Sicness & struggle, part 2
Cold War politics forced Truman’s hand
Published Aug 19, 2009 3:06 PM
On Nov. 19, 1945—just three months after the brutal atomic bombings of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan—President Harry Truman became the first
sitting U.S. president to propose a national health insurance program.
Truman unveiled his five-point plan for universal health care in a special
message to Congress. He emphasized that “everyone should have ready
access to all necessary medical, hospital and related services.”
The plan’s centerpiece was expanding compulsory insurance under the
Social Security system to cover medical, hospital, nursing, laboratory and
dental care. Other key points included federal funding for hospital
construction, expanding public-health services, increasing investment in
medical education and research, and a cash benefit in the event of sickness and
The Truman plan was introduced to Congress in the form of a revised
Wagner-Murray-Dingell Bill. The original bill had been introduced in 1943 by
Democratic Sens. Robert Wagner of New York and James Murray of Montana, along
with Rep. John Dingell Sr. of Michigan—and it never came to a vote in
The revised bill was doomed to a similar fate.
The plan was supported by a coalition of workers and farmers led in part by the
American Federation of Labor and the National Farmers Union.
Conservative mobilization defeated reform
The program envisioned by Truman had its own set of flaws, including an
exception that allowed physicians to reject patients covered by the plan in
favor of those patients who could afford to purchase private coverage or pay
for services outside of the universal insurance system.
Truman went to great lengths to assure potential opponents that his plan was
not a form of “socialized” medicine. It certainly was not like the
totally free, non-profit state health systems being set up in East European
countries where capitalism had been uprooted. Nor did it go as far in building
government-owned health facilities as Britain’s national health system,
which was set up by the Labor Party after the war under great pressure from the
However, Truman’s attempt to inoculate himself from criticism did not
prevent opponents from red-baiting the plan. The American Medical Association
took the lead in mobilizing opposition.
The Journal of the American Medical Association described the plan as
“the discredited system of decadent nations which are now living off the
bounty of the American people—and if adopted here it would not only
jeopardize the health of our people but would gravely endanger our freedom. It
is one of the final, irrevocable steps toward state socialism and every
American should be alerted to the danger.”
Reaction was riding so high that in 1947 a key House subcommittee investigating
national health insurance charged that Truman’s plan was a communist plot
supported by known communist sympathizers working within federal agencies.
The AMA spent millions of dollars and hired the public relations firm Whitaker
and Baxter in 1948 to help wage its aggressive anti-reform campaign. The
Chamber of Commerce, the American Bar Association and the American Legion were
among the organizations backing the AMA drive to block universal coverage. The
campaign was the most expensive in U.S. history at the time.
The accusations leveled by the conservative opposition were emblematic of the
emerging McCarthy period of anti-communist repression. The legislation
effectively died in committee before Truman’s term ended.
Cold war influenced Truman plan
Truman did not launch the struggle for health reform. The American Association
of Labor Legislation had pushed for a form of national health insurance back in
1906. The American Federation of Labor actually opposed this effort, acting in
its narrow bureaucratic interests out of fear that universal coverage would
undermine the importance of union membership.
In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party platform called for
“a system of social insurance adapted to American use.” The 1906
and 1912 efforts were unable to gain significant momentum, and President
Franklin Roosevelt later failed to throw his support behind calls to include
national health insurance as part of the New Deal legislation.
Truman did not have a reputation as a committed progressive reformer. In fact,
FDR’s selection of Truman as his running mate in the 1944 election was
part of a shift to the right.
Vince Copeland, a founding leader of Workers World Party, described
Truman’s selection in his book “Market Elections: How Democracy
Serves the Rich.” Copeland wrote: “In 1940, the ‘left’
New Dealer and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace was chosen for the second
spot. ... In 1944 Roosevelt maneuvered Wallace out of consideration and gave
the vice president slot on the ticket to Harry Truman, who was in the right
wing of the New Deal. ... A great number of commentators, including some
radicals, have observed that U.S. history was changed by this decision, since
Truman became an architect of the Cold War, whereas Wallace was a fierce
opponent of it.”
Truman took office following Roosevelt’s death early in 1945. By the time
he proposed his national health insurance plan, World War II had come to a
The war had brought about the defeat of German, Italian and Japanese
imperialism; severely diminished the capacity of Britain and France; and
positioned the U.S. as the dominant imperialist power. The war also ended with
the Soviet Union’s historic victory over fascism and the defeat of the
German Nazi armies. A new dynamic thus emerged which lent itself to the intense
competition between the systems of capitalism and socialism known as the Cold
Truman’s health reform plan was tied to the U.S. ruling class’s
attempt to prevent the rise of widespread revolutionary sentiment at home and
abroad. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had brought with it a form of
socialist medicine and the promise of health care as a right to workers across
the globe. Truman’s plan was an attempted appeal to convince workers at
home that capitalism could provide for their health. This appeal died in
committee alongside the plan.
Truman also explicitly linked his health plan to the needs of the U.S.
military, which he saw as a necessary force to smash the emerging tide of
revolutions and national liberation struggles.
In his 1945 message to Congress, Truman spoke of the connection between
inadequate health care and military service: “As of April 1, 1945, nearly
5,000,000 male registrants between the ages of 18 and 37 had been examined and
classified as unfit for military service. ... After actual induction, about a
million and a half men had to be discharged from the Army and Navy for physical
or mental disability, exclusive of wounds. ... Among the young women who
applied for admission to the Women’s Army corps there was similar
Then he added, “These men and women who were rejected for military
service are not necessarily incapable of civilian work.”
Truman’s statement makes it clear that, for a sizable wing of the U.S.
ruling class, health-care reform was not an issue of justice but rather a
matter of “national”—that is, class—security.
Next: Soviet medicine—a workers’ health plan
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