As we all lick chops and anticipate the sunrise of oversight hearings in January, we hear much talk about the old Truman Committee of World War II fame, and I thought I would seed our imaginations and anticipation with some historical spice. The name of the Committee was "Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program" -- it was established (actually against the wishes of FDR) on April 15, 1940, and the initial appropriation for the effort was $15,000. Yea, that's right, Fifteen Thousand Dollars. At the time the National Defense was budgeted for 20 Billion minus the Lend Lease Program.
Truman got the thing created by taking his old Dodge car and driving around (no official driver, he drove himself with just his wife Bess along for the ride), to visit bases under construction. He started with Fort Leonard Wood in MO, but his Dodge eventually took him on a tour from Florida to Michigan, and on this tour he collected evidence that building bases was a sink hole of waste, fraud and abuse. He found thousands of workers with no work to do, no materials for construction delivered, etc., and he found valuable materials rotting in the mud and snow with no effort to shelter them. He established the reality of huge cost over-runs -- unaudited contracted costs of half a million costing 2.5 million, but paid because the contracts were cost-plus. FDR was none too happy with Harry -- and when Harry linked up with Senator Cox of Georgia (Dem who hated FDR), the President was even more concerned. But in April 1941 this was useful because Truman got his budget expanded to half a million, and he was cleared to investigate a broader scope of projects. (Things like the Quartermaster Corps and the Army Corps of Engineers).
Now the Truman Committee would have been unthinkable had it not been for the efforts of Gerald Nye (D-MO) earlier in the 1930's. Nye was a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, but was given leadership of a special subcommittee on Munitions, that established how thoroughly the US Government, and the taxpayers, had been taken to the cleaners during World War One by Big Finance and Big Industry. The upshot of Nye's work was the two neutrality acts passed in the 1930's, the strict neutrality act coming in 1935. This required totally impartial neutrality with absolutely no discretion for the President among foreign warmakers wanting to purchase US Munitions or equiptment. (Cash and Carry Only) It also banned foreign loans for such. Nye fully understood that much of US Financial policy during the 1920's was about protecting repayment of foreign debt to US lenders for the costs of World War One, and he was out to prevent a repeat. Nye and much of Congress -- and the American People -- viewed the financial policy of Harding/Coolidge/Hoover as tilted toward these interests, and a significant cause of the Great Depression. It was against the well understood background of Nye's case that the Truman Commission was first established. Roosevelt tried to block or weaken the Neutrality Act, but he totally failed. This set the culture for what Truman was about -- even though Truman agreed with FDR's interests in supporting the British and confronting the Nazi regime. Truman's concern was Finance and Profiteering -- not constricting the President's ability to do either foreign policy or build a US Military.
Once the Army got used to the idea that Harry and Bess might show up in the old Dodge and take a good look at base construction, whether workers were really hard at work building something, and comparing what they saw to the actual contracts, Harry went on to bigger and better targets. His next concern was "dollar a year" men. These were captains of industry recruited to manage mobilization. Truman was bothered that major industry was unwilling to give mobilization priority -- consumer production came first -- even though they were demanding the placement of their top management people in high war production positions. Perhaps as important, the "Dollar a year" men seemed to spend an undue amount of time and effort trying to frustrate the labor movement -- essentially count labor out of any sort of say in how war production should be organized. In fact Truman's first set of hearings pretty much established that if an industry was union organized prior to the war -- it stayed organized with wage controls. If it was not organized, Labor still had rights to organize. The War would not be used as an excuse to scuddle the CIO. Dollar a year men were quickly weeded out.
As folk talk about a "New Truman Committee" it is useful to dip back and remember just what kind of battles Truman actually fought with his committee. Yes, it was against waste, fraud and abuse -- and that is how he got it organized, but it was also about preserving labor rights, and not allowing the war-songs to abdicate those rights hard won, and it was about preventing a corporate take over of the management of war production by Wall Street and its collaborators in the giant corporations. For Truman, it was also about contracts for everything including the main street small business man, and the small scale production operations, and with the profits for these being proportional to those of large corporations.
We can guess that in his own fashion FDR approved of what Truman was up to, though if you follow the public dialogue, that isn't clear. The best representation of FDR in matters like this is probably the paper mache Sphinx you can view in the Hyde Park Museum -- the guy never really showed you his hand. But I suggest FDR approved, because he short listed Truman for VP in 1944. In fact it was Truman's only real claim to fame before April 12, 1945. (The other person on the short list was William O. Douglass on the supreme court.)
But what is important about the original Truman Committee is that it had a narrative that reached all the way back to World War One, and all the war profiteering done in the name of a war to end all wars, and then another decade defending a world economy that placed priority on the US recovering every cent of debt from both the victors and the defeated, as well as the destroyed but on neither side. During the 1930's there was a consensus abroad in the US that was both pro-Labor and anti-Finance Capital. Progressives really lack that asset of an underlying agreement today -- so I really question whether a new Truman Commission can shadow the old one. Perhaps there will be a new version of it -- debatable, but we will see.