TRUMAN AND THE HOOVER COMMISSION

An article from Whistle Stop
the Newsletter of the Harry S. Truman Library Institute

Volume 19, Number 3, 1991

Harry Truman regarded the administrative reforms enacted during his administration as some of the most personally satisfying accomplishments of his career. As far back as his days on the Jackson County Court, the issue of how to improve the process of governing -- whether on a local, state or national level -- was of concern to him. When he became President he pushed for and won from Congress "two grants of authority which would lead to that body's approval of 33 reorganization plans.

Many believed that by the time of the Truman administration the Federal Government had become a monolith. The President's executive powers and the role of government had broadened considerably during the Roosevelt era, partly as a means to implement the reforms of the New Deal, partly as a necessity in mobilizing the Nation for World War II. Members of Congress on either side of the aisle advocated government streamlining, both for efficiency and as a curb on excessive control and regulation of the private sector.

Truman's principle vehicle for Government reform was the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government, commonly known as the Hoover Commission after its chairman and guiding force, former President Herbert Hoover. It was created by the Lodge-Brown Act of 1947 whose sponsors, like Hoover, were both Republicans -- Clarence Brown of Ohio in the House and Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts in the Senate. The appointment by Truman of Hoover as chairman was viewed by many as a highly unlikely, even strange, choice.

In this issue, Professor William E. Pemberton, University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, examines the inner workings of the first Hoover Commission (a second, also chaired by Hoover, was formed in the Eisenhower administration). One of the points he makes is that although the Commission was bipartisan, it was weighted in the conservatives' favor. Half of its 12 members were Democrats, yes, but of those six, three opposed most of Truman's programs. It was a structure that promoted constant nipping, power plays, and internecine warfare.

As for Truman and the chairman of his choice, all seemed smooth oil on the surface, but underneath there often flowed an undercurrent of dissent, which became a tide of attack on the one hand and wounded feelings on the other during the 1948 political campaign.

In the typescript for their forthcoming, book, "Herbert Hoover and Harry S. Truman," editors Timothy Walch and Dwight M. Miller tell of Truman's scapegoating of Herbert Hoover. Dewey was far ahead in the polls and Truman's own party was sharply divided. Truman ridiculed all things Republican: as Walch puts it, "what was politics for Truman, was treachery for Hoover."

One of the examples Walch and Miller cite was the campaign stopover at Raleigh North Carolina, Truman made several references to "that product of ingenuity and hard times, of personal despair and political mockery -- the Hoover cart," which he described as "the remains of the old tin lizzie being pulled by a mule because you couldn't afford to buy a new car ... [or] buy gas for the old one ... I don't think you want to take another chance on the Hoover brand of Republicanism."

The results of the 1948 vote stunned Hoover and the Commission. Walch's and Miller's typescript draws upon an unpublished Hoover memoir to illustrate what a difference election day made. Until then, Hoover recalled that the four New Dealers on the Commission believed the Republicans would win the campaign and they "were not only most agreeable but even sycophantish ... At once, after the election, [their] whole attitude ... changed front and went into immediate opposition on the difficult questions."

Professor Pemberton, who is also the author of a Truman biography, is well-acquainted with the subject of the article that follows. He currently is at work on a history of the two Hoover Commissions, both of which were discussed in one of his earlier books, Bureaucratic Politics.

When President Harry Truman left office in 1953, he proudly told reporters that he had achieved more administrative reform through executive reorganization than all the previous Presidents put together. Truman took pride in his role in creating the modern Presidency with a powerful executive office capable of managing a large, multifaceted bureaucracy. During his two terms, President Truman won from Congress two grants of reorganization authority (the Reorganization Acts of 1945 and 1949) and submitted to that body 48 reorganization plans (33 of which were approved).

Responding to Truman's leadership, Congress had created the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Council, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Council of Economic Advisors. Together, Truman and Congress established the Department of Defense and Atomic Energy Commission, rebuilt the Department of Labor, and made the final preparations for the later creation of the Departments of Health, Education, and Welfare, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development. Throughout his administration, Truman took countless dramatic steps to improve the ability of the President and departmental secretaries to carry out their management functions.

