Harry S. Truman: Domestic Affairs
With the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, Vice President Harry S. Truman assumed the Oval Office. He surely knew he faced a difficult set of challenges in the immediate future: overseeing the final defeats of Germany and Japan; managing the U.S. role in post-war international relations; supervising the American economy's transition from a war-time to a peace-time footing; and maintaining the unity of a fractious and powerful Democratic Party.
But perhaps Truman's most daunting task was following his esteemed predecessor, who had remade American governance, the Democratic Party, and the office of the presidency during his unprecedented twelve years in office. Roosevelt's shadow would be difficult for Truman—or any Democrat, for that matter—to escape. Truman, moreover, lacked Roosevelt's stature, charisma, and public-speaking skills.
The new President did have other qualities that recommended him for the job. The public related well to Truman, thinking him hard-working and honest. Truman also seemed to relish making politically difficult decisions. Finally, Truman's experiences in Missouri politics—and especially his two electoral victories that brought him to the Senate—demonstrated a deft understanding of the various groups that made the political philosophy of liberalism and the Democratic Party the reigning institutions in American political life.
Organizing the White House
Truman asked FDR's cabinet to remain in place as he settled into the presidency. Yet the new President had little confidence in this group; by the spring of 1946, he had replaced many of those officials with men of his own choosing. Truman's appointees, however, were largely undistinguished and contributed little to his presidency. Most notably, Attorney General J. Howard McGrath became the center of a corruption scandal which cut into Truman's popularity.
Truman also inherited Roosevelt's staff of presidential advisers. By the mid-1940s, the President's staff included administrative assistants, appointments and press secretaries, and counsels to the President. It also included the Bureau of the Budget, formerly a part of the Treasury Department but, owing to the Executive Reorganization Act of 1939, now housed in the Executive Office of the President. The New Deal and the war years highlighted the increasingly important and powerful role that a President's staff played in policymaking. Several well-known members of FDR's team—like Harry Hopkins and press secretary Steve Early—did not join the Truman administration (though Hopkins answered Truman's call to service on a few occasions). Other Roosevelt staffers, like special counsel Sam Rosenman and budget director Harold Smith, continued to serve in their positions for a short time.
Truman, of course, placed his own trusted confidantes in key staff positions. Old friend Charles Ross —a highly respected Washington reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—came on as press secretary and Senate aide Matthew Connelly became the President's appointments secretary. The two most involved staffers in the Truman administration, however, were Clark Clifford and John Steelman. Clifford, the more important of the two, advised the President on political and foreign policy issues, replacing Rosenman as special counsel to the President in January 1946. Steelman became "the assistant to the President" in December 1946, a position from which he oversaw countless administrative tasks that were required in the White House. Truman, though, fearful of losing control over the policy process, acted largely as his own "chief of staff," meeting with aides, assigning tasks, and defining his administration's agenda.
During the Truman years, the President's staff continued to grow in size. On the domestic side, the most important addition was the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). The Employment Act of 1946 created the CEA to help the President formulate economic policy; liberal Democrats in Congress particularly wanted the CEA to be a preserve for progressives and liberal New Dealers. Truman instead staffed the CEA with a mix of conservatives and liberals, although the liberal Leon Keyserling ran the CEA after November 1949 and worked closely with Truman. More importantly, Truman treated the CEA as a set of presidential advisers, rather than as an independent body, and made sure that it remained under his control.
Leading America after Depression, New Deal, and World War
Truman took office just as World War II entered its final stages. With Japan's surrender in August 1945, he now led a nation that, for the first time in nearly two decades, was not wracked by the traumas of economic depression or world war. Truman's chief task, then, was to lay out to Americans his vision for the country's future. Two related issues—the future of New Deal liberalism and the reconversion of the American economy from a war-time to a peace-time footing—topped his agenda.
As conceived and implemented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisers, New Deal liberalism committed the federal government to managing the nation's economy and to guarding the welfare of needy Americans. Truman would have to decide whether to maintain, advance, or retreat from these basic premises. During the war, for instance, the Roosevelt administration had geared the economy to meet the nation's war needs, implementing price and wage controls, rationing and allocating resources, and setting production targets for American industry. In short, the federal government regulated the American economy to an unprecedented degree. With the war's end, Truman needed to reorient the nation's financial system towards consumer production and clarify the government's future role in the economy.
