1946 Fifty Years Ago

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On November 5 the Republican party won control of Congress for the first time since the Hoover administration, with 246 of 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 51 of 96 in the Senate. The old Confederate states remained solidly Democratic, by a margin of 103 House seats to 2, but the rest of the House was almost three-to-one Republican. Americans were suffering through a rocky transition to peacetime, and the Republicans had capitalized on voters’ anger with the slogan “Had Enough?” The focus of the gibe was the country’s foundering President, Harry S. Truman.

The problems Truman faced—military demobilization, converting industry to consumer production, labor strife, a housing crunch—would have daunted anyone. In addition, foreign affairs, which typically occupy 75 percent of a President’s time and 5 percent of the voters’ interest, were especially complicated in 1946. Still, Truman made some unforced errors. By freeing wages but retaining many price controls, he ensured a year of strikes, shortages, and black markets. He also looked weak and indecisive in handling the resignations of Harold Ickes and Henry Wallace from his cabinet. In comparison with his predecessor, the revered Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman seemed distinctly second-rate by the fall of 1946.

Among the first-time congressional winners were a pair of naval veterans, Richard M. Nixon of California and John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Nixon had been selected by a group of Los Angeles-area businessmen eager to unseat Jerry Voorhis, a popular Democrat, from their heavily Republican district. The committee had first solicited candidates with a newspaper advertisement and was as successful as people usually are when seeking romance by that route. Then the ex-president of Whittier College recommended Nixon, a former student who had gone on to Duke Law School. Using tactics that would prove useful later in his career, Nixon aggressively associated Voorhis with the far left and ended up winning by a comfortable margin.

JFK’s candidacy had been predestined in the ambitious Kennedy clan ever since his older brother, Joseph, was killed in the war. His campaign also set a pattern for the future by using plenty of Kennedy money, Kennedy relatives, and Kennedy charisma. It took a while for the wealthy ambassador’s son to get a feel for his workingclass Boston-area district, but with a heroic war record and a prominent family behind him, as well as countless hours of pounding the pavement and shaking hands, he easily won the Democratic primary over nine opponents. November’s general election was a formality. Other freshmen in the Eightieth Congress included Rep. Carl Albert of Oklahoma (a future Speaker of the House) and the Red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.

Four days after the election a glum Truman removed price controls from everything except sugar, rice, and rent. The poor stayed home and ate a lot of rice pudding while the rest of America went on a spending spree that would raise prices by 25 percent over the next two years. Yet even as Republicans gleefully looked ahead to 1948, Truman was beginning his political comeback. On November 20 John L. Lewis called a walkout of his United Mine Workers. They had struck in the spring and signed a new contract after the government seized the mines, but now Lewis was making new demands. Truman, in no mood for such games, slapped Lewis and the union with an injunction and massive fines. On December 7 Lewis capitulated. Even before the hostile Congress convened, Truman had taken the first step in his conversion from a bumbling failed haberdasher to Give ‘Em Hell Harry.

Racism on the Gridiron

On November 5 Penn State and the University of Miami canceled a football game scheduled for the end of the month in a dispute over the presence of two black players on the Penn State team. Bowman P. Ashe, the president of Miami, had banned the pair on grounds of good fellowship, saying that he hoped to avoid “unfortunate incidents” and “not catapult very important, not-well-understood interracial problems into a football game.” Carl P. Schott, dean of athletics at Penn State, insisted that “the colored boys are regular members of the Penn State football squad” and declined to place any conditions on their participation.

Similar disagreements were cropping up elsewhere. The day before, Nevada had canceled a scheduled game at Mississippi State rather than agree to withhold its two black players. Once again the Southern school invoked social responsibility to justify its actions, explaining that interracial athletic contests were traditionally banned in Dixie and that Mississippi State “would not violate that tradition.” Earlier in the season a pair of smaller colleges had worked out a solution to the American dilemma: Fresno State’s black players sat out a game at Oklahoma City but would be allowed to play in a future return match at Fresno.