Modern history

Peacetime Challenges, 1945-1948

As the Cold War heated up overseas, at home Americans faced numerous challenges posed by the reconversion of the economy from a war footing to peacetime. Consumers experienced shortages and high prices; businesses complained about tight regulations; and labor unions sought higher wages and a greater voice in companies’ decision making. African Americans attempted to build on the gains they had achieved during World War II and to secure new civil rights victories at home. The return to peace also occasioned debates about whether married women, especially those with children, should continue to work outside the home. Even as the Cold War created new anxieties, Americans tried to achieve the peace and prosperity that had eluded them for the past two decades.

Coming Home

In August 1945, 12 million troops, two-thirds of all men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four, were in uniform. One year later, 9 million had returned to the United States. Some wanted to continue their education, most wanted jobs, and all sought to reunite with their families. They came home to a changed world. The Great Depression was over, but industries still needed to shift to peacetime production before consumers could enjoy the fruits of the new prosperity. In the meantime, consumers faced shortages and high prices. Indeed, there was no guarantee that, with the booming war industries dismantled, the depression would not return.

World War II had also exerted pressures on traditional family life. During the war, millions of women had left their homes and worked jobs that their husbands, sons, and boyfriends had vacated (see chapter 23). Most of the 150,000 women who served in the military received their discharge, and like their male counterparts they hoped to obtain employment. Many other women who had tasted the benefits of wartime employment also wanted to keep working and were reluctant to give up their positions to men.

The war disrupted other aspects of family life as well. During the war, husbands and wives had spent long periods of time apart, resulting in marital tensions and an increased divorce rate. The relaxation of parental authority during the war led to a rise in juvenile delinquency, which added to the anxieties of adults. In 1948 the noted psychiatrist William C. Menninger observed, “While we alarm ourselves with talk of . . . atom bombs, we are complacently watching the disintegration of our family life.” Some observers worried that the very existence of the traditional American family was in jeopardy. These fears proved unfounded, as the baby boom of the postwar decades would dramatically demonstrate.

Veterans Return Home After World War II, many veterans returned home, married, and started families. They went to school with funds provided by the GI Bill. This twenty-four-year-old former soldier, a student at the University of Iowa, tries to study while holding his baby daughter on his lap as his wife irons in their cramped house trailer. Time & Life pictures/getty Images

Economic Conversion and Labor Discontent

Before the Cold War became the focus of U.S. foreign policy in 1947, Americans worried more about economic security than about fighting communism. In the absence of war-driven production and with the return of millions of veterans to the job market, Americans feared massive unemployment and another depression. Many families had managed to save money during the war with rationing in place, and they looked forward to spending it on consumer goods. Instead, they found shortages of manufactured items and foodstuffs as the economy moved slowly to peacetime production. Workers who had remained on the home front enjoyed rising incomes from overtime pay, but they worried about holding on to their increased earnings in peacetime.

Even before the war ended, the U.S. government took some steps to meet postwar economic challenges. In 1944, for example, Congress passed the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, commonly known as the GI Bill, which offered veterans educational opportunities and financial aid as they adjusted to civilian life. Overall, however, the Truman administration did not handle the economic problems of reconversion well. In the face of shortages and high prices for available commodities, the president wavered between retaining World War II price controls to benefit consumers and eliminating them to help corporate industrialists. He satisfied neither.

Nor did the Employment Act of 1946 improve matters. Contrary to its name, the legislation did not guarantee jobs but merely recommended using tax policies to make adjustments to the economy and created a three-member Council of Economic Advisors to make suggestions to the president.

The president also ran into serious difficulty with labor unions. In the years immediately following the war, real incomes fell, undermined by inflation and reduced overtime hours. As corporate profits rose, workers in the steel, automobile, and fuel industries struck for higher wages and a greater voice in company policies. Truman responded harshly. Labor had been one of Franklin Roosevelts strongest allies, but his successor put that relationship in jeopardy. In 1946 the federal government took over railroads and threatened to draft workers into the military until they stopped striking. Truman took a tough stance, but in the end union workers received a boost in pay, though it did little to relieve inflation.

Political developments forced Truman to change course. In the 1946 midterm elections, Republicans won control of the Eightieth Congress (1947—1949). Stung by this defeat, Truman sought to repair the damage his anti-union policies had done to the Democratic Party coalition. In 1947 Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act. The act hampered the ability of unions to organize and limited their power to go on strike if larger, national interests were seen to be at stake. Seeking to regain labor’s support, Truman vetoed the measure. Congress, however, overrode the president’s veto, and the Taft-Hartley Act became law.

The Postwar Civil Rights Struggle

With the war against Nazi racism and tyranny over, African Americans expected to win first-class citizenship in the United States. During World War II, A. Philip Randolph, a black activist and union leader, had led a successful effort to pressure the federal government to tackle discrimination. New organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had emerged to attack racial exclusion in public accommodations, and older groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had flourished by attracting new members and leading the legal battle against racial inequality. African American veterans returned home to the South determined to build on these victories, especially by extending the right to vote. “A Voteless citizen is a Voiceless citizen” became the slogan of campaigns throughout the South. Yet African Americans found that most whites resisted demands for racial equality.

