An Outline of American History
"We must be the great arsenal of democracy."
-- President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1941
In 1933 the new president, Franklin Roosevelt, brought an air of confidence and optimism that quickly rallied the people to the banner of his program, known as the New Deal. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," the president declared in his inaugural address to the nation.
In a certain sense, it is fair to say that the New Deal merely introduced types of social and economic reform familiar to many Europeans for more than a generation. Moreover, the New Deal represented the culmination of a long-range trend toward abandonment of "laissez-faire" capitalism, going back to the regulation of the railroads in the 1880s, and the flood of state and national reform legislation introduced in the Progressive era of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
What was truly novel about the New Deal, however, was the speed with which it accomplished what previously had taken generations. In fact, many of the reforms were hastily drawn and weakly administered; some actually contradicted others. And during the entire New Deal era, public criticism and debate were never interrupted or suspended; in fact, the New Deal brought to the individual citizen a sharp revival of interest in government.
When Roosevelt took the presidential oath, the banking and credit system of the nation was in a state of paralysis. With astonishing rapidity the nation's banks were first closed -- and then reopened only if they were solvent. The administration adopted a policy of moderate currency inflation to start an upward movement in commodity prices and to afford some relief to debtors. New governmental agencies brought generous credit facilities to industry and agriculture. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insured savings-bank deposits up to $5,000, and severe regulations were imposed upon the sale of securities on the stock exchange.
By 1933 millions of Americans were out of work. Bread lines were a common sight in most cities. Hundreds of thousands roamed the country in search of food, work and shelter. "Brother, can you spare a dime?" went the refrain of a popular song.
An early step for the unemployed came in the form of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a program enacted by Congress to bring relief to young men between 18 and 25 years of age. Run in semi-military style, the CCC enrolled jobless young men in work camps across the country for about $30 per month. About 2 million young men took part during the decade. They participated in a variety of conservation projects: planting trees to combat soil erosion and maintain national forests; eliminating stream pollution; creating fish, game and bird sanctuaries; and conserving coal, petroleum, shale, gas, sodium and helium deposits.
Work relief came in the form of the Civil Works Administration. Although criticized as "make work," the jobs funded ranged from ditch digging to highway repairs to teaching. Created in November 1933, it was abandoned in the spring of 1934. Roosevelt and his key officials, however, continued to favor unemployment programs based on work relief rather than welfare.
The New Deal years were characterized by a belief that greater regulation would solve many of the country's problems. In 1933, for example, Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) to provide economic relief to farmers. The AAA had at its core a plan to raise crop prices by paying farmers a subsidy to compensate for voluntary cutbacks in production. Funds for the payments would be generated by a tax levied on industries that processed crops. By the time the act had become law, however, the growing season was well underway, and the AAA encouraged farmers to plow under their abundant crops. Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace called this activity a "shocking commentary on our civilization." Nevertheless, through the AAA and the Commodity Credit Corporation, a program which extended loans for crops kept in storage and off the market, output dropped.
Between 1932 and 1935, farm income increased by more than 50 percent, but only partly because of federal programs. During the same years that farmers were being encouraged to take land out of production -- displacing tenants and sharecroppers -- a severe drought hit the Great Plains states, significantly reducing farm production. Violent wind and dust storms ravaged the southern Great Plains in what became known as the "Dust Bowl," throughout the 1930s, but particularly from 1935 to 1938. Crops were destroyed, cars and machinery were ruined, people and animals were harmed. Approximately 800,000 people, often called "Okies," left Arkansas, Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma during the 1930s and 1940s. Most headed farther west to the land of myth and promise, California. The migrants were not only farmers, but also professionals, retailers and others whose livelihoods were connected to the health of the farm communities. California was not the place of their dreams, at least initially. Most migrants ended up competing for seasonal jobs picking crops at extremely low wages.
The government provided aid in the form of the Soil Conservation Service, established in 1935. Farm practices that had damaged the soil had intensified the severity of the storms, and the Service taught farmers measures to reduce erosion. In addition, almost 30,000 kilometers of trees were planted to break the force of winds.
Although the AAA had been mostly successful, it was abandoned in 1936, when the tax on food processors was ruled unconstitutional. Six weeks later Congress passed a more effective farm-relief act, which authorized the government to make payments to farmers who reduced plantings of soil-depleting crops -- thereby achieving crop reduction through soil conservation practices.
By 1940 nearly 6 million farmers were receiving federal subsidies under this program. The new act likewise provided loans on surplus crops, insurance for wheat and a system of planned storage to ensure a stable food supply. Soon, prices of agricultural commodities rose, and economic stability for the farmer began to seem possible.
The National Recovery Administration (NRA), established in 1933 with the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), attempted to end cut-throat competition by setting codes of fair competitive practice to generate more jobs and thus more buying. Although the NRA was welcomed initially, business complained bitterly of over-regulation as recovery began to take hold. The NRA was declared unconstitutional in 1935. By this time other policies were fostering recovery, and the government soon took the position that administered prices in certain lines of business were a severe drain on the national economy and a barrier to recovery.
It was also during the New Deal that organized labor made greater gains than at any previous time in American history. NIRA had guaranteed to labor the right of collective bargaining (bargaining as a unit representing individual workers with industry). Then in 1935 Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, which defined unfair labor practices, gave workers the right to bargain through unions of their own choice and prohibited employers from interfering with union activities. It also created the National Labor Relations Board to supervise collective bargaining, administer elections and ensure workers the right to choose the organization that should represent them in dealing with employers.
The great progress made in labor organization brought working people a growing sense of common interests, and labor's power increased not only in industry but also in politics. This power was exercised largely within the framework of the two major parties, however, and the Democratic Party generally received more union support than the Republicans.
In its early years, the New Deal sponsored a remarkable series of legislative initiatives and achieved significant increases in production and prices -- but it did not bring an end to the Depression. And as the sense of immediate crisis eased, new demands emerged. Businessmen mourned the end of "laissez-faire" and chafed under the regulations of the NIRA. Vocal attacks also mounted from the political left and right as dreamers, schemers and politicians alike emerged with economic panaceas that drew wide audiences of those dissatisfied with the pace of recovery. They included Francis E. Townsend's plan for generous old-age pensions; the inflationary suggestions of Father Coughlin, the radio priest who blamed international bankers in speeches increasingly peppered with anti-Semitic imagery; and most formidably, the "Every Man a King" plan of Huey P. Long, senator and former governor of Louisiana, the powerful and ruthless spokesman of the displaced who ran the state like a personal fiefdom. (If he had not been assassinated, Long very likely would have launched a presidential challenge to Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.)
In the face of these pressures from left and right, President Roosevelt backed a new set of economic and social measures. Prominent among these were measures to fight poverty, to counter unemployment with work and to provide a social safety net.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA), the principal relief agency of the so-called second New Deal, was an attempt to provide work rather than welfare. Under the WPA, buildings, roads, airports and schools were constructed. Actors, painters, musicians and writers were employed through the Federal Theater Project, the Federal Art Project and the Federal Writers Project. In addition, the National Youth Administration gave part-time employment to students, established training programs and provided aid to unemployed youth. The WPA only included about three million jobless at a time; when it was abandoned in 1943 it had helped a total of 9 million people.
But the New Deal's cornerstone, according to Roosevelt, was the Social Security Act of 1935. Social Security created a system of insurance for the aged, unemployed and disabled based on employer and employee contributions. Many other industrialized nations had already enacted such programs, but calls for such an initiative in the United States by the Progressives in the early 1900s had gone unheeded. Although conservatives complained that the Social Security system went against American traditions, it was actually relatively conservative. Social Security was funded in large part by taxes on the earnings of current workers, with a single fixed rate for all regardless of income. To Roosevelt, these limitations on the programs were compromises to ensure passage. Although its origins were initially quite modest, Social Security today is one of the largest domestic programs administered by the U.S. government.
