We take it for granted that if something happens somewhere — in fact, if anything happens anywhere — we'll be able to see it on television, often instantaneously. Video images are everywhere these days, but it wasn't really all that long ago that people were still getting used to the idea. In 1947, television was just getting started. The World Series that October, for example, was the first to be televised. (The Yankees beat the Dodgers in seven.) Take another example: presidential speeches. Back then, Americans had been hearing them on the radio for years. But on Oct. 5, 1947, President Harry S. Truman gave a speech to the nation that was not only carried on radio, but also — for the first time in history — broadcast live on television. Truman had appeared on television before, but never from the White House. The TV linkup that night included just four cities: Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Schenectady, N.Y. All this would amount to little more than a footnote except for one thing: What the president said that night was truly remarkable, especially in the context of today.
In 1947, World War II was over, and the United States was emerging as a prosperous superpower. But much of Europe was in ruins; people there were suffering and hungry. With winter coming, they faced the prospect of mass starvation. Americans were in a position to help, and 60 years ago tonight, in that first televised speech, President Truman called on them to do just that. He asked the nation to make do with less, so that more could be sent to our friends in need. No meat on Tuesdays. No poultry or eggs on Thursdays. Save a slice of bread every day. Public eating places would serve bread and butter only on request. The president made a point of asking all segments of the population to help save grain: farmers, industry, individual Americans. To "the millions of American housewives" who had already begun to conserve, Truman said, "keep up the good work." But he also called on the "many Americans who are overeating and wasting food" to stop taking more than their fair share. He asked the nation's distillers — heavy users of grain — to voluntarily suspend operations for 60 days. And he had sharp words for profiteering grain traders —saying prices "should not be subject to the greed of speculators who gamble on what may lie ahead in our commodity markets."
Americans in all walks of life, who had just endured years of deprivation and sacrifice during World War II, were being asked by their president to sacrifice some more — to win the peace as they had won the war — not for their own immediate benefit, but for the sake of millions of people they would never meet. Truman promised it would be worth it: "The battle to save food in the United States is the battle to save our own prosperity and to save the free countries of Western Europe. Our self-denial will serve us well in the years to come."
Sixty years later, it is plain to see that Harry S. Truman was right about that.
Reprinted with permission from the NBC News blog, The Daily Nightly.