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

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

Election flyer/poster distributed on behalf of Richard Nixon's campaign for Congress, 1946
Election flyer/poster distributed on behalf of Richard Nixon's campaign for Congress, 1946 Wikimedia Commons

Why did this story spark your interest?

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.

Did you learn anything new when you were researching this story?

I knew, of course, that the Republicans had won in 1946 and that they would lose surprisingly in 1948. What I didn't know is how almost totally the gains that the Republicans made in 1946 would be obliterated. Not all in 1948, but in ensuing years. The failure of the Republicans to make more of the toehold that they had in 1946 is really startling.

We're coming up on another midterm election—do you see any parallels between 1946 and 2006?

The most obvious parallel is that there's a president who is in trouble, who has low ratings in the polls. Probably the biggest difference between the two elections is that Truman's troubles were almost all in domestic policy, whereas Bush's troubles are primarily in foreign policy, especially the Iraqi war.

What do you predict will happen on Election Day?

Anybody who would confidently predict now what's going to happen would be foolish. The tide is moving in the direction of the Democrats, and since they have relatively few seats they need to pick up in order to get control, you would think they would have a quite good chance of doing it. The problem is if you look at it race by race, the polls now indicate either that the incumbent is holding on or that the elections are too close to call. So we don't have enough data to say confidently that the Democrats are going to win.

Do you think that politics has changed since 1946? Would we still have a national uproar over hamburger?

Hamburger has to be put in context—the country had gone through five years of rationing, not only of meat but of rubber and gasoline and nylon stockings, and finally reached the point of being fed up. I think that the comparable situation today is with respect to gas prices. The energy shortage over recent years certainly played a part in Schwarzenegger's election in California and voters' unhappiness with Governor Davis. There are a number of polls indicating that the United States is as concerned about high gas prices as it is about what is happening in Iraq. There is still a consumer interest at work on Election Day.

What has changed about elections since 1946?

What has changed with respect to midterm elections is that there is a far greater advantage to incumbency now than there used to be—very few seats are up for grabs in the next election because of the ability—thanks to computers—to draw district lines with such precision that it's very, very difficult to dislodge an incumbent.

Has partisanship gotten worse?

There have certainly been times—going all the way back to the late 18th century, with the groups behind Jefferson and Hamilton—that were very bitter. What's been different, I think, over the last several years, is that it's been almost impossible for the two parties to coalesce on any issue, whereas a generation ago there were enough moderate Republicans and Democrats that they were willing to strike a deal.

Was politics more fun back then?

Well, I'm not sure we've had candidates or officeholders in recent years who are as vivid as the figures in the 1940s.

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