In 1936, the Republican Party nominated Alfred M. Landon, the relatively liberal governor of Kansas, to oppose Roosevelt. Despite all the complaints leveled at the New Deal, Roosevelt won an even more decisive victory than in 1932. He took 60 percent of the population and carried all states except Maine and Vermont. In this election, a broad new coalition aligned with the Democratic Party emerged, consisting of labor, most farmers, immigrants and urban ethnic groups from East and Southern Europe, African Americans and the South. The Republican Party received the support of business as well as middle-class members of small towns and suburbs. This political alliance, with some variation and shifting, remained intact for several decades.
From 1932 to 1938 there was widespread public debate on the meaning of New Deal policies to the nation's political and economic life. It became obvious that Americans wanted the government to take greater responsibility for the welfare of the nation. Indeed, historians generally credit the New Deal with establishing the foundations of the modern welfare state in the United States. Some New Deal critics argued that the indefinite extension of government functions would eventually undermine the liberties of the people. But President Roosevelt insisted that measures fostering economic well-being would strengthen liberty and democracy.
In a radio address in 1938, Roosevelt reminded the American people that:
Democracy has disappeared in several other great nations, not because the people of those nations disliked democracy, but because they had grown tired of unemployment and insecurity, of seeing their children hungry while they sat helpless in the face of government confusion and government weakness through lack of leadership....Finally, in desperation, they chose to sacrifice liberty in the hope of getting something to eat. We in America know that our democratic institutions can be preserved and made to work. But in order to preserve them we need...to prove that the practical operation of democratic government is equal to the task of protecting the security of the people....The people of America are in agreement in defending their liberties at any cost, and the first line of the defense lies in the protection of economic security.
Before Roosevelt's second term was well under way, his domestic program was overshadowed by a new danger little noted by average Americans: the expansionist designs of totalitarian regimes in Japan, Italy and Germany. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria and crushed Chinese resistance; a year later the Japanese set up the puppet state of Manchukuo. Italy, having succumbed to fascism, enlarged its boundaries in Libya and in 1935 attacked Ethiopia. Germany, where Adolf Hitler had organized the National Socialist Party and seized the reins of government in 1933, reoccupied the Rhineland and undertook large-scale rearmament.
As the real nature of totalitarianism became clear, and as Germany, Italy and Japan continued their aggression, American apprehension fueled isolationist sentiment. In 1938, after Hitler had incorporated Austria into the German Reich, his demands for the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia made war seem possible at any moment in Europe. The United States, disillusioned by the failure of the crusade for democracy in World War I, announced that in no circumstances could any country involved in the conflict look to it for aid. Neutrality legislation, enacted piecemeal from 1935 to 1937, prohibited trade with or credit to any of the warring nations. The objective was to prevent, at almost any cost, the involvement of the United States in a non-American war.
With the Nazi assault on Poland in 1939 and the outbreak of World War II, isolationist sentiment increased, even though Americans were far from neutral in their feelings about world events. Public sentiment clearly favored the victims of Hitler's aggression and supported the Allied powers that stood in opposition to German expansion. Under the circumstances, however, Roosevelt could only wait until public opinion regarding U.S. involvement was altered by events.
With the fall of France and the air war against Britain in 1940, the debate intensified between those who favored aiding the democracies and the isolationists, organized around the America First Committee, whose support ranged from Midwestern conservatives to left-leaning pacifists. In the end, the interventionist argument won a protracted public debate, aided in large measure by the work of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies.
The United States joined Canada in a Mutual Board of Defense, and aligned with the Latin American republics in extending collective protection to the nations in the Western Hemisphere. Congress, confronted with the mounting crisis, voted immense sums for rearmament, and in September 1940 passed the first peacetime conscription bill ever enacted in the United States -- albeit by a margin of one vote in the House of Representatives. In early 1941 Congress approved the Lend-Lease Program, which enabled President Roosevelt to transfer arms and equipment to any nation (notably Great Britain, the Soviet Union and China) deemed vital to the defense of the United States. Total Lend-Lease aid by war's end amounted to more than $50,000 million.
The 1940 presidential election campaign demonstrated that the isolationists, while vocal, commanded relatively few followers nationally. Roosevelt's Republican opponent, Wendell Wilkie, lacked a compelling issue since he supported the president's foreign policy, and also agreed with a large part of Roosevelt's domestic program. Thus the November election yielded another majority for Roosevelt. For the first time in U.S. history, a president was elected to a third term.