In September 1945, Truman presented to Congress a lengthy and rambling twenty-one point message that nonetheless attempted to set the post-war political and economic agenda. Truman called for new public works programs, legislation guaranteeing "full employment," a higher minimum wage, extension of the Fair Employment Practices Committee (or FEPC, a war-time agency that monitored discrimination against African Americans in hiring practices of government agencies and defense industries), a larger Social Security System, and a national health insurance system. Taken together, these requests demonstrated an interest in maintaining and building upon the New Deal. On reconversion, Truman pushed for quick demobilization of the military—a political necessity as the troops and their families clamored for a hasty return to civilian life—and the temporary extension of governmental economic controls.
Truman's program went nowhere. While he won passage of a "full employment" bill—the Employment Act of 1946—the measure had no teeth. Republicans and conservative southern Democrats in Congress were dead-set against many of the other proposed reforms, including an extension of FEPC, national health insurance, and a higher minimum wage. The public, moreover, divided over the prospects of an enlarged social welfare state and continued government intervention in the economy; liberal Democrats and key constituents of the Democratic Party supported them, but many other Americans did not.
Reconversion stuttered and stalled—and Truman received the blame. In truth, rapid reconversion would have been difficult for any President, due to the variety and challenge of its objectives: increased production of consumer goods, full employment, higher wages, lower prices, and peace between labor unions and industrial management.
Ironically, a key Democratic constituency—labor—gave Truman the most headaches. In August 1945, Truman announced that he would maintain price controls but that unions could pursue higher wages. Beginning in late 1945 and lasting throughout 1946, a wave of strikes hit the steel, coal, auto, and railroad industries, debilitating key sectors of the American economy and stifling production of certain consumer goods. Truman remained steadfast in the face of labor's demands. To end the strikes and restore industrial peace, he recommended compulsory mediation and arbitration, warned that the U.S. government would draft striking railroad workers, and even took a union—the United Mine Workers—to court. The unions backed down and returned to work, for the most part with healthy gains. But by taking such a hard line, Truman had damaged his relationship with an important element of the party coalition.
Truman's other chief economic problem was the time it took to convert from military to civilian production. Consumer goods in high demand were slow to appear on the nation's shelves and in its showrooms, frustrating Americans who desperately wanted to purchase items they had forsaken during the war. Price controls proved a particularly thorny problem. When Congress preserved the Office of Price Administration but stripped it of all its power, Truman delivered a stinging veto. As controls began to disappear in mid-1946, prices shot upward; the rise in the price of meat—which doubled over a two-week period in the summer—received the most attention. In response, the government reinstituted price controls, angering meat producers who then withheld meat from the market. A New York Daily News headline read, "PRICES SOAR, BUYERS SORE, STEERS JUMP OVER THE MOON."The combination of high prices and scarcity angered consumers and voters, who often blamed the President. One woman wrote Truman specifically with the meat problem in mind, asking him, "How about some meat?" By September of 1946, Truman's popularity rating had sunk to 32 percent. Many Americans, including the President's supposed Democratic allies, wondered if Truman could effectively lead the nation. In the congressional mid-term elections of 1946, Republicans highlighted the problems of reconversion with slogans like "Had Enough" and "To Err is Truman," winning control of both the House and Senate. The future of Truman's presidency looked bleak as the 1948 presidential election loomed on the horizon.
Republicans in Congress
Ironically, Truman's legislative predicament actually sparked his political comeback. With Congress in the hands of Republicans—rather than members of his own party who were lukewarm (at best) to his proposals—Truman could let GOP leaders try to master the challenging task of governance. Truman also could define himself in opposition to Republican initiatives and wage a rhetorical war against the Republican Party.
Truman employed this strategy in several ways. In his January 1947 State of the Union address, he identified the need for legislation to solve the persistent problems of labor unrest and strikes. He offered no solution of his own, however, proposing only a temporary commission to study the issue and a declaration that he would sign no bill attacking organized labor.
Republicans in Congress took up Truman's challenge and passed the Taft-Hartley bill, which limited the power of labor unions by curbing union participation in politics, by approving state "right to work" laws, and by allowing the President to block strikes through a judicially mandated eighty day "cooling-off" period. Truman vetoed Taft-Hartley in June 1947, declaring that it "would take fundamental rights away from our working people." Congress overrode the veto; Truman, in turn, vowed to carry out the law's provisions and he even employed several of them—including the court injunction—to bring an end to some strikes. Nevertheless, in opposing Taft-Hartley, Truman recaptured the support of organized labor.
Inflation continued to be a problem in 1947 and 1948 as well, although prices did not rise as steeply as they had in 1946. Food prices, in particular, continued to soar. Truman suggested a return to price controls, albeit with the knowledge that congressional Republicans would reject such a measure—which they did. Republicans passed legislation mandating economic controls and rationing, which Truman signed, though he declared these bills "pitifully inadequate." Democrats made hay with Republican senator Robert Taft's suggestion that Americans "Eat less meat, and eat less extravagantly," which they conflated to "Eat less." Truman had managed to make inflation a Republican problem.
