American History

Give ’em Healthcare, Harry!

The U.S. Senate Labor and Education Committee began its day on April 2, 1946, with a thunderous exchange between pillars of that body over the legislation under discussion.

“It is to my mind the most socialistic measure that this Congress has ever had before it, seriously,” Senator Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio) declared.

With equal vehemence, Senator James E. Murray (D-Montana), replied, “Everything that has been attempted to be done for the welfare of the American people has men like you coming along charging it with being communistic.”

Taft persisted in decrying the measure as socialistic. Waving a fist, Murray ordered the gentleman from Ohio to “shut up,” going so far as to threaten to “call the officers here and have you removed from the room.”

As the legislative lions kept at it, their roars resonating in the green and gilt U.S. Capitol hearing room, the Senate momentarily shed its carefully maintained politesse, descending into what a reporter called “a fist-shaking verbal brawl.” The indecorous exchange should have been no surprise; Murray’s panel was considering a proposal with the power to provoke hysterical reaction, especially since the legislation at hand seemed on the path to success: compulsory national health insurance.

On November 19, 1945, Harry S. Truman had thrown the weight of his office behind such a program, something not even Franklin D. Roosevelt had dared push. It was a daring move for an unelected president who 13 months before had been an obscure senator, but Truman saw the issue as one of fairness. Wealthy Americans could afford medical care. Poor Americans got charity care. However, Americans in the middle were out on a limb. Serious illness or injury could and did gut family finances; at some point, nearly a quarter of the population had gone into debt to pay medical bills. Americans were not getting the health care they needed, the president said, citing how during World War II pre-induction physicals found five million men medically

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