Wednesday, October 5, 2011

October 5, 1947: A Moment of Greatness

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help,
and he will say, Here I am.
Isaiah 58:6-9
On October 5, 1947, President Harry S. Truman delivered the first presidential address ever broadcast on live television.

And that first address may also be the greatest.

His address followed a presentation by the Citizens Food Committee concerning the starvation in Europe and the need for Americans to sacrifice in order to save their European sisters and brothers.

After the Second World War the United States embarked on one of the greatest achievements of world history, the rebuilding of Europe and Japan after the devastation. The Marshall Plan prevented economic collapse and led to a world-wide economic expansion and shared prosperity.

But when President Truman addressed the nation, the rebuilding of Europe was faltering. “The situation in Europe is grim and forbidding as winter approaches,” he said. “Despite the vigorous efforts of the European people, their crops have suffered so badly from droughts, floods, and cold that the tragedy of hunger is a stark reality. The nations of Western Europe will soon be scraping the bottom of the food barrel. They cannot get through the coming winter and spring without help--generous help-from the United States and from other countries which have food to spare.” If we do not act, said the President, all of the rebuilding efforts may be wasted. “I know every American feels in his heart that we must help to prevent starvation and distress among our fellow men in other countries.”

Truman called on the nation to give up meat on Tuesdays, to give up poultry and eggs on Thursdays, and to give up one slice of bread per day. He also called on distillers to save grain by stopping the production of alcoholic beverages for 60 days. And he called on the Commodities Exchange Commission to tighten regulations and reduce the “gambling” in grain futures which resulted in even higher prices.

He told the country that Mrs. Truman had directed the White House staff to follow the food conservation measures. And he said that the same policy would be followed in all government restaurants and cafeterias throughout the country. “As Commander in Chief,” he said, “I have ordered that the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force shall also comply with this program.”

This morning, as I read Harry Truman’s address, I reflected on the present state of the world, from the debt crisis in Europe to the unrest in the Middle East and the starvation in Somalia, as well as the painfully slow recovery of our own economy. It is hard to imagine any leader, here or abroad, calling for the level of shared sacrifice that President Truman called for after World War Two.

And we need to remember, that was after the great sacrifices required by the war itself.

The food measures did not last long. With increased American help, the European recovery soon made such radical conservation unnecessary. Europe and Japan were rebuilt and America entered a time of unprecedented prosperity.

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