The Fair Deal: Definition & Policy

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

America's 20th century was filled with political deals. In this lesson, we'll explore the last of these programs and see how the Fair Deal was received by the American people.

American Deals

If there's one thing Americans seem to appreciate, it's a good deal. Maybe that's why 20th-century presidents put so much emphasis on them. Teddy Roosevelt promised the American people a ''square deal'' in his reform policies. Franklin D. Roosevelt assured people that the government would get them through the Great Depression with his ''New Deal'' programs. Finally, President Harry Truman promised Americans a ''fair deal'' in 1949.

Harry Truman
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The Fair Deal was Harry Truman's domestic policy at the start of his second term. Like the previous ''deals'' of American political history, Truman's focused on social reform, welfare, and an increasing role of the government in people's lives.

Truman and FDR

To understand Truman's Fair Deal, we need to talk about how Truman first came to power. Truman was one of few American presidents to first enter the Oval Office without being elected to it. In 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt died, catapulting his vice president (Truman) into power.

Truman was stepping into big shoes. FDR had put years of effort into bringing the nation out of the Great Depression with his New Deal work programs and government welfare programs. He had led the country through World War II, overseen the wartime economic boom that finally restored the economy, and orchestrated the wartime patriotic fervor and culture of government support. He died a national hero, and Truman took office promising to uphold FDR's legacy of social reform.

However, things were different after the end of WWII. Workers went on strike over stagnating wage increases, Americans started opposing the massive tax rates that funded FDR's programs, and Republicans seized on the opportunity to claim a majority of Congressional seats in 1946, promising to cut expensive reform policies. When Truman began his second term in 1949, this time elected into the office on his own merit, he was determined to defend both his and FDR's legacies.

Truman announced his Fair Deal policies after being inaugurated in 1949
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Fair Deal Policies

In Truman's first term, his efforts at reform were scattered and unfocused. So, in 1949 he announced a focused agenda of domestic policies. This was the Fair Deal. For the most part, the Fair Deal simply sought to continue and expand upon the New Deal, concentrating on workers' rights, housing, and healthcare. It also, however, dealt with new issues, including the transition from wartime to peacetime economy and the postwar civil rights movement. Here were the main objectives of the Fair Deal:

  • Expand social security to more Americans
  • Increase the minimum wage
  • Repeal the Taft-Hartley Act restricting labor unions
  • Create a Department of Welfare
  • Make public housing more accessible
  • Expand health coverage to more Americans
  • Fund new programs for river development and conservation
  • Found the Fair Employment Practices Commission with a focus on civil rights
  • Pass anti-lynching laws and abolish poll taxes to support civil rights efforts

Reception and Impact

FDR proposed his New Deal in an era where people were out of work, desperate, and ready for major changes. Truman hoped to galvanize the American people the way FDR had, but times had changed. In the postwar world, Americans were more financially secure than ever before. GIs returned from war and took advantage of veterans benefits, ranging from free higher education to business and housing loans. The economy was stable, and increasing. Americans were finally becoming wealthier after years of economic depression and wartime rationing. They wanted to have fun with their money, not use it to pay taxes for welfare programs.

While Truman did not have the same popular support as FDR, he also lacked Congressional support. By the late 1930s, a large number of conservative Republican and Democratic politicians had started fighting FDR's massive spending and increasingly powerful executive office. However, WWII demanded a sense of national patriotism and cooperation, so this cohort didn't cause too much trouble. By 1950, however, there was nothing to stop conservatives in Congress from attacking everything Truman tried to do and slashing his budget.

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