While most Americans anxiously watched the course of the European war, tension mounted in Asia. Taking advantage of an opportunity to improve its strategic position, Japan boldly announced a "new order" in which it would exercise hegemony over all of the Pacific. Battling for its survival against Nazi Germany, Britain was unable to resist, withdrawing from Shanghai and temporarily closing the Burma Road. In the summer of 1940, Japan won permission from the weak Vichy government in France to use airfields in Indochina. By September the Japanese had joined the Rome-Berlin Axis. As a countermove, the United States imposed an embargo on export of scrap iron to Japan.
It seemed that the Japanese might turn southward toward the oil, tin and rubber of British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. In July 1941 the Japanese occupied the remainder of Indochina; the United States, in response, froze Japanese assets.
General Hideki Tojo became prime minister of Japan in October 1941. In mid-November, he sent a special envoy to the United States to meet with Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Among other things, Japan demanded that the U.S. release Japanese assets and stop U.S. naval expansion in the Pacific. Hull countered with a proposal for Japanese withdrawal from China and Indochina in exchange for the freeing of the frozen assets. The Japanese asked for two weeks to study the proposal, but on December 1 rejected it. On December 6, Franklin Roosevelt appealed directly to the Japanese emperor, Hirohito. On the morning of December 7, however, Japanese carrier-based planes attacked the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in a devastating, surprise attack. Nineteen ships, including five battleships, and about 150 U.S. planes were destroyed; more than 2,300 soldiers, sailors and civilians were killed. Only one fact favored the Americans that day: the U.S. aircraft carriers that would play such a critical role in the ensuing naval war in the Pacific were at sea and not anchored at Pearl Harbor.
As the details of the Japanese raids upon Hawaii, Midway, Wake and Guam blared from American radios, incredulity turned to anger at what President Roosevelt called "a day that will live in infamy." On December 8, Congress declared a state of war with Japan; three days later Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.
The nation rapidly geared itself for mobilization of its people and its entire industrial capacity. On January 6, 1942, President Roosevelt announced staggering production goals: delivery in that year of 60,000 planes, 45,000 tanks, 20,000 antiaircraft guns and 18 million deadweight tons of merchant shipping. All the nation's activities -- farming, manufacturing, mining, trade, labor, investment, communications, even education and cultural undertakings -- were in some fashion brought under new and enlarged controls. The nation raised money in enormous sums and created great new industries for the mass production of ships, armored vehicles and planes. Major movements of population took place. Under a series of conscription acts, the United States brought the armed forces up to a total of 15,100,000. By the end of 1943, approximately 65 million men and women were in uniform or in war-related occupations.
The attack on the United States disarmed the appeal of isolationists and permitted quick military mobilization. However, as a result of Pearl Harbor and the fear of Asian espionage, Americans also committed an act of intolerance: the internment of Japanese-Americans. In February 1942, nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans residing in California were removed from their homes and interned behind barbed wire in 10 wretched temporary camps, later to be moved to "relocation centers" outside isolated Southwestern towns. Nearly 63 percent of these Japanese-Americans were Nisei -- American-born -- and, therefore, U.S. citizens. No evidence of espionage ever surfaced. In fact, Japanese-Americans from Hawaii and the continental United States fought with noble distinction and valor in two infantry units on the Italian front. Others served as interpreters and translators in the Pacific. In 1983 the U.S. government acknowledged the injustice of internment with limited payments to those Japanese-Americans of that era who were still living.
Soon after the United States entered the war, the western Allies decided that their essential military effort was to be concentrated in Europe, where the core of enemy power lay, while the Pacific theater was to be secondary.
In the spring and summer of 1942, British forces were able to break the German drive aimed at Egypt and push German General Erwin Rommel back into Libya, ending the threat to the Suez Canal, which connected the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.
On November 7, 1942, an American army landed in French North Africa, and after hard-fought battles, inflicted severe defeats on Italian and German armies. The year 1942 was also the turning point on the Eastern Front, where the Soviet Union, suffering immense losses, stopped the Nazi invasion at the gates of Leningrad and Moscow, and defeated the German forces at Stalingrad.
