UNITED STATES HISTORY
The Buck Stops Here
*The end of World War I had seen a significant downturn in
important parts of the American economy, and at first it looked
like the end of World War II would do the same thing.
However, unlike the government under Wilson, ill from his stroke
and obsessed with the League of Nations or during the Return to
Normalcy that followed, FDR and Truman made every effort ‘to
promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing
*As soon as the war ended, the government sold off factories
cheap, hoping to stimulate the economy, but with government
contracts drying up, so did the need for labour. At the same
time, the end of wage and price controls meant that prices were
rising faster than wages.
*Reasonably co-operative during WWII, labour unions began to
become more active in peacetime. In early 1946, General
Motors auto workers, coal miners, and railroad workers across the
United States threatened to go on strike, demanding higher
wages. All of these frustrated Truman, but the railroad
unions were the worst, because they could shut down the entire
*Truman attempted to negotiate with the railroads and the unions,
but in the end of the unions refused to compromise and declared a
strike. The country was paralysed and Truman decided that he
would take over the railroads and use the Selective Service Act to
draft all the strikers into the Army and order them to run the
railroads, but he only told the union leaders that he would use
the Army to break the strike. Just as Truman spoke to
Congress, preparing to ask for the power to draft the strikers, a
messenger ran in with a note saying that the strikers had agreed
to Truman's compromise. Congressmen of both parties rose to
cheer for Truman, and he became a hero to many Americans, although
he alienated many liberals and unionists.
*These strikes, and the 1946 election of a Republican Congress,
led to new laws limiting the power of unions. In 1947, the
Taft-Hartley bill was passed. Sponsored by 'Mr Republican'
himself, Senator Robert Taft (the son of President Taft) and
Representative Fred Hartley, the Act modified the Wagner Act,
outlawing certain types of strikes, boycotts, picket lines, and
the closed shop. It also forced union leaders to swear that
they were not communists. Labour leaders called it a
*Another problem for unions was their own difficulty in
organizing, which was not helped by the Taft-Hartley Act.
Traditionally strong in the North, the unions had grown more in
the industrial centres of the North during the New Deal, but after
WWII, they had a hard time making much headway in the South or
West, areas traditionally anti-union. In 1948 the CIO
attempted ‘Operation Dixie,’ to organise the South, but this
failed miserably, in large part because white and black
working-class southerners did not want to work together. The
growing service industry sector would also prove hard to
organise. One reason for the growth of non-industrial
employment was the increased level of education in the country.
*One important government effort to help the economy and the
average man began in 1944, with the passage of the Serviceman’s
Readjustment Act, or the GI Bill of Rights (or GI Bill). To
help absorb the 15 million returning veterans, the GI Bill helped
pay for veterans to go to college, and between 1945 and 1955
around 8 million veterans would take advantage of this, costing
about $14.5 billion--more than the Marshall Plan. The act
also allowed the VA to make about $16 billion in loans to veterans
to help them buy houses, farms, and businesses--which not only
helped veterans, it also helped the construction industry.
Even to-day, the government will help pay to educate members of
the armed services (and is why many people join), and the VA still
makes loans to veterans.
*Although there was a housing shortage in big cities, GI Bill and
FHA loans allowed the construction of many new homes in the
suburbs. One of the first planned developments was
Levittown, New York, created by William Levitt. Using the
same plan for each house allowed workers to build them quickly and
cheaply, so that he could sell them for $8,000 each (or $58 a
month on the instalment plan). This suburb of cheap,
identical houses was so successful that he built more Levittowns
in Pennsylvania (near Philadelphia) and in New Jersey.
*Building new houses was necessary, because as soldiers returned
from the war to wives they had not seen in months or years, there
was an immediate increase in the birth rate beginning in 1946 (and
lasting until 1964), known as the Baby Boom.
*Between 1940 and 1955, America’s population increased 27%, from
130 to 165 million, and it kept growing. The Baby Boom’s
most fertile year was 1957, in which one baby was born every seven
seconds—a total of 4.3 million in one year alone.
*Overcrowding in schools became a big problem in the 1950s.
At one point California had to build a new school each week.
In the year the Baby Boomers began to enter Johnson City Public
Schools, some students only went half a day so that other students
could go the other half of the day because there was not enough
room for them to all go at once.
*Schools did benefit from government money, particularly federal
money to improve math and science education, and the GI Bill which
helped veterans pay for college. Many states also improved
their public university systems, building community colleges to
help people prepare for larger universities. In 1940, about
15% of college-aged Americans went to college, while by the early
1960s, about 40% did.
*During the WWII, many people had gotten jobs in factories and
soldiers had all received government pay. However, because
of rationing, many people had saved their money, especially in War
Bonds, because there was so little to spend it on. After the
war, as factories returned to producing consumer goods, Americans
began buying all kinds of things and exporting them to Europe,
which was growing rich again thanks to the Marshall Plan.
*Despite a short period of unemployment and a longer period of
inflation right after WWII, the economy soon improved, and for
most Americans in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, wages
rose even faster than inflating prices, and Americans largely
enjoyed prosperity in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s.
*As the Soviet Union came to be seen more and more clearly as the
enemy, the fear arose that they were funding spies in the United
States. Eventually the NSC, CIA, and of course the FBI would
attempt to foil this espionage, but, of course, it was never
possible to be sure who was a spy or if all the spies had been
rooted out. Unfortunately, this reasonable (and justified)
concern would soon turn to paranoia and persecution in a second
*In 1947, Truman launched a loyalty campaign. The attorney
general drew up a list of 90 supposedly disloyal organisations,
which were not allowed to refute the charges. A Loyalty
Review Board investigated over 3 million federal employees, and
over 3,000 resigned or were dismissed, although none were ever
*States, businesses, and other organisations began requiring
*Another old organisation was put to new use in the Cold
War. In 1938, the House Un-American Activities Committee
(HUAC) had been created to investigate and eliminate
subversion. Now it was specifically turned against
communists (and supposed communists). In 1948, the young
Representative Richard Nixon, a Navy (non-combatant) veteran, and
member of the HUAC began to harass communists and alleged
communists in the government, most famously Alger Hiss.
*Hiss was a New Deal Democrat. He has attended Yalta and
been deeply involved in the creation of the UN. Nixon
accused him of having been a communist agent in the 1930s when he
worked in the State Department. Nixon had gotten information
through the Catholic Church, long opposed to communism (at least
Soviet-style) and through the FBI, much of it illegally.
There are even accusations that Nixon made fake artefacts, notably
a typewriter, for use as exhibits against Hiss.
*By 1948 Hiss no longer worked for the government, but for the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. However, he
agreed to stand trial, and was ultimately caught out on perjury,
claiming not to know a man he actually had met. He spent
five years in jail, and the rest of his life proclaiming his
innocence. In 1996, opened KGB files indicated that Hiss
probably did pass information to Soviet spies.
*Following in Nixon’s footsteps was the most famous Red-hunter of
them all, Joseph McCarthy, representative from Wisconsin, known as
‘Tail-gunner Joe’ for his service in the Pacific in WWII, although
some have accused him of making up most of his service
record. He claimed to have a list of Communists in the
government (mainly the State Department), but never showed his
list to anyone. Nonetheless, the paranoia of this new Red
Scare let him destroy the careers of many politicians and other
*Red-hunting got much worse after the Soviets built their A-bomb,
and Americans began looking for the spies who leaked the
information to them. The trail eventually led to, among
others, David Greenglass, who had worked on the Manhattan
Project. Already convicted as a spy, he sold out his sister
to save his life. Her name was Ethel Rosenberg, and she and
her husband Julius were tried and convicted in 1951 of passing
information on to KGB spies. They were electrocuted in
1953. Greenglass has since claimed he committed perjury and
that Ethel was innocent, and several other known spies said she
was as well. However, KGB documents show that Julius was
certainly a spy, quite likely involved with nuclear secrets.
Ethel, though, may well have been innocent.
*As the Red Scare began, and as the economy continued to lag in
1948, Harry Truman chose to run for the Presidency in his own
right. He had several problems, however. One of the
worst, from the point of view of traditional Southern Democrats
was his support for civil rights. Truman was a racist at
heart, once saying ‘I think one man is just as good as another so
long as he's honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman,’
but he felt the Constitution was not racist and, moreover, it was
more important than his personal or regional convictions.
*Truman really changed his mind about the racial situation when he
heard about Black servicemen newly returned from WWII being beaten
and killed while still wearing their uniforms when they got back
home or travelled through the South. This was not just an
attack on a Black man, it was an attack against the government of
the United States, and Truman would not stand for that.
