How FDR’s Death Changed The Nature Of The Vice-Presidency

Seventy years ago, Harry Truman became President in the final months of a war. He wasn't prepared for it, but most Vice-President's after him have been.

Truman Inauguration

Just over a week ago, we marked the 70th anniversary of the death of Franklin Roosevelt, an event that thrust Harry Truman, a former Missouri Senator who had not even been Vice-President for three months, into the Presidency just as the Second World War was reaching its final moments in both Europe and the Pacific. As anyone familiar with the history knows, Truman entered office woefully unprepared for the task that had been given to him due to FDR’s untimely death. Since taking office, he had only met with Roosevelt eight times, and rarely one on one. He wasn’t part of the President’s inner circle when it came to either domestic policy or the conduct of the war, and didn’t know anything about details as crucial as the existence of the Manhattan Project or the details of Roosevelt’s discussions with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta the month before beyond what Roosevelt had shared in his address to Congress after returning from Europe. Despite all of this, Truman managed to successfully guide the nation through the final months of the war and the early years of the Cold War, but even his own diary entries both before and after April 12, 1945 reflect his frustration at having been kept out of the loop by the President and his advisers. Given the fact that it was known a year earlier that Roosevelt’s health was failing, information which caused Democratic Party insiders to force Henry Wallace out of the Vice-Presidency in favor of Truman at the convention, it seems fairly clear that this decision to keep Truman in the dark was quite irresponsible and, potentially dangerous.

In a short piece in The New Yorker, Jeffrey Frank recites much of this history and notes that, because of what happened in April 1945, the nature of the Vice-Presidency and how President’s treat their Vice-Presidents changed significantly:

What did change after 1945, though, was the job of the Vice-President, with the idea that they needed useful work and needed to know what the President was up to. A lot of credit for that goes to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican elected in 1952, who had been appalled at Truman’s unpreparedness and rightly blamed F.D.R. Eisenhower, a former four-pack-a-day smoker, was determined to assure a smooth succession if he were to die in office. While he was not particularly fond of Nixon, his Vice-President, he saw to his training. In the fall of 1953, he sent Nixon and his wife on a sixty-eight-day trip through Asia, followed by other foreign assignments, some more successful than others.

That model, up to and including Joe Biden, endures. But if Vice-Presidents are no longer likely to be at sea, as Truman was seventy years ago, there is still no assurance that our next President will know very much about the job. There is no School for Presidents. There is no General Eisenhower to send people like Governor Scott Walker on real ventures that are not potentially embarrassing “trade missions.”

The modern Vice-Presidency, then, is largely a creation of Eisenhower’s reaction to what had happened in the wake of Roosevelt’s death, something he no doubt had at least some inside information on given the fact that he was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe at the time. As far as the Constitution is concerned, of course, there’s nothing about this that is actually required. Outside of breaking ties in the Senate and some largely ceremonial posts that have been assigned to the Vice-President by statute, Vice-Presidents only have whatever power and duties that the President is willing to grant them, and they are only as well-informed about ongoing intelligence and military operations as the President wishes them to be.  Theoretically at least, there would be nothing stopping a future President from completely cutting his or her Vice-President off from any official duties and keeping them out of the loop regarding intelligence and military affairs. Given the nature of the world we live in today, and the fact that the possibility always exists that a President could die in office, be incapacitated, or be forced to leave office, that’s perhaps an even more dangerous possibility than it was in April of 1945.

Outside of Constitutional reforms, there isn’t really any way to prevent the situation I note above where a President essentially freezes their Vice-President out of the day-to-day operation of the government. Any Congressional legislation on the matter would likely be vetoed and poses serious Separation Of Powers issues that could lead to it being declared unconstitutional by the courts. In that sense then, the moment when a Presidential nominee chooses their running mate is one that’s worth paying attention to, not only because it gives us a guide as to the candidate’s judgment but also because it gives voters an opportunity to examine at least from a distance the relationship between the running mates. At the very least, voters should insist that their President keep the Vice-President in the loop regardless of what the Constitutional and legal requirements are. For the most part, Harry Truman adjusted to his new role well seven decades ago, but the fact that he was woefully unprepared for it, due to no fault of his own for the most part, was rather outrageous and we should demand that such a situation never repeat itself.

FILED UNDER: Presidency, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Trumwill says:

    It honestly seems to me that there isn’t much of a “problem” here that hasn’t been corrected by custom.

