The “Beefsteak Election” of 1946: The First Time America Asked, “Where’s the Beef”?

Image result for meat shortage

During World War II, the United States was under tight economic control. Price controls, rations, and subsidies abound in the name of maintaining a stable wartime economy. Meat in the United States was largely apportioned to soldiers overseas. However, by the end of 1945 the war had ended, and controls were being lifted. In the case of meat, it had been quite scarce during the war so the people, eager to eat it again, purchased in droves. In accordance with the economic law of supply and demand, this drove the price of meat up by 70%. Farmers and butchers had rather lean years during the war and some had even gone out of business over rationing and they were finally making a good profit. However, President Truman was eager to gain in popularity and imposed price controls on meat. The farmers in response restricted supply, resulting in a shortage of meat.

The Democrats of the Connecticut delegation in Congress wrote to President Truman that all the voters were talking about was meat, and the situation needed to be addressed urgently. Hospitals reported that they could only serve their patients horsemeat, leading to the Republicans calling Truman “Horsemeat Harry” (Leuchtenburg). To make matters worse for the campaign trail, the Republican National Committee had managed to come up with a masterful slogan for their campaign, “Had Enough?” This could be read to both refer to meat and of New Deal policies. Truman attempted to minimize the damage by offering up an “October Surprise” by ending price controls on meat, but it was too little, too late. On November 6, 1946, Truman woke up with, as his daughter Margaret wrote, “a bad cold and a Republican Congress” (Leuchtenburg). The results were worse than had been predicted, with Republicans gaining 54 seats. One commentator was proven correct on the meat situation when he wrote, “a housewife who cannot get hamburger is more dangerous than Medea wronged” (Leuchtenburg). It seemed like such a rebuke at the time that Senator J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) recommended he resign, which would have resulted in the Republican Senate Pro Tem, Arthur Vandenberg, becoming president. Truman called Fulbright an “over-educated Oxford S.O.B.” and thereafter would refer to the senator behind his back as “Senator Halfbright” (Leuchtenburg). There were other factors that assisted in this result, such as Truman’s bad-tempered and poorly thought-out proposed legislation to draft strikers which alienated organized labor and his veto of the Case labor bill, which ticked off Southerners. Another factor was voter fatigue with Democratic rule.

The 1946 midterms illustrate important lessons in economics and in politics. The economics lesson is that imposing price controls reduces supply of the goods and services being controlled, and that when it comes to meat it is political suicide. However, while the 1946 election was a lesson in economics, the following election was one of perseverance: Harry S. Truman pulled off a victory only he seemed to think was possible against Republican Thomas E. Dewey, who had played it too safe on the advice of most of his advisors. Truman had won over labor by his opposition to the Taft-Hartley Act (passed over his veto) and managed to win without the support of radical socialists and communists who voted for Henry Wallace, and without the support of rabid segregationists, who voted for Strom Thurmond.  Truman would later remark that “The luckiest thing that ever happened to me was the Eightieth Congress” (Leuchtenburg).

Leuchtenburg, W.E. (2006, November). New Faces of 1946. Smithsonian Magazine.

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Rude, E. (2016, August 30). The ‘Beefsteak Election’: When Meat Changed the Course of American Politics. Time.

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