Near the end of World War II, the Allies had many important issues to address. Now that the war in Europe was won and the war in Asia appeared close to a conclusion, addressing issues such as the control of disputed territories, economic and physical rebuilding, and punishing Nazi leaders became essential. A meeting was scheduled in Potsdam, Germany for July 17 through August 2, 1945. Leaders from the Allied countries attended, including the "new" Big Three: Harry Truman, who had become president upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April of 1945; Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Premier; and Clement Atlee, the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Winston Churchill had been representing England at the conference, but was recalled to England when his party was defeated in the election.
Several divisive issues emerged during the conference, and the leaders could not agree on many of the matters at hand. The leaders did unanimously agree that Japan must surrender immediately, and they proceeded to issue a stern ultimatum to Japan that it either surrender or be destroyed. In spite of their bravado, none of the leaders were eager to engage the Japanese. They had proven to be an extremely resilient enemy, and their fierce fighting in the Pacific as well as the increased use of Kamikaze fighters showed they seemed unlikely to surrender. American bombers showered Japan with leaflets ordering Japanese citizens and soldiers to lay down their arms or face destruction.
During the conference, Truman received notice that an atomic bomb had been successfully detonated in a confined test. Many countries had been attempting to develop atomic weapons, and the U.S. was leading the race, aided by brilliant scientists such as German-born Albert Einstein and American J. Robert Oppenheimer. Truman did not share this new development with his fellow world leaders, but later, many conference attendees would comment on the change in Truman's attitude. The U.S. originally intended the atomic bomb to be used as a weapon against Germany, but Truman began making plans to force Japan to surrender through atomic decimation. On August 6, 1945, an American B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan inflicting 180,000 casualties. Three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki that killed 80,000 people.
A key issue the Potsdam Conference attendees needed to address was how to deal with a defeated Germany. The group decided to split occupied Germany into four zones: the U.S. zone, the Soviet zone, the British zone, and the French zone. The capital city of Berlin, located within the Soviet zone, was also split into four zones. The conferees also determined that war reparations from Germany would be paid to the Allies from each respective zone. This arrangement became a significant concern, as it was often difficult to monitor the inflows and outflows of German money and resources in each zone. Another difficulty was that each Allied power controlled its zone differently. Each had its own objectives and interests that often caused problems with other occupying powers. The most significant conflict occurred between the USSR and the western Allies.
The Potsdam Conference determined, to a large extent, the future of Germany. The European conferees wanted to ensure that Germany would be unable to make a rapid return to economic and military power like it did following WWI. The conference leaders began drafting a plan to demilitarize and "denazify" Germany. The plan called for complete disarmament and the dismantling of all industries that could be used for military production. The European conferees wanted to ensure that Germany would be unable to make a rapid return to economic and military power as they did following WWI. The denazification extended beyond military and industrial applications, with the Allies exerting influence in German politics, economics, and education.
The Potsdam Conference also created war crimes tribunals that would prosecute Nazi war criminals. Many Nazi leaders had been captured and many more were being pursued, and no one was quite sure what to do with them. Many countries, groups, and jurisdictions wanted to punish these criminals for their shocking deeds. It was decided that an international court would hear the war crimes cases and sentence individual Nazis based on the extent of their involvement in the war and the atrocities committed during the war.
Leaders at the Potsdam Conference were also concerned about the Balkan countries. This region had played a key role in both World Wars and continued to be a European hotspot. Neither Stalin nor Truman was willing to make concessions, as they both realized the important role the Balkans would play in the ever-increasing rivalry between America and the Soviet Union. Finally, the group agreed to appoint a council of foreign ministers that would draft peace treaties for the Balkan countries. The foreign ministers of the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, China, and France were appointed to the council.
The United States had suffered through four long years of war, and Americans began calling on Truman to "bring the boys home." Recognizing the contributions of American servicemen as well as civilians, Truman was anxious to comply, and he began bringing servicemen home as soon as the war ended. This mass homecoming pleased most Americans but greatly concerned many political, military, and economic experts.
Several military advisors feared the "Soviet Menace" and advised Truman not to dismantle the military too quickly. Stalin was unwilling to discuss Eastern European issues with the U.S. and its allies, which was an indication that the USSR was planning on controlling its western neighbors. The U.S. armed forces consisted of six million active duty personnel in 1945, but that number had decreased to one and a half million by 1947. Meanwhile, the Soviet military did not reduce its size, and it boasted five million members in 1947.
The huge influx of war veterans back to America raised a number of questions. Many of these men had put their education or training on hold to serve in the war, and a large number of them were not qualified to enter the workforce. As a reward to the returning soldiers and as a way to partially address this concern, Congress passed the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944. This bill, commonly referred to as the GI Bill of Rights, or the GI Bill, provided education credits for returning servicemen to enter colleges, universities, or technical schools. Over eight million veterans took advantage of this opportunity upon returning from the battlefields.
Another benefit provided by the GI Bill was the availability of low-interest mortgage loans. Prior to the GI Bill, mortgagers required a substantial down payment and offered high-interest mortgages. Through the GI Bill, the Veterans Administration (VA) offered loans at a lower rate, which enabled young veterans to purchase homes. Many of these veterans purchased homes in the suburbs and helped spark a huge migration of people from the cities to the suburbs.
WWII enabled America to emerge from the debilitating Great Depression of 1929. The war effort created an industrial boom that, at least temporarily, put the U.S. in an excellent economic position. The end of the war triggered demobilization and an end to the need for many war-related products and industries. Many economists feared that the loss of these jobs and industries would plunge America quickly back into a depression.
