Why Harry Truman was the first modern US president
The US presidency has changed considerably over two centuries. Harry Truman, president from April 1945 to January 1953, occupied the office at a hinge point in history. Here are four reasons (along with notable dates) why Truman should be recognized as the first modern president:
November 19, 1945: Building a welfare state
The federal role in providing support to the elderly, the unemployed, and poor families increased significantly under the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. At first these were viewed as ad hoc, emergency measures. Consciousness of the scale and character of the changing federal role came more slowly. In the United Kingdom, the 1942 Beveridge report laid down the foundations for a new “welfare state.” It launched a decades-long debate about the pros and cons of a “welfare state” in the United States as well. Two reports released by FDR’s National Resources Planning Board in March 1943 were widely viewed as “America’s Beveridge plan.” The reports envisaged a scheme of “minimum security” for all citizens, including a guarantee of access to basic health care.
Truman took a major step toward implementation of the plan on November 19, 1945, when he urged Congress to establish a national health insurance program. Eventually this was incorporated into Truman’s 1948 Fair Deal. Congress rejected the proposal, but it laid the foundation for later initiatives such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare. And Truman took other steps to increase federal support for the poor, including a significant expansion of Social Security.
February 20, 1946: Managing the US economy
The concept of an “American economy” was unknown before the 1930s, and nobody ever thought of the president as someone who was “responsible for managing the economy.” That began to change during the Roosevelt presidency. But Roosevelt himself never talked about “the economy,” and the president’s responsibility for it was not formalized until the passage of the Employment Act of 1946. Truman signed that law on February 20, 1946. The law created the Council of Economic Advisers and required the publication of an annual Economic Report of the President. The first Economic Report was sent to Congress by the Truman White House on January 8, 1947. (Senator Tim Kaine quoted from this report when he became the Democratic candidate for vice president on July 23, 2016: “America was not built on fear. It was built on courage, on imagination, and on a determination to do the job at hand.”)
December 5, 1946: Launching the modern civil rights era
FDR made unsavory compromises with Southern Democrats in order to obtain support for key parts of the New Deal program. But those compromises, which allowed the continued maltreatment of African Americans in southern states, became untenable for several reasons in the post-war era. On December 5, 1946, President Truman signed an executive order establishing the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. The committee issued its report, To Secure These Rights, on October 29, 1947. Truman sent proposed civil rights legislation to Congress on February 2, 1948, that included provisions to protect voting rights, end discrimination in public accommodations, and create a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice. However, the Republican-controlled Congress refused to act on Truman’s proposal. The Democratic Party also adopted a strong civil rights platform at its convention on July 14, 1948, causing a walkout by southern delegates. President Truman signed executive orders desegregating the federal civil service and the US military on July 26, 1948 and won re-election despite the defection of southern Democrats on November 2, 1948.
July 26, 1947: Overseeing the national security establishment
Truman was also the first president to manage a vast and permanent national security apparatus. The US military had certainly grown substantially during earlier periods of US history, but this was always regarded as an exceptional state of affairs. When war ended, the size of the military shrank considerably. That pattern changed after the start of the Cold War. The US began to maintain a large and enduring military capacity. This raised difficult questions about the supervision and control of a powerful bureaucracy and the dangers of a “garrison state.” A key moment in this transformation was the passage of the National Security Act of 1947, which was signed by President Truman on July 26, 1947. This law created the Department of the Air Force, and consolidated all of the branches into a new Department of Defense. It also created the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency.