The cloud of fear and uncertainty that gripped the United States during the years of World War II began to lift with the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945, but Americans felt the war's aftershocks for a long time. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death in April of that year took from many Americans the feeling of security and confidence they'd known under his lengthy term of patriarchal leadership. They wondered whether his successor, Harry S Truman, could steer the ship of state during such a period of social and economic tumult. Although FDR and Truman were ideologically close, Truman's rough-hewn, plainspoken Missouri persona contrasted so sharply with Roosevelt's patrician speech and manner that many Americans were simply distrustful of his ability to lead the country as chief executive.
Truman had inherited a truly difficult and tremendously complex geopolitical state of affairs that was complicated by our own convulsive transition to a peacetime economy. Europe was in the midst of the worst modern-day famine it had seen; the end of the war did not mean the immediate beginning of reconstruction. Says Jeff Mueller, dean of Springfield College and former professor of U.S. history at that institution: "It was a very complex economic situation. The economies of Europe were in shambles, and it was actually a worldwide food emergency. It was so bad that Truman dispatched former President Herbert Hoover to review the situation, and Hoover returned and apprised him of the gravity of the situation.
"FDR was a tough act to follow, and any president would have had a hard time of it. Truman wanted to feed Europe and to control inflation here, and he had people telling him to keep the OPA [Office of Price Administration] in place to keep prices down, and yet labor and farmers and business were crying out for change. They felt that they had been stifled during four years of war and wanted to see prices [and profits] rise."
The OPA had been established in 1941 to control consumer prices and check profiteering. It succeeded in its mission during the war, but by 1946 it had grown into a vast multiheaded monster that employed 73,000 people. As in Europe, a huge black-market economy existed in parallel to the regular economy, and by 1946 Americans were beginning to chafe at the restrictions on the legal economy that allowed such a system to flourish. They wanted to return to an unfettered free-market economy.
"During the war, there was wide acceptance of the system," says Mueller. "But after the war, people were saying, 'Why are we still doing this? We're tired of rationing.' There was a desire to bring the troops home, to demobilize and return to the way it was before Pearl Harbor. At war's end, support for the price system began to wane. As a matter of fact, the Republican slogan in the fall elections of 1946 was 'Had enough?'"
The price of meat was a particularly nettlesome subject for the Truman administration. In today's parlance, it was the hot-button issue of the 1946 elections. House Speaker Sam Rayburn said, "It is going to become a damn beefsteak election!" Apparently many voters had had enough by that time -- Republicans swept into power in both houses of Congress.
Accompanying today's column is a photograph of a queue of Springfield citizens in the 400 block of East Monroe Street. They are waiting to purchase meat from the Monroe Meat Market (now Food Mart). Other businesses that are visible in the photograph are the Coney Island Restaurant (red-hots, 10-cents), the Broadview Hotel, the Ambassador Beauty Salon, Roxy Cleaners and Hat Works, the Alcove Tavern, the Oriental Chop Suey Restaurant (lunch 40 cents, dinner 75 cents), and Lee's Beauty Salon and Barber Shop. (Now occupying that block, in addition to Food Mart, are Petals and Accents, Gallina Pizza, and The Firehouse bar.)
The queue for meat was actually tied more to availability than to price -- meat was no longer being rationed. According to Mueller, acute meat shortages didn't occur until after Aug. 20, when meat virtually disappeared. Big packers such as Swift and Armour could not compete with the black market. They were unable to buy a single head of cattle at legal compliance prices. Eventually livestock producers just kept the cattle on the farm. Mueller says, "Not even the Trumans could get roast beef, but friends sent them Missouri ham and turkey."
Mueller likens the situation to the situation with oil today and says that it underscores just how important the price and availability of a single commodity can be.
"Truman didn't know quite what to do. People kept saying, 'What would FDR have done?' " he says. "Though Truman today is ranked as one of our top 10 presidents, in 1946 his approval rating fell to 37 percent. Though he was the consummate New Dealer, he had his doubts about the artificial manipulation of the economy, and he lifted all food and livestock price restrictions in October 1946. When he asked his Democratic pollsters how people were going to vote, their response was 'No meat, no votes.' "