POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS OF THE POSTWAR ERA
It would have been difficult for anyone to follow Franklin Roosevelt as president, and Harry Truman, in the opinion of many, definitely suffered in comparison. Although Truman stated that “the buck stops here” when decisions were made, many critics felt that he had no consistent set of beliefs to guide him as he decided policy. Truman was considered anti-union by much of organized labor, yet he vetoed a key piece of legislation designed to take power away from labor unions. There were many strikes in 1946 and 1947, and in 1947 the Taft-Hartley Act was passed by the Congress over the president’s veto (several biographers claim that Truman’s veto was primarily symbolic and was done for political reasons). This bill stated that if any strike affected the health and safety of the country, the president could call for a 80-day cooling-off period, during which negotiations could take place and workers would go back to work, that the union contributions of individuals could not be used in federal elections, and that union leaders had to officially declare they were not communists. Unions were furious at these and other restrictions the bill imposed on them.
Truman declared a Fair Deal policy, in which he tried to expand the principles of the New Deal. Included in Truman’s Fair Deal were plans for national health care and civil rights legislation; Truman also wanted to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act and increase government spending for public housing and education. In early 1948 he sent a civil rights bill to Congress (the first civil rights bill sent to Congress by a president since the Reconstruction). Nevertheless, Truman’s popularity in early 1948 was low. Republicans rallied behind second-time candidate Thomas Dewey (who had been defeated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1944) and felt that victory would be theirs. Truman’s chances seemed especially dim when Strom Thurmond also ran as a Dixiecrat candidate (in opposition to a civil rights plank in the 1948 Democratic Platform) and Henry Wallace, Truman’s Secretary of Commerce, ran as a progressive. The highlight of Truman’s political career was his eventual victory over Dewey; Truman’s success is attributed to the fact that he campaigned more against the “do- nothing” Republican Congress than he did against Dewey. Truman could never capitalize on his 1948 victory; in the years after this victory, charges of being “soft on communism” plagued the administration.
Truman decided not to seek reelection in 1952, and former general Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson in the general election. As president, Eisenhower saw his role as a crafter of compromise, and not as a creator of new policies. He tried to oversee a scaling back of government programs (some of these cutbacks were later rescinded) and a shift of power to the courts and to the Congress. Eisenhower also shifted much of the power traditionally held by the president to his Cabinet and other advisors. He was similar to the Republican presidents of the 1920s in that he was extremely friendly to business interests; most members of his Cabinet were businessmen. At many levels, Dwight Eisenhower was the perfect president for the 1950s.
Eisenhower’s vice president was Richard Nixon, a former member of the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate from California. Nixon had first made a political name for himself in the Alger Hiss case, and his role in the 1952 campaign was largely as an anticommunist hatchet man.
Midway through the campaign it was charged that supporters had set up an illegal campaign fund for his personal use. Candidate Eisenhower gave Nixon the opportunity to give a public speech to try to save himself. During the Checkers Speech Nixon declared that he had done nothing wrong, that his wife Pat wore a “very respectable Republican cloth coat,” and the only thing given to him had been a dog, Checkers. Nixon remained on the ticket, thus saving a political career that would make him one of the most dominant figures in American politics for the next 25 years.