In July 1943 British and American forces invaded Sicily, and by late summer the southern shore of the Mediterranean was cleared of Fascist forces. Allied forces landed on the Italian mainland, and although the Italian government accepted unconditional surrender, fighting against Nazi forces in Italy was bitter and protracted. Rome was not liberated until June 4, 1944. While battles were still raging in Italy, Allied forces made devastating air raids on German railroads, factories and weapon emplacements, including German oil supplies at Ploesti in Romania.
Late in 1943 the Allies, after much debate over strategy, decided to open a Western front to force the Germans to divert far larger forces from the Russian front. U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe. After immense preparations, on June 6, 1944, the first contingents of a U.S., British and Canadian invasion army, protected by a greatly superior air force, landed on the beaches of Normandy in northern France. With the beachhead established after heavy fighting, more troops poured in, and many contingents of German defenders were caught in pockets by pincer movements. The Allied armies began to move across France toward Germany. On August 25 Paris was liberated. At the borders of Germany, the Allies were delayed by stubborn counteraction, but by February and March 1945, troops advanced into Germany from the west, and German armies fell before the Russians in the east. On May 8 all that remained of the Third Reich surrendered its land, sea and air forces.
In the meantime, U.S. forces were advancing in the Pacific. Although U.S. troops were forced to surrender in the Philippines in early 1942, the Allies rallied in the following months. General James "Jimmy" Doolittle led U.S. army bombers on a raid over Tokyo in April that had little actual military significance, but gave Americans an immense psychological boost. In the Battle of the Coral Sea the following month -- the first naval engagement in history in which all the fighting was done by carrier-based planes -- the Japanese navy incurred such heavy losses that they were forced to give up the idea of striking at Australia. The Battle of Midway in June in the central Pacific Ocean became the turning point for the Allies, resulting in the first major defeat of the Japanese navy, which lost four aircraft carriers, ending the Japanese advance across the central Pacific.
Other battles also contributed to Allied success. Guadalcanal, a decisive U.S. victory in November 1942, marked the first major U.S. offensive action in the Pacific. For most of the next two years, American and Australian troops fought their way northward along a central Pacific island "ladder" capturing the Solomons, the Gilberts, the Marshalls, the Marianas and the Bonin Islands in a series of amphibious assaults.
Allied military efforts were accompanied by a series of important international meetings on the political objectives of the war. The first of these took place in August 1941, before U.S. entry into the war, between President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill -- at a time when the United States was not yet actively engaged in the struggle and the military situation seemed bleak.
Meeting aboard cruisers near Newfoundland, Canada, Roosevelt and Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter, a statement of purposes in which they endorsed these objectives: no territorial aggrandizement; no territorial changes without the consent of the people concerned; the right of all people to choose their own form of government; the restoration of self-government to those deprived of it; economic collaboration between all nations; freedom from war, from fear and from want for all peoples; freedom of the seas; and the abandonment of the use of force as an instrument of international policy.
In January 1943 at Casablanca, Morocco, an Anglo-American conference decided that no peace would be concluded with the Axis and its Balkan satellites except on the basis of "unconditional surrender." This term, insisted upon by Roosevelt, sought to assure the people of all the fighting nations that no separate peace negotiations would be carried on with representatives of Fascism and Nazism; that no bargain of any kind would be made by such representatives to save any remnant of their power; that before final peace terms could be laid down to the peoples of Germany, Italy and Japan, their military overlords must concede before the entire world their own complete and utter defeat.
At Cairo, on November 22, 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill met with Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek to agree on terms for Japan, including the relinquishment of gains from past aggression. At Tehran on November 28, Roosevelt, Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin agreed to establish a new international organization, the United Nations. In February 1945, they met again at Yalta, with victory seemingly secure, and made further agreements. There, the Soviet Union secretly agreed to enter the war against Japan not long after the surrender of Germany. The eastern boundary of Poland was set roughly at the Curzon line of 1919. After some discussion of heavy reparations to be collected from Germany -- payment demanded by Stalin and opposed by Roosevelt and Churchill -- the decision was deferred. Specific arrangements were made concerning Allied occupation in Germany and the trial and punishment of war criminals.
