The Original October Surprise: Harry Truman and the Vinson Plan

In 1948, the 33rd president botched a scheme to end the Cold War -- unless that's exactly how he intended it to work out.

Harry Truman and George Marshall at the White House in 1949 (Associated Press)

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."

All these certainly played a role in the outcome. But the debate between the candidates in the last months of that campaign was actually waged foremost around the real threat of a World War III with the Soviet Union over the-then heated crisis in Berlin. The Soviet blockade of allied-occupied sectors of Germany's capital, and the allied airlift in response, dominated newspaper headlines. The candidates' stump speeches were an exchange of vicious accusations about which party's policies presented the greater threat of leading to a communist-dominated world. On September 25, 1948, the Soviets rejected a final allied plea to lift the blockade, and the issue was pushed to the United Nations in what was seen as the last step before a decision to go to war.

It was in this context that Truman summoned the poker buddy he had installed as chief justice of the Supreme Court, Fred Vinson, to the White House on October 3 and asked him to meet with Stalin face-to-face to offer a message of peace in the hope of bringing the Cold War to an end. It would be the highest-level exchange between the countries since Potsdam at the end of World War II. Though Vinson protested that he had no more knowledge of the situation in Berlin than what he had read in the newspapers, had no experience in foreign policy, and feared violating the separation of powers by undertaking a high-profile, highly political task just a month before the election, he eventually agreed when Truman argued that it was Vinson's patriotic duty to help avert war.

Truman told his press secretary, Charlie Ross, to secure a half-hour of nationwide airtime for a special announcement from the White House on the night of October 5. Ross did so, swearing the broadcasters to secrecy. Truman's speechwriters prepared an address to the nation that ended with a lofty pledge to solve the Berlin crisis: "We shall spare no effort to achieve the peace on which the entire destiny of the human race may depend." But despite all the activity, the rest of October 3 and October 4 passed with Truman neglecting to inform any of his foreign-policy advisers or any other allied nation's leaders about his plan.

On October 5, Robert Lovett -- the under secretary of the state who was running the department while Secretary George Marshall was engaged in direct negotiations with the Soviets in Paris -- was at his desk in Foggy Bottom when an aide walked in with a draft of Truman's message to Stalin that had been received in the code room. Lovett could scarcely believe his eyes. He picked up the phone and called the president, asking to see him at once. When Truman invited him to come right over, Lovett ran downstairs to his black official car and, for the first time ever, he asked his driver to turn on the car's siren and flashing red lights and speed to the White House through the streets of Washington.

When Lovett told Truman he could not send Vinson to Moscow, Truman appeared surprised and asked why. Lovett told him it would undermine American foreign policy, split the allies, and destroy the credibility of his administration.

Truman quickly backed down, but when news reached Marshall in Paris, the secretary's famous equanimity all but escaped him and he asked permission to return to Washington that weekend to meet with the president. Truman quickly agreed. The next day, the White House announced that Truman was canceling planned campaign stops to meet with Marshall and review the situation in Berlin. The meeting was so important that the president was personally sending his plane, the Independence, to Paris to retrieve the revered secretary of state. Newspapers were filled with coverage of Marshall's upcoming visit.

Then, on October 8, the eve of Marshall's arrival, the inevitable occurred and word of the Vinson ploy leaked, allegedly from one of the broadcast networks that had been told about the canceled presidential speech to the nation.

The following day, Truman was on hand at National Airport to welcome Marshall home in person. When they arrived at the White House, Truman mollified Marshall and they issued a joint statement claiming that Truman had simply been "wondering" about the possibility of a Vinson mission to Moscow.

The reaction of pundits and Truman's opponents to the seemingly botched Vinson scheme was one of outrage. The Washington Post reported that British diplomats maintained the Vinson plan "could have wrecked the United Nations." Walter Lippmann claimed the incident showed that "in plain words, Mr. Truman does not know how to be President." Presidential adviser Clark Clifford himself would, in later years, call it "the worst mistake of the Truman campaign," and presidential historian Robert Ferrell would note "the result was a fiasco."

But connecting the dots of history leaves another possibility that has never been fully explored. What if the Vinson affair was not a bungled stunt, but the wiliest move of a canny politician? It was completely out of character for Truman to take such a momentous step in foreign policy without the advice of his top advisers, indeed to do so while purposely hiding it from them. Unlike his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman had insisted on a relatively orderly national-security apparatus, had delegated broad latitude to his Cabinet secretaries and aides, and had worked in close concert with America's allies. Truman must have known that either the Vinson mission would be canceled because of the inevitable opposition or, if his old poker partner actually went to Moscow, nothing would come of it. Finally, Truman must surely have known that once the broadcast networks learned of the nature of his announcement, the news eventually would leak. It was the way of Washington.

For all the opprobrium heaped on him by politicians and diplomats, the bombshell news -- combining war, politics, and the hint of scandal -- ensured that the Berlin crisis continued to dominate the public conversation and news coverage. When it lagged, Truman would make sure to bring it up himself on the stump. Truman's role as commander-in-chief was highlighted, Dewey was pushed further out of the spotlight, and potential Wallace voters saw Truman making enormous efforts to find peace. It could not have turned out better if Truman had planned it.

Truman would never even hint that he knew all along what he was doing by creating and milking the rumpus over the Vinson plan, but once, a short while after Marshall returned to Paris, he reacted to a discussion of the matter with a comment that stuck in his advisers' minds. Clifford and the speechwriters were in the Oval Office wringing their hands with dismay over the botched scheme. Truman listened to them for a while and then broke into a mischievous grin. "I don't think it's that bad," he said with a twinkle.

Nearly 65 Octobers later, with Iran and Libya in the headlines, we speculate again about the whether a president is facing a challenge in balancing the roles of both commander-in-chief and candidate for reelection. We wonder whether the events of the world will intrude on America's own election. Harry Truman could have told us: Do not be surprised, expect it.