*As early as 1947, Truman, through a report issued by a
Presidential commission called ‘To Secure These Rights,’ had tried
to reorganise and strengthen the Civil Rights section in the
Justice Department, establish federal and state permanent
commissions on Civil Rights so as to maintain constant
surveillance on it, end Jim Crow laws and other forms of racial
segregation, make police brutality, lynching, the poll tax, and
literacy tests, and withhold federal grants from public and
private agencies that practiced discrimination and segregation.
*Most of Truman’s attempts to support Civil Rights were blocked by
Congress, but he was commander-in-chief of the military, and so in
1948, Truman ordered the armed forces to fully desegregate,
although the process was not complete until 1954. He also
ordered the desegregation of the Federal civil service.
*Even though Truman’s success was limited, simply making the
attempt to protect Blacks’ civil rights, and making it official
government policy, alienated many Southern Democrats.
*At the same time, some extremely liberal Democrats were upset at
Truman’s stand against communism, and by the fact that he was not
enacting sweeping social changes of the sort FDR had done
(although that was due as much to the Republicans in Congress as
to Truman himself). In 1948, the Democrats were split.
*Truman, after a hard campaign, was nominated as the party’s
candidate. However, many Southerners broke away to follow
Strom Thurmond, a highly-decorated WWII veteran and governor of
South Carolina. Thurmond formed, and ran as president for,
the States’ Rights Party, known as the Dixiecrats.
*At the same time, some liberal Democrats broke away to support
the so-called Progressive Party and Henry Wallace, FDR’s second
vice-president, who also was endorsed by the Communist Party
(USA). Even Democrats who supported Truman did so
unenthusiastically, saying 'I'm just mild about Harry.'
*The Republicans nominated Thomas Dewey, governor of New
York. He had run against FDR in 1944, mostly as a formality,
but this time around he was expected to win. Truman’s first
term had not been as successful as FDR’s terms had been, and most
people thought the country was tired of him, and that, with the
Democrats split, he was in trouble.
*Dewey was so certain of victory that he barely campaigned for
votes, mostly trying to avoid doing anything that might alienate
voters. Some major polling companies stopped even conducting
polls on the presidential race because they thought it a waste of
their time and money. The strongly Republican Chicago Daily
Tribune went so far as to print "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN" as
its post-election headline, to its later embarrassment.
*Dewey did carry 16 states and won 45% of the popular vote and 180
electoral votes. Strom Thurmond carried four states in the
Deep South and got one electoral vote from Tennessee, but he only
got 2.4% of the national vote and 39 electoral votes.
Thurmond would go on to be a Senator from South Carolina, would be
the oldest Senator, the longest-serving senator, and the only
senator to serve at the age of 100. Wallace only got about
12,000 fewer popular votes than Thurmond, but he got no electoral
votes. Truman won 49.7% of the popular vote and 303
electoral votes, enough to win a term of his own.
*Truman had won, in large part, by appealing directly to the
people, with whom his plain style resonated. He was known as
"give ‘em hell Harry" because in one speech at a train stop,
someone in the crowd yelled that out as Truman lambasted his
political opponents. After that, it became a popular slogan,
and if no-one in the crowd would say it spontaneously, Truman
usually had someone planted to say it for him. Truman
attacked the Taft-Hartley Act, promised to support civil rights,
promised to improve health insurance and labour benefits, and
generally attacked the Republicans in an appealing style.
Dewey, by contrast, was stiff and seen as arrogant, while Wallace
was too socialistic, and Thurmond was too racist to appeal to
anyone outside the South.
*In his second term, Truman would promise America a Fair
Deal. In many ways an extension of the New Deal, it promised
better housing, full employment, a higher minimum wage, better
farm price supports, new organisations like the TVA, equal rights
for all, and an extension of Social Security to more people.
*Much of the Fair Deal was blocked by Republicans in Congress, who
rejoiced at finally ending the New Deal. In 1951,
Republicans succeeded in adding the XXII Amendment to the
Constitution, preventing anyone being elected to more than two
terms or serving more than ten years. Although this did not
affect Truman (as the sitting president), it was clearly a slap
against him and FDR, and a re-affirmation of Washington’s two-term
*However much trouble he had from Congress, Truman did manage to
provide some public housing through the 1949 Public Housing Act,
did extend Social Security to more beneficiaries in 1950, did
raise the minimum wage, and did require any contractor selling
goods to the government (especially military equipment) to abide
by fair, non-discriminatory hiring practises.
