AND THE HOOVER COMMISSION
article from Whistle Stop
the Newsletter of the Harry S. Truman Library Institute
Volume 19, Number 3, 1991
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
WILLIAM E. PEMBERTON