Monday, June 5, 2017

Harry S. Truman: Squeaking past Dewey

The Chicago Tribune was a notoriously republican newspaper.
It's writers had previously referred to Truman as a "nincapoop.
Printers had been on strike protesting the Taft-Hartley Act.
And a new printing method made it so the paper had to
go to print seven hours before publication.
A combination of these factors lead to the error,
of which Truman touted during a train ride
back to Washington on November 3, 1948. 
After WWII was finally over, Truman had the goal of transforming the U.S. economy from a wartime economy to a post wartime economy. He also had to work with different factions of his own party to keep together the democratic dynasty that FDR had built. This would prove very difficult for Truman.

Republicans in the north and Southern Democrats would post problems for the liberal President. However, labor and unions, two factions that traditionally sided with democrats, gave Truman even more trouble than republicans and conservatives.

The war was expensive, so Truman wanted to cut back on military spending as soon as possible. Of course, a problem here was that the country had just gotten over a depression (or so the media would have us believe. Conservative historians speculate that the depression never really ended until the post-war boom. Based on the evidence I've seen, this is what I tend to believe). So, there was hesitation regarding anything that might impact the economy.

There was no consensus what to do with the American economy. Further complicating matters was thatTruman would have to deal with conservative democrats in the south and republicans in the north.

After the war, there was a housing shortage, labor conflicts, and inflation. Inflation in one month had hit a whopping 6 percent.

Truman's efforts to convert from a war-time to peace-time system were also slow, and resulted in many of the products consumers yearned to start purchasing again, things they had sacrificed during war-time, were slow to get on the shelves. Some products, such as meat, were so costly in 1946 (inflation) that they weren't even worth buying. So, this earned the ire of consumers.

So, this made consumers unhappy, and it also made labor and unions unhappy. This lead to price controls. Complicating matters is that labor wanted wage increases.

In August of 1945, Truman said he decided he would continue price controls. But, labor still sought wage increases. This prompted a series of strikes to occur in the steel, coal, auto, and railroad industries. These strikes involved over 800,000 workers, the largest in American history. Truman's stark efforts to end these strikes earned the ire of unions and the labor industry. I will get to this in a moment.

Add to this that consumers were opposed to the strikes, producers were unhappy with price controls, and producers were unwilling to sell their products at artificially low prices. Farmers, for instance, refused to sell grain for several months in 1945-46 until they were able to get paid better for their product. This was despite the fact that consumers really needed the grain that was being withheld.

To end the railroad strikes, Truman took them over. Despite this, two railroad unions went on strike anyway. This shut down the entire railroad industry. Consumers were really upset by this. Over 175,000 passengers stood without transportation.

What did Truman do? He wrote a letter to Congress calling for them to call on veterans to form a lynch mob to destroy union leaders.

Um, not good.

Even his own staff was stunned by this and tried to tone it down. But the damage was done.

To make matters worse, democrats in the Congress actually wrote a bill in response to this. However, and thankfully, it was killed in the Senate by Truman's arch nemesis (a man I plan on studying and writing about in the  near future) Robert Taft.

The striking did subside quite a bit, although some continued until the end of his presidency. Truman's popularity plummeted from 82% to 52%, and the democrats lost Control of Congress during the 1946 mid-term elections.  (Here we have the first time election of republican Congressmen Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon).

Before the election, his popularity had plummeted to a pitiful 32%. There were actually calls from one fellow democrat (William Fulbright) for him to resign. These calls, of course, were rejected by Truman.

Okay, so not only did he have southern democrats and republicans opposed to him, he also had traditional democratic factions such as labor and unions opposed to him. 

So, for this and other reasons, it was expected that Truman would lose the election of 1948. Republicans thought he would lose, and so too did Democrats. Nearly every poll had New York Governor Thomas Dewey defeating the incumbent President.

In fact, it was this belief that lead to the Chicago Tribune accidentally publishing the famous headline, "Dewey Defeats Truman." (see photo)

However, on election night, it was learned that Truman won 28 of 48 states, and won 303 out of 531 electoral votes.

How did he win? Well, according to what I have read, he kind of used the above failures to his advantage. As noted, during the mid-term elections, Republicans took control of Congress. In his State of the Union address in January of 1947, he said a resolution needed to happen regarding labor unrest and strikes. He offered no solutions, and left that to Congress.

Congress passed the Taft-Hartley bill, which limited union intervention in politics and thereby limited their power. Truman vetoed it, and Congress overrode this veto. (This bill was good, by the way. By his veto, along with some of the stupid, socialistic things mentioned above, Truman moves down our ranking of great presidents. Sorry, but sometimes when you read history you learn the truth about people not taught in schools). People should not have to join unions, especially when they support politics that the people do not support).

They also approved "right to work laws" which made it so labor workers did not have to sign up for unions. This made labor and unions mad at republicans.

There was still inflation in 1947 and 8, although not as much as in 1946. Truman called for a return to price controls and rationing, knowing Congress would disapprove of this. They did reject the idea. However, they did pass a price control and rationing bill, although it was vetoed by the president because he believed it was not enough.

So, once again, even though Truman was guilty of causing the problem, republicans in Congress were to blame.  To make matters worse, of the republican bill regarding price controls and rationing, Truman's arch opponent, Senator Robert Taft, said, Americans should "eat less mean, and eat less extravagantly."

In a speech, Truman purposefully misquoted him, saying, "Eat less." So, in this way (which is typical of liberals to misinterpret and misquote for their own political gains) Truman managed to make Taft look like the guilty party here, when it was him. Truman made it look like inflation was the fault of Taft and republicans.

He rejected republican tax cut bill (it was a good bill). He rejected republicans tariff bill to raise tariffs on wool (it as also a bad bill). Truman said the tariff bill was "isolationist."

So, with republicans taking some of the blame for the problems in the nation -- well, it still didn't look good for Truman's prospects in 1948.

He was still the underdog going into election day. Republicans and Democrats alike thought he would lose. John Dewey was even, at one point, declared the winner.

However, Dewey was a very liberal republican, and Truman used the Power of the Pulpit to go on a last minute jaunt across the country. He took a train tour across the country. It was called a "Whistle Stop tour."
and came out a winner. His victory is still used to this day as inspiration for underdogs. 

References and further reading: