March 03, 2010
Recently disclosed awkward remarks by the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, have called attention to the statement that cost Senator Trent Lott the majority leadership. At the 100th birthday party of Senator Strom Thurmond, Lott said that if Thurmond had been elected president, we would not have had some of the problems we did.
Senator Thurmond was the States Rights Party candidate for president in 1948. The South of 1948 was not at all like the embattled South of later years when the desegregation battles were fought. Opinion on segregation was much more divided than it would be 10 years later. The anti-segregationist James Folsom was serving his first term as governor of Alabama. Cities across the South were congratulating themselves on hiring their first black police officers. The South was looking forward optimistically to a friendly national commemoration of the centennial of the War Between the States in 1960-65. The "massive resistance" South was not created until Eisenhower sent federal troops into Arkansas.
Both the Republican and Democratic Parties were divided between Liberals and Conservatives. By 1948, Conservatives in the Democratic Party were largely limited to Southerners. Republican Conservatives were strongest in the Midwest. At the 1948 Democratic Convention, a group of extreme Liberals led by Hubert Humphrey conducted a floor fight that led to the adoption of a minority plank in the platform that called for legislation against private racial discrimination, federalization of the laws against racial violence, and an immediate end to all segregation. Segregation was common then, not only south of the Ohio River but as far North and west as Kansas.
In the Republican Convention, Thomas Dewey, backed by the Liberal machines in Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, defeated the Conservative Senator Robert A. Taft. Many Republican Conservatives were isolationists. Southern Conservatives generally were not, and some were even Wilsonians.
With that background, we can attempt to answer the question, "Would a Thurmond Presidency have been better than a second term for Truman?"
We can safely say that neither one would have had a great influence on ending segregation. Presidents, historically, have not influenced that question. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson all had intense conflicts with the South over segregation, while Nixon avoided such conflicts. There was far, far more desegregation in the Deep South under Nixon, however, than under Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson combined.
Truman and Eisenhower never significantly lowered the high income-tax rates they inherited from Hoover and Roosevelt. If we look at Thurmond's long career in the Senate, we can safely say that he would have lowered them at least as much as Kennedy finally did—to the great economic advantage of the country.
It is in the area of foreign policy that Thurmond could not conceivably have done worse than Truman did. To begin, Dean Acheson would never have been appointed secretary of state. The greatest mistake Acheson made was to signal to the North Koreans that the United States would not oppose an invasion of South Korea. This mistake cost the United States over 33,000 deaths in combat casualties alone, as well as thousands of non-combat deaths in our Armed Forces and huge losses by our allies. It is inconceivable that President Thurmond could have made a costlier blunder.
Even if we had become involved in fighting in Korea, President Thurmond, a highly trained reserve officer, would never have become involved in the petty vindictiveness against General MacArthur that characterized Truman's conduct of the war. Furthermore, he would not have conducted the war so ineptly, allowing such masses of Chinese communist troops free passage across the Yalu River.
It is also very possible that President Thurmond would have lost much less of China to the communists. Furthermore, he would not have been hampered by the impediments of loyalty that slowed down Truman's removal of communists and communist sympathizers from the U.S. State Department.
People criticize Senator Thurmond because he did not support integration until the people of South Carolina did. On the other hand, these critics ignore completely the fact that if, in 1948, Northern Republican Conservatives and Southern Democrat Conservatives alike had rallied to his cause and elected him, many of the 33,000 plus American soldiers and Marines killed in Korea might be alive today.
Weighing these two factors, I have no hesitation in saying we would be better off if he had been elected.
Charles Mills is a lawyer in New York.
Copyright (c) 2009 by Charles Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation