President Harry Truman delivered his State of the Union address to Congress on January 5, 1949, the first after he’d won election to the presidency in his own right (he succeeded to the presidency on the death of Franklin Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, remember).
Not a barn-burner of a speech, but an important one. He appealed to history and the Square Deal of Teddy Roosevelt and the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt; he appealed to Americans’ innate patriotism, and he appealed to a nation grateful to the soldiers who had defended freedom and democracy in World War II. Truman called for a Fair Deal for all Americans, because they’d earned it, and it was the American thing to do.
This was barely eight weeks since Truman pulled out a stunning re-election win against the “do-nothing Congress.” In many, many ways, the problems of 1949 look stunningly familiar to us today. He spoke of the successes of the country in World War II, and the successes in business and finance since the war, and he said:
Reinforced by these policies, our private enterprise system has reached new heights of production. Since the boom year of 1929, while our population has increased by only 20 percent, our agricultural production has increased by 45 percent, and our industrial production has increased by 75 percent. We are turning out far more goods and more wealth per worker than we have ever done before.
This progress has confounded the gloomy prophets–at home and abroad who predicted the downfall of American capitalism. The people of the United States, going their own way, confident in their own powers, have achieved the greatest prosperity the world has even seen.
But, great as our progress has been, we still have a long way to go.
As we look around the country, many of our shortcomings stand out in bold relief.
We are suffering from excessively high prices.
Our production is still not large enough to satisfy our demands.
Our minimum wages are far too low.
Small business is losing ground to growing monopoly.
Our farmers still face an uncertain future. And too many of them lack the benefits of our modern civilization.
Some of our natural resources are still being wasted.
We are acutely short of electric power, although the means for developing such power are abundant.
Five million families are still living in slums and firetraps. Three million families share their homes with others.
Our health is far behind the progress of medical science. Proper medical care is so expensive that it is out of the reach of the great majority of our citizens.
Our schools, in many localities, are utterly inadequate.
Our democratic ideals are often thwarted by prejudice and intolerance.
Each of these shortcomings is also an opportunity-an opportunity for the Congress and the President to work for the good of the people.
Hello, boy howdy! Prices aren’t so stifling as they were considered to be, then, and inflation is far from the plate of problems we face.
But the rest?
Perhaps we should look back to see what Congress, and the nation, did in 1949, as instructive to us in 2014. Did Americans get a Fair Deal then? Do they deserve one now?
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.”
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.”
- Full text of the speech, from the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri
- Text of the speech at the American Presidency Project, at UCSB
- Time line of the Fair Deal, from the Truman Library
- Fair Deal at the Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives
- Press Conference on the Fair Deal in September 1949
- Truman, at American Experience