Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Presidential Profiles: Harry S. Truman

On April 12, 1945 Vice President Harry S. Truman was summoned to the white house and informed of the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His first thought was of Mrs. Roosevelt. He asked if there was anything he could do for her, to which she replied, "Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now." Truman entered office at a perilous time in United States history. Poor monetary policy in the 20’s and 30’s had triggered a collapse of the U.S. financial system, and 12 years of increased federal control, central planning and "bold, persistent experimentation" under Roosevelt had discouraged new investment and stifled recovery. U.S. federal debt had increased by a factor of more than 10 in the 12 years before Truman took office, from 22 billion at the beginning of FDR’s term to over 258 billion at the time of his death. World War II was entering its final stages. German surrender came within a month of the swearing in of the new President, but he still faced difficult decisions concerning Japan. Four months after being sworn into office, Truman authorized the use of nuclear weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing the war to a close. The economy of the United States, geared to support the war effort, now had to be turned to productive activity and the role of the U.S. in world government redefined.

Domestic Policy
The opportunity to return constitutional economic liberty to the people of the United States following the cessation of a war-time economy and the death of President Roosevelt would fall to a man who possessed little faith in the ability of the free market to solve problems. Truman was very reluctant to relax government price controls instituted during the war, believing that he could control inflation by controlling the price of goods. As a result, shortages persisted for essential goods and raw materials and the nation witnessed the emergence of pervasive black-market activity. A housing shortage, caused by continued price controls on building materials, became particularly severe. Large corporations, able to exploit loopholes and sway policy makers benefited most from central control, driving many smaller firms out of business. Voters made their voices heard in the 1946 elections, demanding the return of economic freedom and forcing the cessation of many of the federal controls that Truman had struggled to preserve. Following a surprising victory over Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election, Truman continued to push domestic interventionism with a platform that came to be known as the “Fair Deal”. Conservatives in Congress rejected many Fair Deal proposals, such as nationalized health care and civil rights legislation, yet some proposals did find their way into law. The Housing Act of 1949 attempted to address the housing shortage by allowing the federal government to clear slums, build low-income housing and issue mortgages to Americans unable to obtain traditional loans.

Truman’s appetite for increased federal jurisdiction was evident with his treatment of worker’s unions and private firms. When railroad workers voted to strike in 1946, Truman seized the railroads, using federal injunctions to order strikers back to work and threatening non-compliant strikers with conscription into the armed services. When the United Mine Workers began a coal strike later that same year, Truman seized the mines and won huge judgments against union leaders that forced their capitulation. In 1952, Truman issued an order to nationalize the steel industry in response to a strike by the United Steelworkers of America. Taking a stand, steel company owners sued to regain control of their factories. In a landmark decision, the court ruled in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952) that the president was acting unconstitutionally. The decision dealt a heavy blow to the President’s domestic agenda, curbing his heavy-handed dealings with the private sector.

Foreign Policy
Following victory in Europe and Asia, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two dominant superpowers on the world stage. Though former allies, mutual suspicions and vastly differing ideologies would cause each to separately attempt to carve a sphere of influence that would tilt the balance of global power in its favor. In Europe, Truman used over 17 billion taxpayer dollars to subsidize the rebuilding of war-torn Western European economies with the “Marshall Plan”. Though offered to all of Europe and the Soviet Union, the plan required U.S. economic control in return for subsidies. The Soviets rejected assistance and forced their satellite states in Eastern Europe to do the same. The U.S. used its newly purchased influence to convince Western European countries to exclude the Communist Party from participation in their national governments. Marshall plan participants then formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for mutual defense and to "contain" Soviet expansion worldwide. Determined to establish global hegemony, Truman increased military spending and adopted what came to be known as the “Truman Doctrine”, which expanded the definition of U.S. national security to include conflict anywhere in the world. Accepted by congress, the Truman Doctrine emboldened the President to levels of intervention never before seen in U.S. foreign policy. In Greece and Turkey, the United States propped up oppressive regimes and brutal military juntas to put down communist revolutions. In China, over a billion dollars was disbursed to support the corrupted government of national leader Chiang Kai-shek, subsequently defeated by Chinese communist rebels and forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan. In an effort to counter increasing Soviet influence in the middle east, Truman recognized and subsidized the newly created state of Israel in 1948.

In the summer of 1950, communist forces in North Korea invaded U.S. supported territory to the south. Pent-up tension finally erupted and a proxy war ensued with the United States and her NATO allies joining South Korea in opposition to North Korean forces backed by the Soviet Union and communist mainland China. The war would ultimately last three years and cost millions of lives before a cease-fire would be reached which re-established territorial boundaries. The Korean War stimulated the Truman administration to more aggressive policy in Asia, leading to military support of French imperialism in Indochina that would ultimately escalate into the Vietnam War.