In recent issues of Whistle Stop, Professor Donald R. McCoy traced the developing friendship between Truman and former President Herbert Hoover (Vol. 18, No. 2 [Part I] & 4 [Part II], 1990). It was his alliance with Hoover that enabled Truman to achieve success in an area, executive reorganization, notable for many Presidential defeats.

Throughout his public career, Truman had made administrative reform a major goal. Reorganization of Missouri county government became one of his crusades in the 1920s, and as a United States Senator in the 1930s he supported President Franklin Roosevelt's controversial executive reorganization program. As head of the Truman Committee during World War II, he conducted an extensive survey of government operations and made recommendations for improvements based on the "scientific" principles of public administration.

Soon after Roosevelt's death in April 1945, Truman pledged to continue unchanged the dead President's policies. However, there was an exception. Truman believed that Roosevelt was a poor administrator, and the Missourian felt confident that he could do better. In his first special message to Congress, in May 1945, he requested renewal of Presidential reorganization authority, and Congress passed the Reorganization Act of 1945, allowing the President to submit reorganization plans that would go into effect in 60 days unless vetoed by both the House and Senate.

Despite this enhanced authority, Congress rejected several of the reorganization plans that Truman submitted in his first term. The congressional majority regarded economy as the purpose of reorganization, while Truman believed that its goal was to improve management in order to make Government work better. He knew that great savings could not be achieved unless programs were eliminated rather than reorganized. Many conservative congressmen believed reorganization could be used to return Government to the "good old days" before Roosevelt, but Truman told one of his southern allies: "There isn't any use endeavoring to put the operations of the Government back to twenty rears ago for it simply won't go." In addition to Presidential-legislative disagreement over goals, there was another obstacle to reorganization. Each Government bureau forged alliances with the clientele it served and with its congressional oversight committees. This "triangle of power" viewed any Presidential reorganization as a threat.

Truman, disillusioned, saw little reason to send more reorganization plans to an unresponsive Congress. It was at this point that his budding friendship with former President Herbert Hoover paid off politically. The Hoover Commission (Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government) submitted its report in 1949. The report provoked spectacular public and congressional acclaim, breaking the impasse between Truman and Congress over reorganization. In 1949 and 1950, Truman and Hoover formed a remarkable alliance that produced one of Truman's most successful domestic reform programs.

The administration's initial response to the Hoover Commission had been one of wary suspicion since it was initiated in 1947 by the Republican Eightieth Congress. Ohio Representative Clarence Brown, a leader of the Republican Old Guard, wrote the bill establishing the Commission. As the administration correctly surmised, Brown intended that the Commission would draw up a blueprint to dismantle the New Deal. He fully expected the Commission to report after the 1945 election to a newly elected Republican President, preferably his friend Robert Taft. Although the Commission was to be bipartisan, eight of its twelve members would be chosen by two Republicans, the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate.

The administration could not openly oppose the popular bill, presented as a major effort to achieve economy and efficiency in Government. It passed in mid-1947, and its twelve Commissioners were appointed: Herbert Hoover, Washington lawyer James Rowe, Congressman Clarence Brown, Congressman Carter Manasco (Dem., AL), financier Joseph P. Kennedy, political scientist James K. Pollock, Senator John McClellan (Dem., AR), Senator George Aiken (Rep., VT), soon-to-be Secretary of State Dean Acheson, industrialist George Mead, Civil Service Commissioner Arthur Flemming, and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal (Truman named the last four men). Hoover agreed to serve provided that he would chair the body.

Commission membership was illustrious but conservative. Half of its members were Democrats, but three of them (Kennedy, Manasco, and McClellan) opposed most of Truman's program. Hoover was far from being the most conservative member of the Commission, with that honor shared by Brown and McClellan.

