The Truman Presidency
The Truman presidency was characterized by an internationalist foreign policy, the Cold War, and domestic unrest.
Evaluate the key events of the Truman presidency
- Democrat Vice-President Harry S. Truman became President in 1945 after President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office. Shortly thereafter, Germany surrendered and the war in Europe ended.
- Truman ordered the use of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, a controversial decision that cost many Japanese civilian lives but quickly forced Japan’s surrender.
- After World War II, the Truman administration faced domestic challenges as the country faced a rapid transition from a wartime to peacetime economy. Truman instituted a number of civil rights reforms during his administration, including the integration of the armed forces.
- Truman pursued an internationalist foreign policy, consisting of support for the United Nations, the rebuilding of Europe under the Marshall Plan, and the creation of NATO to counteract the influence of the Soviet Union. He adopted a policy of containment to combat the spread of communism abroad.
- In 1948, the Soviet Union began the Berlin Blockade, cutting off access to West Berlin to bring the city under full Soviet control. Truman, along with U.S. allies, successfully circumvented the blockade with the Berlin Airlift.
- Truman committed U.S. troops to an undeclared war in Korea, which ended in a stalemate, cost many American lives, and caused a drastic dip in Truman’s popularity with the American people.
- Truman Doctrine: Truman’s promise that the U.S. would provide political, military, and economic support to democratic nations facing threats from authoritarian forces.
- Berlin Blockade: (June 24, 1948 – May 12, 1949) One of the first major conflicts of the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union attempted to consolidate power over the city of Berlin by cutting off access to West Berlin.
- Berlin Airlift: Undertaken in response to the Berlin Blockade, a large-scale aerial operation by the U.S. and its allies, under Truman’s leadership, to bring supplies to West Berlin and break the Soviet blockade.
- internationalist: A political principle that advocates a greater political or economic cooperation among nations and peoples.
- containment: The central principle of U.S. foreign policy under Truman, which was to prevent the spread of communism overseas.
Harry S. Truman (May 8, 1884 – December 26, 1972) was the 33rd President of the United States (1945–53), an American politician of the Democratic Party. He served as a United States senator from Missouri (1935–45) and briefly as vice president (1945) before he succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was president during the final months of World War II, making the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truman was elected in his own right in 1948. He presided over an uncertain domestic scene as America sought its path after the war and tensions with the Soviet Union increased, marking the start of the Cold War.
The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II
Nazi Germany surrendered on Truman’s birthday (May 8) just a few weeks after he assumed the presidency, but the war with Imperial Japan raged on and was expected to last at least another year. After Japan refused surrender, Truman authorized the use of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan quickly surrendered and World War II came to an end on September 2, 1945. Truman approved the use of atomic weapons to end the fighting and to spare the thousands of American lives that would inevitably be lost in the planned invasion of Japan and Japanese-held islands in the Pacific. This decision remains controversial to this day, though it is considered one of the principal factors that forced Japan’s immediate and unconditional surrender.
Internationalist Foreign Policy
Truman’s presidency was a turning point in foreign affairs as the U.S. engaged in an internationalist foreign policy and renounced isolationism. Truman helped found the United Nations in 1945, issued the Truman Doctrine in 1947 to contain Communism, and got the $13 billion Marshall Plan enacted to rebuild Western Europe. The Soviet Union, a wartime ally, became a peacetime enemy in the Cold War. Truman oversaw the Berlin Airlift of 1948, one of his greatest foreign policy successes, and the creation of NATO in 1949. He was unable to stop Communists from taking over China. When communist North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, he sent in U.S. troops and gained UN approval for the Korean War. After initial successes in Korea, however, the UN forces were thrown back by Chinese intervention, and the conflict was stalemated throughout the final years of Truman’s presidency. As part of his U.S. Cold War strategy, Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, which reorganized the military and created the CIA and the National Security Council.
On June 25, 1950, Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea, starting the Korean War. In the early weeks of the war, the North Koreans easily pushed back their southern counterparts. Truman called for a naval blockade of Korea, only to learn that due to budget cutbacks, the U.S. Navy could not enforce such a measure. Truman promptly urged the United Nations to intervene; it did, authorizing troops under the UN flag led by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur. The war remained a frustrating stalemate for two years, with more than 30,000 Americans killed, until an armistice ended the fighting in 1953. In February 1952, Truman’s approval mark stood at 22% according to Gallup polls, which was, until George W. Bush in 2008, the all-time lowest approval mark for an active American president.
Domestic bills endorsed by Truman often faced opposition from a conservative Congress dominated by the Southern legislators, but his administration was able to successfully guide the American economy through post-war economic challenges. The president was faced with the reawakening of labor-management conflicts that had lain dormant during the war years, severe shortages in housing and consumer products, and widespread dissatisfaction with inflation, which at one point hit 6% in a single month. Added to this polarized environment was a wave of destabilizing strikes in major industries. Truman’s response was generally seen as ineffective.
As he readied for the 1948 election, Truman made clear his identity as a Democrat in the New Deal tradition, advocating national health insurance and the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act. He broke with the New Deal by initiating an aggressive civil rights program, which he termed a moral priority, and in 1948 submitted the first comprehensive civil rights legislation and issued executive orders to start racial integration in the military and federal agencies. Taken together, it constituted a broad legislative agenda that came to be called the ” Fair Deal.” Truman’s proposals were not well received by Congress, even with renewed Democratic majorities after 1948. The Solid South rejected civil rights as those states still enforced segregation. Only one of the major Fair Deal bills, the Housing Act of 1949, was enacted. On the other hand, the major New Deal programs still in operation were not repealed, and many saw minor improvements and extensions.
Popular and scholarly assessments of Truman’s presidency initially were unfavorable but became more positive over time following his retirement from politics. Truman’s 1948 election upset to win a full term as president has often been invoked by later “underdog” presidential candidates.
Following World War II, Truman faced new political challenges, such as preventing Soviet expansion and rebuilding a peacetime economy.
Evaluate the challenges Truman faced in his efforts to continue Roosevelt’s legacy
- After the end of the war in Europe and with Japan, U.S. foreign policy was characterized by the containment of Soviet expansionism, the creation of the UN and NATO, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the undeclared war in Korea.
- The domestic political challenge for Truman was overseeing the transition of the American economy from wartime to peacetime. Economic challenges included the reintegration of veterans into the workforce, inflation, labor-management conflicts, and shortages of consumer goods.
- While Truman hoped to extend New Deal legislation after the war, he faced powerful opposition from a voting bloc in Congress formed by Republicans and conservative Democrats.
- Overriding Truman’s veto, the Republican Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which curtailed the power of labor unions.
- Despite opposition, Truman managed to achieve some civil rights advances; he desegregated the armed forces and forbade discrimination in the federal government.
- Fair Deal: This term characterizes the domestic agenda of the Truman Administration.
- Truman Doctrine: The American policy in 1947 of providing economic and military aid to Greece and Turkey because they were threatened by communism. It was the start of the containment policy to stop Soviet expansion and a major step in beginning the Cold War.
- New Deal: A series of economic programs implemented in the United States between 1933 and 1936 during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.
Peacetime Foreign Policy
Truman’s presidency was marked throughout by important foreign policy initiatives, most centered on the desire to prevent the expansion of Soviet influence. As a Wilsonian internationalist, Truman strongly supported the creation of the United Nations and included Eleanor Roosevelt on the delegation to the UN’s first General Assembly. With the Soviet Union expanding its sphere of influence through Eastern Europe, Truman and his foreign policy advisors took a hard line against the USSR. In this, he matched American public opinion, which quickly came to view the Soviets as intent upon world domination.
Although he claimed no personal expertise on foreign matters, Truman won bipartisan support for both the Truman Doctrine, which formalized a policy of Soviet containment, and the Marshall Plan, which aimed to help rebuild postwar Europe. Truman oversaw the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and the creation of North Atlantic Treat Organization (NATO) in 1949. To get Congress to spend the vast sums necessary to restart the moribund European economy, Truman used the ideological argument that Communism flourishes in economically deprived areas. As part of the U.S. Cold War strategy, Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 and reorganized military forces by merging the Department of War and the Department of the Navy into the National Military Establishment (later the Department of Defense) and creating the U.S. Air Force. The act also created the CIA and the National Security Council. In 1952, Truman secretly consolidated and empowered the cryptologic elements of the United States by creating the National Security Agency (NSA).
The one time during his presidency when a communist nation invaded a non-communist one—when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950—Truman responded by waging undeclared war.
Transitioning the Economy
The end of World War II was followed by an uneasy transition from war to a peacetime economy. Little planning had taken place, with officials assuming that it would take a year to beat Japan once war in Europe ceased, giving them time to create proposals. With the war’s sudden end and an immediate clamor for demobilization, little work had been done to plan transition to peacetime production of goods while avoiding mass unemployment for returning veterans. There was no consensus among government officials as to what economic course the postwar U.S. should steer.
The president was faced with the reawakening of labor-management conflicts that had lain dormant during the war years, severe shortages in housing and consumer products, and widespread dissatisfaction with inflation, which at one point hit 6% in a single month. Added to this polarized environment was a wave of destabilizing strikes in major industries. Truman’s response was generally seen as ineffective. A rapid cost increase was fueled by the release of price controls on most items, and labor sought wage increases. A serious steel strike in January 1946 involving 800,000 workers—the largest in the nation’s history—was followed by a coal strike in April and a rail strike in May. The public was angry, with a majority favoring a ban on strikes by public service workers and a year’s moratorium on labor actions. Truman proposed legislation to draft striking workers into the Armed Forces, and in a dramatic personal appearance before Congress, was able to announce settlement of the rail strike. His proposal passed the House of Representatives, but failed in the Senate.
Opposition from Republican Congress
In addition to economic woes, because Roosevelt had not paid attention to Congress in his final years, Truman faced a body where Republicans and conservative southern Democrats formed a powerful voting bloc. This dissatisfaction with the Truman administration’s policies led to large Democratic losses in the 1946 midterm elections, when Republicans took control of Congress for the first time since 1930.
Truman hoped to extend New Deal social programs to include more government protection and services and reach more people. He was eventually successful in achieving a healthy peacetime economy, but only a few of his social program proposals became law. The Congress, which was much more Republican in its membership during his presidency than it had been during Franklin Roosevelt’s, did not usually share Truman’s desire to build on the legacy of the New Deal.
The Truman administration did go considerably beyond the New Deal in the area of civil rights. Although the conservative Congress thwarted Truman’s desire to achieve significant civil rights legislation, he was able to use his powers as President to achieve some important changes. He desegregated the armed forces and forbade racial discrimination in Federal employment. He also established a Committee on Civil Rights.
The Republican Congress significantly curtailed the power of labor unions by the Taft-Hartley Act, enacted over Truman’s veto. The parties did cooperate on some issues; Congress passed the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, making the Speaker of the House rather than the Secretary of State next in line to the presidency after the vice president.
As he prepared for the 1948 election, Truman made clear his identity as a Democrat in the New Deal tradition, advocating national health insurance, the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, and an aggressive civil rights program. Together, it constituted a broad legislative agenda that came to be called the “Fair Deal.” Truman’s proposals were not well-received by Congress, even with renewed Democratic majorities in Congress after 1948.
Although Truman was unable to implement his Fair Deal program in its entirety, substantial social and economic progress took place in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A Census report confirmed that gains in housing, education, living standards, and income under the Truman administration were unparalleled in American history. By 1953, 62 million Americans had jobs, a gain of 11 million in seven years, while unemployment had all but vanished. Farm income, dividends, and corporate income were at all-time highs, and there had not been a failure of an insured bank in nearly nine years. The minimum wage had also increased while Social Security benefits doubled, and 8 million veterans had attended college by the end of the Truman administration as a result of the G.I. Bill, which subsidized the businesses, training, education, and housing of millions of returning veterans.
The Transition to Peacetime
Following the war, the United States was largely able to maintain economic growth and resist inflation.
Differentiate between economic conditions of the depressed 1930s and the prosperous 1940s
- Following World War II, the massive decline in government spending fueled concerns of economic depression and currency inflation.
- However, fears of inflation did not materialize. The shift to a peacetime economy created enough jobs, Cold War needs kept government spending high, and consumer demands for goods kept the economy growing.
- Women were forced out of factories at the end of WWII in favor of returning veterans, and many chafed at the social expectations of being an idle stay-at-home housewife who cooked, cleaned, shopped, and tended to children.
- Not all Americans benefited from this new prosperity: blue-collar workers and black Americans still experienced high rates of poverty.
