Truman's Attempt to Seize the Steel Industry
Higgs, Robert, Freeman
In U.S. history many of the most drastic incursions on private property rights have sprung from the conjunction of a threatened work stoppage, owing to a union-management dispute, and the government's desire to expedite a war-production program. Such a conjunction underlay the government's nationalization of the railroads, the telegraph lines, and the Smith & Wesson Company during World War I, and the railroads, the coal mines, the midwest trucking operators, and many other companies during World War II. The conjunction occurred again during the Korean War, but on that occasion the government failed in its attempt to seize the steel industry.
During the Korean War the government imposed controls on raw materials, production, shipping, credit, wages, and prices. When the wage-price controls created a collective-bargaining impasse in the steel industry, threatening a nationwide strike, President Harry S Truman ordered the secretary of commerce on April 8, 1952, to seize and operate most of the country's steel mills for the ostensible purpose of maintaining production of critical munitions.
Owners of the seized properties obtained a court injunction against the seizure, and an appeal of that injunction to the U.S. Supreme Court gave rise to one of the "great cases" in constitutional law, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. et al. v. Sawyer.1 Although the Court found the President's actions to be unconstitutional, its decision did not signify a triumph of private rights or a significant check on the government's exercise of de facto emergency powers.
By 1952 Truman had become an unpopular president, even among Democrats, and his attempted seizure evinced a power struggle with a hostile Congress. He had alternative ways to proceed. Although no current statute authorized him to nationalize the steel industry, he had authority under the Taft-Hartley Act to order an 80-day "cooling-off period," during which the unionmanagement dispute might have been settled without a strike. The pro-union President chose not to issue such an order, however, because he opposed the Taft-Hartley Act, which Congress had passed over his veto in 1947. He did not ask Congress to authorize his seizure of the steel industry.
Instead, Truman rested his seizure order on legally vague national-emergency grounds, citing his inherent powers as president and as commander in chief of the armed forces.2 Afterward, he and his official spokesman sought clumsily "to transform the steel crisis from a particular labor dispute into a broader battle against 'big business,'" a rendering that had little resonance.3
Why did Truman proceed on such flimsy legal grounds? Although historians have advanced various explanations related to the administration's political calculations,4 few writers seem to have noted another possibility: The President had seized many industrial properties in labor disputes during past "national emergencies," and therefore he probably did not worry about getting away with another seizure. Between April 17, 1945, and August 27, 1946, Truman had seized 28 other industrial properties-sometimes entire industries, such as the railroads and the meat packers-in labor disputes.5 High-handedness might have become second nature for Truman. Historian Maeva Marcus notes, "In view of the Supreme Court's construction of presidential power during wartime, Truman and the White House staff were confident that the courts would uphold the seizure."6
The composition of the Supreme Court might have encouraged such confidence. In a recent recollection of Youngstown, Chief Justice William H. …