States Senate and became one of the most courageous and eloquent voices against McCarthyism.

How did you feel about Truman that year?

I think there was a general feeling that he wasn't up to the job. For those of us who had lived through the era of Franklin Roosevelt, he seemed to be a sad comedown. Historians now, including myself, do feel that he rallied from that start and became a formidably good president. I think he was always underrated—there was more to him. He inherited a very difficult situation, and almost anybody, including Roosevelt, would have encountered many of the same problems of re-conversion—they just happened to fall in Truman's lap. It isn't as though he didn't make mistakes, because he did, but more of his trouble was derived from the fact that he had such a difficult row to hoe.

How did he manage to recover?

He took the lead on civil rights, including the desegregation of the armed forces, and he played an important role in foreign policy, including the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift and the creation of NATO. He also changed the office of the presidency. Many of the institutions that we take for granted today and don't associate with Truman actually begin in the Truman administration—the Department of Defense, for example, and the Council of Economic Advisors.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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