A Voice from the Past
The federal government these days is riffing on the
word “security.” There’s the Department of Homeland Security, the National
Security Council and its National Security Advisor, the National Security
Agency — and yes, Social Security.
But it wasn’t so long ago that President Franklin
Delano Roosevelt was offering his own riff on the word. In the 1944
State of the Union speech, FDR outlined a new,
economic Bill of Rights for the United States, adding, “All of these
rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to
move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human
happiness and well-being.”
The idea of social security played a major role from
the very beginning of the New Deal, and in 1935 FDR made it an official
part of his administration by signing the Social Security Act, which
created the Social Security Board. A grand game of musical chairs ensued:
In 1939, the Board became part of the newly
created Federal Security Administration, along with Public Health Service, the
Office of Education, the Civilian Conservation Corp., and the U.S.
In 1946, the Social Security Board became the
Social Security Administration, still part of the FSA.
In 1950 President Harry S. Truman proposed a new
cabinet-level department, to be called the Department of Health,
Education, and Security, which was quickly shot down by Congress.
Eventually, in 1953, President Dwight David
Eisenhower accomplished what Truman had been unable to do, although —
perhaps because of Cold War concerns about national security — the
new department was called Health, Education, and Welfare.
The new department later divided up & given other
Now we are engaged in a new debate over Social
Security — and social security, lowercased — testing whether its promise
can long endure. To understand the roots of the present controversy, it
may be useful to look at an interview recorded in 1969 with Oscar R. Ewing, head of FSA.
Ewing recalls the furor surrounding Roosevelt’s and Truman’s original
plans and the organized opposition to it. The entire interview can be
http://www.trumanlibrary.org/oralhist/ewing3.htm; the interviewer is
J. R. Fuchs. (Ewing later achieved additional notoriety as a proponent of
socialism for his campaign to add fluoride to the nation’s drinking
FUCHS: What are the chief reasons that you felt FSA
did not achieve Cabinet status, I believe it was to be called the
Department of Health, Education, and Security during Mr. Truman's time?
EWING: Oh, it was the opposition of the American Medical Association
unquestionably. Both times the reorganization plans were sent up to
Congress the AMA staged campaigns to prevent the agency being made a
department. Their main argument was that they did not want me given a
higher platform from which to argue for national health insurance.
FUCHS: Did they base their attacks on you solely or largely on
principles or personality?
EWING: No. You see, national health insurance had been proposed by
President Roosevelt in the very first social security bill introduced in
Congress back in 1934. Later President Roosevelt dropped his support of
national health insurance. I think he did this largely because he thought
that including national health insurance in the bill might make it more
difficult to get the social security program through Congress and that it
would be better to take a step at a time, get what he could, and later try
to get the more controversial parts of his program, such as national
health insurance, adopted.
FUCHS: How did Mrs. Roosevelt, who we know was greatly interested in
welfare type projects, feel about this earlier approach to health
EWING: I can say something about that that I learned from
Arthur Altmeyer, who was a member of the first Social Security Board,
and later when the Board was abolished, he became Social Security
Administrator. I think Arthur knew what he was talking about when he told
me this. He said that at the time the social security legislation was
first introduced including the provision for national health insurance,
some doctor friend of Mrs. Roosevelt had a talk with her and convinced her
that it was very unwise to push for national health insurance; and that
she convinced the President that it was unwise and accordingly he withdrew
his support for the proposal. Later Mrs. Roosevelt changed her mind,
apparently, because she became an active member of the Committee for the
Nation's Health which was very strongly in favor of national health
insurance. You see, even at that time, the United States was the only
civilized nation that didn't have a national health insurance program in
operation. National health insurance was started by Bismarck in Germany
back in the 1880s and similar programs had been gradually adopted by other
countries one after another. There had been ample experience so that we
who were pushing it could say that it was a workable program that would
fill a very great need.
FUCHS: Do you have any knowledge of how it worked in Germany, and was
it continued under the Hitler regime and is it still in?
EWING: Oh, yes. It's worked very well there. And the interesting part
of it is that, say from the 1880s on up until the American technology
caught up, it was out of Germany that came all of the great medical
advances. I wouldn't say that today nor would I say it of the time since
World War II, but German medical research from the 1880s on was
FUCHS: Was theirs linked with the social security type system?
EWING: I think it was. It is all part of a social insurance program.
FUCHS: Do you know when they first tagged it "socialized medicine" and
how that came about?
EWING: I'm not sure but I think that what I will now say is correct. In
California, Governor Warren back in the early 1940s had proposed a program
of health insurance for the residents of California and he had legislation
for it introduced into the California legislature. The California Medical
Association staged a campaign in opposition. They spent a great deal of
money for billboards, newspaper advertising, radios, etc. Their opposition
was directed by a public relations firm in San Francisco known as
Whitaker Baxter. That was a husband and wife team. Clem Whitaker was
the head of it and his wife, whose maiden name was Baxter, was the other
partner. That fight took place before I was Federal Security
Administrator, before I even got interested in national health insurance.
