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Postwar Challenges

52f. Domestic Challenges

"Dewey Defeats Truman"
The 1948 Presidential election pitted Democrat Harry Truman against Republican Thomas Dewey. The Chicago Daily Tribune was so confident Truman was headed for defeat that they printed this headline before all of the votes had been counted.
The sign on Harry Truman's desk read "the buck stops here." By buck, he meant responsibility, and the bucks ran amuck on his desk.

The end of World War II brought a series of challenges to Harry Truman. The entire economy had to be converted from a wartime economy to a consumer economy. Strikes that had been delayed during the war erupted with a frenzy across America. Inflation threatened as millions of Americans planned to spend wealth they had not enjoyed since 1929. As the soldiers returned home, they wanted their old jobs back, creating a huge labor surplus. Truman, distracted by new threats overseas, was faced with additional crises at home.

To provide relief for the veterans of World War II, and to diminish the labor surplus, Congress passed the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944. Known as the GI Bill of Rights, this law granted government loans to veterans who wished to start a new business or build a home. It also provided money for veterans to attend school or college. Thousands took advantage, and Americans enjoyed the double bonus of relieving unemployment and investing in a more educated workforce.

Truman's Whistle-stop Campaign
Harry Truman was elected in 1948, a feat that few political experts had thought possible. To bolster his chances, Truman took to the rails and ran a "whistle-stop" campaign, speaking in over 200 towns in the weeks leading up to the election.

Although Truman maintained wartime price controls for over a year after the war, he was pressured to end them by the Republican Congress in 1947. Inflation skyrocketed and workers immediately demanded pay increases. Strikes soon spread across America involving millions of American workers.

Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which allowed the President to declare a "cooling-off" period if a strike were to erupt. Union leaders became liable for damages in lawsuits and were required to sign noncommunist oaths. The ability of unions to contribute to political campaigns was limited. Truman vetoed this measure, but it was passed by the Congress nonetheless.

Serious issues remained. Now that nuclear power was a reality, who would control the fissionable materials? In August 1946, Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act, which gave the government a monopoly over all nuclear material. Five civilians would head the Atomic Energy Commission. They directed the peaceful uses of the atom. The President was vested with exclusive authority to launch a nuclear strike. The military was also reorganized.

The War Department was eliminated and a new Defense Department was created. The Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force were subordinate to the new Secretary of Defense. The National Security Council was created to coordinate the Departments of State and Defense. Finally, a Central Intelligence Agency was established to monitor espionage activities around the globe.

"The Buck Stops Here"
Harry Truman kept this sign on his desk to make it known that he would not be "passing the buck" on to anyone else.

In 1948, Harry Truman faced reelection. Almost every political spin-doctor in the nation predicted a victory by the Republican Governor of New York, Thomas Dewey. The Democratic Party was split three ways. In addition to Truman, Henry Wallace represented the liberal wing on the Progressive Party ticket. J. Strom Thurmond ran as a "Dixiecrat" Southern candidate who thought Truman too liberal on civil rights.

Truman ran a whistle-stop train campaign across the land, hoping to win by holding onto the Solid South and retaining the support of organized labor. He also became the first candidate to campaign openly for the African American vote. Against everyone's predictions but his own, Truman prevailed on election day. He had hoped to enact a socially expansive Fair Deal, much along the lines of the New Deal of FDR, but conservative Democrats and Republicans in the Congress blocked most of his initiatives.

Of the Presidency Truman wrote, "The President — whoever he is — has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job."
On the Web
The McMahon Bill
With the passage of the McMahon Bill in 1946, the Atomic Energy Commission was born. The Bill developed regulations on the production of fissionable materials. Read the complete text of the McMahon Bill, also known as the Atomic Energy Act, at this Nuclear Files Archive site.
Atomic Energy Commission
This site offers a brief history of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the national laboratory set up in association. Congress gave this civilian commission incredible powers and freedom to develop nuclear technology, and many of the labs still exist today.
The GI Bill
The GI Bill, also known as the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944, was passed to help returning soldiers reenter civilian life. Federal funding for higher education, hospitals, and home and business loans were offered. Following the passage of the bill, enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities skyrocketed. View a copy of the original document — large enough to read — at this site.
Central Intelligence Agency
The Central Intelligence Agency was a result of the political atmosphere of post-World War II America. The Truman administration felt that there was a need to monitor the activities of countries around the globe. The CIA homepage includes everything you want to know about one of the world's most secretive organizations. Well, everything that has been declassified, that is.
National Security Council
The National Security Council's stated function is to be "the President's principal forum for considering national security and foreign policy matters with his senior national security advisors and cabinet officials." They've been doing it since Harry Truman established the NSC during the reorganization of the nation's armed forces in 1947. This site is fairly basic, but offers a good overview of the public face of the NSC. Use the links along the left-hand sidebar to navigate.
Republican National Convention of 1948
The wild and wooly story of the 1948 Republican National Convention is recounted at this splendid site from ushistory.org. Relive the heat wave that gripped Philadelphia during the first televised convention where Thomas E. Dewey was nominated to face Harry Truman. There are plenty of pics and nifty facts for you to digest here.
The 1948 Presidential election may seem like ancient history, but one of the candidates is still serving his country as a United States Senator — at age 100 and counting!
Learn More...
Where did President Truman learn his famous phrase "The Buck Stops Here?" Did his middle initial "S" stand for anything? What was his favorite poem?
Learn More...
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