Senator Harry S Truman and the Truman Committee
Tackling war industry waste and worse
On Dec. 21, 1942, the Justice Department issued an eight-count indictment against the Anaconda Wire and Cable Company and five of its employees, charging them with conspiracy to defraud the United States by supplying the Army and Navy with defective wire and cable intended for combat use and the billing of false expenses. It was, according to Attorney General Francis Biddle, “one of the most reprehensible cases of defrauding the government and endangering the lives of American soldiers and sailors ever to come to the attention of the Department of Justice.” It was the latest example of action by the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, more commonly known as the Truman Committee.
In 1940 Congress authorized $10 billion to the U.S. military, enabling it to embark on the greatest expansion in its history. With the nation still recovering from the Great Depression, major corporations, seeing an opportunity to dramatically boost their bottom line, rushed to sign cost-plus military contracts. In 1941, Harry Truman, the junior senator from Missouri, began hearing reports of waste and profiteering in the construction of Fort Leonard Wood in his district.
In typical fashion, the plain-spoken Truman decided to jump into his car and embark on a road trip to Fort Leonard Wood to see things for himself. In an age before the Interstate Highway system and over a road network composed of narrow two-lane highways, the senator wound up traveling about 10,000 miles, stopping at military installations from the Midwest to Florida. On Feb. 10, 1941, Senator Truman delivered a speech on the Senate floor describing the many problems he had seen and recommending that the Senate create a special oversight committee on military contracts. As it turned out, his timing was perfect.
“I can conceive of nothing more vicious or treacherous than deliberately supplying our armed forces with defective war material. . . .”
– Attorney General Francis Biddle
Pressure on the subject of federal waste and mismanagement in military spending had been building on the Roosevelt Administration from the beginning. When Rep. Edward Eugene Cox of Georgia, an anti-New Deal Democrat vocally joined with Republicans on the issue, President Franklin D. Roosevelt threw his support behind an investigative committee chaired by Truman, whom FDR viewed as a more practical alternative who would not go out of his way to embarrass the administration. On March 1, 1941, by unanimous vote, the Senate approved the oversight committee with Truman as its chairman.
With the exception of Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall, senior military leaders were worried. Past experience with similar committees during the Civil War and immediately following World War I had not been good. The Union’s Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War had been so meddlesome and harassing that Gen. Robert E. Lee joked it was worth two divisions to the Confederacy. Marshall, on the other hand, reassured his peers that “members of Congress are just as patriotic as we are.”
Truman selected the members for his committee from both aisles, more concerned about the individual being fair and pragmatic rather which party he was a member. Truman moved quickly, initially focusing on construction cost overruns at Army facilities. His committee’s investigation revealed much waste and cronyism and led to responsibility being transferred from the Quartermaster Corps to that of the Corps of Engineers, ultimately saving the government $250 million. That success caused Congress to increase the committee’s budget and staff, enabling it to expand its investigations.
The Anaconda wire fraud case amounted to $6 million in defective wire and cable being sold to the United States government. Lend-Lease shipments of the Anaconda products to the Soviet Union were 50 percent defective, causing the Soviet government to file an official protest.
In the summer of 1943, the Truman Committee revealed that the Lockland, Ohio, plant of the Curtiss-Wright company had been supplying defective aircraft engines to the Army Air Force; charges included conspiracy and collusion with AAF inspectors. This scandal became an inspiration for playwright Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons.
Truman’s success in curbing profiteering and mismanagement and helping to indict offenders gained Truman a respected national reputation. Typical was a letter from L.E. Hudson of Tulsa, Okla., who wrote on Oct. 9, 1943, “You and your committee have done and are doing a great good and we folks who have sons in the service can’t thank you enough for the work you have done.”
Truman stepped down from the committee in 1944, when he became FDR’s vice presidential running mate. The Truman Committee would continue until 1948, proving to be one of the most successful investigative committees created by Congress, saving the government an estimated $15 billion and the lives of thousands of servicemen.