Miller Center

Harry S. Truman: The American Franchise

[cite this]

↑Harry S. Truman Home Page

In 1950, just over 150.7 million people were living in the United States. Nearly two-thirds resided in urban or suburban areas. The average American white male could expect to live to age sixty-six, while white women usually lived to age seventy-two. African-American life expectancy, however, was considerably lower.

The most important demographic change during the Truman years, however, was the growth of the American population as a whole, which between 1940 and 1950 grew by over 14 percent, or 19 million people. Similar—and even larger—population increases had occurred in the first decades of the twentieth century, but that growth was fueled largely by immigration to the United States. Congress, however, passed laws in the 1920s that severely restricted immigration; these laws stayed in effect until 1965, meaning that the growth of the U.S. population in the 1940s was almost exclusively home-grown (with those immigrants who did arrive coming largely from Germany, Great Britain, and Canada).

The American Family

The engine of American population growth was the "baby boom." After years of depression and war, Americans, quite simply, were having more children. In 1940, American families had, on average, 2.6 children; by 1950 that number had jumped to 3.2. The baby boom was only one of the massive changes underway in the structure of the American family during the years immediately following World War II. The marriage rate began to rise rapidly during the Truman years; statistics showed that during the 1950s, 97% of American women and 94% of American men between the ages of 18 and 30 were married. Americans also got married at younger ages than at any time in the twentieth century. Finally, Americans stayed married in the 1950s; after an initial surge in the divorce rate, following the return of American veterans from overseas, the number of couples splitting up dropped precipitously.

Higher marriage and birth rates were just some of the significant changes in the lives of American women in the postwar years. During World War II, women joined the workforce in large numbers; by 1945, 19 million women were working outside the home. Two million women left the workforce in the immediate post-war years. Some did so out of choice, but many left because of federal employment policies which privileged returning veterans at the expense of working women. Nonetheless, women's participation in the workforce continued to rise in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, though with some caveats. Those who joined the workforce were older women, women of working-class means, and women of color. Moreover, these women often took jobs that paid poorly, offered fewer chances for advancement, and were less likely to be unionized.

If the increasing number of American women in the workforce marked one trend during the post-war years, another involved a renewed emphasis on domesticity. American women—white and black—were told by a host of experts that their primary responsibilities lay in the home. Their task was to raise and care for children, and ensure that husbands returned each day from work to a happy and well-cared for home. For women who worked outside the home, such advice meant double-duty as both homemaker and worker. Women who stayed at home, however, faced the possibility of an often intellectually and emotionally stultifying life, what the author Betty Friedan called "the problem with no name" in her groundbreaking 1963 book on domesticity, The Feminine Mystique.


One important development in American society during the Truman years was the rise of the suburbs, communities that sprung up adjacent to, but outside of, American cities. Of the nearly two million new homes built in the United States between 1945 and 1950—the outlines of this trend had become apparent in the 1920s, though the Depression and then the war cut it short—more than 80 percent were built in the suburbs. Inexpensive federal government mortgages, innovations in home construction, a fast-growing population, and burgeoning economic prosperity all contributed to the suburban housing boom.

Levittown, New York, just twenty-five miles from Manhattan, was the archetypal suburban community. The builder William Levitt put up 17,000 houses—and parks, stores, and churches to serve their residents—on several thousand acres of farmland in the 1940s; the venture proved such a success that Levitt built other suburban communities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Americans, who were marrying and having children at dizzying rates, flocked to suburbs like Levittown for obvious reasons. Housing was affordable, the schools were good, and the streets were safe. The neighborhoods were made up of young families, providing a sense of community and shared experience.

Not all Americans were fans of the suburbs, however. Critics noted that suburban housing all looked the same, as did its residents: white, middle-class, young families in which the husband worked and the wife stayed at home with the children.


During the Truman years, African-Americans continued to move from the rural south to the urban north, a migration that began during the 1930s. One million blacks left the south in the 1940s; another 1.5 million left in the 1950s. In the north, Blacks found both more freedoms and better jobs, though they still encountered racial discrimination and violence when they moved into almost exclusively white neighborhoods later in the decade. Historians now trace both the origins of the divisive racial politics that split the Democratic party and the beginning of the so-called "urban crisis" to the immediate post-war years.

While the African-American civil rights movement would not explode in the national consciousness until the mid-1950s with the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board decision and the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott led by Martin Luther King, important gains in civil rights occurred during the Truman years. In 1946, the Supreme Court declared segregation in interstate bus travel unconstitutional. In 1948, the Court struck down restrictive housing covenants. And in both 1948 and 1950, the Court issued three separate rulings that chipped away at segregation in higher education, each of which helped pave the way for the Brown decision.

Civil rights groups were active during the Truman years as well. The NAACP pressed the federal government to desegregate the military, set up a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, and outlaw discrimination in the federal government employment practices. After the Court's 1946 decision concerning interstate busing, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began a series of "freedom rides" in the upper south to see whether the Court's ruling would be enforced. The most public demonstration of African-American equality, however, probably occurred in 1947 when Jackie Robinson, a second basemen for the Brooklyn Dodgers, integrated the "National Game," major league baseball. Robinson's prowess on the field—he led his team to the pennant and won the "Rookie of the Year" award—was surpassed only by his quiet dignity as he endured countless insults from fans, opponents, and even some teammates.


