World War II ended on August 14, 1945, with the unconditional surrender of Japan. In Washington, President Harry S. Truman turned his attention to the pressing needs of Americans. Twelve million soldiers returned to look for jobs, homes, and financial security. Citizens who had sacrificed to defeat fascism wanted an end to shortages of consumer goods. African Americans, who fought as hard as their white counterparts to win the war, demanded equal rights and protections under the law. The task of bringing stability and prosperity to all Americans, however, would prove impossible.
Truman, a New Deal Democrat, delivered a message to Congress on September 6, 1945, which laid out his vision for postwar America. He listed 21 main policy points, including a minimum wage, guaranteed employment, medical insurance, housing aid, improved benefits for war veterans, and wage and price controls. Powerful forces opposed Truman's platform. Congressional Republicans -- and even some Democrats -- had begun to view social welfare programs as unnecessary giveaways. Business people argued that price controls prevented them from earning profits. Workers wanted raises, not wage controls.
As Truman struggled to piece together a workable economic plan, strikes and shortages of consumer goods strangled the nation. More than 5,000 strikes occurred in 1946 alone. Supplies of durable goods such as washing machines and automobiles -- and even of basic commodities such as bread and meat -- grew scarce. Consumers who could afford to pay extra patronized black marketeers -- others went without. Public anger at labor unions grew. Even Truman, whose main constituency was labor, felt compelled to act. Starting in late 1945, he seized numerous businesses and forced strikers back to work by executive order. Occasionally, labor defied him.
On May 23, 1946, railroad workers ignored a presidential seizure order and walked off the job. The nation, which depended on trains for the transportation of both passengers and commercial products, ground to a halt. A desperate Truman addressed Congress on May 25, asking permission to draft striking railroad workers into the military to force them back to work. Just after he had made his request, Truman received a note. The strike had ended, he announced to Congress, "on terms proposed by the president." This victory failed to prevent the defeat of the Democrats in the mid-term Congressional elections of 1946. In the period just before the election, national meat shortages worsened, and weary consumers blamed the Democrats. The president tried to reassure voters by promising decontrol of prices, but Republicans won majorities in both houses of Congress and gained control of many state governorships. Passing domestic legislation became an even more distant possibility for the embattled president.
The ways in which Truman reached out to African Americans represented a historic change from the administrations of the past. Though Truman's views on race were similar to those of most white Americans of his time, he understood that the U.S. Constitution guaranteed rights to all Americans. A pragmatist, he also realized that African Americans represented a large voting bloc. For both of these reasons, Truman moved forward on the race issue, despite overwhelming opposition. When a resurgence of lynchings convulsed the South in 1946, Truman ordered an investigation into America's racial problems. He staffed the committee with civil rights advocates, who, in their final report, called for drastic changes in civil rights policy. Perhaps Truman's most courageous action on civil rights was his executive order desegregating the military in 1947. That same year, he became the first U.S. president to address representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Truman also took the case for civil rights to Congress and to the courts.
Truman's action on behalf of civil rights splintered the Democratic Party. A conservative Southern faction responded by forming the States Rights' Democratic Party, with Strom Thurmond as its presidential candidate. But by 1948, the economy had begun to improve, and Truman took the credit. He campaigned tirelessly as the defender of the New Deal and managed a spectacular upset over Republican Thomas E. Dewey. Following his inauguration, Truman took a second shot at domestic reform. He petitioned Congress for a "fair deal" for all Americans, including pro-labor reform, strict economic controls, comprehensive civil rights legislation, and an extensive social welfare package including education, social security, and medical insurance provisions. Congress greeted the Fair Deal with antipathy. Truman gained few concessions, and only one of his major platform planks, a public-housing program, became law. "Trying to make the 81st Congress perform is and has been worse than cursing the 80th," an exasperated Truman wrote.
As the U.S. assumed command of U.N. troops in Korea in 1950, the president tried in vain to rally Americans to the war effort. Prices, wages, and supplies of consumer goods had begun to stabilize, and many citizens were in no mood for sacrifice. Congress responded to the demands of its constituents by weakening economic controls and refusing to approve Truman's war taxes. The president fumed. Labor unrest continued, and sporadic strikes hampered war production. The domestic struggles of Truman's last year in office sometimes seemed like those of his first. In April 1952, workers and management in the steel industry failed to agree to terms, and a strike loomed. A frustrated Truman seized the mills. The courts invalidated the seizure, and a strike began. After more than seven weeks, the president convinced the parties to settle -- at terms nearly identical to those proposed months before. The episode seemed to characterize Truman's domestic reform -- contention, more contention, and little glory.
In eight years in the White House, Harry S. Truman fought hard for the things he believed in, and despite numerous setbacks, achieved a degree of success. He held the economy together, if not perfectly so, and by the time he left office, America had turned the corner toward prosperity. People were working again, and the massive labor struggles of 1945-46 were a thing of the past. His positions on race helped pave the way for the equal rights legislation of the 1960s. Nonetheless, Truman left Washington at the end of his presidency with feelings of relief. "No one knows what responsibility the Presidency puts on a man," he wrote in a letter to his cousin, Ethel Noland, on January 2, 1953. "It bears down on a country boy."
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