Photos That Changed History: Election Edition

It’s an election year and everywhere I fly I hear or see advertisements for candidates for various political offices. Now, being a bird, I don’t get to vote but I do get to be amused by the things people will do to get elected or to stay in office. Really, some of these ads are quite humorous if you have my bird’s eye perspective on things. The “OMG Space Is Cool!” club, however, really only pays attention to politics when it’s something funny or it involves the NASA budget. History Geek is working on a funny political ad that, if it looks good, you might get to see later on. But then, that guy’s humor is something that most people don’t get unless they’ve hung around him for a while. Still, he did show me one photograph that demonstrated his views on journalism, politics, and prognostication. It’s an image that some of you might have seen and others of you might have no clue about if you slept through history class.

Fisheye Lens

In 1948, two candidates were vying for the US Presidency. One was the incumbent, Harry S Truman, who had been Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Vice President and had become President after Roosevelt died in office. Truman is something of a controversial figure in politics because he’s the President who ordered the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Apparently this is something that is still hotly debated in historical circles — further evidence, in my view, that historians take forever to come up with an opinion on anything.

At any rate, in 1948, these two candidates were facing off against each other. Truman was the Democratic candidate and Dewey was the Republican candidate. Truman faced some opposition in his own party from the Dixiecrats who ran Strom Thurmond as their candidate. Conventional wisdom of the day was that the split in the Democrat party vote would mean a Republican victory. Republicans were also slated to take control of the House and Senate. Working based on the predictions of their political prognosticator in Washington D.C., the reporters at the Chicago Tribune set up the paper’s template predicting a Dewey victory and a Republican sweep of Congress and many state offices. As the polls closed and the reports came in indicating that Democrats had made large gains in state offices and seemed to be holding on to and increasing their control of Congress, Arthur Sears Henning, the Chicago Tribune‘s D.C. political analyst, continued to forecast a Dewey victory.

Adding to the confusion of an already hectic Election Night was the fact that the Chicago Tribune‘s linotype machine operators were on strike protesting the Taft-Hartley Act so the machines were manned by inexperienced (and, after pulling an incredibly long shift for the Election Night coverage, exhausted) crew which resulted in not only an incorrect headline but five lines on the right-hand column being printed upside down. As if that weren’t enough to cause problems for the newspaper, the Tribune had recently moved over to using typewriters to compose the newspaper. The typewritten pages were then photographed and engraved on printing plates. This process required that the paper be sent to the presses several hours earlier than before.

So, what happens when you add in the confusion of Election Night, the long hours, inexperienced crewmen, and a forecaster in D.C. who had an 80% score on the previous five elections and who was swearing that Dewey would win? Well, the headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN is what happens.

To its credit, the Tribune did seek to correct the error when the results the next morning (sent in while most of the reporters were still working the night-long Election Night story). They ordered that all copies of the newspaper be halted from distribution and sent out runners to collect the erroneous papers and replace them with corrected versions. Still, though they tried hard to fix their error, copies of the paper still made it into the public’s hands and we have this photograph of the 1948 President-Elect Harry S Truman holding it aloft for the world to see.

— da Bird

Original image from the United Press, 1948. Records of the U.S. Information Agency, National Archives