When the war ended, the price controls that were in place on many goods during wartime were removed, and the price of consumer goods immediately increased by 33 percent. While prices increased, wages remained constant. The high inflation rate angered workers who were unable to afford the goods they manufactured. Union membership increased exponentially as disgruntled workers looked for assistance in improving their working situation. The increasingly powerful labor unions encouraged workers to strike, and in 1946 alone, 4.6 million workers went on strike.
John L. Lewis was the fiery President of the United Mine Workers Union. He is best known for representing mine workers in strikes that called for increased pay, safer working conditions, and a tax on coal that would fund pensions for disabled and retired miners. He also led strikes in many other industries, including automobile manufacturing and textiles. Lewis also founded the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) that was instrumental in unionizing the American auto industry. In the 1930s, the CIO first used the sit-down strike in which workers would not leave the plant and allow replacement workers to fill their jobs. Opposed to the "craft union" philosophy of the American Federation of Labor, Lewis' CIO was an "industrial union" that tried to organize workers as industry-wide forces. Lewis shocked and angered many people with his innovative and controversial methods, but he was very successful in expanding workers' rights and growing the labor movement.
The Democratic Congress passed the Employment Act of 1946 that was intended to "promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power." This act was ambiguous but allowed the president to take action to stabilize the labor market. The Employment Act also created the Council of Economic Advisors—a three-member panel whose job was to evaluate the business environment and advise the president in order to maximize economic stability.
For the first time in 14 years, Republicans regained control of both houses of Congress in the November 1946 elections, and they immediately set to work addressing labor issues. Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which union leaders condemned as a "slave labor law." This Act outlawed "closed shops" that would only hire union members although it did allow "union shops" that required new employees to join a union. It created an 80-day "cooling off" period for strikers in key industries. It also made labor unions liable for damages that resulted in jurisdictional union disputes and required all union leaders to take a noncommunist oath. President Truman vigorously vetoed this legislation, but Congress overrode his veto.
Despite the Taft-Hartley Act, unions remained very powerful and popular, reaching its peak in the 1950s. In 1950, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had eight million members, while its rival the CIO boasted six million members. Many unions continued to strike successfully for increased wages and better working conditions. Union power began to decline in 1954 when 15 states passed "Right to Work" legislation that outlawed union shops and made it more difficult for unions to succeed. States that passed Right to Work laws used their decreased labor costs to lure some large industrial companies away from other states. The number of states with Right to Work laws has grown to 22.
By 1948, much of America's post-World War II elation was beginning to subside. President Truman was a relatively successful and effective president, but he had the misfortune of succeeding Franklin Roosevelt, one of America's most popular presidents. Truman made several bold decisions that pleased many Americans but also created powerful enemies. The use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was initially very popular with Americans because it ended the war in Japan, but many people began to fear the dangers posed by atomic weapons. Truman also created discord by raising taxes to pay for several expensive postwar programs.
In 1946, Truman established a Committee on Civil Rights to study race relations and make recommendations on how to increase rights for minority groups. In late 1947, the committee issued its Report on Civil Rights, recommending that the Justice Department play a larger role in protecting the civil rights of all Americans by ending Jim Crow segregation laws and eliminating discrimination. Truman backed this recommendation, and his support created a firestorm in Congress and throughout the Democratic Party. This legislation was never enacted, although the Justice Department did increase its presence in civil rights issues.
The consensus among politicians and the media was that Truman would not be re-elected in 1948. Public opinion had turned against the president who had an approval rating of only 36 percent, and there was also open dissension within the Democratic Party. Leading Democrats began actively courting General Dwight Eisenhower, a hugely popular war hero who likely could have beaten Truman, but he was unwilling to run. Essentially, Truman became the default candidate, and he won the Democratic nomination over the vociferous objections of southern Democrats who disliked his civil rights proposals.
Southern Democrats were so angered by Truman's nomination that they formed the Southern States' Rights Party. Reminiscent of the years leading up to the Civil War, 13 southern states met in Birmingham, Alabama and held their own convention, where they nominated Strom Thurmond, the Governor of South Carolina. These so-called "Dixiecrats" ran on a platform that opposed civil rights legislation and strongly supported increased rights for southern states.
Adding to Truman's difficulties was Henry Wallace's announcement that he, too, was running for president. Wallace was a former Vice President under Franklin Roosevelt who split from the Democratic Party over its dealings with Russia. Wallace felt that the U.S. should cooperate with Russia and was bitterly opposed to "dollar diplomacy" and Truman's "Cold War" policies. Wallace was nominated by the newfound Progressive Party, which was made up of several groups unified in their opposition to Truman.
The Republican Party nominated New York Governor Thomas Dewey for president and Earl Warren, the Governor of California and future Supreme Court Chief Justice, for vice president. The Republicans had won control of Congress in 1946 and were now very confident of winning the presidency. The Republicans essentially ran on an anti-Truman/anti-FDR platform. Their primary concerns were lowering taxes, battling "big labor," and reducing Roosevelt's New Deal policies.
Truman campaigned aggressively in what became known as "the whistle-stop" campaign and impressed voters with his direct manner of speaking and his "man of the people" attitude. He campaigned for increased housing for the poor and veterans. He also called for civil rights legislation and an increase in employment, Social Security, and the minimum wage. Additionally, Truman supported increasing Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) projects and helping farmers while branding the Republican-controlled Congress as "do-nothing."
Truman won the election by a narrow but comfortable margin. He collected two million popular votes more than Dewey and received 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189. Truman's victory was shocking and is considered the greatest upset in the history of American Presidential elections. In a now famous headline, the Chicago Tribune, confident of Republican victory, declared "Dewey Defeats Truman." Truman's late surge was partly due to extensive support by African Americans and farmers, two voter segments that were often overlooked. In another victory for Truman, the Democrats easily regained control of the Senate and the House of Representatives, opening the door for his proposed expansion of the New Deal, which became known as the "Fair Deal."