Academic journal article The Historian

Farm Policy and Truman's 1948 Campaign

Academic journal article The Historian

Farm Policy and Truman's 1948 Campaign

Article excerpt

AT THE END OF World War II U.S. farmers were enjoying their greatest prosperity m recent memory. Demand for farm products was high and government support during the war had been generous. The immediate postwar outlook was bright. Nevertheless, many were anxious about the future. "Good times" had little impact on the steady erosion of the rural population and the decline in the percentage of those engaged in agriculture. Seventeen percent of the nation's work force was farming in 1940 and, with the application of more technology, the downward trend persisted. Only 9 percent found employment on the farm by 1960. Despite this numerical decline, many continued to support increasingly expensive farm programs, and politicians continued to woo the farm vote. Agricultural policy became a highly partisan issue and an important part of President Harry S Truman's "Give 'em Hell" campaign in 1948.

In the late spring and summer of 1945 the nation turned to the problems or potential problems of postwar reconversion. Many, like Truman, remembered the economic disaster that followed on the heels of World War I and were determined not to undergo the same experience. The president and a large majority of Americans who were not farmers retained a strong emotional bond with the nation's farm families--the backbone of a democratic society and the nation's basic industry, according to Jefferson's agrarian philosophy This "farm fundamentalism" also propagated the belief that national depressions began on the farm and spread to the rest of the economy. Since, according to common wisdom, depressions were "farm led and farm fed," the United States could ward off general economic hardship by keeping the agricultural sector healthy.

Few quarreled with this basic premise and most agreed that farmers' exceptionally vulnerable economic position entitled them to special governmental support and assistance. The president proclaimed that the nation must not fail again "to provide means to protect the farmer while he adjusted his acreage to peacetime demands." Kansas Republican Clifford R. Hope, chair of the House agriculture committee, noted that "the best time to fix the roof is while the sun is shining." Hope warned of the urgent need to consider the change that was taking place in agriculture as a result of the application of new technology and pointed out the concomitant need "to check up on existing legislation and see whether it fits present-day conditions."(1)

Ideas about the best method for "fixing the roof," however, were as diverse as U.S. agriculture itself. The switch from animal to mechanical power and the adaptation of chemistry to agricultural production, which one historian has dubbed the "second agricultural revolution," increased production and put more pressure on the nation's bulging granaries. By 1948, surpluses of several supported crops taxed the system, threatened to overburden the treasury, and eroded public support for federal price-support programs. Most congressional and farm leaders recognized the need for reform but, despite months of hearings and much effort, the Republican-controlled Congress could only settle on a compromise package. Few were satisfied with the much-maligned Agricultural Act of 1948 (the Hope-Aiken Act) and the next Congress was expected to revise it. No one, however, anticipated the political storm that developed within weeks of its passage, as the traditionally nonpartisan farm policy debate became a political football during the campaign and throughout much of Truman's second term. Thus, it was difficult, if not impossible, for the administration to influence the legislative process in this area or for a political coalition to form around a workable and realistic compromise. This article focuses on how farm policy affected the 1948 campaign and election, and more important, how the election influenced the formation of farm policy.(2)

Debate over the nature of the federal government's role in agriculture was nothing new. …

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