    I mean yes, the president could completely freeze the vice president out, but why would he (or she)? The only reason I can think of is a falling out to the degree that they can’t work together. That might be the stuff of compelling fiction, but it’s pretty unlikely. And otherwise, the vice president since Nixon has been something of an asset. And up until Cheney, an heir apparent that the president is likely to want to take over for him (or her) after two terms.

    Cheney and Biden have added something new, as non-heir-apparent selections. But not coincidentally, they were chosen by young and healthy presidents. The overwhelming likelihood that an older presidential candidate, like Hillary or Jeb, will go back to the heir apparent model. If Walker or Rubio, we might (only might!) get an experience-the-principal-doesn’t-have model again… but Walker and Rubio are young and we haven’t had an assassination in over fifty years (knock on wood).

    And with the exception of Reagan-Bush (if that), VP selections seem to have been people that the president has been comfortable with, and so not much reason for them to be shut out. Almost all of the incentives involved make unlikely a situation where this is a problem.

    (All that aside, I really appreciate this post. History is interesting!)

  2. Gustopher says:

    While he was not particularly fond of Nixon, his Vice-President, he saw to his training. In the fall of 1953, he sent Nixon and his wife on a sixty-eight-day trip through Asia, followed by other foreign assignments,

    Sure, sure, he was sending Nixon away for months at a time as “training”. No, it had nothing to do with not being particularly fond of the man, definitely not some kind of banishment, clearly training. Sure.

  3. Gustopher says:

    @Trumwill:

    Cheney and Biden have added something new, as non-heir-apparent selections. But not coincidentally, they were chosen by young and healthy presidents. The overwhelming likelihood that an older presidential candidate, like Hillary or Jeb, will go back to the heir apparent model. If Walker or Rubio, we might (only might!) get an experience-the-principal-doesn’t-have model again…

    There’s not a great pattern of VPs going on to be president absent an assassination. It makes sense to give the role to an elder statesman who can do some of the work and be a perfectly adequate caretaker President if something happens to the elected President.

    That’s why I hope Clinton chooses Biden as her VP. The man is perfect for the job.

  4. Trumwill says:

    @Gustopher: In applicable cases (two terms and later ran), the data set is limited to three. One was a successor, one lost but became president later, and one won the popular vote and would have been elected later if he had won.

    The 1/3 immediate succession rate isn’t great and is perhaps an argument for the elder statesman model, but in HRC’s case, she is the elder statesman and so I see limited upside with going that route. And doing anything else (other than giving it to someone who is too old to run in eight years) is giving future party leadership to someone who is very likely to get the party’s nomination

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that depends on your operative definition of “prepared”, Doug. The vice presidents since FDR’s death have been: Barkley, Nixon, Johnson, Humphrey, Agnew, Ford, Mondale, Bush, Quale, Gore, Cheney, and Biden. Of those which do you think were prepared?

    Of them I would say probably only Bush 41 (for whom I never voted). The others would just have muddled through as is the U. S. custom.

  6. Tyrell says:

    @Dave Schuler: As far as experience, skill, and knowing the ropes, I would go with Johnson and Hubert H. Humphrey. Johnson was one of the most skilled politicians of all. Humphrey was very personable, liked and respected by all.
    When Roosevelt died, most people had no idea who the vice president even was. But Truman proved to have the skills necessary. A leader synonymous with tough, decisive leadership.
    “Who in the h_____ is Harry Truman”
    Back then the leaders got together and got things done. That is what they need to do now.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    @Tyrell:

    I’m skeptical that being Senate Majority leader prepares one for the presidency let alone a wartime presidency any more than simply having been a senator. Although all senators appear to consider themselves presidents-in-waiting (at least during my lifetime), I’m further skeptical that’s the case.

  8. MarkedMan says:

    @Trumwill: What you say makes sense for elected presidents. Gore, in particular, worked very closely with Clinton. But what about their opponents? I go back to McCain selecting Sarah Palin… and then get stuck. I always had a soft spot for McCain but it completely evaporated the day he selected her. To think that if he was elected she would have been next in line to hold the most powerful office in the land… It just beggars the imagination.

  9. Barry says:

    @Dave Schuler: “I’m skeptical that being Senate Majority leader prepares one for the presidency let alone a wartime presidency any more than simply having been a senator.”

    Let’s see – trying to get 50-odd Sentators (each one seeing the next President when they look into the mirror) to move in one direction is not vastly better leadership training than simply being one out of 100 Senators?

    When being President and trying to get the Senate to do something, having led the Senate is not vastly better training than simply being a Senator?