Until I became Administrator the problem was one that I had had no reason
to consider. After I became Administrator, I realized that President
Truman was strongly in favor of national health insurance. It was, of
course, my job to push any program that he wanted pushed. Then I soon came
to realize that health insurance was an important subject and that I
should know more about it and the country should know more about it.
Accordingly, at the request of the President, I called a conference to
consider the health problems of the country, not merely national health
insurance but every phase of health problems that faced this country.
FUCHS: What year was that?
EWING: The conference was held in May of 1948 and covered the whole
spectrum of medical problems.
FUCHS: Whose idea was it to call this conference?
EWING: Well, it originated in my office. I think it was Don Kingsley,
my assistant administrator, who first suggested it. It's very hard to
remember just who suggested an idea to you, but I know Don was very much
The question you asked me is how the term socialized medicine came to
be used and I was trying to give you a little background about that. It
was sometime in early 1948 that I began publicly advocating national
health insurance and it was becoming a controversial issue all over the
country. This story that I am now telling you was told me much later. It
was about this time that a friend of mine,
Mike Gorman, was working on a paper in Oklahoma City, and he wrote an
article for his paper that was quite favorable to the idea of national
health insurance. The next morning he was called in by his publisher and
fired. Mike's family lived in Los Angeles, so he returned there. He had
been there only a few days when he received a telephone call from Clem
Whitaker in San Francisco. Clem told him that the firm of Whitaker &
Baxter had just been employed by the American Medical Association to
conduct a hard-hitting fight against national health insurance and he
would like Mike to join his staff and help in the fight. Mike replied,
"Clem, I'm not sure. I don't think you can beat it. I'm convinced that
it's the right thing to do and such a program will eventually be adopted
and you can't stop it."
"Oh," Whitaker said, "that's easy. We've been through this fight with
Governor Warren's proposal for a state health insurance program and it's a
cinch to beat it. In order to do so, there are only two things that you
have to have. First you have to give the program a bad name and we're
going to call it 'socialized medicine' because the idea of socialism is
very unpopular in the United States. We'll give it this bad name. No one
wants to be, or at least very few want to have the tag socialist attached
to them. Then the second thing you have to have is a devil. You have to
have a devil in the picture to paint him in all his horns and we've got
that man chosen. We first thought we would center the attack on President
Truman, but we've decided he is too popular; but we've got a perfect devil
in this man Ewing and we're going to give him the works."
So, apparently that is where the large scale use of the term
"socialized medicine" all started.
FUCHS: Why did they feel that they had a perfect devil in you? Have you
EWING: Well, I think they had to center their attack on someone who was
close to the program and was prominent in promoting it and since they had
decided not to attack the President, my being second in the line, caught
FUCHS: Why were the pharmaceutical manufacturers so against national
EWING: The reason for that is quite simple. In the original draft of
the bill, which has been prepared in the Federal Security Agency, largely
under the immediate direction of Dr. Isadore Falk, there had been included
a provision to the effect that if the price of drugs became excessive the
Government could step in and fix prices. That was a perfect anathema to
the Pharmaceutical manufacturers, and I think it was unfortunate that it
was put in. I say this because it instantly created a solid opposition
from the pharmaceutical manufacturers and it wasn't necessary at that
time. What should have been done was to make no mention of price control,
get the program adopted and then if the manufacturers began charging
excessive prices, that would be the time to consider legislation to
control the situation. Later, I remember making a talk to the
Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association and I told them I thought they
were very foolish to oppose the bill because it would mean a great deal
more widespread distribution of health services and that would necessarily
mean a much greater market for their products; that they would have
dollars instead of dimes running through their cash registers. Actually I
think that argument proved quite effective because shortly afterwards the
pharmaceutical manufacturers, who had been the chief financial supporters
of a so-called "National Physicians Committee for the Extension of Medical
Service," withdrew their support. The National Physicians Committee was
really the propaganda arm of the American Medical Association. You see,
under the tax laws, contributions to an organization that uses its money
for the purpose of influencing legislation cannot be considered a
charitable deduction. The Physicians Committee had been set up because the
American Medical Association didn't want to impair a ruling it had
obtained to the effect that gifts to it were charitable gifts and
therefore tax deductible. Actually, I think the AMA would have lost its
tax-free gift status had they kept operating the Physicians Committee,
because it was doing nothing but carrying on propaganda to influence
legislation. Dr. Fishbein, the Executive Director of the AMA., was on the
board of directors of the National Physicians Committee and there were
other interlocking officers and directors.
FUCHS: Was he the principal man in the National Physicians Committee?
EWING: No. Dr.
Morris Fishbein had been for many years the AMA's principal
mouthpiece. He was a very vocal man and really brilliant.
FUCHS: I would like you to comment upon the positions of these people
or any conversation you may have had with them upon national health
EWING: Oh, he was all for it.
