truman

Sixty-six years ago tonight, on January 5, 1949, President Harry S. Truman gave his State of the Union address to Congress and laid out an ambitious, comprehensive agenda of proposed legislation that he wanted Congress to pass. Truman, having succeeded to the presidency upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the closing months of World War II, had been elected in November to a term in his own right, which came as a surprise to many people, especially Republicans who expected the White House to fall into their laps after 16 years of Democratic rule. Not all of the agenda Truman proposed that night was new, but the speech laid out his policy vision for the next four years. He called it the “Fair Deal,” stating that every American had the right to expect a “fair deal” from their government.

The Fair Deal was extremely ambitious. Truman envisioned a broad range of social programs to help American families adapt to the new postwar economy, which was booming–again unexpectedly, for many people assumed that when the war was over the Great Depression would return. Truman wanted massive federal investment in education at all levels, aid to farmers, immigration reform, labor reform, a federal minimum wage that provided a living wage for all workers, investment in low-income housing, and lots of programs for returning veterans. But arguably the centerpiece of the Fair Deal was the most ambitious proposal of all: universal health care for all Americans.

Truman gave his “Fair Deal” speech barely two weeks before he was inaugurated for the second time as President of the United States. This 1949 newsreel shows the inauguration.

Although it deliberately echoed FDR’s New Deal of the 1930s, even (and especially) in its name, in reality Truman’s vision was much different and in many ways much more progressive. When FDR came to the White House in 1933, he inherited the worst economic mess in the nation’s history, with millions out of work and a desperate crisis atmosphere that could only be addressed by unprecedented federal action. People tend to forget that when Roosevelt ran for President in 1932 he did not clearly spell out what he intended to do about the Depression, only that he would do something–most of the programs that eventually became famous, like banking reform, the Civilian Conservation Corps and Social Security, were largely improvised. In all of it, Roosevelt was trying to arrest the crisis of the Depression, not necessarily chart a bold new course in American history. He didn’t fully succeed even with this more limited goal. One can argue that Japanese bombs falling on Pearl Harbor did more to cure the Depression than the WPA.

Truman, however, did want to chart a bold new course, and that’s what the Fair Deal was supposed to do. The Depression was so horrible and disruptive that he was determined not to see it return once peace was restored, and he knew that changing over the U.S. economy from massive wartime production to peacetime pursuits could be rocky–even disastrous. Indeed, 1946, the year after World War II ended, was marked with unprecedented labor strife, and Truman had a frosty relationship with business leaders, especially in the steel industry. The spark of the Fair Deal was the desire to smooth the transition from war to peace, for example, in Truman’s extension of federal price controls which had been in place during the war. Though it was passed under Roosevelt in 1944, implementing most of the G.I. Bill, providing federal education assistance to returning veterans, fell to Truman. But Truman was actually in many ways more activist a President than Roosevelt was. He thought, well, why stop there? The federal government could make a major difference in the lives of millions, and it had the power and now the mandate to do so. Thus, he rolled the dice and decided to buy out the store, if he could.

Unfortunately, Truman had a very big problem in implementing the Fair Deal: the Republicans in Congress. The 1946 Congressional elections had gone very badly for the Democrats, mainly because of Truman himself. His approval rating in November 1946 was an abysmal 32%. Republicans, who had not controlled the House of Representatives since Hoover was in office, ran the table and took control of both chambers. While Democrats got both houses back in 1948, on Truman’s coattails, Republicans resented his win and were ever more determined to block his agenda. Even despite Democratic control, Republican leaders were able to leverage some Democrats–especially Southern Democrats who didn’t like Truman’s efforts on civil rights–to vote with them against many of the Fair Deal programs.

truman lbj medicare

Truman’s advocacy for government health care was very crucial in later years, so much so that Lyndon Johnson invited the ex-President to the signing when he (LBJ) signed Medicare into law in 1965.

Republicans in 1949 couldn’t wait to start killing the Fair Deal. Immigration reform? No way. Labor reform, especially repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, which Democrats hated? Nope. Repealing the poll tax which disenfranchised African-Americans? Absolutely not. And sadly, Truman’s plan for universal health care was so ferociously detested by Republicans that it was dead on arrival. Aside from tinkering with some minor provisions of Social Security, it went nowhere.

Still, Truman did manage to get some of his Fair Deal passed. Veterans’ benefits were quite popular among Republicans, and there were also large investments in low-income housing, early efforts to combat water pollution, and some labor reforms. Although Congress refused to act significantly on civil rights, Truman used executive orders to accomplish a lot, such as desegregating the armed forces and denying federal contracts to firms that discriminated on race. He also kept up the drumbeat for civil rights legislation, the lack of which, after a while, began to make Congress look bad. Though Truman didn’t get any major civil rights acts passed, he laid much of the groundwork that Kennedy and especially Lyndon Johnson would be grateful for 15 and 20 years later. And, to Truman’s credit, although his universal health care proposal never got off the ground, the idea gained a lot of currency thanks to him. It would not be until 2010 under another Democratic President, Barack Obama, when major health care reform–imperfect, but a long step towards universal coverage–became the law of the land.

Truman’s Fair Deal was visionary in both its scope and its audacity. Nearly 70 years later progressive Americans are still struggling to make many of Truman’s dreams into reality, and that battle is far from over. Indeed it’s amazing how much of the Fair Deal resembles issues of social welfare and reform that are current today, in 2015. Truman had some clear successes as President as well as many failures. But the Fair Deal was clearly ahead of its time.