The Fair Deal was a set of proposals put forward by U.S. President Harry S. Truman to Congress in 1945 and in his January 1949 State of the Union address. More generally, the term characterizes the entire domestic agenda of the Truman administration, from 1945 to 1953. It offered new proposals to continue New Deal liberalism, but with a conservative coalition controlling Congress, only a few of its major initiatives became law and then only if they had considerable GOP support. As Richard Neustadt concludes, the most important proposals were aid to education, national health insurance, the Fair Employment Practices Commission, and repeal of the Taft–Hartley Act. They were all debated at length, then voted down. Nevertheless, enough smaller and less controversial items passed that liberals could claim some success.[1]


A liberal Democrat of the Midwestern populist tradition, Truman was determined to both continue the legacy of the New Deal and to make Franklin Roosevelt's proposed Economic Bill of Rights a reality, while making his own mark on social policy.[2]

In a scholarly article published in 1972, historian Alonzo Hamby argued that the Fair Deal reflected the "vital center" approach to liberalism which rejected totalitarianism, was suspicious of excessive concentrations of government power, and honored the New Deal as an effort to achieve a "democratic socialist society." Solidly based upon the New Deal tradition in its advocacy of wide-ranging social legislation, the Fair Deal differed enough to claim a separate identity. The Depression did not return after the war and the Fair Deal had to contend with prosperity and an optimistic future. The Fair Dealers thought in terms of abundance rather than depression scarcity. Economist Leon Keyserling argued that the liberal task was to spread the benefits of abundance throughout society by stimulating economic growth. Agriculture Secretary Charles F. Brannan wanted to unleash the benefits of agricultural abundance and to encourage the development of an urban-rural Democratic coalition. However, the Brannan Plan was defeated by strong conservative opposition in Congress and by his unrealistic confidence in the possibility uniting urban labor and farm owners who distrusted rural insurgency. The Korean War made military spending the nation's priority and killed almost the whole Fair Deal but did encourage the pursuit of economic growth.[3]

Nevertheless, some of the Fair Deal's progressive policies were enacted piecemeal by legislation during Truman's time in office, and further enactments continued under the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, culminating in the sweeping tide of progressive legislation under Lyndon Johnson's Great Society agenda.

1945 Proposals

In September 1945, Truman addressed Congress and presented a 21-point program of domestic legislation outlining a series of proposed actions in the fields of economic development and social welfare.[4] The measures that Truman proposed to Congress included:[5]

  1. Major improvements in the coverage and adequacy of the unemployment compensation system.
  2. Substantial increases in the minimum wage, together with broader coverage.
  3. The maintenance and extension of price controls to keep down the cost of living in the transition to a peacetime economy.
  4. A pragmatic approach towards drafting legislation eliminating wartime agencies and wartime controls, taking legal difficulties into account.
  5. Legislation to ensure full employment.
  6. Legislation to make the Fair Employment Practice Committee permanent.
  7. The maintenance of sound industrial relations.
  8. The extension of the United States Employment Service to provide jobs for demobilized military personnel.
  9. Increased aid to farmers.
  10. The removal of the restrictions on eligibility for voluntary enlistment and allowing the armed forces to enlist a greater number of volunteers.
  11. The enactment of broad and comprehensive housing legislation.
  12. The establishment of a single Federal research agency.
  13. A major revision of the taxation system.
  14. The encouragement of surplus-property disposal.
  15. Greater levels of assistance to small businesses.
  16. Improvements in federal aid to war veterans.
  17. A major expansion of public works, conserving and building up natural resources.
  18. The encouragement of post-war reconstruction and settling the obligations of the Lend-Lease Act.
  19. The introduction of a decent pay scale for all Federal Government employees—executive, legislative, and judicial.
  20. The promotion of the sale of ships to remove the uncertainty regarding the disposal of America's large surplus tonnage following the end of hostilities.
  21. Legislation to bring about the acquisition and retention of stockpiles of materials necessary for meeting the defense needs of the nation.

Finally, Truman announced that he would soon "communicate with the Congress recommending a national health program to provide adequate medical care for all Americans and to protect them from financial loss and hardships resulting from illness and accident."[5] (See the Healthcare section below.)

Truman did not send proposed legislation to Congress; he expected Congress to draft the bills. Many of these proposed reforms, however, were never realized due to the opposition of the conservative majority in Congress, further solidified after the Republicans took control of both houses in the 1946 midterm elections. Despite these setbacks, Truman's proposals to Congress became more and more abundant over the course of his presidency, and by 1948 a legislative program that was more comprehensive came to be known as the "Fair Deal".[6]

1949 Proposals

In his 1949 State of the Union address to Congress on January 5, 1949, Truman stated that "Every segment of our population, and every individual, has a right to expect from his government a fair deal." The proposed measures included:[7]

Despite a mixed record of legislative success, the Fair Deal remains significant in establishing the call for universal health care as a rallying cry for the Democratic Party. Lyndon B. Johnson credited Truman's unfulfilled program as influencing Great Society measures such as Medicare that Johnson successfully pushed through Congress during the 1960s.[10]

Opposition and progress

The Fair Deal reforms helped to transform the United States from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy.[11] In the context of postwar reconstruction and the Cold War, the Fair Deal sought to preserve and extend the liberal tradition of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.[4] However, the Fair Deal faced much opposition from the many conservative politicians who wanted a reduced role of the federal government. During these postwar years, the nation enjoyed a return to prosperity not seen since before the Great Depression, and support for conservative politicians grew.[12]

The Fair Deal faced opposition by a coalition of conservative Republicans and predominantly southern conservative Democrats. However, despite strong opposition, there were elements of Truman's agenda that did win congressional approval, such as the public housing subsidies cosponsored by Republican Robert A. Taft under the 1949 National Housing Act, which funded slum clearance and the construction of 810,000 units of low-income housing over a period of six years.[13]

Truman was also helped by the election of a Democratic Congress in 1948. According to Eric Leif Davin, the 1949–50 Congress ‘was the most liberal Congress since 1938 and produced more “New-Deal-Fair Deal” legislation than any Congress between 1938 and Johnson's Great Society of the mid-1960s.” As noted by one study

“This was the Congress that reformed the Displaced Persons Act, increased the minimum wage, doubled the hospital construction program, authorized the National Science Foundation and the rural telephone program, suspended the ‘sliding scale’ on price supports, extended the soil conservation program, provided new grants for planning state and local public works and plugged the long-standing merger loophole in the Clayton Act…Moreover, as protector, as defender, wielder of the veto against encroachments on the liberal preserve, Truman left a record of considerable success – an aspect of the Fair Deal not to be discounted.”[14]

Although Truman was unable to implement his Fair Deal program in its entirety, a great deal of social and economic progress took place in the late forties and early fifties. A census report confirmed[citation needed] that gains in housing, education, living standards, and income under the Truman administration were unparalleled in American history.By 1953, 62 million Americans had jobs, a gain of 11 million in seven years, while unemployment had all but vanished. Farm income, dividends, and corporate income were at all-time highs, and there had not been a failure of an insured bank in nearly nine years.[citation needed] The minimum wage had also been increased while Social Security benefits had been doubled, and 8 million veterans had attended college by the end of the Truman administration as a result of the G.I. Bill,[15][page needed] which subsidized the businesses, training, education, and housing of millions of returning veterans.[7]

Millions of homes had been financed through previous government programs, and a start was made in slum clearance. Poverty was also significantly reduced, with one estimate suggesting that the percentage of Americans living in poverty had fallen from 33% of the population in 1949 to 28% by 1952.[16][page needed] Incomes had risen faster than prices, which meant that real living standards were considerably higher than seven years earlier. Progress had also been made in civil rights, with the desegregation of both the federal civil Service and the armed forces and the creation of the Commission on Civil Rights. In fact, according to one historian, Truman had “done more than any President since Lincoln to awaken American conscience to the issues of civil rights".[15]

Legislation and programs

Note: This listing contains reforms drawn up by the Truman Administration together with reforms drawn up by individual Congressmen. The latter have been included because it is arguable that the progressive nature of these reforms (such as the Water Pollution Law, which was partly a Republican initiative) was compatible with the liberalism of the Fair Deal.

Civil Rights

As Senator, Truman had not supported the nascent Civil Rights Movement. In a 1947 speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which marked the first time a sitting President had ever addressed the group, Truman said "Every man should have the right to a decent home, the right to an education, the right to adequate medical care, the right to a worthwhile job, the right to an equal share in the making of public decisions through the ballot, and the right to a fair trial in a fair court."[17]

As President, he put forward many civil rights programs but they were met with a lot of resistance by southern Democrats. All his legislative proposals were blocked. However, he used presidential executive orders to end discrimination in the armed forces and denied government contracts to firms with racially discriminatory practices. He also named African Americans to federal posts. Except for nondiscrimination provisions of the Housing Act of 1949, Truman had to be content with civil rights' gains achieved by executive order or through the federal courts. Vaughan argues that by continuing appeals to Congress for civil rights legislation, Truman helped reverse the long acceptance of segregation and discrimination by establishing integration as a moral principle.[18]


On November 19, 1945, Truman spent a Special Message to Congress recommending the adoption and funding of "a comprehensive and modern health program for the Nation, consisting of five major parts":[19][20][21]

On the same day, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner introduced S. 1606, known as the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Bill, containing legislative provisions to enact Truman's national health program into law.[22] After intense debates in Congress, the bill failed to pass.[23][24]

However, a number of other public-health initiatives were enacted during Truman's presidency:


Under Truman, many adjustments were made to the social welfare system, although one of his key aims, to extend Social Security coverage to 25 million Americans, was never accomplished. Despite this, 10 million received Social Security coverage.[37]


A centerpiece of the Fair Deal—the repeal of the Taft–Hartley Act — failed to pass. As Plotke notes, "By the early 1950s repeal of Taft–Hartley was only a symbolic Democratic platform statement."[55]


As Donaldson notes, the major proposal for large-scale federal aid to education "died quickly, mostly over whether aid should be given to private schools."[69]


During the Truman years, the role of the federal government in the field of housing provision was extended, with one major reform in particular (the Housing Act of 1949) passed with the support of the conservative senator Robert A. Taft.


Veterans benefits were non-controversial, and won support from left and right.


Dean shows that the major Fair Deal initiative, the "Brannan Plan" proposed by Secretary of Agriculture Brannan, failed in Congress because Truman delayed too long in presenting it before Congress and it lost initiative and because he never consulted with top leaders in farm legislation. A separate Anderson Act was signed in 1949 that had more in common with the Republican-sponsored Agricultural Act of 1948 than Secretary Brannan's plan did.[89]

Federal reclamation and power projects

Truman's Fair Deal reclamation program called for expanded public distribution of federally produced electric power and endorsed restrictions on the amount of land an owner could irrigate from federal water projects. Lobbying efforts by privately owned power companies prevented the spread of public utilities. Political pressure and conflicts with the Budget Bureau and the Army Corps of Engineers kept the Bureau of Reclamation from enforcing the excess land law.[95]

See also


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  6. ^ Hamby, Harry S. Truman and the Fair Deal, page 15.
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Further reading