FUCHS: What about
EWING: I think Sidney Hillman died a couple of years or so before I
FUCHS: How about
EWING: He was strong for the program.
EWING: Oh, I had many contacts with George Meany. Well, that isn't
quite an accurate statement. I saw him in my dealings with labor groups. I
don't think I ever worked with him closely on anything.
FUCHS: Did you have private conferences with members of the AMA when
you were going into this health insurance program? Also, what was their
position towards voluntary insurance? Anything you might point up about
EWING: I did not have many talks with members of the AMA or with any of
their representatives. My position was made clear in public statements so
that they didn't try to persuade me one way or another. They showed their
opposition in the literature that Whitaker & Baxter prepared for them and
also by their active lobbying against the proposed legislation. They
brought a lot of pressure on individual Senators and Congressmen. They
particularly tried, I think in most cases successfully, to have a
Congressman's individual doctor contact that Congressman and convince him
what a terrible thing national health insurance would be. That was their
technique. Whitaker & Baxter would prepare resolutions for various
organizations to adopt. The local doctor would get — well, say the
Daughters of the American Revolution to pass one of these prepared
FUCHS: Did they work through any voluntary insurance companies such as
Blue Cross or any other companies that you know of, to put on a campaign?
EWING: I'm sure that they did everything they could to defeat the bill.
If any organization anywhere was susceptible to their wiles, why they
would take advantage of it.
FUCHS: Doctor Robins, whom you mentioned before, in April 1950 was a
Democratic National Committeeman from Arkansas, wrote the House
Appropriations Committee and also the Department of Justice saying that
your activities, "in promoting public meetings, traveling around the
country, disseminating propaganda...diverting the agency's appropriations
improperly...to stampede Congress into...the Socialistic compulsory health
insurance program were improper and should be probed." Do you remember
EWING: Oh, vaguely. Those things were coming so fast that I don't
remember Robins particularly. It was just one of many.
FUCHS: One of many.
EWING: As a matter of fact, we didn't spend a penny in public money
propagandizing this program.
FUCHS: I believe that you participated in a "Town Meeting of the Air"
Nelson Cruikshank, Morris Fishbein and Senator
Alexander Smith. Do you recall anything about that of interest?
EWING: Oh, yes. I'm not just sure when that took place but it was
fairly early in my administration. "Town Meeting of the Air," was a radio
program. Mr. Cruikshank and I had a number of sessions getting ready what
we would say. As a result we came fairly well prepared. We knew that Dr.
Fishbein wrote a syndicated column called "Dr. Fishbein's Diary,"
something after the manner of Dr. Pepy's Diary. Mr. Cruikshank had found
one of Dr. Fishbein's so-called diaries in which he described a recent
visit he had made to England. In the course of our debate Dr. Fishbein had
described the horrible confusion that existed in the British Health
Service that had recently been established in Britain. He told of the
utter confusion that he found existed when he was in England a few weeks
previously; that there were long queues in every doctor's office, that
doctors were overburdened with paper work; that a mother who wanted an
extra allowance of milk for her sick child had to get a doctor's
prescription for it and then go to the Health Department for permission to
buy the milk. Dr. Fishbein painted a picture of complete confusion. He
described all these details as a result of a question Mr. Cruikshank had
had planted in the audience which was: "Do you know how the British Health
Service is operating now?" After Dr. Fishbein had described all these
horrible details he found existing when in England a few weeks earlier Mr.
Cruikshank pulled out this particular diary of Dr. Fishbein in which he
described his last visit to London. He had arrived in London Friday
morning and that afternoon had gone out to spend the weekend with Lord and
Lady so-and-so at their country place; that he'd come back to London
Monday morning, had stopped by the Health Department to pick up some
papers, and had gone on to catch the noon plane for Paris. So the
questioner then asked, "Well, is your appraisal of the British Health
Service based on those few hours in London?" The question was a stinger
and pretty much discredited Dr. Fishbein.
FUCHS: Did the press comment upon this "Town Meeting of the Air?"
EWING: I think it did but I don't recall. The press usually commented
on all of their programs.
FUCHS: You don't recall how they felt that the opponents came out?
EWING: No, I don't know. But it wasn't too long after that that Dr.
Fishbein resigned from his position with the American Medical Association.
FUCHS: Mr. Ewing, we can go ahead now. Do you have any other comments
about Dr. Fishbein?
EWING: No. My personal relations with Dr. Fishbein were always very
FUCHS: Did you feel at any time the public had become somewhat
apathetic about national health insurance either as a result of other
matters or because of AMA's campaign?
EWING: Yes. But the latter part of 1950 I had become convinced that the
public was not in a mood to support it. The AMA propaganda against it had
been pretty effective and I had come to believe that we could not get our
program enacted. Actually, the only way Medicare got enacted in 1966 was
because an organized group, the Senior Citizen's Council, really got in
the fight and showed some real political power.