In 1948, the 33rd president botched a scheme to end the Cold War -- unless that's exactly how he intended it to work out.
Every four years, just about the time that leaves begin to change color and pumpkins appear in supermarkets, the specter of an "October Surprise" -- a last-minute action that reshuffles the presidential race -- rises. Whether it was Henry Kissinger's proclamation that "peace is at hand" in Vietnam in 1972 or questions over the timing of the release of Iranian hostages in 1980, it is national-security issues that most often conspire to affect the outcome of an election in its final weeks. So too was the case with the little known, often misunderstood first "October Surprise" in 1948. The term wasn't used at the time -- or subsequently -- to describe what happened that year, but Harry Truman's bold gambit in the final month of that campaign likely contributed to his narrow margin of victory.
In early October 1948, Truman was waging what was almost universally seen as a losing two-front campaign against the bland Republican nominee Thomas Dewey, running on his right, and Henry Wallace, his predecessor as Franklin Roosevelt's vice president, attacking him from the left on a pro-peace platform. In popular memory, the reason Truman defeated Dewey -- and not the other way around -- in that upset victory is a "Give 'Em Hell" campaign that emphasized populist economics. Dewey's defeat is blamed on an aloof, imperious nature, vague platitudinous statements, and the fact that he looked like "the little man on the wedding cake."