*Eventually, Truman faced another labour crisis, this time in the
steel industry. Steel workers did not see their wages
improve as rapidly as workers in other industries, and by 1951
they demanded a raise. Once again, the government (which
bought a lot of steel for the military), the steel manufacturers,
and union representatives, attempted to reach a settlement, but
after months of discussion, could not satisfy everyone. At
last, the unions announced they would go on strike in April,
*This time, Truman blamed the factory owners, saying they had not
been willing to compromise enough, and ordered the Secretary of
Commerce to seize the nation's steel mills and told the owners and
workers to come to Washington to begin negotiating again.
The factory owners immediately challenged Truman in the courts,
and won, after almost two months of presidential control of the
steel industry. During that time, he had nearly worked out a
compromise between the workers and owners, but this wrecked it,
and the strike began at last.
*After almost two months, the strike came to an end with the
owners giving the workers almost as large a raise as they had
asked for before Truman nationalised the factories. Although
Truman has been criticised for his high-handed, and
unconstitutional, actions, the strike was seen as a success and
Truman was seen as a supporter of the working man.
*Truman’s civil rights plans and his Fair Deal did not go as far
as he had hoped, but he was the first president since the end of
Reconstruction to make civil rights part of government policy, and
he did his best to continue the traditions of the New Deal and to
support the UN. He angered some of his union supporters when
he broke the railroad strike in 1946, but he won some back when he
supported the steel workers in 1952. However, all this would
be overshadowed during Truman's second term by events in Korea.
*When Japan collapsed in 1945, the Soviets had taken the Japanese
surrender of the Korean peninsula north of the 38th parallel, as
agreed upon by the Allies in advance. The United States took
the land south of that line. Both sides claimed the split
was temporary, and that they wanted to re-unify Korea as soon as
possible. By 1949, the US and USSR had withdrawn most of
their forces from Korea. However, the Northern ‘Democratic
People’s Republic of Korea’ under Kim Il Sung and the Southern
Republic of Korea under Syngman Rhee both had large armies and
were eager to re-unify Korea by force.
*The US wanted out of Korea completely. On 12 January 1950,
Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, declared that Korea lay
outside the area of American interest in the Pacific. About
the same time, in March 1950, some CIA reports suggested that the
North might be preparing to invade, but they were ignored.
*On 25 June, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army attacked,
crossing the border in Soviet-made tanks. Despite their own
posturing, the South was caught off guard and pushed back.
Seoul was captured, and by 4 August, the entire South Korean army
and the few US soldiers in the country were pushed back to a small
area round the southern city of Pusan, where they held out along
the Pusan Perimeter awaiting evacuation or re-enforcement.
*Truman sprang into action. The concept of containment that
lay at the base of the funding of the Greek and Turkish
anti-communist activities formed fully into the Truman Doctrine,
proving the essential notion that if the US relaxed their guard
anywhere, the communists would take advantage of it.
*The NSC had recently proposed quadrupling the US defence
spending, and this gave Truman and Congress a reason to do
so. This not only provided a tremendous boost to the
economy, but allowed Truman and his administration to dispute the
claim that they had been soft on communism or were responsible for
the Fall of China. Soon the US had 3.5 million men in
uniform and was spending $50 billion (13% of the GNP) per
annum on military purposes alone. This was founded on
the tremendous optimism of America--there was nothing we could not
do, and on the New Deal tradition of solving all problems through
massive government spending. However, America was not going
to do this alone--they were going to ask the United Nations.
*Normally, an attempt to get the UN to intervene in Korea would
have been stopped by the Soviets, who supported the North Korean
cause. However, when China fell, the UN did not recognise
the Communist government, and continued to seat the Nationalist
representatives sent by Chiang Kai-Shek. In protest, the
Soviets walked out, boycotting the Security Council. Truman
immediately took advantage of this, passing a resolution on a UN
police action through the Security Council on the same day the
NKPA invaded—no attending country voted against the measure, and
only Yugoslavia abstained. The Soviets never boycotted a
*Officially, the Korean War was fought by the United Nations, and
troops from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France,
Canada, South Africa, Turkey, Thailand, Greece, the Netherlands,
Ethiopia, Colombia, the Philippines, Belgium, and Luxembourg
participated, as did non-combatants such as medical units from
other UN countries. However, the majority of the troops were
from the United States, and Truman has sometimes been criticised
for sending the troops before obtaining a declaration of war from
*Two days after the invasion, Truman sent American naval and air
units to support the ROK, and before the end of the week, Douglas
MacArthur was on his way from Japan with troops from the
occupation forces. He would take overall command of all UN
forces, and report directly to Washington, not the UN.
