Sarah Lim: Truman’s 1948 whistle stop in Merced helped seal historic upset

If you grew up in the 1940s or you are a student of history, you may be familiar with one of the biggest election upsets in American history when incumbent President Harry Truman defeated his Republican challenger Thomas Dewey in 1948.

You may also remember the erroneous Chicago Tribune headline “Dewey defeats Truman.”

The Chicago Tribune was not alone in its prediction when all the polls and political pundits projected Dewey’s big victory, but it went out on a limb with its headline before all the votes were counted. The Merced Sun-Star, for example, printed “Election eve surveys show Dewey as next president” as its headline on Nov. 1.

Truman carried California with a very narrow margin of 47.59 percent to 47.13 percent even though then-Gov. Earl Warren was on Dewey’s ticket. Merced County voters delivered the county to Truman with 9,959 votes (2,238 votes more than Dewey) and continued a voting pattern that had been occurring since 1928.

President Truman’s win in Merced County was no accident.

It was true that Dewey was favored to win according to the polls because the American people seemed to be tired of Democratic control and policies, and were ready for a change. This was evidenced by the Republican return to control of both houses of Congress in the 1946 election.

However, Truman was a feisty campaigner who really energized his base, including in Merced.

During his campaign tour of California, Truman made a whistle stop in Merced on Sept. 23, 1948. It was 6:55 in the morning when he spoke to more than 2,000 supporters from the rear platform of his special train at the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot.

Although his talk was brief, he delivered a very important message to his audience, mainly the farmers, who, in turn, delivered Merced County to him less than two months later.

He talked about the riches of the San Joaquin Valley farmland and the importance of ensuring that farmers receive their fair share of the national income while continuing to reduce the farm foreclosure rate and farm debt.

“In 1932 there were 123,000 farms foreclosed,” he said. “Do you know how many were foreclosed last year? Just about 800. The farm debt has been reduced 50 percent. The farm income is the greatest ever in the history of this country; and the farmers have $18 billion on deposit in the banks.”

Truman credited such progress and achievement to Democratic policies as he felt that the Republicans had never done anything for the farmers and that if they did, “it was by accident and not intention.”

No doubt, such rhetoric and statistics appealed to his Merced base. In front of the energized crowd, the president showed his support for Cecil F. White, a congressional candidate from the 9th District, which included Merced, Madera, Stanislaus and Fresno Counties.

Truman was joined by the Merced County Democratic Reception Committee in Modesto before arriving in Merced.

The members consisted of local Democratic Central Committee Chairman Lee Hutchins, Merced Mayor Homer Griffin, Col. Robert Terrill of Castle Air Force Base, Stella Kreisa, Merced Postmaster Joseph T. McInerny, the Merced Express publisher Victor P. Reich, Robert Hume of Dos Palos, B. A. Wilson and Robert Thomas of Los Banos, Jack Silva of Gustine, and Secretary Don McKennan of the Merced Labor Council.

As Truman was arriving in Merced, the Merced Union High School band under the direction of Fred Steen saluted the chief with their best performance and 6-year-old Leah Pucci presented him with a basket of flowers. Pucci was the daughter of Albert Pucci, a prominent local labor official, and the flowers were grown by Stella Kreisa, the secretary of the local Democratic Central Committee.

Before the president’s departure, the mayor, on behalf of the Merced County Chamber of Commerce, presented him with a box of locally grown fancy dried fruits.

During his one-day train tour, Truman missed his first stop, Tracy, because he overslept. He skipped Modesto and any towns in Stanislaus County because he knew too well not to set foot in Republican territory.

After Merced, he continued on to Fresno, Tulare, Bakersfield, Tehachapi, Mojave, Burbank and ended his busy day with a speech at Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles.

Truman’s tour of California, no doubt, helped him defy all the odds in what appeared to be a losing battle.

Merced County was indeed energized by his appearance for both parties as Merced County voter turnout set a new record of 18,433. It represented more than 70 percent of the registered voters in the county, which was much higher than the state’s and country’s voter turnout rates.

His perseverance and success in this campaign inspired many politicians, including then-Massachusetts U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy who made a whistle stop in Merced on Sept. 9, 1960, during his presidential campaign, and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who attempted to repeat Truman’s Merced victory in her gubernatorial campaign in 1990.

In the 1948 election, Merced County also made history by sending an unknown political newcomer and cotton rancher Cecil White to Congress. Cecil White unseated a seven-term representative Bertrand W. Gearhart of Fresno with a narrow margin of just over a hundred votes in Merced County.

For more Merced County history, please visit the Courthouse Museum. Currently on display until the end of February is the “Weaving a Legacy: The History of Central California Indian Basketry” exhibit.