Also at Yalta it was agreed that the powers in the Security Council of the proposed United Nations should have the right of veto in matters affecting their security.
Two months after his return from Yalta, Franklin Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage while vacationing in Georgia. Few figures in U.S. history have been so deeply mourned, and for a time the American people suffered from a numbing sense of irreparable loss. Vice President Harry Truman, former senator from Missouri, assumed the presidency.
The war in the Pacific continued after Germany's surrender, and the final battles there were among the hardest fought. Beginning in June 1944, the Battle of the Philippine Sea wreaked havoc on the Japanese Navy, forcing the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Tojo. General Douglas MacArthur -- who had reluctantly left the Philippines two years before to escape Japanese capture -- returned to the islands in October, clearing the way for the U.S. Navy. The Battle of Leyte Gulf resulted in a decisive defeat of the Japanese Navy, restoring control of Philippine waters to the Allies.
By February 1945, U.S. forces had taken Manila. Next, the United States set its sight on the island of Iwo Jima in the Bonin Islands, about halfway between the Marianas Islands and Japan. But the Japanese were determined to hold the island, and made the best use of natural caves and rocky terrain. U.S. bombardment met determined Japanese resistance on land and kamikaze suicide attacks from the sky. U.S. forces took the island by mid-March, but not before losing the lives of some 6,000 U.S. Marines and nearly all the Japanese forces. The U.S. began extensive air attacks on Japanese shipping and airfields. From May through August, the U.S. 20th Air Force launched wave after wave of air attacks against the Japanese home islands.
The heads of the U.S., British and Soviet governments met at Potsdam, a suburb outside Berlin, from July 17, to August 2, 1945, to discuss operations against Japan, the peace settlement in Europe, and a policy for the future of Germany.
The conference agreed on the need to assist in the reeducation of a German generation reared under Nazism and to define the broad principles governing the restoration of democratic political life to the country. The conferees also discussed reparations claims against Germany, agreed to the trial of Nazi leaders accused of crimes against humanity, and provided for the removal of industrial plants and property by the Soviet Union. But the Soviet claim, already raised at Yalta, for reparations totaling $10 thousand-million remained a subject of controversy.
The day before the Potsdam Conference began, an atomic bomb was exploded at Alamogordo, New Mexico, the culmination of three years of intensive research in laboratories across the United States in what was known as the Manhattan Project. President Truman, calculating that an atomic bomb might be used to gain Japan's surrender more quickly and with fewer casualties than an invasion of the mainland, ordered the bomb be used if the Japanese did not surrender by August 3. The Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, promising that Japan would neither be destroyed nor enslaved if it surrendered; if Japan did not, however, it would meet "utter destruction."
A committee of U.S. military and political officials and scientists considered the question of targets for the new weapon. Truman had written that only military installations should be targeted. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, for example, argued successfully that Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital and a repository of many national and religious treasures be taken out of consideration. Hiroshima, a center of war industries and military operations, was chosen.
On August 6, a U.S. plane, the Enola Gay, dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. On August 8, a second atomic bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki. Americans were relieved that the bomb hastened the end of the war; the realization of its awesome destructiveness would come later. On August 14, Japan agreed to the terms set at Potsdam. On September 2, 1945, Japan formally surrendered.
In November 1945 at Nuremberg, Germany, the criminal trials of Nazi leaders provided for at Potsdam took place. Before a group of distinguished jurists from Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States, the Nazis were accused not only of plotting and waging aggressive war but also of violating the laws of war and of humanity in the systematic genocide, known as the Holocaust, of European Jews and other peoples. The trials lasted more than 10 months and resulted in the conviction of all but three of the accused.
One of the most far-reaching decisions concerning the shape of the postwar world took place on April 25, 1945, with the war in Europe in its final days, although the conflict still raged in the Pacific. Representatives of 50 nations met in San Francisco, California, to erect the framework of the United Nations. The constitution they drafted outlined a world organization in which international differences could be discussed peacefully and common cause made against hunger and disease. In contrast to its rejection of U.S. membership in the League of Nations after World War I, the U.S. Senate promptly ratified the U.N. Charter by an 89 to 2 vote. This action confirmed the end of the spirit of isolationism as a dominating element in American foreign policy and signaled to the world that the United States intended to play a major role in international affairs.