- Great Depression: A major economic collapse that lasted from 1929 to 1940 in the U.S.
- inflation: An increase in the general level of prices or in the cost of living.
Transitioning to Peacetime Economy
Massive wartime spending doubled economic growth rates, either masking the effects of or essentially ending the Depression. Businessmen ignored the mounting national debt and heavy new taxes, redoubling their efforts for greater output to take advantage of generous government contracts.
Wartime rationing was officially lifted in September 1945, but prosperity did not immediately return as the next three years would witness the difficult transition back to a peacetime economy. Many of the 12 million returning veterans in need of work could not find it. Inflation became a rather serious problem, averaging more than 10% a year until 1950, and raw materials shortages dogged manufacturing industry. In addition, labor strikes rocked the nation, in some cases exacerbated by racial tensions due to African-Americans who had jobs during the war faced with irate returning veterans who demanded they step aside. The huge number of women employed in the workforce in the war were also rapidly cleared out make room for their husbands.
Following the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1946 elections, President Truman was compelled to reduce taxes and curb government interference in the economy. With this done, the stage was set for the economic boom that, with only a few minor hiccups, would last for the next 23 years. After the initial hurdles of the 1945-48 period were overcome, Americans found themselves flush with cash from wartime work since there was little to buy for several years. The result was a mass consumer spending spree, with a voracious demand for new homes, cars, and housewares. Increasing numbers enjoyed high wages, larger houses, better schools, more cars, and home comforts like vacuum cleaners and washing machines —all designed to make housework easier. Inventions familiar in the early 21st century made their first appearance during this era.
A Consumer Society
Consumerism represented one of the consequences (as well as one of the key ingredients) of the postwar economic boom. The initial quest for cars, appliances, and new furniture after the end of World War II quickly expanded into the mass consumption of goods, services, and recreational materials during the Fifties. Between 1945 and 1960, gross national product (GNP) grew by 250%, expenditures on new construction multiplied nine times, and consumption on personal services increased three times. By 1960, per capita income was 35% higher than in 1945, and America had entered what the economist Walt Rostow referred to as the “high mass consumption” stage of economic development. Short-term credit went up from $8.4 billion in 1946 to $45.6 billion in 1958. As a result of the postwar economic boom, 60% of the American population had attained a “middle-class” standard of living by the mid-1950s (defined as incomes of $3,000 to $10,000 in constant dollars), compared with only 31% in the last year of prosperity before the onset of the Great Depression. By the end of the decade, 87% of families owned a TV set, 75% a car, and 75% a washing machine. Between 1947 and 1960, the average real income for American workers increased by as much as it had in the previous half-century.
One of the key factors in postwar prosperity was a technology boom. Manufacturing had made enormous strides and it was now possible to produce consumer goods in quantities and levels of sophistication unseen before 1945. Acquisition of technology from occupied Germany also proved an asset, as it was sometimes more advanced than its American counterpart, especially in the optics and audio equipment fields. The typical automobile in 1950 was an average of $300 more expensive than the 1940 version, but produced in twice the number. Luxury makes such as Cadillac, which were largely hand-built vehicles only available to the rich, were now mass-produced and fell within the price range of the upper middle-class.
Women in the 1950s
Aside from the unfolding Civil Rights Movement, women were forced out of factories at the end of WWII in favor of returning veterans, and many chafed at the social expectations to be an idle stay-at-home housewife who cooked, cleaned, shopped, and tended to children. Alcohol and pill abuse was not uncommon among American women during the 1950s, something quite contrary to the idyllic image presented in TV shows such as Leave It To Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and Father Knows Best. In 1963, Betty Friedan publisher her book The Feminine Mystique, which strongly criticized the role of women during the postwar years. It was a best-seller and a major catalyst of the women’s liberation movement. Sociologists have noted that the “idle housewife” of the 1950s was the exception in American history rather than the norm, where women generally did work in some capacity.
