New Faces of 1946

An unpopular president. A war-weary people. In the midterm elections of 60 years ago, voters took aim at incumbents

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Well before voters streamed to the polls in the November 1946 midterm election, Republicans scented victory. Not once in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 12-year presidency had they gained control of Congress, but the Democrats no longer had FDR (who had died the year before) to lead them. The GOP could count on other advantages as well. The party in power almost always sustains losses in off-year contests. Most U.S. Senate seats at risk were held by Democrats. Yet the biggest liability for Democrats by far was an albatross: the president of the United States, Harry S. Truman.

When Vice President Truman succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, in the last months of World War II, few would have predicted that only a year later he would prove such a liability to his party. Soon after he took office, as the country rallied around their new commander in chief, a Gallup poll reported an approval rating of 87 percent, a figure that not even FDR had achieved.

But the end of the war confronted Truman with a predicament bound to erode political capital. After more than 15 years of deprivation—the Great Depression was followed by wartime rationing—Americans, at last able to enjoy peacetime prosperity, chafed at finding so many things in short supply. At one point in 1946, during a flour shortage, Illinois saw block-long bread lines, reminiscent of the darkest days of the Depression. That same year, in Denver, women hijacked a bread delivery truck. And demand kept driving prices up. Too much money chased too few goods: too few Chevys, too few nylons, too few beefsteaks.

Truman faced an impossible dilemma. He was expected to cope with shortages, yet hold prices down: if he did not do both, he would be blamed. It was unfair, but the country was rarely fair to Truman while he was in the White House. The president's one slim hope was that an agency established by FDR—the Office of Price Administration (OPA)—could maintain a semblance of order while the economy adjusted. But the American people were sick of controls that they had resisted even in wartime.

Truman did not make matters any easier by getting rid of most of the New Dealers he had inherited, appointing Missouri cronies in their place. The president, said a prominent member of the administration who spoke to the press only on condition of anonymity, had surrounded himself with "a lot of second-rate guys trying to function in an atom bomb world." In October 1946, the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, headed by the parochial Missouri banker John Snyder, lifted controls on building materials prematurely. By the time they had been reimposed, precious resources needed to create housing for veterans and their families had been squandered on construction of everything from cocktail lounges to racetracks, dismaying OPA's director, Chester Bowles. With subordinates warring over economic policy, Truman jauntily read aloud a note from an aide, handed him at a press conference, that summed up the strife: "Things seem to be going fairly well. A spirit of pessimism prevails in all departments."

From the day he took office, Truman was subjected to an intimidating, if inevitable, comparison: "What would Roosevelt have done if he were alive?" Truman began his presidency, observed columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop, by consulting Eleanor Roosevelt "as he might have consulted a medium." "I look at him," a prominent New Dealer said, "and I say to myself, ‘Yes, he is in Roosevelt's chair, yes he is, yes he is.' And then I say, ‘Oh, no, no, my God, it's impossible.'" When the president's troubles mounted, the question took an even crueler turn: "What would Truman do if he were alive?" Deacon of the Second Baptist Church, graduate of the Kansas City Business School, member of the Moose, Elk, Lion, Eagle and Shriner lodges, a failed haberdasher—Truman, carped faultfinders, was a hinterland small towner way out of his depth.

They doubted especially whether he grasped how to deal with unions. The 116 million man-days of labor lost to strikes in 1946—three times the total reached in any year before—blew gaping holes in OPA's dike against inflationary seas. In November 1945, autoworkers called a walkout against General Motors that lasted 113 days. It ended only after they were granted a wage and benefits raise of a then-whopping 18.5 cents an hour. In February, about 750,000 steelworkers won almost as much, but in return the government let owners boost prices by five dollars a ton. Shutting down assembly lines only worsened consumer goods shortages. If the president did not find a way of ending stoppages, spiraling prices would chase wage increases.

When railroad unions called a nationwide strike in May 1946 that crippled commuter service and dumped transcontinental train passengers in the desert, Truman blew a fuse. Advisers could not deter him from going before Congress and demanding authority to draft railroad strikers into the Army. When his attorney general, Tom Clark, questioned the idea's constitutionality, the president retorted, "We'll draft 'em first and think about the law later."

It took the House less than two hours to vote, 306-13, to approve this drastic measure, but in the Senate an unusual alliance of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans defeated it, after compelling Truman's supporters to admit that if workers refused to return to their jobs, they could be regarded as traitors and court-martialed. Hence, the ultimate penalty, one Republican pointed out, was "death or penitentiary." Even some senators who wanted to curb unions thought that was going too far.

To moderates, Truman appeared impetuous, and the episode badly hurt Democrats looking toward the 1946 election. Unions, the mainstay of Democratic candidates, were furious. R. J. Thomas, national secretary of the Congress of Industrial Organizations' (CIO's) political action committee, strode into his office, removed the picture of the president and himself hanging on the wall by his desk, and dumped it into a wastebasket. "Labor," he declared, "is through with Truman."


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