ADVANCED PLACEMENT AMERICAN HISTORY
The Fair Deal

 

*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 [as the 1946 Employment Act put it] promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power.’  The Employment Act created a Council of Economic Advisers to advise the president on doing just that.

 

*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. 

*This led to the growth of businesses in America and overseas, as Americans began opening more and more branches in foreign countries whose own businesses had been destroyed in the War (or where they had not had some types of industry at all).  The Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe, also made Europe rich enough to buy American exports.

*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 a period of prosperity in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. 

*The Cold War did little to ease tensions in America, although it did create a scapegoat for them.  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. 

*The Smith Act of 1940, an anti-sedition law, was enforced.  In 1949, in New York, 11 communists, including Eugene Dennis, the head of the American Communist Party, were convicted of advocating the overthrow of the government, and were imprisoned.  Over the next two years another 46 members were arrested and charged of advocating the overthrow of the government.  The original conviction (and therefore the subsequent ones) was upheld in 1951 by the Supreme Court in Dennis v. United States.

*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, a PepsiCo lawyer, 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 (but did not definitively prove to everyone’s satisfaction) that Hiss did pass information to Soviet spies.

*Anti-communism would only grow as the years progressed.  Almost any change in society was blamed on communism—agitation for civil rights, economic problems, sexual immorality.  ‘Subversive’ textbooks were taken out of schools, and ‘subversive’ had a flexible definition.

*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, eventually even leading George Marshall to resign as Secretary of Defence--he had already resigned as Secretary of State due to bad health but returned to help Truman after the Korean War began).

*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 (although at least some of them are known to be untrustworthy sources).  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 a very traditional Democratic constituency 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 (who admired Andrew Jackson) 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, literacy tests, and all forms of peonage illegal, and withhold federal grants from public and private agencies that practiced discrimination and segregation.  His success was mixed at best, but simply making the attempt, 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 (founded by a Lincoln supporter) 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, the only senator to serve at the age of 100, one of the few politicians to serve in the 21st Century while having once received votes from Civil War veterans, and he would hold the record for the longest filibuster ever on the floor of the Senate (speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes in an unsuccessful attempt to stop civil rights legislation in 1957).  Wallace only got about 12,000 fewer popular votes than Thurmond, but he got no electoral votes.  Truman got the eleven electoral votes from Tennessee that Thurmond didn’t get, and he also won 49.7% of the popular vote and enough other electoral votes to total 303, enough to win a term on 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 create the Committee on Government Contract Compliance, which required (although it could not enforce it) any contractor selling goods to the government (especially military equipment) to abide by fair, non-discriminatory hiring practises.

 

*Eventually, Truman over-reached himself in the face of 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 racial issues and 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 the communist invasion of South Korea.




This page last updated 19 November, 2018.
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