Politics in the United States is rife with rhetorical excess these days, and Americans are being treated to falsehoods, wild exaggerations, and anachronisms galore. Just recently, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham accused four young Democratic Congresswomen of being “communists.” “Communists”! Not only is this untrue, the way that Graham used it as an attack and a slur was laugh-ably out-of-date. It’s as if he stepped out of a time machine from the Joseph McCarthy communist witch-hunt days of the 1950s.
One of the social media responses to this, and to the general demonisation of “socialism” (in whatever form), has been to create a meme of a quote, supposedly by Harry Truman, President of the US from in the late 1940s and early 1950s. According to this internet meme, Truman, a Democrat, accused the Republicans of the time of intellectual and political laziness when they simply tarred any public expenditure as “socialism.” It was a “scare word,” he said, that Republicans “hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years.”
But did Truman actually say this? Well, yes.
I know this is a surprise to you Buzzkillers out there because I usually destroy internet quotes as being incorrectly attributed at best, and simply made up at worst. But here’s some fuller context and explanation of how and when Truman said this. (And I want to say here that I’m relying on the work of David Mikkelson at snopes.com and on the good folks at the Truman Library and archive for the material I’m going to use.)
During the presidential election of 1952. Truman was out campaigning for the Democractic nominee, Adlai Stevenson, who was running against the Republican Dwight Eisenhower. Truman was in Syracuse, New York, on October 10th, 1952, during a whistle stop tour across the north-east. Speaking from the rear platform of the last car of the train (as was often done in those days), Truman complained that Ike and other powerful Republicans “opposed almost all our programs to help the economic life of the country” and that they “blindly turned [their] backs on the tradition of public action for the public good.”
Truman then specifically targeted powerful Republican Senator Robert Taft, who had said that the biggest danger facing the country was “creeping socialism” promoted by the Democrats.Truman shot back at Taft and Ike with:
“Socialism is a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years.
Socialism is what they called public power.
Socialism is what they called social security.
Socialism is what they called farm price supports.
Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance.
Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations.
Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.
When the Republican candidate inscribes the slogan ‘Down With Socialism’ on the banner of his ‘great crusade,’ that is really not what he means at all.
What he really means is, ‘Down with Progress — down with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal,’ and ‘down with Harry Truman’s Fair Deal.’ That is what he means”
Being a professional buzzkiller, when I saw this quote and the various memes it has generated coursing around the internet, I kinda assumed that it was a misquote, or at the very least a misattribution. So I was floored, you might say, to learn that “The Buck Stops Here” Harry actually said it, and that he spoke out so extensively and defended these social programs so strongly. Given that the Cold War was gearing up at the time, this took some backbone.
What has been the nature and extent of American ideas about socialism, or social democracy, or democratic socialism, or whatever you wanna call it? Well, we can debate that till the commies come home. But it’s virtually certain that the questions about which types of social programs were “American” and which were “socialist/godless communist” go all the way back to 1789, and to the preamble of the founding document of American government.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
That should be the subject of another, fuller show, in my opinion.. But I’m going to leave it up to you Buzzkillers out there to decide. If you’d like a show on the history of socialism and social programs in the United States, let us know. Email us – firstname.lastname@example.org, reach out on Twitter @buzzkillprof, Instagram @professorbuzzkill, and on our Professor Buzzkill Facebook page. Don’t forget to leave us a review on whatever podcast platform you use to listen to us.
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Talk to you next week.
Merle Miller, Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman
The famous biography of Harry Truman, based on oral interviews given to Merle Miller. Get a Buzzkill Blast of old Harry’s reflections on his life and career in politics. It’s plain speaking indeed!