The president was frustrated. He was at odds with Congress. The regular workings of government didn’t let him do what he desperately wanted to do. So he went on national television to explain why a public policy impasse amounted to a national emergency allowing him to take extraordinary action.
“My fellow Americans, tonight our country faces a grave danger,” President Harry S. Truman said from the White House on the night of April 8, 1952. “These are not normal times. These are times of crisis.”
Truman went on to explain why he had just directed his secretary of commerce to seize control of the country’s steel mills. An ongoing dispute between the companies and their workers threatened to deny U.S. troops the weapons and tanks they needed to fight in the Korean conflict.
“I would not be faithful to my responsibilities as president if I did not use every effort to keep this from happening,” he argued.
Truman’s actions 67 years ago sparked a fiery constitutional dispute that rocketed to the Supreme Court. And now, as President Trump considers claiming similar emergency powers to build his long-promised border wall despite lawmakers’ refusal to fund it, scholars are looking back at Truman’s gambit and the legal precedent it created. Suddenly, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, a great test of presidential power, is in vogue again.
“Youngstown is the right place to look,” constitutional scholar Jeffrey Rosen said. “But a lot has happened since then.”
Like Truman, Trump used a White House address to make the case that the United States is facing a security crisis at its southern border. Then he followed up with a trip to Texas Thursday as the administration began looking for unused money in the Army Corps of Engineers budget for the $5.7 billion the president says is needed for the wall.
A Trump declaration of a national emergency could end a partial government shutdown now in its third week, but will likely lead to congressional and court challenges.
Truman’s conflict was much different. In 1950, North Korea had invaded South Korea, and Truman, declaring an emergency, had sent troops for what he hoped would be a short deployment to defend a U.S. ally. But the Chinese joined the North, and the conflict raged on.
At home, Truman struggled to keep inflation in check with a new law that allowed him wartime wage and price controls over strategic industries. With the price of steel held in check, the companies refused to meet workers' demands for a pay increase, and by the end of 1951, a strike was looming.
Truman wanted to avoid disrupting the steel supply while U.S. troops were fighting, and he did have a weapon to head off the strike. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act gave the president authority, through court order, to suspend a strike for 80 days in cases in which national security was at risk. But Truman was a labor ally (Taft-Hartley had passed over his veto), and he didn’t want to anger his base.
“His pro-union sympathy prevented him taking the most legally safe route,” said Rosen, who is president and CEO of the National Constitution Center. “He was forced by the polarized politics of the time to make exceptional claims about executive authority.”
But first, Truman ordered the parties before a special Wage Stabilization Board to work out a deal. The board recommended a wage increase, but the steel companies refused unless they were allowed to hike steel prices. Truman effectively accused the industry of trying to profiteer during an emergency, and after further negotiations collapsed and the unions voted to walk out, he went on the air to announce his intent to take over the mills. He had signed Executive Order No. 10340 before going on camera.
“Our national security and our chances for peace depend on our defense production,” Truman said in that address. “Our defense production depends on steel.”
The steel companies reportedly had lawyers at the door of a federal judge within an hour of the broadcast. The arguments and appeals flew up the judicial chain until landing before the Supreme Court on May 12, 1952.
The government argued that even though the Constitution did not explicitly empower the president to seize private property, his role as commander in chief gave him authority to do so in times of national emergency. The steel companies argued that not only did Truman lack the power to take over their mills, but also that Congress had considered granting him such powers while debating the Taft-Hartley Act and deliberately rejected it. Instead, it had approved another mechanism to protect national security by giving the president authority to suspend a strike.
By a vote of 6 to 3, the justices sided with the steel companies. The “President’s power, if any, to issue the order must stem either from an act of Congress or from the Constitution itself,” Justice Hugo Black wrote in the majority opinion.
Rosen said the ruling instantly became “a canonical case of constitutional law.”
“Youngstown is accepted by both liberals and conservatives as the clearest guide to presidential power under the Constitution,” he said.
It was a sharp rebuke, and Truman immediately ordered the mills returned to company control, heading off a deep constitutional crisis. But it didn’t stop future presidents from testing the limits of their emergency powers. During a wildcat postal strike in 1970, President Richard M. Nixon declared a national emergency and deployed the National Guard to deliver the mail.
In 1976, Congress tried to rein in presidents with the National Emergencies Act, which placed various limits on how executives could declare emergencies and how long they would be in effect. Still, by renewing some declarations year after year, from one administration to another, presidents have managed to use the power dozens of times. Jimmy Carter’s emergency sanctions against Iran are still in effect, as are George W. Bush’s against Zimbabwe and Barack Obama’s against Syria, among about 30 others.
In that tangled legal landscape, scholars don’t know how the courts would respond to a Trump declaration of a border emergency. The president’s critics say Truman’s example won’t work in his favor.
"If Harry Truman couldn’t nationalize the steel industry during wartime, this president doesn’t have the power to declare an emergency and build a multibillion-dollar wall on the border,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said on CNN over the weekend.
Truman himself was shocked by his Supreme Court smackdown, in part because he thought his arguments were sound. “The president has the power to keep the country from going to hell,” he said in response to critics. But more so because the court was full of justices appointed by Democrats, including four Truman had elevated himself.
Truman would complain about the case for the rest of his life. But his personal pique was mollified a few weeks after the ruling, Rosen said, when Justice Black invited him to a party at his house with other jurists.
“Hugo, I don’t much care for your law, but, by golly, this bourbon is good,” he said.
“It’s impossible to imagine the Roberts court making up with Trump like that if they rule against him,” Rosen said. “We live in different times.”
Read more Retropolis: