Harry S. Truman - Domestic policies

Truman's domestic policies as president took far less of his time, and proved far less successful, than his foreign policies. Here also he dealt with three major issues: administration of the modern American presidency, a legislative program known as the Fair Deal, and Republican accusations of internal subversion and corruption. He managed well with two of these domestic matters.

Students of the Truman presidency do not often realize that Truman was the first chief executive to organize the administration of his high office. He was not the first modern American president; Franklin Roosevelt deserves that distinction. Under Roosevelt the old ways of the presidency disappeared, for during the New Deal and World War II the government became too large; never again could a president conduct his affairs with a few assistants and enjoy leisure that took him out of White House offices for large parts of each day. But none of these presidents had large office staffs, although Roosevelt had expanded the White House staff from thirty-seven people in March 1933 to several times that number in 1945 and had also arranged for a new group of assistants, the Executive Office of the President, created in 1939 at the recommendation of a federal commission. Truman turned the energies of these assistants to presidential problems rather than, as under Roosevelt, internecine rivalries. He deplored Roosevelt's sloppy and sometimes byzantine administrative ways. He sought ideas from his assistants, welcomed arguments over matters of policy, and asked that contentions be set forth in well-reasoned memoranda. Once he set the lines of policy, he expected support from assistants.

In addition to reorganizing the White House staff, Truman vastly expanded the Executive Office of the President, both because he believed it needed expansion and because Congress forced his hand. Uncertain over the economic advice Roosevelt had received, Congress in 1946 created the Council of Economic Advisers, a three-man panel of trained economists. The National Security Act of 1947 and its 1949 amendments then created an organization for presidential coordination of defense and foreign policy, the National Security Council. At first Truman gave it little attention, but after the outbreak of the Korean War, he attended its sessions and used it carefully as a management device. The act created the Department of Defense, reduced the navy and army to subcabinet status, added an air force subdepartment, and created the Central Intelligence Agency.

Truman also brought the sprawling federal bureaucracy under control. At the outset of his tenure, he found that the bureaucracy had grown from 600,000 civilian employees in 1932 to 2.6 million twenty years later, with 4,000 in the judicial branch, 22,500 in the legislative, and 2.57 million in the executive (1.3 million in defense, 500,000 in the post office, and the rest in other activities). He could not have controlled his part of this mass through the White House staff and the Executive Office staff. Moreover, most civilian employees were under civil service; the president appointed only 3,000. Truman therefore had to rely on his cabinet. He trusted that cabinet members would control their departments and thereby do the bidding of his administration. His management of the cabinet hence turned out to be far different from that of Roosevelt and other of his twentieth-century predecessors. Cabinet departments, to be sure, had been far smaller in pre-Roosevelt days, and perhaps it was easier for a president to ignore the cabinet. Truman, upon becoming president, was appalled to learn of the formlessness of the Roosevelt cabinet: Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins had lost almost all of her department's divisions and agencies, and cabinet members fought each other openly, leaking their arguments to newspaper reporters. He dismissed most of the Roosevelt appointees in the initial months of his administration. He insisted upon dealing directly with members of the cabinet, and it was their task, he said, both to show loyalty to him and to control their departments. Not all Truman cabinet appointees proved able; but in the crucial areas of military and foreign affairs, his appointments were generally excellent. Cabinet meetings became business sessions, each official taking up his problems by bringing them before the group, with the president making the decision himself.

The domestic legislation of the Truman era followed carefully the main lines of expansion of economic and social programs advanced by the New Deal. At the outset, in September 1945, Truman sent to Congress a sixteen-thousand-word message proposing full-employment and fair-employment-practices bills, federal control of the unemployment compensation program, a large housing program, and the development of natural resources. The proposals ran into a hail of criticism ("brickbats," Truman privately described them), and not much came from this message offered so early in his presidency. Most of his initial months were consumed by arguments whether price controls would prevent inflation while manufacturers sought to fill the huge postwar demand for civilian goods. In 1947–1949 the president offered his major change in American foreign policy—the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO. In 1948, politics and the Berlin blockade took much time. Only in early 1949 could he go back to his domestic program of three years before. The program of 1949 contained twenty-four points and began with the words "Every segment of our population and every individual has the right to expect from our government a fair deal." This promised development of tried-and-true New Deal themes proposed federal control of prices, credit, commodities, exports, wages, and rents; a broadening of civil rights laws; low-cost housing; and a 75-cent minimum wage. It asked repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, which had passed over a presidential veto in 1947 and which outlawed industry-wide strikes, closed shops, and mass picketing; made unions liable to suits; required union leaders, before they could use the National Labor Relations Board, to file affidavits declaring that they were not Communists; set up cooling-off periods before strikes; prohibited the use of union funds for political contributions; and gave the president power to obtain antiunion injunctions. The Fair Deal promised increased coverage for Social Security, federal aid to education, and compulsory health insurance. The last issue brought Truman into frontal conflict with the American Medical Association, whose leaders cried "socialized medicine" and eventually helped to establish private programs of health insurance.

The time was not right for the Fair Deal, in either 1945 or 1949. In the immediate postwar years, the desire to relax, to have done with challenges, governed the popular mood; the exertions of the New Deal era followed by those of wartime had been too much. Truman himself bemoaned the public selfishness of the early postwar period when arguments between his administration and Republican leaders in the House and Senate, who wanted to lift price controls because of shortages, notably a meat shortage in 1946, persuaded the president to give up the effort to control consumer prices. He may well have reached the low point of his presidency that year when he wrote out a speech about price controls, which he did not give but which came close to offering his resignation from the presidency. Victory in the election of 1948 and the exhilaration of becoming president in his own right in January 1949 momentarily convinced him that the old American spirit of self-sacrifice and generosity again was abroad in the land, that Americans by voting Democratic had affirmed the New Deal and the Fair Deal. Then he began to sense that his mandate was more personal than public, a recognition of his attractive, fighting personality rather than of his ideas for economic and social legislation. He managed to get parts of his program through the Eighty-first Congress, and the rest of it became a blueprint for successor administrations.

Truman made a valiant attempt to rationalize the nation's agricultural production—to solve what generations of Americans, ever since the opening of the Trans-Mississippi West, had described as the farm problem. Truman's secretary of agriculture during his second term, the able Charles F. Brannan, a long-time high official of the department, proposed what the president announced as the Brannan Plan, perhaps the most promising advance in agricultural policy by the federal government in the present century. The Roosevelt administration had assisted farmers through a crazy quilt of fixed prices and other measurements that tended to assist larger farmers, leaving the American consumer to pick up the check for the support program in the form of higher prices. This policy undercut exports, and the consumer picked up that loss when farmers sold their excess to the government at support prices. The consumer also paid for storing the excess, which the government then usually gave away. Brannan proposed to support all farm products, not just a few, and to translate support into units, such as ten bushels of corn. The plan entitled each farmer to price support for eighteen hundred units, no more, eliminating the advantage of the large farmer. In addition, it proposed direct subsidies instead of government loans and purchase agreements.

But the Republicans would not support his farm program. They preferred to let prices fall and de-claimed against subsidies in favor of disguised payments, such as price supports and conservation awards. The Brannan Plan failed of support, and the farm problem staggered on.

The Fair Deal scored a triumph in one important respect—the first national breakthrough in the protection of civil rights of black Americans. (Most earlier civil rights measures had not been reinforced by adequate enforcement legislation.) Truman had grown up in a family that had celebrated the death of Lincoln. The Missouri of his youth was lily-white. But his reading and his plain observation of the realities of life in Missouri and across the nation convinced him that oppression at home was as bad as, or even worse than (because it was far more easily remedied), oppression abroad. Late in 1946 he established the Committee on Civil Rights, which presented its report, To Secure These Rights , in October 1947. The cabinet split over the question of asking Congress for legislation, but Truman followed his own course and, on 2 February 1948, sent Congress a ten-point civil rights message calling for a new law against lynching, a federal fair-employment-practices committee, an end to segregation in interstate transportation, and protection of the right to vote. None of these proposals was enacted, and had to await later times.