Finally, in 1947, Truman reaffirmed his support for liberal initiatives like housing for the poor and federal assistance for education. He vetoed Republican tax bills perceived as favoring the rich and rejected a Republican effort to raise tariffs on imported wool, a measure he deemed isolationist. These positions, combined with his veto of Taft-Hartley and his sympathy toward price controls, situated Truman as the chief defender of the New Deal against Republican encroachments.
Truman also took a stand in 1947 on civil rights. His unsuccessful 1945 proposal to extend FEPC was, in part, an effort to court black voters so important to the Democratic Party. In the summer of 1947, Truman became the first President to address the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to whom he declared his forthright support of African-American civil rights. Speaking to a crowd of 10,000, Truman declared that "The only limit to an American's achievement should be his ability, his industry, and his character." A few months later, his blue-ribbon civil rights commission—which he had appointed in the wake of the failure to extend FEPC—produced a report titled, To Secure These Rights, a detailed and unabashed brief for civil rights legislation.
Truman proceeded cautiously on this front, however. In early 1948, he sent his civil rights proposals to Congress, but did little to urge their passage. He also announced that he would issue executive orders—in the future—to desegregate the armed forces and to prohibit discrimination in the civil service. By early 1948, therefore, his support for civil rights was more rhetorical than substantive.
Nonetheless, as he pursued this strategy with increasing skill throughout the year, Truman stood poised to win Democratic votes. In his 1948 State of the Union address, Truman again called for civil rights legislation, national health insurance, a housing program, and a higher minimum wage. On a cross-country train tour in early 1948—dubbed a "whistle stop" tour by Republican Senator Robert Taft—Truman employed a new extemporaneous speaking style. Audiences warmed to this new public persona: the plain-spoken, hard-fighting Harry Truman from Missouri. Still, most political observers—and many Democrats—thought Truman would not win re-election in 1948.
After a rousing Democratic National Convention in which he claimed the nomination of a divided party—southerners had bolted in favor of segregationist "Dixiecrat" Senator Strom Thurmond (SC) and some progressives had supported Truman's former commerce secretary Henry Wallace - the President turned his attention to the Presidential campaign. He continued to run against the Republican Congress, even calling it into a special session to enact legislation. Truman also embraced more fully the cause of black civil rights by issuing executive orders desegregating the military and outlawing discrimination in the civil service. He won an upset victory that fall over his Republican opponent, Governor Thomas Dewey of New York. (For more details, see Campaigns and Elections.)
Buoyed by his stunning victory, Truman announced an ambitious agenda in early 1949, which he called the "Fair Deal." It was a collection of policies and programs much desired by liberals in the Democratic Party: economic controls, repeal of Taft-Hartley, an increase in the minimum wage, expansion of the Social Security program, a housing bill, national health insurance, development projects modeled on the New Deal's Tennessee Valley Authority, liberalized immigration laws, and ambitious civil rights legislation for African-Americans.
Conservatives in the Republican and Democratic parties had little use for Truman's Fair Deal, however. National health insurance and repeal of Taft-Hartley went nowhere in Congress. Southern Democrats filibustered any attempt to push forward civil rights legislation. And Truman's agricultural program, the "Brannan Plan," designed to aid the family farmer by providing income support, floundered; it was replaced by a program that continued price supports. Congress did approve parts of the Fair Deal, however; Truman won passage of a moderately effective public housing and slum-clearance bill in 1949, an increase in the minimum wage that same year, and a significant expansion of Social Security in 1950.
Clearly, Truman had miscalculated in reading his electoral victory as a mandate to enact a liberal political, social, and economic agenda. Just as important, Truman regarded the "Fair Deal" as an opportunity to refashion the Democratic party into an alliance of urban dwellers, small farmers, labor, and African-Americans. Absent from this proposed coalition were white conservative southern Democrats. Moreover, public opinion polls showed that most Americans wanted Truman to protect the New Deal, not enlarge it. Likewise, Truman underestimated congressional opposition to a larger social welfare state—opposition strengthened by the public's lack of support for the Truman agenda. Whatever enthusiasm remained for the Fair Deal was lost, after the summer of 1950, amidst preoccupations with the Korean War.