Poverty and Inequality
Despite the prosperity of the postwar era, a significant minority of Americans continued to live in poverty by the end of the 1950s. In 1947, 34% of all families earned less than $3,000 a year, compared with 22.1% in 1960. Nevertheless, between one-fifth to one-fourth of the population could not survive on the income they earned. The older generation of Americans did not benefit as much from the postwar economic boom, especially as many had never recovered financially from the loss of their savings during the Great Depression. It was generally a given that the average 35-year-old in 1959 owned a better house and car than the average 65-year-old, who typically had nothing but a small Social Security pension for an income. Many blue-collar workers continued to live in poverty, with 30% of those employed in industry in 1958 receiving under $3,000 a year. In addition, individuals who earned more than $10,000 a year paid a lower proportion of their income in taxes than those who earned less than $2,000 a year. In 1947, 60% of black families lived below the poverty level (defined in one study as below $3000 in 1968 dollars), compared with 23% of white families. In 1968, 23% of black families lived below the poverty level, compared with 9% of white families.
President Truman’s actions on civil rights are seen as early movement in the decades-long quest for legal equality for African Americans.
Examine the struggle over African American Civil Rights in the postwar period
- The President’s Committee on Civil Rights, enacted by a 1946 executive order, was tasked with ascertaining the status of civil rights protections in the United States.
- In 1948, Truman signed Executive Orders 9980, desegregating the federal workforce, and 9981, desegregating the armed service.
- In Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that “separate facilities are inherently unequal,” overturning the 1896 decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson.
- Invigorated by the victory of Brown and frustrated by the lack of immediate practical effect, private citizens began a movement of nonviolent resistance to bring about more substantial racial equality.
- Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play baseball in the Major Leagues.
- Brown vs. Board of Education: A landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The decision overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, which allowed state-sponsored segregation insofar as it applied to public education.
- President’s Committee on Civil Rights: A committee created by President Truman that was instructed to investigate the status of civil rights in the country and propose measures to strengthen and protect them.
- nonviolent resistance: The practice of achieving goals such as social change through symbolic protests, civil disobedience, economic or political noncooperation, satyagraha (passive resistance), or other methods, without using violence.
Civil Rights Under Truman
During his administration, Truman made several important contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. First, he created the President’s Committee on Civil Rights by Executive Order 9808 on December 5, 1946. The committee was instructed to investigate the status of civil rights in the country and propose measures to strengthen and protect them. After the committee submitted a report of its findings to President Truman, it disbanded in December 1947.
The report, titled To Secure These Rights, presented a detailed ten-point agenda of civil rights reforms. In February 1948, the president submitted a civil rights agenda to Congress that proposed creating several federal offices devoted to issues such as voting rights and fair employment practices. This provoked a storm of criticism from Southern Democrats in the runup to the national nominating convention, but Truman refused to compromise, saying: “My forebears were Confederates… but my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten.”
Tales of the abuse, violence, and persecution suffered by many African American veterans upon their return from World War II infuriated Truman, and were a major factor in his decision to issue Executive Order 9981, in July 1948, desegregating and requiring equal opportunity in the Armed Forces. After several years of planning, recommendations, and revisions between Truman, the Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity, and the various branches of the military, Army units became racially integrated.
Another executive order, also in 1948, made it illegal to discriminate against persons applying for civil service positions based on race. A third, in 1951, established the Committee on Government Contract Compliance (CGCC) to ensure that defense contractors did not discriminate because of race.
Truman’s Impact on Civil Rights
Truman’s efforts, including the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, were important for the burgeoning issue of racism in post-war America. Protection from lynching and desegregation in the work force was a triumph of conscience for Truman, as he recalled in his farewell address:
There has been a tremendous awakening of the American conscience on the great issues of civil rights–equal economic opportunities, equal rights of citizenship, and equal educational opportunities for all our people, whatever their race or religion or status of birth.
These “small actions” culminated into the signing of the two executive orders mentioned above by Truman in 1948, an election year. In light of the growing possibility of war, addressing the state of black morale in the armed forces was particularly important. The far-reaching effects that the committee ad hoped for had little impact on the civil rights of Black Americans in the late 1940s. Historian Howard Zinn argued that the President failed to use the power given to him by the 14th and 15th amendments to execute laws strong enough to combat discrimination. It was not until the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that the separate but equal doctrine would be overturned and segregation would be officially outlawed by the U.S. government.
Civil Rights Issues After WWII
Housing segregation was a nationwide problem, persistent well outside the South. Although the federal government was increasingly involved in mortgage lending and development in the 1930s and 1940s, it did not reject the use of race-restrictive covenants until 1950. Suburbanization was already connected with white flight by this time, a situation perpetuated by real estate agents’ continuing discrimination. In particular, from the 1930s to the 1960s the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB) issued guidelines that specified that a realtor
should never be instrumental in introducing to a neighborhood a character or property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individual whose presence will be clearly detrimental to property values in a neighborhood.
Invigorated by the victory of Brown and frustrated by the lack of immediate practical effect, private citizens increasingly rejected gradualist, legalistic approaches as the primary tool to bring about desegregation. They were faced with “massive resistance” in the South by proponents of racial segregation and voter suppression. In defiance, African-American activists adopted a combined strategy of direct action, nonviolence, nonviolent resistance, and events described as civil disobedience, giving rise to the African-American Civil Rights Movement of 1954-1968.
Jackie Robinson (January 31, 1919 – October 24, 1972) was an American Major League Baseball second baseman who became the first African American to play in the major leagues in the modern era. Robinson broke the baseball color line when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base on April 15, 1947. The Dodgers, by playing Robinson, heralded the end of racial segregation that had relegated black players to the Negro leagues since the 1880s. Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Robinson’s character, his use of nonviolence, and his unquestionable talent challenged the traditional basis of segregation which marked many other aspects of American life. He had an impact on the culture of and contributed significantly to the Civil Rights Movement. Robinson also was the first black television analyst in MLB, and the first black vice president of a major American corporation, Chock full o’Nuts. In the 1960s, he helped establish the Freedom National Bank, an African-American-owned financial institution based in Harlem, New York. In recognition of his achievements on and off the field, Robinson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The Election of 1948
Despite predictions that Republican candidate Thomas Dewey would win the 1948 election, incumbent Democrat Harry Truman was victorious.
Explain the significance of the 1948 presidential election
- The Presidential Election of 1948 was one of the biggest political upsets in American history.
- The Democratic Party had a three-way ideological split and ran several third-parties, which diluted support for Truman.
- All polls indicated a landslide victory for Dewey, who consequently ran a bland, uninspired campaign.
- However, Republican New York Governor Thomas Dewey lost to Democratic incumbent Harry S. Truman, 189-303 in the Electoral College.
- Thomas E. Dewey: The Republican candidate in 1948 who lost to President Harry S. Truman in one of the greatest upsets in presidential election history.
- Electoral College: The institution that elects the President and Vice President of the United States every four years through designated intermediaries called “electors.”
The United States presidential election of 1948 was the 41st quadrennial presidential election, held on Tuesday, November 2, 1948. Incumbent President Harry S. Truman, the Democratic nominee, who had succeeded to the presidency after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, successfully ran for election for a full term against Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican nominee.
The election is considered the greatest election upset in American history. Virtually every prediction (with or without public opinion polls) indicated that Truman would be defeated by Dewey. The Democratic Party had a severe three-way ideological split, with both the far left and far right of the Party running third-party campaigns. Truman’s surprise victory was the fifth consecutive presidential win for the Democratic Party, the longest winning streak in the history of the party, and second-longest in the history of both modern parties (surpassed only by the Republicans’ six consecutive victories from 1860 to 1880). With simultaneous success in the 1948 congressional elections, the Democrats regained control of both houses of Congress, which they lost in 1946. Truman’s feisty campaign style energized his base of traditional Democrats, consisting of most of the white South, Catholic, and Jewish voters; he also surprisingly fared well with Midwestern farmers. Truman’s election confirmed the Democratic Party’s status as the nation’s majority party.
On September 9, nearly two months before election day, pollster Elmo Roper announced that “Thomas E. Dewey is almost as good as elected…I can think of nothing duller or more intellectually barren than acting like a sports announcer who feels he must pretend he is witnessing a neck-and-neck race.” Because of his position in the polls, Dewey ran a bland, uninspired campaign.
Given Truman’s sinking popularity and the seemingly fatal three-way split in the Democratic Party, Dewey appeared unbeatable. Top Republicans believed that all their candidate had to do to win was to avoid major mistakes; in keeping with this advice, Dewey carefully avoided risks. He spoke in platitudes, avoided controversial issues, and was vague on what he planned to do as president. Speech after speech was filled with non-political, optimistic assertions of the obvious, including the now infamous quote “You know that your future is still ahead of you.” An editorial in The (Louisville) Courier-Journal summed it up as such: “No presidential candidate in the future will be so inept that four of his major speeches can be boiled down to these historic four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead.”
