Saturday, August 25, 2007

August 25, 1950:

Truman Seizes the Railroads

In an age of jet travel and the Interstate system, it's hard to imagine how dependent the United States once was on its railroads, but the nation was in 1950. Two months after the start of fighting in Korea, President Truman took a step that, though probably justified by wartime necessity, seems exceptionally radical today. He ordered the Army to take control of the nation's railroads ahead of a strike that would have shut them down.

"On August 25, 1950, President Harry Truman ordered the Army... to seize control of all major U.S. railroads from the 194 owning companies by August 27," writes Shaun Kirkpatrick, U.S. Army Military History Institute, on, homepage of the US Army. "The order came before a national labor strike, scheduled for August 28, would have shut down the country's most important means of transportation.

"Secretary of the Army, Frank Pace Jr., said in a statement that day, 'We must not permit the flow of essential support to the forces in Korea to be interrupted.' Assistant Secretary of the Army, Karl Bendetsen, telegraphed the union presidents and rail companies and asked if labor and management would work under Army control. Both sides agreed to comply with the Army's request for continued operations, and the labor unions called off their strike.

"The strike plans arose out of more than a year of disagreements between unions and rail companies over wage demands and desired rule changes. The sides took another 21 months to reach a settlement; meanwhile, the Army retained control of national rail operations while also handling the Korean War.

"Due to the wartime shortage of troops, the Army spared only 46 officers, one enlisted man (a sergeant), and eight civilian clerks to full-time rail service. It did this successfully by staying in the background when possible, interfering with rail operations only when necessary to maintain uninterrupted service...

"On May 21, 1952, rail companies and the major labor unions finally settled their dispute. President Truman approved return of the rail systems to private ownership on May 23. Secretary Pace formally terminated 21 months of wartime control of America's railroads later that day."

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