Modern America - Introduction

"... We must realize no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women."
Ronald Reagan
Inaugural Address
January 20, 1981

On April 25, with the war in Europe in its final days, representatives of 50 nations met at San Francisco 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 United States membership in the League of Nations after World War I, the United States 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 signalled to the world that the United States intended to play a major role in international affairs.

After Japan's surrender in August 1945, the American people directed most of their attention to domestic matters, the first of which was the reintegration into civilian life of millions of returning servicemen. Within two years the number of persons in uniform fell from 12 million to one-and-one-half million. Enactment of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (popularly known as the "G.I. Bill of Rights") eased the transition from military to civilian life by providing government loans to enable veterans to buy homes, operate businesses or farms, and obtain on-the-job training. The Act also financed the college education of over two million veterans.

The American economy adjusted from war to peace without serious unemployment. Pent-up demand for consumer goods, created by wartime scarcity, high wages, and accumulated savings, combined with an increasing population to stimulate industrial expansion. Between 1945 and 1948, the number of employed workers rose from 54 million to more than 61 million, while wages, despite postwar inflation, likewise registered significant gains.

Prosperity brought new problems. Builders could not construct sufficient housing to satisfy the demand, nor could automobile manufacturers keep pace with new orders. Prices rose rapidly, generating fears of runaway inflation, but by 1948 settled down when the supply of goods more nearly equalled demand.

Rising prices prompted many labor unions to demand higher wages, and in 1946, when their demands were not met, more than 4,500,000 workers engaged in strikes. This demonstration of strength by labor alarmed a large segment of the public, and so the following year a Republican-controlled Congress enacted the Taft-Hartley Act. This measure was strongly opposed by labor leaders-it required a 60-day notice before either a union or an employer could end a contract, permitting management to sue union officials for violation of contract and limiting certain union privileges contained in existing contracts. Although labor continued to win higher wages along with increased security through retirement pensions and health insurance financed by employers, they viewed the Taft-Hartley restrictions as a deliberate attempt to eliminate much of their ability to bargain with industry. During the election of 1948, President Truman and the Democratic Party pledged to repeal the act.

Truman's unexpected but decisive victory in 1948, over Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, encouraged him to press for "Fair Deal" reforms. Although Congress rejected parts of this program, including the efforts to repeal portions of the Taft-Hartley Act, much of it became law. Congress extended Social Security coverage to an additional 10 million persons and raised (from 40 to 75 cents an hour) the minimum wage for workers in industries whose products crossed state lines. In 1949 Congress adopted a federal program of slum clearance and low-rental housing. Farmers, meanwhile, gained additional federal protection against such threats as floods, droughts, and falling prices.