Harry S. Truman

On January 5, 1949, President Harry Truman used his State of the Union address to recommend measures including national health insurance, raising the minimum wage, strengthening the position of organized labor, and guaranteeing the civil rights of all Americans. Referencing the popular “New Deal” programs of his predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Truman styled his reform package the “Fair Deal.”

Every Segment of Our Population and Every Individual Has a Right to Expect from our Government a Fair Deal…

President Harry Truman, Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union External, January 5, 1949. Truman Presidential Museum and Library External

Harry Truman, April 19, 1945. By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

A few months earlier the president’s career seemed over. Political pundits of the time agreed that Truman needed a miracle to win his 1948 bid for reelection against the popular Republican governor from New York, Thomas E. Dewey. Adding to the incumbent’s troubles, a revived Progressive Party attempted to attract left-leaning Democrats, while segregationist “Dixiecrats” broke with the Democrats to run South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for president. Responding to the competition, Truman embarked on a campaign tour by train, delivering “whistle-stop” speeches to thousands of voters in small communities throughout the United States. This tactic proved effective, and President Truman was reelected by a slim margin. Still, the Chicago Daily Tribune was so confident of the president’s defeat it went to press with the November 3, 1948 headline “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”

Truman had begun to push for Fair Deal-type legislation following the end of World War II in 1945. However, Congress resisted his plans for the extension of federal social and economic programs. Concerned about the transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy, lawmakers ultimately accepted the role of government in maintaining full employment and stabilizing the economy, but rejected Truman’s proposals for national health insurance, educational aid, and federally-supported housing programs. Even after Truman’s successful 1948 campaign, the mandate for expanded social programs remained weak. The minimum wage rose and social security coverage broadened, but few Fair Deal programs were enacted.

On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman issued two executive orders. One instituted fair employment practices in the civilian agencies of the federal government; the other provided for “equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.”

From African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citzenship

Press Release for Executive Order No. 9981, establishing the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, July 26, 1948.
By Executive Order—President Truman Wipes Out Segregation in Armed Forces.” Chicago Defender, July 31,1948.
President Truman Wearing General MacArthur’s Hat [detail]. John Chase, cartoonist. Ink on paper, 1950. American Treasures of the Library of Congress

During Truman’s presidency, concern over the potential spread of communism and the growing influence of the Soviet Union underlay much of his Administration’s foreign policy. In what became known as the Truman Doctrine External (1947), the president pledged U.S. support of “…free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” The United States inaugurated the massive European aid package known as the Marshall Plan in 1948, and led in the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (1949). These and other related measures became known in U.S. foreign policy terms as the “containment” of the potential spread of communism to other parts of the world.

At home, the president was at the forefront of the anti-communist hysteria that characterized the early 1950s. The same week he announced his containment policy, Truman ordered the loyalty of three million federal workers investigated. Yet, the president displayed a very real commitment to protecting the civil rights of African-Americans. When Congress failed to respond to his repeated calls for civil rights legislation, Truman used executive powers to establish the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. The Committee’s recommendations included anti-segregation laws, voting rights legislation, and creation of a civil rights unit within the Department of Justice. Truman left office in 1953, but his committee’s report became a blueprint for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

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