“The issue in this election … is the people against special privilege.” — President Truman’s 1948 speech written by a German refugee.

President Harry S. Truman, inscribed to Johannes U. Hoeber, February 2, 1949

Less than ten years after his arrival in America, Johannes Hoeber became a speech writer for the President of the United States.

In the brutal 1948 presidential election campaign, incumbent Harry Truman was the underdog.  A small group of researchers and speech writers helped him achieve his unlikely victory.  When the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt made Truman president in 1945, the Republican old guard launched a concerted attack on the social welfare achievements of Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Programs for the poor, the elderly, children, farmers, all were slashed by the Republican dominated 80th Congress.  President Truman fought back hard.  Though Truman lacked Roosevelt’s charisma, he had a sharp understanding of the needs of American working people and a plain-spoken manner that mass audiences could understand.  He launched a hard-hitting but fact-based campaign for reelection directed at the understanding and common sense of the American electorate. They rewarded his respect for their intelligence with a solid majority of votes in the November election.

To help President Truman articulate his message, the White House created a small research and writing staff headed by former liberal Pennsylvania congressional candidate William L. Batt, Jr.  Bill Batt selected five more people for the Research Division, as it came to be called, including his Philadelphia friend, Johannes Hoeber.    Johannes had gotten out of Nazi Germany in late 1938, but was fluent in English and versed in social democratic political principles.  Within weeks of his arrival he was enmeshed in a political reform effort in Philadelphia, and by 1943 was writing campaign speeches for the liberal Democratic candidate for mayor, William Christian Bullitt.  In 1947, Johannes became a founding member of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) and president of its Philadelphia chapter.  For many years, the ADA provided national leadership in the struggles for civil rights, education, health care and services for the poor. Bill Batt met Johannes through the ADA, and sought out his research abilities and writing skill for Truman’s 1948 campaign.

The Research Division office was in a hot, noisy building near DuPont circle in Washington and its members were housed in a cheap, seedy hotel nearby.  This was before air conditioning, and Washington’s heat and humidity in July and August were formidable.  Nevertheless, the Research Division cranked out speech after speech, sending dozens of speech outlines as well as complete scripts to the White House for final editing by the President’s personal staff.

Speech drafted by Johannes U. Hoeber, as delivered by President Harry S. Truman, September 30, 1948

In late September, on short notice, Truman’s campaign staff added a stop for a major speech in Louisville, Kentucky.  No one else being available, Johannes wrote most of the speech himself, working through the weekend to get it done for the White House to review.  Johannes’ files include a note from the Research Division secretary saying how pleased his colleagues in the Division were that the President delivered the speech with few changes from Johannes’ draft.  You can read the full speech here. The Truman Presidential Library interviewed Johannes in 1966 about his work for the Research Division; you can read that interview here.

After President Truman’s reelection, Johannes and Elfriede were invited to the Presidential Inaugural Ball on January 20, 1949.  Their income, however, was far too modest to allow for the purchase of the obligatory ball gown, so Elfriede made her own .  She stitched a floor-length skirt of black velvet and a low-cut brightly colored top of remaindered upholstery fabric, and with it wore an antique cameo with pearls she inherited from Johannes’ mother.  Years later Elfriede recalled proudly that the materials for her Presidential ball gown cost her less than ten dollars.

5 Comments on ““The issue in this election … is the people against special privilege.” — President Truman’s 1948 speech written by a German refugee.”

  1. Patrick Hennessy and Alice rand says:

    Everything old is new again.

    Concisely, Johannes’ concluding paragraph is the ideological issue of our times, and has been declared by other great writers in our past.

    In the late 1920’s, writer and classicist Robert Graves was asked his assessment of economic history. At the time, Graves was completing his biography of T.E. Lawrence, entitled Lawrence and the Arabs.

    His response, ” All {economic} history gets down to one distinction: meum et vostrum–mine and yours.”

    Thanks for this, Frank.

  2. Katherine Parkin says:

    You don’t have a photograph of them going to/at the ball, do you? They both exhibited tremendous resourcefulness.

    I wish Obama would shout this out:
    This is not a parlor game we are playing. This election is a very serious business. The future of the American people is at stake.

    Outrageous then and now!
    Thanks, Katie

  3. Frank Hoeber says:

    No, no photograph, only my memory as a small child of what she looked like in that dress. It seemed so grand in that little house in North Philadelphia where we lived.

    Glad you read the whole speech. I love its directness and its faith in voters making the right decision if they are given meaningful facts.

  4. Philip White says:

    Frank, I am the author of Our Supreme Task: How Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech Defined the Cold War Alliance. I am working on my next book, which focuses on Truman’s Whistle Stop Tour and the role of the Research Division staff members in his comeback victory. Do you have any of Johannes’s papers or other items that may aid in my research? I’d be grateful if you could e-mail me at the address I entered in the comments form.

    Thanks for your consideration.

    Philip White

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