Violence surfaced as the most visible evidence of many white people’s determination to preserve the traditional racial order. In 1946 a race riot erupted in Columbia, Tennessee, in which blacks were killed and black businesses were burned down. In February 1946 in South Carolina, Isaac Woodard, a black veteran still in uniform and on his way home on a bus, got into an argument with the white bus driver. When the local sheriff arrived, he pounded Woodard’s face with a club, permanently blinding the ex-GI. Five months later, the Ku Klux Klan in Monroe, Georgia, shot a black veteran and three members of his family to death for “acting uppity.” In Mississippi, Senator Theodore Bilbo, running for reelection in the Democratic primary, told his white audiences that they could keep blacks from voting “by seeing them the night before” the election. Groups such as the NAACP and the National Association of Colored Women demanded that the president take action to combat this reign of terror.

In December 1946, after meeting with a delegation of concerned African Americans, Truman issued an executive order creating the President’s Committee on Civil Rights to investigate the situation and report back to him. Truman’s response reflected moral concerns and good politics: It provided the opportunity to increase Democratic Party support among African Americans, which Roosevelt had first succeeded in gaining in 1936. In April 1947, while the Presidents Committee on Civil Rights conducted its work, Jackie Robinson achieved a milestone by becoming the first black baseball player to enter the major leagues. This accomplishment proved to be a sign of changes to come.

After extensive deliberations, the committee, which consisted of blacks and whites, northerners and southerners, issued its report, To Secure These Rights, on October 29, 1947. The document placed the problem of what it called “civil rights shortcomings” within the context of the Cold War, arguing that racial inequality and unrest could only aid the Soviets in their global anti-American propaganda efforts. “The United States is not so strong,” the committee asserted, “the final triumph of the democratic ideal not so inevitable that we can ignore what the world thinks of us or our record.” A far- reaching document, the report called for racial desegregation in the military, interstate transportation, and education, as well as extension of the right to vote. The following year, in the midst of the presidential election and once again pressured by A. Philip Randolph, the president signed an executive order to desegregate the armed forces.

The Election of 1948

By supporting civil rights measures recommended by his presidential committee, Truman alienated white southern segregationists, a significant force in the Democratic Party. On the president’s political right, Strom Thurmond, the governor of South Carolina, mounted a presidential challenge by heading up the States’ Rights Party, known as the Dixiecrats, which threatened to take away traditional southern Democratic voters from Truman.

At the same time, Truman’s conduct of foreign affairs brought criticism from the left wing of his party. Former vice president Henry Wallace ran on the Progressive Party ticket, backed by disgruntled liberals living mainly in the North who opposed Truman’s hard-line Cold War policies. Besides these two independent candidates, Truman also faced the popular Republican governor of New York, Thomas E. Dewey. Under these circumstances, political pundits and public opinion polls predicted that Truman would lose the 1948 presidential election.

Truman confounded these voices of gloom by winning the election. His victory resulted from a number of factors, including his vigorous campaign style; the complacency of his Republican opponent, who placed too much faith in opinion polls; and his success in winning over many potential Thurmond and Wallace voters. Much of his victory, however, depended on the continuing power of the New Deal coalition. Truman succeeded in holding together the winning alliance that Franklin Roosevelt had first put together. He did this by stitching together a coalition of labor, minorities, farmers, and liberals and won enough votes in the South to come out ahead despite long odds. In the four-candidate race, Truman did very well in winning slightly less than 50 percent of the popular vote. Democrats also regained control of Congress.

Having won election as president in his own right and armed with a Democratic majority in Congress, Truman still faced tough opposition in his second term. A coalition of southern Democrats and conservative Republicans blocked passage of civil rights proposals and Truman’s so-called Fair Deal programs, including national health insurance, federal aid to education, and agricultural reform. The president did manage to obtain budget increases for New Deal measures such as Social Security, minimum wages, and public housing.

By this time, many liberals, as a result of their experience during World War II, had made peace with cooperative corporate executives and relied on the federal government to produce prosperity by tinkering with the economy through tax and monetary adjustments; these liberals no longer supported the more radical approaches of income redistribution or reducing corporate concentration. They practiced what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. labeled vital center liberalism, avoiding what they considered the ideological dogmatism of the extreme political left and right. Militantly anti-Stalinist, centrist liberals supported civil rights, the prosecution of Communists through due process of law, and the expansion of New Deal social welfare programs. In the end, however, preoccupation with fighting the Cold War in Europe and the hot war in Korea diverted Truman’s attention from aggressively pursuing a truly liberal political agenda in Congress.


• What social and economic challenges did America face as it made the transition from war to peace?

• Why did Truman have only limited success in implementing his domestic agenda?

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