| The Dewey-Stassen debate on 5/17/1948 just before the critical Oregon primary was the first modern presidential debate. It was the only debate planned to discuss a single issue, though some later debates were dominated by single issues. The debate was held just before the last contested presidential primary of 1948.
In 1948, several leading Republicans entered the fray to challenge President Truman. Likely nominees included Stassen, Warren, Taft, Dewey, and Vandenberg. The first major test for the candidates was the Wisconsin primary on 4/6/1948, where Stassen and Dewey faced Gen. MacArthur. A key issue in the Wisconsin campaign was how to deal with the Communist Party in the United States. Stassen wanted it to be outlawed due to its subversive and treasonous nature. Dewey argued that it should be kept "out in the open, where we can beat them" rather than driving them underground. [NYT 4/3/1948].
The first mention of a debate between Dewey and Stassen came just after Stassen lost the Ohio primary to Taft on 5/4/1948. A Minneapolis newspaper stated that Dewey had challenged Stassen to a debate in Oregon (the next and final contested primary). In a series of campaign appearances in Bend OR and Portland OR on 5/8/1948, Dewey denied that he had challenged Stassen to a debate. He charged that Stassen was trying to find a reason to bypass the voluntary restriction of only making two campaign swings through contested primary states [NYT 5/9/1948].
With the idea in the air, Peter H. Odegard, president of Reed College in Portland, invited the two candidates to hold a radio debate. Both candidates immediately accepted. Dewey recommended the topic, "Shall the Communist Party be outlawed?" [NYT 5/11/1948]
At the time of Odegard's offer, Stassen was campaigning in Winston-Salem NC. He cancelled plans to campaign in Alabama and instead took a nonstop flight to Oregon so he could help make the debate arrangements. Upon landing, Stassen gave a fiery speech defending his position on Communism. [NYT 5/13/1948]
The debate almost didn't happen. Stassen quickly found that his campaign had attracted a large number of volunteers who were campaigning on his behalf. By contrast, Dewey had few volunteers and depended heavily on newspaper and radio advertising. Stassen's campaign started to drag its feet on the arrangements. Dewey's campaign complained that Stassen now thought he could win without the debate and had decided against it [NYT 5/14/1948]. The tactic achieved its intended effect, as the following day Stassen acceded to each of Dewey's proposed debate guidelines [NYT 5/15/1948]. Although only 12 delegates were at stake in Oregon, the debate was acknowledged as critical to the chances of either contender.
AP photo of debate, showing (L to R) Stassen's assistant, Stassen, Van Boskirk (the local Republican leader), and Dewey addressing the audience.
Debate Quick Facts
When: 6:00 to 7:00 Pacific Time, 5/17/1948 (Eastern Standard time was observing daylight savings and was the equivalent of 10 to 11 p.m.)
Where: produced by KEX, the ABC radio affiliate in Portland OR; carried on the MBS and NBC networks but not CBS
Moderator: Donald R. Van Boskirk (chairman of the Multnomah County Republican Central Committee)
Estimated audience: 40,000,000
Topic: Shall the Communist Party be outlawed?
Format: Stassen gave the affirmative response for 20 minutes, follwed by the negative by Dewey for 20 minutes. Stassen gave an 8.5 minute rebuttal, followed by an 8.5 minute rebuttal from Dewey.
Audio of entire debate: https://urresearch.rochester.edu/handle/1802/2134
Setting: Two tables were set up in front of a large banner reading "KEX." Gov. Stassen sat behind the left table with an assistant; Gov. Dewey sat behind the right table with Boskirk. When speaking, the candidates stood at a small podium at the end of the table. Four rows of chairs were arranged facing the tables, at which the "non-writing" press sat (publishers and columnists) while the "active" press sat behind a glass wall on seats arranged in five tiers. Altogether, 56 reporters sat behind the glass wall, some bringing their own typewriters with them.
Gov. Stassen brought a satchel full of reports and news articles that he arranged on the table in front of him. Gov. Dewey brought a small handful of papers that he kept stacked in front of him on the table.
Stassen spoke first. He outlined the reasons for supporting a bill introduced by Sen. Mundt (R-SD) calling for outlawing the Communist Party. He pointed out that the recent Communist coup d'etat in Czechoslovakia was directed by Moscow but could have been prevented if the previously neutral nation had outlawed the Communists. "It seems clear to me that the free countries, including America, do not now have adequate laws to safeguard themselves in the face of this menace." Stassen stated that one-fourth of all American communists lived in Gov. Dewey's state of New York. He believed that Dewey underestimated the infiltration of communists into the nation and that the removal of communists was an important step towards averting war with the Soviet Union. He finished with four questions regarding communism in the USA for Dewey to answer.
In his response, Dewey set forth the argument that the step Stassen called for would lead to totalitarianism here in the United States and that it was futile to try to outlaw ideas. Furthermore, Sen. Mundt specifically stated that his bill would not outlaw the Communist Party, as Stassen continued to state. Some of Stassen's evidence was drawn from a US Communist Party leader, "not a very good authority." He quoted Sen. Mundt who had stated "this bill does not outlaw the Communist Party." Dewey stated that the USA was involved in "a war of ideas in the world... a conflict between two wholly different ways of life." Rather than infringing upon the rights of Americans, Dewey argued that a stronger enforcement of the 27 laws against treasonous activities already on the books would suffice. Stassen was calling for an infringement upon the Constitution and Bill of Rights that would "advance the cause of communism rapidly both in this country and all over the world." He called Stassen's proposal immoral and totalitarian, not an "American" solution. "This glib proposal to outlaw the Communist Party would be quickly recognized everywhere as an abject surrender by the great United States to the methods of totalitarianism." Other nations had previously tried to outlaw the Communist Party, including Canada, which repealed the law after just five years because it took too many public employees to enforce the law it. [NYT 5/18/1948]
Stassen repeated many of his leading facts in his rebuttal. Dewey's rebuttal revolved around the fact that Mundt called for the registration of Communists, not the banning of the party. He said that Stassen had "surrendered" to his (Dewey's) position by continuing to advocate the Mundt Bill.
Result of debate
Most observers believed that the candidates both performed well. The voters of Oregon apparently preferred Dewey's position, as he won the primary by a 52-48% margin.
Note: William Z. Foster of the Communist Party asked for equal time to set forth his party's views on the Dewey-Stassen debate. MBS set up a debate between Foster and Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party candidate for President. Foster refused to hold a joint debate with Thomas, so MBS backed out. The other radio stations similarly declined to offer Foster air time [NYT 5/19-20/1948].