As Truman fought for the Fair Deal in 1949, he also battled a fairly severe economic slowdown. Both unemployment and inflation rose during the first six months of that year, heightening fears that the nation's post-war economic boom was over. Truman's economic policy sought to balance the federal budget through a combination of high taxes and limited spending; any budget surplus would be applied to the national debt. As the economy stalled, Truman in mid-1949 abandoned his hope for a balanced budget and gave some tax breaks to businesses. The economy responded by perking up in 1950. Truman's actions signaled that his primary concern was the maintenance of healthy economic growth, viewing ever-larger budget deficits as temporary expedients. It was a policy that succeeding administrations would follow repeatedly.
The Korean War, which began in June 1950, also affected the American economy. Truman and his advisers believed that American involvement in the war required economic mobilization at home. With the World War II experience in their minds—and uncertain whether the Korean War was merely the opening round of a longer and larger conflict - U.S. officials hoped that government intervention would keep unemployment and inflation under control, stabilize wages and prices, and increase military-related industrial production. In December 1950, Truman won congressional passage of the Defense Production Act and issued an executive order creating the Office of Defense Mobilization. Somewhat surprisingly, mobilization proceeded with few hitches: unemployment stayed low; inflation remained in check, albeit for a sharp, one-time surge in the last half of 1950; the hording of consumer goods subsided quickly; and military production increased. Nevertheless, many Americans complained about the government's intervention in the economy, especially its controls on credit.
Economic mobilization for the war effort did serve, though, as the setting for one of Truman's most stunning rebukes. By the end of 1951, the nation's steel industry faced a possible shut-down as labor and management could not agree on a new contract. Government mediation during the first several months of 1952 failed to end the stalemate. Throughout the ordeal, Truman's objectives were to avert a strike, maintain steel production, and stay on good terms with labor, an important Democratic constituency. In April, with no agreement in sight, Truman used his presidential authority to seize the steel industry; for the time being, it would be administered and overseen by the federal government. The seized steel companies took Truman to court to overturn his action. In June 1952, the Supreme Court declared the seizure unconstitutional by a 6-3 vote. Private management of the companies resumed, followed by a 53-day strike and a new contract, dealing Truman another political set-back.
Anticommunism and Senator McCarthy
Opposition to leftist political radicalism and the fear of subversion have long and intertwined histories in American politics and culture. As tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified in 1945, fear of—and opposition to—communism became a central part of American politics and culture. Politicians and the public seemed especially concerned that American communists or foreign agents might infiltrate the American government.
In November 1946, Truman created a temporary loyalty security program for the federal government to uncover security risks, i.e., Communists. Five months later, Truman issued an executive order making the program permanent. Other government bodies also tried to stymie the alleged subversive threat of communism. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), originally formed in 1938 with a mandate to investigate Nazi propaganda, launched an investigation of Hollywood screenwriters and directors in 1947.
Two spectacular spy cases intensified concerns over communism. In 1948, Whitaker Chambers, a former Communist and current editor of Time magazine, accused former Roosevelt aide and State Department official Alger Hiss of being a Soviet spy; HUAC investigated these charges, complete with dramatic testimony from Hiss and Chambers. Less than a month after Hiss was convicted of perjury in January 1950, the British government arrested Klaus Fuchs, a German émigré scientist who had worked on the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. Fuchs was charged with and then convicted of passing along A-bomb secrets to the Soviets with the help of American citizens David Greenglass and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; he served nine years of a fourteen-year sentence in the British penal system. The U.S. government executed the Rosenbergs in 1953. The Hiss and Fuchs revelations were all the more shocking because the Soviets had successfully tested an atomic bomb in August 1949—years before most experts believed they would have the ability to do so.
Even though the Truman administration supported several programs designed to root out communists and "subversives" from the American government, ardent anti-communists in both the Republican and Democratic parties hammered away at the threat of communist subversion and accused the administration of failing to protect the United States. Easily the most fabulous exploitation of the issue came from Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who in the days after the Fuchs arrest charged that the State Department was riddled with communist agents. McCarthy's fantastic allegations, the specifics of which he changed in subsequent appearances, electrified American politics by calling into question the loyalties of officials who conducted the nation's relations with the Soviets. McCarthy's charges also insinuated that Truman's loyalty program had failed miserably. McCarthy spent the rest of the Truman administration, as well as the first years of the Eisenhower administration, on a quest to expose communists in the State Department and the U.S. Army.
Truman did his best to calm the hysteria, which, by the spring of 1950, had been dubbed "McCarthyism." The President stated publicly that "There was not a single word of truth in what the Senator said." Senate Democrats organized a special subcommittee to investigate McCarthy's claims in the hope of proving them baseless. Their actions were to no avail as McCarthy—with the tacit support of most Republicans in Congress—continued to make his reckless charges and attack Truman administration officials. Military engagement in Korea and the defeats the United States suffered there only strengthened McCarthy's hand.