Truman, trailing in the polls, decided to adopt a slashing, no-holds-barred campaign. He ridiculed Dewey by name, criticized Dewey’s refusal to address specific issues, and scornfully targeted the Republican-controlled 80th Congress with a wave of relentless and blistering partisan assaults. Truman toured much of the nation with his fiery rhetoric, playing to large, enthusiastic crowds. “Give ’em hell, Harry” was a popular slogan shouted out at stop after stop along the tour. The polls and the pundits, however, all held that Dewey’s lead was insurmountable, and that Truman’s efforts were for naught. Indeed, Truman’s own staff considered the campaign a last hurrah. Even Truman’s own wife Bess had private doubts that her husband could win. The only person who appears to have considered Truman’s campaign to be winnable was the president himself, who confidently predicted victory to anyone and everyone who would listen to him.
The Chicago Daily Tribune, a pro-Republican newspaper, was so sure of Dewey’s victory that on Tuesday afternoon, before any polls closed, it printed “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” as its headline for the following day.
The Fair Deal
President Truman’s domestic reform agenda, called the Fair Deal, was a set of proposals aimed at economic development and social welfare.
Summarize the policies proposed as part of Truman’s Fair Deal
- The Fair Deal was pushed by President Harry S. Truman and congressional Democrats to enact policies consistent with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
- In the midterm elections of 1946, Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928. This increased opposition to Truman’s Democratic Fair Deal reforms.
- Fair Deal legislation included measures such as aid to education, tax cuts for low-income earners, increased public housing, an immigration bill, the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, an increase in minimum wage, national health insurance, and expanded Social Security coverage. Most never passed.
- Despite vigorous opposition from congressional Republicans, Truman secured partial victories on his legislative agenda, most notably with federal housing legislation, an increase in the minimum wage, and improvements in the social welfare system.
- Truman’s Fair Deal did make progress in civil rights, with the desegregation of both the federal civil service and the armed forces and the creation of the Commission on Civil Rights.
- New Deal: The series of economic programs implemented in the United States between 1933 and 1936 during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.
- Fair Deal: This term characterizes the domestic agenda of the Truman Administration.
- Housing Act of 1949 and 1950: A landmark, sweeping expansion of the federal role in mortgage insurance and issuance and the construction of public housing. It was part of Harry Truman’s program of domestic legislation, the Fair Deal.
- Taft-Hartley Act: A federal law that monitors the activities and power of labor unions. The act became law by overriding U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s veto on June 23, 1947.
The Fair Deal was United States President Harry S. Truman’s ambitious set of proposals to Congress introduced in his January 1949 State of the Union address. The term has also been used to describe the domestic reform agenda of the Truman Administration, which governed the U.S from 1945 to 1953 and marked a new stage in modern liberalism. Congress was dominated by conservatives during the Truman administration; however, major Fair Deal initiatives did not become law.
The most important proposals of the Fair Deal were aid to education, universal health insurance, legislation on fair employment, and repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act. All were debated at length but ultimately voted down. Nevertheless, some smaller and less controversial items passed. Additionally, Lyndon B. Johnson credited Truman’s unfulfilled program as influencing Great Society measures such as Medicare, which Johnson successfully enacted during the 1960s.
In his 1949 State of the Union address, Truman stated that “every segment of our population, and every individual, has a right to expect from his government a fair deal.” Truman’s multitudinous proposed measures included federal aid to education, a large tax cut for low-income earners, the abolition of poll taxes, an anti-lynching law, a permanent FEPC, a farm aid program, increased public housing, an immigration bill, new TVA-style public works projects, the establishment of a new Department of Welfare, the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, an increase in the minimum wage from 0.40 to 0.75 cents an hour, national health insurance, expanded Social Security coverage, and a four billion tax increase to reduce the national debt and finance these programs.
Philosophies of the Fair Deal
A liberal Democrat, Truman was determined to continue the legacy of the New Deal and make his own mark in social policy. The liberal task of the Fair Deal was to spread the abundant benefits throughout society by stimulating economic growth. In September 1945, Truman presented to Congress a 21-point program of domestic legislation that outlined a series of proposed actions involving economic development and social welfare.
