There are a number of factors that pushed the nation back towards conservatism following the early victories of FDR. World War II certainly distracted attentions from welfare issues. Following the end of the war, increased prosperity and war weariness worked to make the electorate more conservative. The cold war and the Korean War then reinforced this neglect of the American welfare state.


Liberal histories have failed to see just how early the revolt against the welfare state began in the United States. This revolt is not a Reagan phenomenon, but rather has deep roots in American history and society, and actually began in the Roosevelt era. The outstanding fear among whites was always the threat that the welfare state would help the blacks move towards greater equality. This insecurity heightened with the move of more blacks from the South to the urban centers of the North.

Growing conservatism enabled the Republicans to make their first gains in ten years in the U.S. congressional election of 1938. Then, preparation for war pushed New Deal issues into the background. By 1939 Congress was in full revolt against the president and defeated several of his key measures. For instance, it voted to investigate the short-comings of the National Labor Relations Board. And the House, by roll call vote, refused even to consider either a $3.8 billion appropriation for new public works or a federal housing bill.

Roosevelt had built a coalition of the poor, the South, farmers, workers, and liberals, but the president himself had been careful not to violate the Southern taboo of race. While the South had been favorable to the New Deal at first, when FDR became more liberal, that conservative region started to desert the political fold. In 1938 Roosevelt campaigned to help defeat three Southern senators. Despite his efforts, they all won reelection.

The South had many misgivings about social change because Southerners feared it would challenge their apartheid system. Therefore, the South came eventually to resist many welfare state measures. For instance, the South resisted wage and hour laws because they might mean equal wages for blacks and whites.

The situation for blacks in the North was better than in the South but only by degree. In 1938 Minister Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem organized the Greater New York Coordinating Committee on Employment in order to bring pressure on those employers who discriminated against blacks. The methods used included persuasion, pickets, and boycotts. The organization started to picket the white-owned businesses on 125th Street and won the concession that at least one-third of the stores' employees would be black. Powell also pushed through concessions from the bottling companies, bakeries, and bus companies and bus drivers' union. In 1941 he won election to the New York City Council and in 1944 to the House of Representatives, where he served until 1967.

By the 1940s the South had so weakened the New Deal spirit that it became virtually a toothless tiger. World War II delayed further political divisions, but after the war, the South fully opposed additional welfare programs. In fact, the resistance to the New Deal started the break-up of the Democratic party, which today has led to the South largely voting Republican in presidential elections. The fourth election of Roosevelt, in 1944, was accompanied by the election of a Republican House and Senate.

President Roosevelt died in April 1945 just as the American armed forces were about to enter the gates of Berlin. Later that same month the world witnessed the link up of American and Russian forces in Germany. Japan held out to August.

President Truman

Vice-President Harry Truman, a New Deal senator from Missouri, became the new president. The Truman story illustrates how even a strong president cannot prevail against powerful conservative forces. In September 1945 Truman sent to Congress a twenty-one- point program asking for full employment, fair employment practices, federal control of the unemployment compensation program, and a large housing program. In addition, he asked for what we still do not have in this nation: a compulsory health insurance system. Instead of enthusiastically accepting more liberal proposals, Congress started disassembling the more liberal of the welfare state programs. In July 1946 the Senate killed the Equal Rights Amendment. The Senate also disbanded the Fair Employment Practice Committee and prevented the passage of an anti-poll tax bill.

The large-scale labor strikes that followed the pent-up frustrations of the war consumed much of Truman's attention. There were literally millions of workers on strike and this frightened the more conservative elements of the society. The era did manage some social reform. In October 1945 Jackie Robinson became the first black to become a member of baseball's major league system. Within five years, other sports, such as tennis and bowling, also admitted blacks. In June of the following year the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public transportation was unconstitutional.

Despite these signs of progress, the nation became more conservative and the Republicans regained control of Congress in the 1946 elections. In June of 1947 Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Labor Bill over Truman's veto. This made unions liable to breach of contract damages in the wake of labor disputes and also outlawed the closed shop. This new conservatism also affected federal programs, many of which were cut.

Nowhere were the conservative forces more powerful than in the area of opposition to civil rights. During the early years of the Roosevelt administrations, the Supreme Court was very conservative. The justices had been appointed by previous Republican administrations and reflected a conservative social philosophy. In fact, during FDR's reign, the court did very little about civil rights. The only major civil rights case the Court decided was in April 1941. The justices ruled unanimously that blacks were entitled to all first-class services on railroad trains. Representative Arthur W. Mitchell, a black man, brought the case to the court. He had been riding in coach, but as the train approached Arkansas, the conductor removed him to a second-class car. It is interesting to follow the reasoning of the Court, for the justices did not challenge segregation, but merely rejected the claim of the railroad lawyers that the laws allowed the practice. Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes said the issue was "not a question of segregation, but one of equality of treatment."

During Truman's administration, in January 1948 the court ordered the state of Oklahoma to admit a black student to the University of Oklahoma Law School, and in May the court banned pacts that barred blacks from owning real estate. Truman supported this trend, going out of his way to assail the South's Jim Crow laws. Furthermore, Truman asked Congress to outlaw lynching and establish a federal commission on civil rights.

All this proved too much for the South. In July 1948 a few months before the presidential election, under the leadership of South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, a group of Southerners formed the States' Rights Party. Their primary aim was to oppose Truman's civil rights policies. Undeterred, Truman ended segregation in the United States Army. Potter (1972:75) comments "Never thereafter did the South return entirely to the Democratic fold."

Much to the experts' surprise, Truman won the election of 1948 and this in spite of the fact that a number of southern states voted for the Dixiecrat party. Showing the South that he would not be deterred, Truman in December 1949 banned federal housing aid where racial or religious bias existed.

Also in 1949 Truman came out with a twenty-four-point program, similar in nature to his 1945 program. He talked to the nation saying that every American wanted and demanded a Fair Deal. He asked for increased coverage for social security, repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, federal aid to education, and compulsory health insurance. Needless to say, given the increasingly conservative atmosphere, Congress did not pass the Fair Deal. One of the reasons for this was that, as Truman said himself, the country was gripped by a nationwide anti-communist hysteria. In October 1947 the House on UnAmerican Activities Committee opened its inquiry into alleged radicalism in the film industry (the start of the infamous blacklist). The communist seizure of power in China further reinforced this paranoid atmosphere for soon afterwards Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin declared that he had a list of 205 members of the Communist Party still working in the State Department.

In June 1950 the Korean War started, pushing domestic issues into the background (see Ferrell, 1984:212). In fact, in the state of the union message for 1950 Truman only mentioned the Fair Deal as an afterthought. The President only got a small part of his domestic legislation through Congress, primarily the extension of social security coverage to an additional ten million Americans.

The following year the commander-in-chief found himself in deep political waters, when he dismissed for insubordination the commander of allied forces in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur. This event helped throw the Democrat's congressional leadership into the hands of Southern conservatives opposed to progressive economic and social legislation. In addition, McCarthyism started to heat-up, placing Truman further out of political step, and making anti-communism the watch-word of the day.


The 1950s was a time of traditional values. The nation turned into itself to cultivate quiet lives of babies and suburbia. In fact, social critics during the 1950s complained about the prevalence of the organization man and the man in the gray flannel suit. Structural-functionalism with its intellectualization of laissez- faire became the dominant theory of the time. This perspective was not only popular in sociology, but in economics, history, and political science as well.


Dwight David Eisenhower and the 1952 Election

Truman backed Senator Adlai Stevenson for the Democratic presidential nomination, but Stevenson was very hesitant about running. It probably did not matter which candidate the Democrats ran, given the immense popularity of Eisenhower. In the election welfare state issues were not even mentioned. Instead, the main issues were Korea, communism, and corruption. An important electoral trend was the considerable number of Southerners who voted for the Republican party.

One of the reasons for Eisenhower's great appeal was not only that he was a national war hero, but that he cultivated the image of the modest, apolitical patriot, making himself appear in the vein of George Washington. There was some truth in this self-portrait. Eisenhower had gained command of all the Allied Forces during World War II not because of his proven battle experience, of which he virtually had none, but rather because of his brilliance in formulating battle plans and his political ability to compromise and thereby reach a consensus without alienating any party to a coalition. Piers Brandon in his 1986 biography of Eisenhower discusses how Ike's political ideas were extremely unsophisticated. For instance, one of his gaffes during the campaign was the remark that those who really wanted social security could find it in prison. Moreover, Eisenhower had no solution to the intractable problems facing the country during peacetime. Rather, he steered clear of controversy by mouthing centrist platitudes. It was not his politics, but his great, pleasing personality that won over politicians and public alike.


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