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."
The railway melodrama erupted while Truman was plagued by mounting inflation. In January 1946, he had told Congress that he wanted new price control legislation on his desk by April 1. Not until the end of June, as OPA's authority was about to expire, did a bill arrive. It was so dreadfully inadequate that Bowles, who now headed up the Office of Economic Stabilization, submitted his resignation. "Clearly," he said, "I cannot remain here to administer the inflationary bill which Congress...presented for your signature." What was Truman to do? If he signed the measure, he would be expected to constrain inflation without the mechanisms to do so. If he did not sign, all controls would end at midnight June 30; prices would run riot. Truman vetoed the bill.
Just as he had predicted, lifting government controls caused economic havoc, but Congress was only slightly chastened. In the next two weeks, prices rose more than in the previous three years. Within days, wholesale prices for food soared to heights not seen since 1920; grocery items from butter to coffee surged to record peaks. Congress soon enacted a new bill—little, if any, better than the one he had vetoed—but on July 25, "with reluctance," Truman signed it into law.
The blame for this sorry state of affairs might well have fallen on obstructionists in Congress; instead, most of it descended on the president, the result of his exposed position and his inconsistency. Of this interlude, even Truman's sympathetic biographer, Alonzo Hamby, has written: "Truman's performance was terrible. He appeared to have danced around every side of the issue. He was weak, then strong, then weak again." On July 26, Time magazine's Congressional correspondent, Frank McNaughton, wrote in an internal memo, "Harry Truman could not carry Missouri now."
When a cap was reimposed on meat prices, stockmen refused to send their cattle to packinghouses; tens of thousands of butchers across America had to close down. From Albuquerque to Miami, customers in search of meat rioted.
For weeks, the pursuit of red-blooded protein and lamentation about "famine" became national obsessions. "The weird cry for ‘meat,'" wrote Collier's Weekly columnist Tom Stokes afterward, "seemed, as one heard it, to symbolize the desire for all things material." The demand for hamburger, however, reflected more than the greed of spoiled Americans. (In postwar Europe at that very moment, the specter of hunger was all too real.) It also reflected anxiety that the government could not cope. "Come what may," wrote John O'Donnell, political columnist of the New York Daily News, "this battle for the control of Congress will go down in our political history as the meat campaign."
On October 14, scarcely more than three weeks before midterm elections, Truman bit the bullet. Even when his approval rating dropped to 32 percent, he had told reporters that controls were indispensable. On this night, however, speaking to the largest radio audience since the end of the war, Truman lashed out at "the few men in Congress who, in the service of selfish interests, have been determined for some time to wreck price controls no matter what the cost might be to our people." Then he stunned the nation by announcing that he was lifting controls on meat. With the lid off, prices skyrocketed. The New York Daily News headlined: PRICES SOAR, BUYERS SORE/STEERS JUMP OVER THE MOON. Brickbats flew at the president. "Brother," said Ohio's Clarence J. Brown, chair of the Republican Congressional Committee, "the tide is sweepin' our way."
Republicans resolved to make the off-year election a referendum on the Democratic administration, with Truman the butt of gibes. "Why had the president been late to today's press conference?" the joke went. "He got up this morning a little stiff in the joints and had trouble putting his foot in his mouth." Republicans amused themselves with the one-liner, "To err is Truman." Truman had become such a millstone that his party's national chairman, with as much grace as he could muster, told the president of the United States to make himself scarce during the campaign. Truman complied.
The GOP made the president's clumsy handling of price controls the theme of its campaign. During the hamburger "famine," Republican Congressional candidates in sound trucks cruised streets where grocery lines stretched, booming the message, "Ladies, if you want meat, vote Republican." The president, they asserted, merited a new moniker, "Horsemeat Harry."
Democrats approached Election Day saturated in a gloom—and poll approval numbers—they had not seen since 1928, when they had been buried in the Hoover landslide. When Truman took office, the country, by nearly 2–1, said that Democrats were better at managing domestic problems; by the autumn of 1946, the advantage had gone to the Republicans.
On November 5, more than 35 million Americans went to the polls. In House races, Republicans exceeded their rosiest predictions, picking up 54 seats, their greatest midterm victory since 1894. The GOP wound up with a 59-member dominance over the Democrats. When the new Congress convened in January, Republicans would occupy 75 percent of the seats outside the South. The GOP increased its margin in Pennsylvania from 19 seats to 28, wiped out the Democratic delegation in Wisconsin, and swept Connecticut's 6 seats, 4 of which had been held by Democrats.
In California, Republicans had viewed as "hopeless" any attempt to unseat the highly respected Democratic congressman, Jerry Voorhis. But a young Navy veteran who had never run for public office figured he might tap into the acute resentment voters felt at the intrusion into local campaigns by the CIO's political action committee (PAC). The PAC was identified with the crippling strikes of the postwar era and accused by some of Communist infiltration—a charge that Nixon eagerly exploited. After passing out 25,000 plastic thimbles labeled "Elect Nixon and Needle the P.A.C.," the newcomer, Richard Milhous Nixon, pulled off a stunning upset.
A continent away, Massachusetts sent to Washington one of the few Democrats who would make his debut in the next Congress—but in a district so overwhelmingly one-party that the election had been decided not in November, but in the Democratic primary months earlier. To ensure that John Fitzgerald Kennedy got the coveted Democratic nomination, his father, Joe, bought off prospective rivals; sabotaged the candidacy of a popular city councilman by adding another individual with the same name, thereby confusing the electorate and splitting the vote; and saw to it that copies of a Reader's Digest article lauding his son's World War II PT-109 heroics were placed on every empty subway or bus seat in the district. In the course of making 450 speeches seeking the votes of 37 nationalities, JFK twirled spaghetti, downed Syrian coffee, sipped Chinese tea—and came out the victor.
As late as October, analysts had been skeptical of Republicans' chances of winning the Senate, where only one-third of the seats were in play. But Republicans picked up 13 seats to take control of the chamber, 51 to 45, the greatest GOP gains since the popular election of senators had begun a generation before.
Why had Democrats fared so poorly? In Chicago, a 32-year-old housewife, asked to explain how she had won a newspaper contest with a nearly perfect score in picking winners in Illinois, replied, "Simple....I just listened to what the ladies said while I was standing in the meat line." Anticipating the outcome, Truman had, on October 14, written an address he was sensible enough not to deliver: "You've deserted your president for a mess of pottage, a piece of beef, a side of bacon. You've gone over to the powers of selfishness and greed." The meat shortage, one commentator concluded, was bad for the Democrats. For as everybody knows, "a housewife who cannot get hamburger is more dangerous than Medea wronged."
There was one other worrisome development for Democrats. During the campaign, Republicans had reminded African-American voters that Democrats were the party not only of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt but also of Southern racists. In Georgia's Taylor County, the only black man who had dared vote in the Democratic primary had been murdered the next day. In Mississippi, Klansman Theodore Bilbo, campaigning for a third term as a Democrat in the Senate, declared that a tiny group seeking to register African-Americans should be "atomically bombed and exterminated from the face of the earth." As the election approached, he said, "I call on every red-blooded white man to use any means to keep the niggers away from the polls." Though most African-Americans in the North held fast to the party of FDR, considerable numbers in Harlem and other predominantly black neighborhoods gravitated toward the party of Abraham Lincoln.
On Wednesday, November 6, the day after the election, Truman's daughter, Margaret, wrote in a memoir: "My father awoke aboard his special train, en route to Washington, and discovered that he had a bad cold and a Republican Congress." Moreover, he had become a pariah. It was customary for large delegations to greet a president returning to the capital, but when the train pulled into Union Station, only Dean Acheson, an under secretary of state, showed up to welcome him. There followed some of the bleakest weeks of Truman's career. On New Year's Eve, he went for a cruise on the Potomac. When he got back to the White House, he wrote: "Never was so lonesome in my life."
The election results, political analysts agreed, meant that the sands were running out on Truman's days in the Oval Office. A Fortune survey found that only 8 percent of respondents thought a Democrat would win the next presidential election. "The President," pontificated the United States News, "is a one-termer." Not even Democrats held out much hope. As late as their 1948 national convention, delegates arrived with placards reading, "We're Just Mild About Harry."
