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.

Divide and Conquer

In Tokyo on November 11 Kiyoshi Matsuzaki struck a blow for Japanese technological supremacy by defeating a GI’s electric calculating machine with an old-fashioned abacus. Matsuzaki, a government clerk, outpaced Pvt. Thomas Wood of Deering, Missouri, in subtraction, addition, and division, losing only in multiplication. In a final problem combining all four arithmetical disciplines, Matsuzaki produced the correct answer four seconds ahead of his rival. Wood, an experienced bookkeeper, was gracious in defeat, shaking hands with Matsuzaki as he maintained his preference for the seven-hundred-dollar mechanical calculator over the six-dollar soroban. Another soldier was less magnanimous: “It’s the first time the Japs have won anything since the battle off Savo Island.” In the aftermath (so to speak) of the event, no politicians felt the need to call for trade sanctions.

C-Minus Rations

On November 13 U.S. Army brass announced scientific proof of what any World War II veteran could have told them: C rations tasted lousy. In tests at Camp Carson, Colorado, soldiers fed on traditional C rations for a month had lost an average of one pound apiece, while those given a reformulated version had gained an average of three pounds. The data came as no surprise to GIs who had suffered through the war on the prepackaged diet of meat-and-beans, hash, or stew (a largely theoretical distinction), accompanied by desiccated crackers and vile alleged coffee. The C ration, a day’s worth of meals contained in an inconvenient cylindrical can weighing a hefty five pounds, had been meant for emergency use only, but as always in wartime, the distinction between emergency and normal situations quickly evaporated.

According to an official Army history, the World War II C ration “was seriously lacking in variety” and “would become monotonous if it were the only food available over protracted periods,” which happened with distressing frequency. Furthermore, “crackers, stored for a year or more, underwent chemical changes that made them rancid and gave them unpleasant flavors,” and the fat in meat items often “separated from the other elements and formed a reddish conglomeration at the ends of the can, so distasteful in appearance that soldiers repeatedly threw the whole mass of food away. With age the onions, carrots, and meats acquired new and less acceptable flavors and, according to some consumers, came to look and taste like ‘dog food.’” Even Uncle Sam’s toughest Marines “could not eat more than half a canful of C hash at a time.” Bill Mauldin’s highly unofficial book on the war, Up Front , reported that “prisoners scream when we throw C rations at them. According to the rules, they are supposed to get the same food as their captors, and they refuse to believe that we also eat C rations.”

The revised version was improved in both quantity (an extra meat item was included) and variety (the available dishes eventually included hamburgers, franks and beans, spaghetti, pork sausages, ham, and chicken). Army culinary standards still prevailed, which may explain why another addition, canned fruit, was best received by the soldiers. A further welcome novelty was a tin of real bread to supplement the “biscuit units.” The cigarette allowance was also increased, from nine to twenty.

Although the revised bill of fare was an improvement on the old C rations, it was not exactly appetizing. A Korean War soldier later recalled: “Ham and limas I don’t think nobody wanted. We gave a can to a Chinese prisoner once, and even he wouldn’t eat it. On the other hand, everybody wanted the cans of fruit. Can of peaches, or fruit cocktail, it made your day.” The Korean War’s multinational character would create other headaches for American procurement officers. Muslim troops from Turkey would not eat pork, until finally religious leaders gave them permission to consume it in combat rations (a mixed blessing, to be sure); they also scoffed at what Americans called coffee. Hindus shunned beef and demanded rice and spices; Italians required tomato paste; Greeks had olive oil shipped from home. Thai and Ethiopian soldiers came up with what may be the best way to make military food palatable: They requested a supplement of hot sauce and applied it liberally to everything.