The Democratic convention of 1948 in Philadelphia turned into a donnybrook over civil rights, with representatives from the Deep South departing the hall in high dudgeon to found their anti-black-rights party, the States' Rights Democrats, a "spoiler" group that hoped to gain attention for its position by throwing the election into the House of Representatives. The Dixiecrats, as the group became known, led by Governor J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, presented proof, if such were needed, of Truman's dedication to civil rights. The president already faced a challenge to party unity from the Progressive party, supporters of former Vice President Wallace. Truman could ill afford espousal of black rights in 1948. But he did not hesitate. Neither did Thurmond. A reporter asked the governor why he was taking the drastic step of forming a new party. "President Truman is only following the platform that Roosevelt advocated," the reporter argued. "I agree," Thurmond said. "But Truman really means it." After the election, when civil rights legislation met resistance in Congress, Truman, by executive order, forced compliance with nondiscriminatory rules in government contracts, and by the end of 1951 the order covered a fifth of the nation's economy. During the Korean War the integration of the armed forces, begun in 1948 by executive order, reached completion.

The third major domestic issue during the Truman administration centered on a twin accusation by the Republicans that the president made little effort to clean the Communists out of government departments and that he condoned and covertly supported corruption among members of the White House staff and within government departments. When the Republicans challenged the Democrats in the election of 1952, it was through a crafty formula suggested by Senator Karl E. Mundt of South Dakota— K 1 C 2 . The Korea part was clear enough, and C 2 stood for Communism and corruption. The amalgam of charges produced by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin in 1950, along with the conviction of the onetime State Department officer Alger Hiss for perjury that year and the discovery that spy rings had infiltrated the wartime and postwar nuclear projects, promised to push the GOP to victory in 1952. Combined with charges of Democratic corruption, which had some small basis in fact, the Republican strategy became almost irresistible.

Truman's Republican opponents pressed the Communism-in-government issue, and the president could not easily deny the charge, for a denial would necessarily have forced him to answer many trumped-up charges—and his enemies would always have the advantage of first exposure with their assertions. Moreover, Communists did get into the government, for how else could they have attempted to obtain nuclear secrets or, for that matter, subvert the government? The numbers were minuscule, judging from what the Federal Bureau of Investigation managed to turn up, but the controversy persisted. Truman established the Federal Employee Loyalty Program in 1947, by executive order. By mid-1952 the government had screened 4 million of its employees or prospective employees and dismissed or denied employment to 378 (0.022 percent of the total). The program threatened civil liberties and provided an atmosphere in which character assassins thrived.

The president also had to deal with the charge that the Republicans linked to Communism—namely, corruption. It was in meeting allegations of corruption within the federal government, in the White House staff, and particularly in the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) that the president's patience with his political tormentors nearly ran out. Truman became irritated over this issue of domestic politics, and of course, the more intransigent he became, the harder the opposition hammered at their points about corruption. There may also have been a failure of the president's political experience in this regard, for in his political training with the Pendergast machine he had learned that his efforts at reform had to yield to things as they were. Still another factor entered into his clumsiness in dealing with the corruption issue—loyalty. When a subordinate or a friend got into trouble, he instinctively went to his defense.

One of the president's principal errors in handling the corruption issue was his loyalty to an old Missouri friend from World War I days, his military aide, Major General Harry H. Vaughan, an honest but imprudent man. Despite his friendship for Vaughan, he should have cut him loose. Vaughan accepted several freezers, and one of these appliances found its way to 219 North Delaware Street, the president's house in Independence. Vaughan also was friendly with a few individuals who procured federal contracts for a fee of 5 percent. The term "fivepercenter" became a political epithet. General Vaughan was not transferred but remained in the White House for Truman's entire administration.

More unfortunate was presidential insensitivity to corruption in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) and the BIR. The RFC naturally attracted employees who made themselves useful to borrowers and left government employ for private enterprise; one of them, unfortunately from Missouri, presented his wife, a secretary in the White House, with a mink coat worth $9,540, paid for by a lawyer for a firm seeking an RFC loan. Congress abolished the RFC in 1953. The BIR offered similar temptations and too many political appointments to collector-ships in regional offices around the country. The BIR was the most sensitive government bureau because its operations touched all taxpayers. The president should have watched it closely and moved against miscreants instantly. In his last months in office, he reorganized the BIR by reducing the numbers of regional districts and collectors and placing almost all of the bureau's personnel under civil service.

Opinion polls reflected Truman's failure to marshal public support during his second term, and by November 1951 his popularity had dropped to 23 percent, down from a July 1945 high of 87 percent. This rating was one point lower than that of President Richard M. Nixon on the eve of his resignation in 1974. For the rest of Truman's administration his popularity rating was very low, and by January 1953 it had risen to only 31 percent.

Part of the reason for Truman's low popularity was the tactics he used to deal with the steel strike of 1952. After appealing to capital and labor, he discovered the animosity and uncooperativeness of both, which seemed especially egregious in the midst of the Korean War. Seeking not to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, he chose to seize the mills in the name of the government. The mill owners went to court, and the resultant decision, in Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company v. Sawyer , forced Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer to give the mills back to the owners and constituted a sharp blow to Truman's prestige. It was one of the century's most important Supreme Court decisions limiting the power of the president.

Early in 1952, Truman announced that he would not run for another term, which he could have done, since he had not served two full terms. He chose, instead, to support Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, who was chosen Democratic standard-bearer that summer. Stevenson sought to distance himself from the Truman administration because of its low public esteem. For a while the president was angry with Stevenson, whom he believed ungrateful. In the autumn, nonetheless, Truman campaigned against the Republican candidate, General Eisenhower, who triumphed easily in the November election.

All in all it was an immensely successful presidency. Truman had kept at the task of leading the government and nation, in belief that posterity would uphold his purposes, foreign and domestic, and that belief has proved well founded. His indefatigable energy despite his age (he was sixty-eight when he left office), his innate modesty that allowed for judgment without involving personal feelings, and his invincible pride in his country carried him forward despite the confusions of his time. In foreign policy he made the decision to use nuclear weapons, whatever it promised for his historical reputation. He rightly took pride in changing the nation's course, from isolation and occasional intervention to participation through the measures of 1947–1949. The Korean War held the line against Communism. In domestic affairs he left the executive branch securely organized, an extraordinarily helpful inheritance for his successor Eisenhower. The Fair Deal appeared to Truman as a thoroughly reasonable program, a belief justified by its enactment in the 1960s and retention by subsequent administrations, Republican as well as Democratic. The issues of Communism and corruption, which bedeviled his last years in the White House, he firmly believed to be (to use his often-quoted description for the former) a red herring, and mostly they were, although his usual political judgment failed him in handling the latter.

Truman lived nearly twenty years after his presidency. He returned to Independence and the white Victorian house built shortly after the Civil War, renewing acquaintance with the town through brisk morning walks. He published his memoirs in two thick volumes in 1955–1956, presided over fundraising for construction of the Harry S. Truman Library, and became an active Democratic spokesman. In the mid-1960s he slowed down, for ill health brought his activities virtually to a halt. In his last years he returned to the reading of history, biographies of America's leaders of the past, and narrative accounts of the development of American government. The artist Thomas Hart Benton sketched him in a book-lined room of the Delaware Street house in 1971, piles of books across the desk, the old president holding a book in gnarled, arthritic hands. In this manner he passed the time until his death on 26 December 1972.

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