Though solidly based on the New Deal tradition of Truman’s predecessor Franklin Delano Roosevelt in its advocacy of wide-ranging social legislation, the Fair Deal created a separate identity for Truman. The Depression did not return after the war and the Fair Deal had to contend with prosperity and an optimistic future. The Fair Dealers thought in terms of abundance rather than depression scarcity. Economist Leon Keyserling argued that the liberal task was to spread the benefits of abundance throughout society by stimulating economic growth. Agriculture Secretary Charles F. Brannan wanted to unleash the benefits of agricultural abundance and to encourage the development of an urban-rural Democratic coalition; his plan was defeated by strong conservative opposition in Congress and his unrealistic confidence in the possibility of uniting urban labor and farm owners who distrusted rural insurgency. The Korean War made military spending the nation’s priority and killed most Fair Deal initiatives, but did encourage the pursuit of economic growth.
The Fair Deal was opposed by the many conservative politicians (Republicans and Southern Democrats) who wanted the federal government’s role to be reduced. After World War II, Americans were steadily becoming more conservative, as they were eager to enjoy prosperity unseen since before the Great Depression.
Therefore, many of Truman’s proposed reforms were never realized. In the 1946 congressional elections, Republicans gained majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928 and set their sights on reversing the liberal direction of the Roosevelt years. Despite this major momentum shift for Republicans, Truman was not discouraged, and his proposals to Congress became more and more abundant over the course of his presidency.
However, despite strong opposition, elements of Truman’s agenda did win congressional approval, such as the public housing subsidies cosponsored by Republican Robert A. Taft under the 1949 National Housing Act, which funded slum clearance and the construction of 810,000 units of low-income housing over six years.
Truman was also helped by the election of a Democratic Congress later in his term. According to Eric Leif Davin, the 1949-50 Congress: “was the most liberal Congress since 1938 and produced more ‘New-Deal-Fair-Deal’ legislation than any Congress between 1938 and Johnson’s Great Society of the mid-1960s.”
Lasting Impact of the Fair Deal
Although Truman was unable to implement his Fair Deal program in its entirety, substantial social and economic progress took place in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A Census report confirmed that gains in housing, education, living standards, and income under the Truman administration were unparalleled in American history. By 1953, 62 million Americans had jobs, a gain of 11 million in seven years, while unemployment had all but vanished. Farm income, dividends, and corporate income were at all-time highs, and there had not been a failure of an insured bank in nearly nine years. The minimum wage had also been increased while Social Security benefits doubled, and 8 million veterans had attended college by the end of the Truman administration as a result of the G.I. Bill, which subsidized the businesses, training, education, and housing of millions of returning veterans.
Millions of homes had been financed through previous government programs, and a start was made in slum clearance. Poverty was also significantly reduced, with one estimate suggesting that the percentage of Americans living in poverty fell from 33% of the population in 1949 to 28% by 1952. Incomes rose faster than prices, which meant that real living standards were considerably higher than they were seven years earlier.
Civil Rights Achievements
Progress was also made in civil rights, with the desegregation of both the federal civil service and the armed forces and the creation of the Commission on Civil Rights. In fact, according to one historian, Truman had “done more than any President since Lincoln to awaken American conscience to the issues of civil rights.”
Truman’s many proposed civil rights programs were met with resistance by southern Democrats. All his legislative proposals were blocked. However, he used presidential executive orders to end discrimination in the armed forces and denied government contracts to firms with racially discriminatory practices. He also named African Americans to federal posts. Except for nondiscrimination provisions of the Housing Act of 1949, Truman had to be content with civil rights’ gains achieved by executive order or through the federal courts. Vaughan argues that by continuing appeals to Congress for civil rights legislation, Truman helped reverse the long acceptance of segregation and discrimination by establishing integration as a moral principle.
Despite a mixed record of legislative success, the Fair Deal remains significant in establishing the call for universal health care as a rallying cry for the Democratic Party. Lyndon B. Johnson credited Truman’s unfulfilled program as influencing Great Society measures such as Medicare that Johnson successfully enacted during the 1960s.