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Oct 8, 2005 4:48 pm

How the White House Discovered Television

Coinciding as it did with the partition of Palestine, the drafting of the Marshall Plan, and the birth of the Cold War, President Harry Truman's speech on October 5, 1947, urging Americans to save wheat made little impression on the history books. And Truman didn't even mention it in his memoirs. But it began something that shapes American politics to this day: It was the first televised Presidential speech ever.

And wheat was actually a crucially important issue. Truman took to the airwaves because he feared the fragile peace won just two years earlier was about to be lost. Europe, not yet recovered from World War II, now suffered from the cruelty of nature. A glut of rain during the planting season had preceded a drought at harvest time, leaving France and Italy's grain fields barren and Europe on the brink of famine. Experts estimated that the continent would need at least a hundred million bushels more wheat than the U.S. could supply that year. Truman's administration, still in the midst of framing the Marshall Plan, knew if he didn't do something fast his allies might collapse into chaos.

To come up with strategies, Truman appointed a 26-member Citizens Food Committee, headed by the president of Lever Brothers (and future architect of Madison Square Garden and the Kennedy Space Center), Charles Luckman. The committee decided that any rationing in America must be voluntary, and that raising food prices was too painful a solution. After more than a week of round-the-clock work, Luckman joined Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall, Secretary of Agriculture Clinton Anderson, and Secretary of Commerce Averell Harriman in unveiling the Committee's plan in a radio and television simulcast....

Even if it didn't save Europe, the October 5 broadcast did have a large effect on the free world, just not in a way Truman, or anyone at the time, could have predicted. The TV simulcast was clearly an afterthought for the administration, and Time's article on the speech didn't even mention that it had been televised; The New York Times devoted less than a sentence to the fact. It's impossible to say how many people watched Truman that night, as TV ratings weren't calculated until 1948, but considering that in 1947 only 14,000 sets were in use in the United States, compared with tens of millions of radios, the news media's oversight is understandable.

Nevertheless, all Truman's future addresses were televised, as was his inauguration in 1949. A month after the speech on the food program, the Senate allowed a committee hearing to be televised for the first time, and the networks even broadcast Cabinet meetings starting in 1950....

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