Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

liberal hopes by calling for an "Economic Bill of Rights" for all Americans -- the government to guarantee the "right" to a job, to economic security and opportunity. This message was only the most dramatic in a series of liberal proposals for resuming the reforming work of the New Deal toward the end of the war. In Roosevelt's Economic Bill of Rights speech, in his tax messages, in the talk and plans of Congressional liberals, and in the pages of the journals of the reform left, one could learn that social reformers were not happy with the wartime interruption of the New Deal and had many plans for further social reconstruction. In particular, there was a strong interest in a legislative commitment to full employment and vigorous economic planning, in an enlarged social security system to include health insurance, in a strong anti-trust program, in a more progressive tax system to recover war profits. The realization of any of this program after the war would require inspired political leadership to mobilize the New Deal coalition. Franklin Roosevelt had not pressed as hard toward these goals as many liberals thought both necessary and possible, a viewpoint reflected in the selections from James M. Burns's Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom (reprinted earlier in this part). But his Economic Bill of Rights was only one of several signs toward the end of the war that the President was determined to resume his leadership of the liberal reform movement in the United States.

When Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, it was suddenly realized that he left the reform cause very poorly equipped to continue its work. The Democratic party may have been somewhat more liberal than in 1932; but Roosevelt's 1938 efforts to dislodge party conservatives from positions of power had failed, and by 1945 the party was still dominated by Southerners and others of an essentially conservative cast of mind. Worse, Roosevelt had never prepared a suitable successor. Although there were men in political life who seemed equipped to succeed him, he left none of them in a commanding position. At various times he had encouraged the presidential ambitions of men he knew to be uninterested in social reform-men such as James Farley, James Byrnes, or even Cordell Hull. The crucial moment came in 1944 as the Democratic Convention picked a Vice-Presidential candidate: Roosevelt stood aside while the convention ousted Henry A. Wallace, and bypassed other dynamic young liberals like William O. Douglas, to select the safe" candidate of the big city machines, Harry S Truman of Missouri.

With Roosevelt gone, the hopes of reformers rested with a man they hardly knew and did not entirely trust -- Truman. Seven years later, when Truman left office in 1952, one could see that extreme degrees of liberal hope and fear had both been unjustified. The New Deal had not been repealed. In some respects, its programs were enlarged or strengthened -- as in the Employment Act of 1946, the Housing Act of 1949, the investigation of racial discrimination conducted by the President's Civil Rights Commission in 1947. In other respects, the New Deal had been trimmed back -- as in the Taft-Hartley Act ( 1947), amendments to the Wagner Act, and in the regressive tax law of 1947. What had been Truman's role in these postwar political developments, where a stalemate had emerged?

In the article below, political scientist Richard Neustadt reviews Truman's reform program. As Neustadt recounts, Truman turned out to be surprisingly liberal, speaking out in September, 1945, for a 21-point program of social reform, and continuing to send legislative requests to Congress until one could speak of a "Fair Deal" program. The Fair Deal was similar to the New Deal

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