Anniversary: Thomas E. Dewey, the Man Who Saved New York

Culture Watch

Mr. Wingrove is a free-lance historical writer. He lives in East Lansing, Michigan.

Thomas Dewey is chiefly remembered as the man who didn't defeat Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election. Although he failed to win the nation's top post, Dewey was enormously successful in fighting domestic terrorism during the 1930s.

As we mark the 100th anniversary of his birth in Owosso, Michigan, Dewey's techniques offer valuable insights to those developing America's homeland security. As we struggle against foreign and domestic enemies, it's worth studying how Dewey's team toppled New York City crime bosses during the Depression.

Dewey was a natural for the job, blessed with and an insatiable curiosity and a gift for building an organization. In a wonderful biography of Dewey, historian Richard Norton Smith described him as a"stalking panther in pursuit of facts."

That persistence came in while chasing after mobsters as a special prosecutor and district attorney in New York in the '30s. At first, few gave the young attorney any chance against the nearly impossible odds. Racketeers such as Lucky Luciano and Dutch Schultz intimidated other criminals as well as fearful business owners. If they gave an order, dozens of gang members could be killed in a single day.

Slowly but surely Dewey put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and built solid cases against these terrorists. Eventually Luciano, the mafia king of New York, was convicted and sent to prison. Many other criminals also ended up behind bars.

In Dewey's autobiography, Twenty Against the Underworld, several associates offer the main reasons for their success: a cohesive and talented team, massive research, and moral courage.

Dewey, confident in his abilities, developed a plan and then hand-picked the team to implement it. Even decades later, assistants recalled his clarity in giving directions and ability to retain information. He knew his men and was enormously loyal to them. They returned the favor and worked around the clock tracking down obscure details.

Throughout the cat and mouse game of prosecuting mobsters, Dewey used every trick possible to build an avalanche of evidence. No phone record or scrap of paper went unchecked. During one investigation, Dewey's crew picked up scores of prostitutes, madams, and pimps. Tidbits gleaned from these minor figures helped hook the bigger fish.

As he went about this dangerous work, Dewey had a mind entirely free of panic. Schultz reputedly put a price on the special prosecutor's head but was killed just two days before an assassination attempt on Dewey. On another occasion, Dewey's wife Frances received a call requesting that she come to the morgue and identify her husband's body. Despite the threats, Dewey was undeterred.

The city that Dewey saved decades ago has displayed similar courage during its newest crisis. Since Sept. 11, New Yorkers and other Americans are witnessing the perils of unchecked terrorism. In many respects, the challenge facing law enforcement officials today is similar to the difficulties Dewey had to conquer.

Certainly the threat is many times greater and the technologies available to terrorists are more deadly, but federal, state and local governments can still profit from the Dewey model: build a cohesive, courageous and coordinated team.

Little things still mean a lot. The room for improvement is obvious after we learned that the Immigration and Naturalization Service issued visa approval notices for two hijackers six months after they flew airliners into the World Trade Center.

But even Dewey understood that government couldn't tackle problems alone. He called for an"awakening of the public consciousness to the destructive power of crime and the need to eradicate it." This in turn, he said,"would require the leadership of civic groups, the contribution of the free press, and increasing participation by the people in the machinery of law enforcement." These goals seem relevant in 2002 as the Bush administration urges Americans to remain aware at all times.

Dewey remains a shining example of how an individual can mobilize others to stop wrongdoers. Perhaps Dartmouth College put it best in 1939 when giving Dewey an honorary degree for his legal accomplishments:"You have made yourself influential in turning the tide of public cynicism, and reviving the ancient concept of justice as a flaming sword." How quickly we grab that same sword of justice and how well we pierce our foes is the daunting task facing those who would follow in Dewey's footsteps.

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