When: July 19-24, 1944
Nominee: President Franklin Roosevelt
Democrats knew two things when the 1944 election year began: Franklin Roosevelt would be their nominee for an unprecedented fourth time, if he wanted it.
And Roosevelt, if elected, would die in office.
Those facts — and the approaching climax of World War II — made the selection of FDR’s running mate exceptionally important. They weren’t just picking a vice president, Democrats knew. They were choosing a president-in-waiting.
Vice President Henry Wallace could not be that man, many on Roosevelt’s team believed. Wallace, a mercurial Iowan, had joined the ticket four years earlier, and had proceeded to befuddle just about everyone — he was liberal, religious, goofy, prone to saying things outside of political orthodoxy.
“He was making too many pro-Soviet statements,” key Roosevelt adviser Edwin Pauley later remembered in an oral history kept at the Truman Library in Independence. “His actions were such that I did not think that he would become, either by election or succession, a proper President of the United States.”
Pauley and others began to discuss ways of easing Wallace out of the picture in the months before the 1944 convention. That effort meant convincing Roosevelt, who could be stubborn about these things, and Eleanor Roosevelt, quite as liberal as Wallace.
It took time, and several missteps, but by mid-1944, the search for a replacement for Wallace was underway.
The smart money was on Jimmy Byrnes as the preferred nominee. Byrnes, a former senator from South Carolina, was one of Roosevelt’s closest and most trusted advisers. But Byrnes had flaws: he had left the Catholic Church when he got married, and his record on civil rights was spotty. Labor disliked him. He might hurt the Democratic ticket.
Who else? Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, maybe. Kentucky Sen. Alben Barkley. House Speaker Sam Rayburn. Or — Sen. Harry Truman of Missouri.
Roosevelt did not know Truman well. But the Missourian had powerful friends close to Roosevelt, and his name surfaced repeatedly in the talks.
On July 11, a little more than a week before the convention, the team met with Roosevelt to have dinner and discuss options. Truman’s name came up. How old is he, Roosevelt wanted to know.
“I knew very well how old he was,” Pauley later recalled. Truman was 60, older than FDR wanted.
But no one said anything. Someone sent for a directory, with Truman’s biography.
By the time the book returned, FDR had been sold on the Missourian. Pauley quietly held the volume, never repeating Truman’s age.
“That’s how close you can come to being president or not,” he said later. “Roosevelt wouldn’t have taken Truman if we’d opened up that Congressional Directory.”
Democratic convention delegates knew none of this, of course. They still preferred Wallace, and Wallace would not go quietly away. Truman’s supporters had a thin written commitment from Roosevelt, but no one knew if it would stick.
And no one had bothered to get a firm yes-or-no from Truman. Convincing him to take the job would take the convention’s first three days, and require intervention by the president himself.
Truman had several concerns. His relationship with Kansas City boss Tom Pendergast would be an issue. Truman had put his wife, Bess, on the Senate payroll, and that would make news. There was a family suicide he worried about. He was frightened. He didn’t want the job.
But the doors were closing. On the third day of the convention, Roosevelt called Robert Hannegan, a St. Louis politician and the liaison between the president and the senator.
Roosevelt asked if Truman had been “lined up.” No, Hannegan replied. Too stubborn.
“Tell him if he wants to bust up the Democratic Party in the middle of the war, that’s his responsibility,” FDR snapped.
Truman overheard the president, history says. But it disagrees on the response: “Oh, God,” Truman might have said, or “my God.” Or “Jesus Christ.” Or: “Why the hell didn’t he tell me in the first place?”
He was in.
There was the formality of the convention vote. Roosevelt had stirred the waters yet again when he released a letter earlier in the week saying he would vote for Wallace, were he a delegate. That gave the Wallace forces hope, and they took their man to the convention floor.
But Hannegan had another letter from Roosevelt, supporting Truman or Douglas. No one could be quite sure where Roosevelt stood.
So it took more than one ballot for Truman to prevail. Wallace got the most votes on the first ballot, then faded as supporters switched to the Missourian. Truman won on the second ballot. He munched on a sandwich as the vote tally was made public.
Someone called for a speech. A film shows Truman clambering over the delegates to reach the podium, hands pushing him forward.
“I accept this honor with all humility,” he told them. “I thank you.”