Forging America: The History of Bethlehem Steel - Chapter 7

It might have seemed shallow and superficial, but to a public starved for consumer goods — a public weary of four years of gasoline and tire rationing — prosperity was overdue. America was the economic superpower of the world. Germany and Japan were in ruins. No one expected them to have any industrial power for years to come. Although the Soviet Union, Britain and France had won, their industry was in little better shape than that of their enemies.

Bethlehem Steel was geared to meet the challenge. If the Soviet Union were to become America's enemy, Bethlehem was ready to provide the tools of war. If peace were in America's future, The Steel would gladly turn its might into producing steel for office buildings, automobiles and refrigerators.

As the Cold War escalated, it was clear that America was on the verge of both good times and heightened anxiety.

By 1948, few people doubted that a rivalry between the United States and the USSR was on. The risks rose even more in 1949 when the Soviet Union got its atomic bomb, and communists prevailed in China, ending years of civil war.

In June 1950, the Cold War went hot when communist North Korea invaded the non-communist South. Caught off guard, the United States quickly sent troops doing occupation duty in Japan into the fighting. Most of them were unfamiliar with combat. Many were killed as North Korean troops swept into the poorly defended south.

Once again, Bethlehem Steel provided much of the ordnance for U.S. armed forces. Its shipyards refitted ships they had built for World War II.

In April 1952, after Korean War peace talks had started but before the fighting had stopped, Truman took action that judges, lawyers and political scientists argue about to this day: He headed off a strike by seizing control of America's steel mills, something that no other president ever has done.

Steelworkers, who hadn't gotten a raise since 1950, forced Truman's hand by asking for a wage increase of 35 cents an hour. The steelmakers, Bethlehem included, wouldn't even discuss it. The union announced that its 650,000 members would walk off the job on Dec. 31, 1951, if they were not given the raise.

On Dec. 22, Truman turned the dispute over to his Wage Stabilization Board. The union agreed to hold off going on strike until April 8 the following year, while the board tried to arrange an agreement. After weeks of hearings, the board announced its support of a compromise wage increase of 26 cents. The union agreed, and the steel companies were willing to oblige, as long as they could raise the price of steel by $12 a ton.

But because the government was buying much of that steel, Truman opposed the price hike and extended the negotiations into April 1952. The interests of the nation in wartime were too important to be jeopardized by a work stoppage, Truman decided.

So when a strike by the United Steelworkers of America appeared imminent, the president known as ''Give 'em hell, Harry'' took over the mills to keep them running.

''Under similar circumstances, the president of the United States has to act for whatever is best for the country,'' Truman said.

The national press compared Truman to Hitler, Josef Stalin and Benito Mussolini, and accused him of stealing private property. Inland Steel Chairman Clarence Randall called it an ''evil deed.''

Two months later, on June 2, 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court called the takeover illegal and voided Truman's order.

''We cannot with faithfulness to our constitutional system hold that the commander in chief of the armed forces has the ultimate power as such to take possession of private property in order to keep labor disputes from stopping production,'' wrote Justice Hugo Black.

Steelworkers almost immediately hit the picket lines. The strike lasted seven weeks. It was the longest, most costly steel strike to that point in U.S. history. The industry lost 21 million tons of production, workers lost $400 million in wages and 1.4 million workers in related industries were idle for at least part of the strike.

The steelworkers ultimately settled on a pay increase of 21 cents per hour.

In North Korea, the fighting stopped on July 27, 1953. By then, Truman was back home in Independence, Mo., and Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican and the general who led the Allies in Europe during World War II, was in the White House.

Elected on the slogan ''I Like Ike,'' he was seen as the genial grandfather figure who won the White House because of public reaction to the wars, strikes and tensions of the Truman years.

Some historians look back on the 10 years from 1953 to 1963 — from the start of the Eisenhower presidency to President John F. Kennedy's assassination — as a time of political and cultural consensus, when a wealthy nation run by big institutions gave more prosperity and peace to more people than ever before.

But in the 1950s, even great prosperity was filtered through the prism of the Cold War, as Congress began a war of its own against the communist threat. The Smith Act of 1940 provided the weapons to do it. The law banned membership in any political party that advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government by force.

And just as it did when America needed help fighting the two world wars, Bethlehem Steel answered the call in the fight against communism. On the bulletin boards at its plants were fliers urging workers to turn in anyone believed to be a communist.

By 1950, hearings conducted by U.S. Rep. Richard M. Nixon had alleged that State Department official Alger Hiss had spied for the communists. Meanwhile, the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, was claiming that the State Department was riddled with communists.

Bethlehem Steel employees were encouraged to testify before subcommittees run by Nixon and McCarthy, and anyone found to be a communist was dismissed.


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