Once it set to work, the Commission was torn by political war. Hoover dominated the Commission, selecting its staff and most of the several hundred task force members that studied Government agencies and activities. His appointments were skewed toward conservatives, many of whom wanted to chop away at past liberal gains in public power, to turn many Government business activities over to private enterprise, to reorient administrative law procedures in a pro-business direction, and to oppose Truman's national health insurance program.

Later, the belief spread that the First Hoover Commission was limited to studying government structure and was forbidden by law from recommending discontinuance of programs. Actually, Brown had deliberately written into the law authority for the Commission to recommend the elimination of government activities. The Commission had full authority to recommend abolition of New Deal reform programs; and many of its conservative members regarded these programs as dangerous innovations. Why then, did they fail to carry out their attack on the New Deal-Fair Deal establishment?

The first line of defense to protect these programs came from within the Commission itself. Dean Acheson, James Rowe, and moderate Republican James Pollock ... a political scientist from the University of Michigan, formed a bloc to resist the conservatives. Although outnumbered, they put up a strong defense because they were three of the Commission's hardest working and most competent members.

Acheson served as Truman's unofficial spokesman on the Commission. When he became bogged down in early 1949 in his new duties as Secretary of State, he then deferred to James Rowe's leadership. Rowe, the youngest member of the Commission, was already one of Washington's most experienced wheeler-dealers. An ardent New Dealer, and former Administrative Assistant to Roosevelt, Rowe was establishing himself as a behind-the-scene power within the Democratic party.

The physical and emotional toll on the "liberal" bloc was heavy as the three men battled the Commission's majority throughout 1948. Despite their hard work, they faced eventual defeat, because, as Rowe said, Hoover had the most votes. As Truman moved toward his generally anticipated defeat in the November Presidential election, the administration's forces weakened.

When the ballots were counted, everything changed. The morning after the election, the Commission's offices were silent, and rumors circulated that Hoover intended to resign. James Webb. Truman's right-hand man on reorganization matters, quickly moved to forestall that. He immediately saw the benefit to Truman, and the Nation, of an alliance with Hoover. With Truman's backing, Webb pledged the administration's support for the Commission, and in a press conference on November 11, 1948 Hoover lined up with the administration. The former President told reporters: "Our job is to make every Government activity that now exists work efficiently ... It is not our function to say whether it should exist or not, but it is our function to see if we cannot make it work better." "Hoover flipped over just like that," James Rowe recalled, snapping his fingers.

Hoover's flip-flop did not mean that conflict ended. He still fought long and hard to limit public power and Government business enterprises. Still, the liberal bloc now had behind it the newly elected President and a Democratic Congress. Hoover, always more pragmatic than his reputation indicated, knew that there had been a major shift in power. Increasingly, he moved to the middle in Commission fights, holding the majority behind a moderate approach on most issues.

Hoover regarded himself as a selfless public servant. Truman's support for his work eased the pain of his previous rejection by the American people and by the Roosevelt administration. Hoover's friends noticed that he seemed to regain his youthful vigor. As the Hoover Commission reports came out in early 1949, Hoover gloried in the public acclaim that followed. If he could not destroy the New Deal programs that he disliked, he realized that in alliance with Harry Truman he could still contribute to the Nation and could rebuild his reputation.

Thus, with Hoover's support, Truman pushed through Congress the most extensive reorganization program in history. Beyond specific gains in enhanced ability to manage the executive branch, Truman had achieved much more. He had carefully and successfully protected the New Deal's reform programs from postwar conservative onslaughts, one of which had been the Hoover Commission. While the Commission was established by conservative Republicans as an anti-New Deal operation, the Truman-Hoover partnership had been responsible for directing its focus on making the existing structure work better.

Truman used reorganization to shore up reform programs and to create the governmental tools needed to deal with such postwar problems as the cold war. As he left Washington in 1953 to return to Independence, he had good reason to be proud of his achievements in administrative reform and feel gratitude toward his unlikely friend, Herbert Hoover.

by WILLIAM E. PEMBERTON

 


This site is a joint project of the Hoover Presidential Library & Museum and the Truman Presidential Museum & Library

 
Link to Truman Library Link to Hoover Library