Today marks the sixty-third anniversary of one of the biggest upsets in political history – when President Harry Truman was re-elected to a second term over the publicly favored Republican Governor Thomas Dewey. The photograph of Truman holding the Chicago Tribune, which earlier went to press assuming a Dewey victory, has become an iconic image of the twentieth century.
Yet as familiar as this image is, few remember the context surrounding it. If Dewey was so widely expected to win, why did Truman hold the presidency? The answer actually has a lot to do with food.
Truman inherited the presidency in April 1945, following the death of Franklin Roosevelt. One of Roosevelt’s first acts as President was to pass the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) through Congress in 1933. The bill provided Congress with the mandate to oversee the balance of supply and demand for farm commodities – the top seven being wheat, corn, cotton, milk, rice, tobacco and peanuts. The Act discouraged farmers from planting too much of one crop and not enough of another, causing a flood in the market. Congress enforced this policy by offering payments to farmers to not plant crops on some land. At the time of Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Act, the country was still spinning from the Great Depression and few farmers could afford to refuse government payments.
When Vice President Truman took office following FDR’s death, the nation was suffering from severe inflation following World War II. Food prices in particular rose steadily during 1947 and 1948. Consumers blamed the government farm subsidies for the allowing the high prices. Truman, along with his Secretary of Agriculture Charles F. Brannan, revised the AAA to ensure that farmers would be paid a fair price for their crops.
The new model established target prices for particular crops, and offered farmers a guaranteed income from the federal government. If, for example, a farmer sold a bushel of cotton at fifty cents a pound on the open market, and the target price for cotton was a dollar a pound, the farmer would receive a check from the government for the remaining fifty cents per pound.
The plan was not terribly popular among the American public, except among farmers who still had a large and strong voting bloc. When it came to the 1948 election against Governor Dewey, Truman won largely on the back of the Farm Bill.
The Farm Bill was not the only food-related policy Truman enacted in his first years in office. He widely expanded the Victory Garden program from World War II with a proclamation encouraging Americans to grow more and putting more aside. In 1946, Truman signed the National School Lunch Act that ensured every child in school receive at least one nutritionally substantive meal a day:
It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States, through grants-in aid and other means in providing an adequate supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs.
In honor of the historic reelection of Harry Truman, I’ve combed the archives of the Truman Presidential Library and came across a recipe for “Mac & Cheese” from First Lady Bess Truman.