*MacArthur chose not to try to fight back from the Pusan
Perimeter, but instead chose to flank the enemy with a hazardous
amphibious assault at Inchon. The approach to Inchon was
through a relatively narrow passage easily controlled by guns on
Wolmi Island. Inchon had the second largest tidal range of
any port, reaching as much as a 30 foot difference between high
and low tides. There were high sea walls which the Marines
would have to scale.
*Despite the risks, the Inchon landing took place on 15 September,
1950 and was a brilliant success, cutting the NKPA’s lines of
supply and completely recapturing Seoul within two weeks and
driving the entire NKPA north of the 38th parallel.
*Now the tricky question was what to do next. It seemed
foolish to let the DPRK re-group and invade at a more propitious
date. So MacArthur, with Truman and the UN’s approval,
pursued the NKPA beyond the border. This operation was so
successful that by October, the UN was almost within sight of the
Chinese border, and much of the NKPA was hiding beyond it.
China had warned the UN not to come to close to the Yalu River,
the border between China and Korea, but MacArthur ignored these
*On 19 October 1950, 280,000 soldiers of the Chinese People’s
Liberation Army, calling themselves the People’s Volunteer Army
(so they would not start a war between China and the major UN
nations), crossed into North Korea, in many cases armed with
Soviet weapons and flying superior Soviet MiGs. For over a
month, the PVA and the UN forces contended along the northern
frontier of Korea.
*The most famous encounter was the Battle of Chosin Resevoir (26
November to 11 December 1950). The place became known as
Frozen Chosin as US Marines, Royal Marines, and the US Infantry
froze to death while attempting to fight off the Chinese. It
was ultimately a major loss for the UN, with 15,000 casualties,
almost 75% of the UN forces in the area (half of the casualties
related to the cold).
*Eventually the overwhelming mass of Chinese troops pushed the UN
and ROK forces back towards the old demarcation line. On 4
January 1951, the NKPA and PVA captured Seoul.
*MacArthur demanded a naval bombardment of China and wanted to use
atomic bombs against the Chinese armies and possibly their major
cities. However, the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided that this
would surely spark a major Asian war, perhaps a World War, and the
US and the world could not afford such a conflict. MacArthur
ridiculed the idea of a ‘limited war’ and claimed that there was
‘no substitute for victory,’ while calling Truman a pig, an
imbecile, a Judas, and an appeaser. He even criticized the
president openly in press conferences, and was ultimately fired by
Truman in April 1951. MacArthur went home to a ticker-tape
parade and offered his formal farewell to Congress, saying ‘old
soldiers never die, they just fade away.’
*Seoul was liberated again by 21 April 1951, and the lines would
shift some until October 1951, after which time they would move
little, if at all.
*The war dragged on into 1953, when newly-elected president
Eisenhower, fulfilling a campaign promise, went to Korea to try to
create peace. Even he failed.
*One of the major problems was the issue of prisoner
exchanges. Many captured communist POWs did not want to go
home. Likewise, the Chinese claimed that many Americans they
captured wanted to stay in their communist paradise. The
rumour got out that American POWs had been brainwashed by their
captors. In any event, the Chinese would not release their
POWs until we released ours. Despite objection from many
senior officials, Truman proclaimed: "we will not buy an armistice
by turning over human beings for slaughter or slavery."
*Happily, in 1953, Stalin died, and tensions eased between the
East and West slightly. It was agreed that any POWs who did
not want to go home would be sent to neutral countries, whence
they could make their way wherever they pleased. Of over
98,000 PVA and NKPA POWS, over 22,000, about 22%, chose not to be
repatriated. Of just over 13,000 UN and ROK POWs, 359, or
about 3%, almost all of them Koreans, chose not to be repatriated.
*After years of negotiation, an armistice was finally signed on 27
July, 1953 at the border village of Panmunjon. The North
Korean and American generals signed, but the South Korean general
did not. However, the fighting was officially ended and a 2
½ mile wide de-militarized zone was drawn along the battle line,
not far from the old 38th Parallel. To this day, the Korean
War has never officially ended, and the DMZ remains the most
heavily fortified border in the world, guarded by North Korean,
South Korean, and US troops.
*54,246 Americans service men and women lost their lives during
the Korean War. However, the war boosted the economy
of Japan, which served as a base for most US operations, and
spurred the economic growth of the United States, leading to one
of the most prosperous periods in the nation’s history.
This page last updated 18 November, 2020.