McCarthy was the most vocal congressional proponent of the "Red Scare," but he was far from its most effective legislator. That honor fell to Senator Patrick McCarran, a Democrat from Nevada, with whom Truman shared a mutual dislike, owing to a Senate dispute from the late 1930s over the Civil Aeronautics Act. In 1950, McCarran guided the Internal Security Act, which placed severe restrictions on the political activities of communists in the United States, through Congress. Truman vetoed the bill, claiming that it violated civil liberties; Congress easily overrode the veto, however. Two years later, Truman vetoed—on the same grounds—a McCarran-sponsored immigration bill restricting the political activities of recent immigrants to the United States. Congress again overturned Truman's veto.
Truman could do little, it seemed, to curb the excesses of the most ardent anticommunists. The political damage was immense as McCarthy, McCarran, and others charged the administration with being "soft on communism." Against the backdrop of the Korean War, Moscow's development of an atomic bomb, the fall of China to the Communists, and news reports of subversion and espionage, the "soft on communism" charge resonated with a jittery American public.
Accusations of Corruption
Accusations of corruption had dogged Truman since his earliest days in politics—a charge that was hardly surprising given his association with the Pendergast machine. During his presidency, the corruption charges proliferated, in part because they were effective political weapons for Truman's opponents. But these charges also resonated because some members of the administration did participate in ethically questionable, if not illegal, activities.
Truman's military aide, Harry Vaughan, a long-time associate of the President since World War I, was often at the center of these allegations. Vaughan clearly sought government favors for friends and businessmen; he even accepted seven freezers from an associate, one of which he gave to Bess Truman. (The freezers, however, were defective, and Bess's freezer broke after a few months.) In 1950, Democratic senator J. William Fulbright (D-AR) headed an investigation into Vaughan's activities, finding Vaughn guilty of only minor ethical and legal breaches.
Fulbright's investigation also focused on influence-peddling in the federal government, especially in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a New Deal-era agency charged with providing government loans to struggling businesses. The Senator uncovered a web of questionable loans and kickbacks arranged by federal bureaucrats and private businessmen. Only a few of these questionable or illegal activities involved Truman administration officials directly; much of the corruption, rather, seemed a natural outgrowth of government-business relations in the 1930s and 1940s carried on by members of both major parties.
In any event, Republicans had a field day. They crowed that Vaughan's shenanigans and the shady dealings uncovered by Fulbright were examples of the "mess in Washington." Truman's critics exaggerated the extent of the wrong-doing and corruption, and pointed, though without much of a case, to the President's role in the scandals. Throughout the firestorm, Truman stood stoutly by his old friend, dismissing all of the allegations. While the President might have proven his loyalty, he also appeared to condone Vaughan's activities. And by the time Truman moved to clean up the RFC in early 1951 in the wake of Fulbright's charges, his actions were overshadowed by other events.
That year, investigations revealed the existence of serious criminality by high-level officials in the Internal Revenue Service and the Tax Division of the Justice Department. Truman and many in the administration blamed Attorney General J. Howard McGrath, who had proven to be more well-connected than competent as head of the Justice Department. Truman gave McGrath one last opportunity to remove the wrong-doers. McGrath botched this mission so badly that Truman demanded his resignation in March 1952. The bad publicity and further taint of corruption did nothing to help Truman's public standing, although McGrath's successor, James McGranery, did effectively address the scandals.
The Decision Not to Run in 1952
Truman had written privately as early as 1950—and had hinted to aides beginning in 1951—that he would not run again for the presidency. Most scholars agree that the Korean War, battles over economic mobilization, McCarthyism, and the allegations of corruption in his administration sapped his will to run for a third term. Public opinion polls, however unreliable, showed that Truman faced an uphill battle to win re-election.
Truman kept his own counsel throughout 1950 and 1951. He maneuvered behind the scenes to recruit his successor, focusing first on Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Fred Vinson and then on General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Both men refused his entreaties, with Eisenhower announcing, in January 1952, that he was a Republican. Truman next turned to Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, who expressed interest but refused to commit. Finally, Truman stated publicly on March 29 that he would not be a candidate for President, declaring, "I have served my country long, and I think efficiently and honestly."Governor Stevenson won the Democratic nomination at the party's convention in July, only to face the formidable Eisenhower in the general election. Truman campaigned hard for Stevenson, attacking the Republicans and Eisenhower with much of the same fury he had displayed in 1948. His once cordial relationship with Eisenhower turned bitter as a result. Nevertheless, Eisenhower proved too strong in 1952, winning a convincing victory over the Stevenson and the Democrats.