As Truman took office, American labor unions had reached the apogee of their power. In 1945, nearly 30 percent of all American workers were in a union, which gave organized labor significant political power. Quite simply, labor was the key member of the "New Deal coalition" assembled by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democratic Party because it could deliver millions of votes. But labor's power was apparent not just on election day but in the programs and governance of the New Deal and the American World War II homefront. The was especially true during the war, when labor's representatives, working with politicians, policymakers, and corporate leaders, helped organize the American economy to maximize production, provide fair wages, and avoid strikes and strife.

In the immediate post-war years, however, labor's power began to wane. Conservatives in both the Democratic and Republican parties looked to curb—and perhaps even end—the reformist impulse of New Deal and World War II-era liberalism. In practice, this meant trying to reduce labor's political power and eradicating government policies that gave unions a voice in the nation's political economy. The reconversion of the American economy that began in earnest in 1946 brought an end to many of the World War II commissions in which labor participated. Just as important, conservatives, backed by business interests, managed to pass the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, empowering industry and its political allies in their attack on labor. Finally, President Truman, unlike his predecessor, proved an ambivalent ally of labor. While he sympathized with the working man's desire for a better life, Truman, who was once a small businessman himself, possessed a general dislike of labor unions and the tactics embraced by their leaders. His antipathy for union leaders like John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers was at times immense.

But labor's influence in the post-war years also ebbed because its strategies for maintaining and extending its power had failed. Through most of the twentieth century, unions had failed to gain a foothold in the South, where conservative politicians, local elites, and businessman feared that such progressive organizations would challenge the region's political, economic, and racial orders. During World War II, however, more than 800,000 workers, including over 250,000 blacks, joined unions. If the CIO could continue to organize the south, it reasoned that its political power—both nationally and locally—would grow accordingly. In 1946, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), one of the country's two most important labor federations, launched Operation Dixie, an effort to build unions in southern states. The CIO sent down hundreds of organizers states, opened up union offices, and aggressively courted southern workers. Operation Dixie failed horribly, however. White workers proved largely unwilling to join interracial unions, southern companies and industries counterattacked with aggressive anti-union propaganda, and union organizers were constantly harassed, threatened, and sometimes violently beaten.

Labor unions also suffered in the late 1940s and early 1950s because of the "Red Scare" (see below). Red Scare political culture proved especially corrosive to labor unions as its proponents questioned whether organizations or persons with liberal or progressive political agendas—like unions—might be allied with the Soviet Union or sympathetic to communism. In fact, a small number of union members were communists, a reality which union opponents exploited and exaggerated in their political campaigns. Second, anticommunists in unions vigorously purged their organizations of communists or suspected communists, a measure which proved divisive and morale-sapping, depriving unions of some of their best organizers.

The Red Scare

The Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s was not an anomaly; American history contains numerous incidents of violence and suppression of leftist political radicalism. In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise to power of Russian communists in 1917, persecution of American communists produced what some historians call the "First Red Scare."The emergence of the Cold War and the dawning of the atomic age meant that the politics of anticommunism—practiced in its more benign form by President Truman, in a slightly less benign form by young politicians like Congressman Richard Nixon, and in a malevolent and destructive form by Senator Joe McCarthy—became a fact of American political life during the Truman years. Just as striking though, the Red Scare of the 1950s had both an unprecedented vitality and an extensive reach, affecting almost all aspects of the American experience. Films, television shows, museum exhibits, popular magazines, and comic books often portrayed communism as an anti-American virus fomented by American communists and leftists, Soviet agents, and suspicious foreigners who threatened to infect an unsuspecting public. Opening a copy of the March 4, 1947, Look magazine, for example—a glossy, picture-laden popular weekly—readers could enjoy an article entitled, "How to Spot a Communist." Americans could go to the movie theatre and see "The Red Menace (1949)" or "I Was a Communist for the FBI (1952)," propaganda films that warned of the communist threat in the United States and showed model Americans fighting it (though neither of these films, nor others of the genre, did well at the box office).

Still, it should not be surprising that the anticommunist crusade and fervor spread to local communities and local governance. Thirteen states established their own versions of House Committee on Un-American Activities, and many more states passed ordinances that either made communist organizations illegal or forced them to register with the appropriate authorities. State and local governments launched investigations of employees suspected of communist-leanings. Some of the most ardent anti-communist hunts occurred in the field of education, where local school boards investigated teachers for suspected communist leanings; at colleges and universities, some professors were fired for past or present communist affiliations. In sum, thousands of Americans were subjected to investigations, with hundreds losing their jobs and livelihoods. Many more lived in fear of the accusatory dragnet.

The history of the "Red Scare" raises an important question: how significant was the threat posed by American communists and Soviet espionage in the United States? With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, scholars have gained access to the Soviet Union's archives, in which they have found evidence of a fairly extensive Soviet espionage effort penetrating all branches and levels of the federal government. Moreover, these newly discovered Soviet documents reveal that the leadership of the American communist party took its orders from the Soviet Union and worked assiduously to recruit Soviet agents from the American population. Some scholars believe that these findings justify the extensive efforts to combat communism in the United States that occurred in the early 1950s. Other scholars disagree, conceding that while the new evidence demonstrates convincingly that the Soviet Union was directing such espionage, the anticommunist purges of the Truman years were overly destructive and indiscriminate.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Alonzo L. Hamby

Professor Hamby is a Distinguished Professor of History at Ohio University. His writings include:

For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s (Free Press, 2004)

Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Beyond the New Deal: Harry S. Truman and American Liberalism (Columbia University Press, 1973)