OPINION

Truman faced a severe challenge with railroad strike

By Randy Sowell
Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum

A year ago this spring, much of American life was brought to a halt by a terrible pandemic.

Seventy-five years ago this spring, much the same thing happened – but for a different reason.

Randy Sowell

During the spring of 1946, the United States was wracked by a series of strikes and labor disputes that threatened the American economy. Union workers who had gone without pay increases during World War II rose up to demand what they regarded as their fair share of the nation’s prosperity. At one time in 1946, more than a million American workers were on strike. The steel, coal and automobile industries were among those affected.

The railroad strike of May 1946 was especially devastating. During that period, the nation was heavily dependent upon railroads for personal transportation and the shipment of goods. (Air transportation and interstate trucking were much less important economically than they are today.)

President Harry S. Truman worked hard to achieve a compromise between the railroads and the two major railroad unions, the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. The leaders of these unions had provided Truman with much-needed contributions during his campaign for re-election to the Senate in 1940, and they had advocated his nomination for vice president in 1944. If it had not been for their support, Truman might not have been in the White House.

In this moment of crisis, however, Truman felt that the public interest was more important than his political obligations. He was furious when the union leaders rejected what he regarded as a fair settlement. On the afternoon of Thursday, May 23, just an hour before the strike was to begin, the president attended a reception for disabled veterans on the White House lawn. The sight of men on crutches or in wheelchairs, veterans who had sacrificed so much for their country during the war, aroused Truman’s anger against what he viewed as the selfish demands of the union leaders.

The largest railroad strike in the nation’s history left hundreds of thousands of stranded passengers and idle freight cars from coast to coast. Among those affected was the president’s daughter, Margaret, who had to borrow a car and drive from New York to Washington when her train trip was cancelled.

In the midst of the crisis, the president sat down and vented his frustrations on paper. He filled seven pages with what his biographer, David McCullough, would later describe as “one of the most intemperate documents ever written by an American President” – a rambling, handwritten diatribe in which he denounced the union leaders and striking workers in the strongest terms, concluding with an appeal to his fellow citizens to “hang a few traitors” and “give the country back to the people.” It is unlikely that Truman ever intended to deliver this message as a speech, but he probably felt better after he wrote it.

On Saturday, May 25, with the strike entering its third day and negotiations between the railroads and the unions continuing, Truman appeared before a joint session of Congress. Stern but in control of his emotions, he informed the legislators and a nationwide radio audience that he would take over the railroads and use the U.S. Army to operate them if necessary. “I request the Congress immediately to authorize the president to draft into the Armed Forces of the United States all workers who are on strike against their government.”

At that moment, the secretary of the Senate brought a message to Truman, who read it and then announced, “Word has just been received that the railroad strike has been settled, on terms proposed by the president!”

More information about the nation’s economic problems after World War II will be featured in the Truman Library’s newly renovated museum, scheduled to reopen to the public soon. For updates, please check the library’s website and social media platforms at https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/.

Randy Sowell is an archivist at the Truman Library in Independence.