Soon after the election, Democratic Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas urged Truman to resign from office, even going so far as to suggest that the president appoint a Republican, Arthur Vandenberg, as secretary of state. (Under the law of succession at that time, Vandenberg would be next in line to the White House, since there was no vice president.) A former Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Fulbright analogized Truman's situation to that of a British prime minister who had met defeat in a general election after losing a vote of confidence in Parliament. Similarly, Fulbright reasoned, since the 1946 election had been a referendum on Truman's leadership, he should turn the reins of power over to some prominent Republican, who could work with Congress and so avoid a divided government.
Both Marshall Field's Chicago Sun, one of the country's leading liberal papers, and the Atlanta Constitution, long the foremost Democratic newspaper in the South, counseled Truman to accept Fulbright's recommendation. The doughty president, calling Fulbright an "over-educated Oxford S.O.B.," dismissed the notion, remarking privately that "a little more United States land grant college education on the United States Constitution and what it meant would do Fulbright a lot of good." Ever after, Truman referred to the former president of the University of Arkansas as "Senator Halfbright."
The 1946 elections appeared to mark a turning point, the moment that the Republicans might supplant the Democrats as the country's majority party for the next generation. For the first time since 1930, the Republicans had won control of both houses of Congress. "What the American people are witnessing today," declared England's New Statesman and Nation, "is the Decline and Fall of the Roosevelt Empire." In New York, Thomas Dewey had been reelected governor by a whopping 680,000-vote margin, immediately becoming the heavy favorite to be not just the Republican presidential nominee in 1948 but the next president of the United States.
Conservative Republicans viewed the midterm outcome as a massive national revulsion against liberalism. The Chicago Tribune said that the American people had "won the greatest victory for the Republic since Appomattox," and the Hearst chain's New York Mirror declared: "It is like coming out of darkness into sunlight. Like feeling clean again after a long time in the muck."
But this perception grossly misconstrued the national mood. A Fortune magazine survey found that voters who had switched from supporting Democrats in 1944 to Republicans in 1946 were actually more liberal than Democrats who had stayed with their party. Most rejection of Democratic candidates, Fortune theorized, represented only momentary exasperation with shortages and high prices: if the incoming Republican 80th Congress concluded that voters had given them a mandate to turn back the clock, they might well jeopardize their very promising prospects.
That is exactly what happened. Republicans of the 80th Congress could take pride in impressive achievements in foreign affairs, including enactment of the Marshall Plan. But on domestic policy, they veered so sharply to the right that they alienated one segment of the electorate after another. They antagonized farmers by slashing funds for crop storage; irritated Westerners by cutting appropriations for reclamation projects; and, by failing to adopt civil rights legislation, squandered an opportunity to make further inroads among African-American voters. By pushing the anti-union Taft-Hartley legislation, passed over Truman's veto, they drove labor back into the president's arms. "The luckiest thing that ever happened to me," Truman remarked years later, "was the Eightieth Congress."
Instead of being the harbinger of longtime Democratic decline, the 1946 midterm election had the unexpected consequence of breathing new life into the Democratic Party. In 1948, Truman campaigned like a fighting cock against the "do-nothing, good-for-nothing 80th Congress," while largely ignoring the Republican nominee, Governor Dewey. In November 1948, to the astonishment of almost everyone and to the consternation of Republicans, Truman won reelection and Democrats recaptured Congress. They picked up nine seats in the Senate and so many seats in the House that they not only recouped their 1946 losses, but also erased all gains made by the GOP in three previous elections. Of the 50 Republican newcomers in the House in 1946 who ran for reelection, 35 went down to defeat.
In retrospect, the 1946 election was a turning point that did not turn. To be sure, it was not without consequences. An obscure Wisconsinite elected to the U.S. Senate for the first time in 1946 would give his name to an entire political era: McCarthyism. And when the American people would go to the polls in 1960, they were given a choice between two members of the Class of '46: Jack Kennedy and Dick Nixon. For the GOP, though, its 1946 triumph proved to be evanescent. After a Democratic sweep in 1958, only one Republican elected to the Senate for the first time in 1946 remained, and of the 75 who arrived in the House in 1946, just 3.
The significance of the hamburger election and its aftermath lies in a lesson bequeathed to politicians that remains vibrant 60 years later: winning midterm contests is gratifying, but if you misunderstand why you did it, your victories will melt away like an early November snow.
Historian William E. Leuchtenburg is the author of six books on FDR and his era. His most recent work is The White House Looks South: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, from Louisiana State University Press.