While the 1920s were years of relative prosperity in the United States, the workers in industries such as steel, automobiles, rubber and textiles benefitted less than many others. Working conditions in many of these industries remained as onerous as they had been in the previous century. Until 1923, for example, the average U.S. steel worker was expected to work a 12-hour day, with one day off every two weeks.
The 1920s saw the owners of the mass production industries redouble their efforts to prevent the growth of unions, which under the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had enjoyed some success during World War I. This took many forms, including the use of spies, armed strikebreakers and firing of those suspected of union sympathies. Independent unions were often accused of being communist. At the same time, many companies formed their own union organizations.
Traditionally, state legislatures supported the concept of the "open shop," which prevented a union from being the exclusive representative of all workers. This made it easier for companies to deny unions the right to collective bargaining and block unionization through court enforcement. On a more positive note, some companies in the 1920s began offering workers various pension, profit-sharing, stock option and health plans to ensure their loyalty.
Beginning with steel in 1919, companies harshly suppressed a series of strikes in the mass production industries. Between 1920 and 1929, as a result, union membership in the United States dropped from about five million to three-and-a-half million.
The onset of the Great Depression led to a precipitous drop in demand for all types of industrial production. The result was widespread unemployment. By 1933 there were over 12 million Americans out of work. In the automobile industry, for example, the work force was cut in half between 1929 and 1933. At the same time, wages dropped by two-thirds.
The election of Franklin Roosevelt, however, was to change the status of the American industrial worker forever.
The first indication that Roosevelt was interested in the well-being of workers came with the appointment of Frances Perkins, a prominent advocate of workplace reform, to be his secretary of labor. (Perkins was also the first woman to hold a Cabinet-level position.) In June 1933 Congress passed the far-reaching National Industrial Recovery Act. It sought to raise industrial wages, limit the hours in a work week and eliminate child labor. Most important, the law prohibited companies from forcing employees to join "company" unions, and recognized the right of employees "to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing."
It was John L. Lewis, the feisty and articulate head of the United Mine Workers (UMW), who understood more than any other labor leader what the New Deal meant for workers. Stressing Roosevelt's support, Lewis engineered a major unionizing campaign, building the UMW's membership from 150,000 to over 500,000 within a year.
Lewis was eager to get the AFL, where he was a member of the Executive Council, to launch a similar drive in the mass production industries. But the AFL, with its historic focus on the skilled trade worker, was unwilling to do so. After a bitter internal feud, Lewis and a few others broke with the AFL to set up the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), later called the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
The first targets for Lewis and the CIO were the notoriously anti-union auto and steel industries. In late 1936, a series of spontaneous sit-down strikes erupted at General Motors plants in Cleveland, Ohio, and Flint, Michigan. Lewis responded quickly by sending a team of union organizers and funds of $100,000 to help the strikers. Soon 135,000 workers were involved and the industry ground to a halt.
With the help of the sympathetic governor of Michigan, a settlement was reached in 1937. By September of that year, the United Auto Workers had contracts with 400 companies involved in the automobile industry, assuring workers a minimum wage of 75 cents per hour and a 40-hour work week.
In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the steel-making capital of the United States, representatives of the steel industry attacked Lewis in print for being a "red" and a "bloodsucker." Labor, however, was buoyed by Roosevelt's re-election as well as the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1936. In the first six months of its existence, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), headed by Lewis lieutenant Philip Murray, picked up 125,000 members.
The capitulation of General Motors had a marked effect on the company, U.S. Steel. Realizing that times had changed, it came to terms with the CIO in 1937. That same year the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the NLRA. Subsequently, smaller companies, traditionally even more anti-union than U.S. Steel, reached agreements with the CIO unions. One by one other industries -- rubber, oil, electronics and textiles -- also followed suit. The mass production worker was no longer alone.
Outline of American History: