ADVANCED PLACEMENT 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 power.’ 

*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 country. 

*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 ‘slave-labour law.’

*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 Red Scare.

*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 formally indicted.

*States, businesses, and other organisations began requiring loyalty oaths. 

*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 Americans.

*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 tradition.

*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, 1952. 

*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 meeting again.

*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 Congress. 

*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 warnings.

*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.
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