The Most Hated Man in America

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Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Sunday, December 7th, 1941, was the final day of the NFL regular season at 2 p.m. Eastern. Fans of the first place New York Giants tune their radios to WJR from one. World Cup. The game was still scoreless 26 minutes after the opening kickoff. Then suddenly a newscaster broke into the play by play Command.

Speaker 2: Made the fact we interrupt this broadcast and bring this important bulletin from the United press flash. WASHINGTON The White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: That was the first known radio bulletin about the military strike on Hawaii within a few minutes. The news was everywhere.

Speaker 2: The attack was a complete surprise at Pearl Harbor. Only minimum forces of the Army and Navy were on Sunday morning duty. The Japanese dive bombers have been making continuous attacks, apparently from a Japanese aircraft carrier. Three American battleships were hit and the battleship West Virginia was reported. So.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The attack on Pearl Harbor killed more than 2400 Americans. When President Franklin Roosevelt heard the news, he was getting ready to work on his stamp collection. By the next afternoon, he brought the country into an existential fight that had already engulfed most of the planet.


Speaker 2: No matter how long it may take us, the American people in their right mind will win through the absolute victory.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: In those early days, absolute victory against Japan, Germany and Italy felt more like a wish than a promise. As the calendar flipped to January 1942, hundreds of thousands of young people enlisted in the military. Millions more were likely to be drafted. But in 1942, the war wouldn’t be fought only on battlefields.


Speaker 2: This is a conflict in which everyone can and must serve.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Civilians were asked to contribute however they could, working on assembly lines, watching the skies for enemy aircraft and harvesting their own fruits and vegetables.


Speaker 2: Victory Gardens. That’s the answer. We can grow food for victory in our own backyards.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: When we think of the home front now, it’s usually a romantic vision of shared sacrifice. And Rosie the Riveter. But for the people living through it, this wasn’t an era of good feelings. 1942 was a year of chaos and doubt of the possible end of democracy and the total economic collapse.

Speaker 3: You can learn a lot about a society when you examine it under moments of great stress.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Tracy Campbell is the author of The Year of Peril America in 1942.

Speaker 3: 1942 was one of those years in which everything was on the line. Roosevelt called it the war survival. And when you look at a society that’s fighting for its survival, I think you really see the best and the worst come to the top.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: You’re listening to One Year, a series about the people and struggles that changed America one year at a time. I’m Josh Levine in our fourth season. We’re going to focus on the most tumultuous year in modern American history, 1942. Over the course of six episodes, we’re going to bring you stories from the distant past that sound like they’ve been pulled from the present day. We’ll hear about how the country dealt with massive loads of disinformation and with a radio propagandist who wasn’t who he claimed to be.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: We’ll tell you about one of the most consequential labor uprisings of the 20th century, one that changed music forever. And you’ll learn about a group of black Americans forced to choose between a nation that didn’t have their backs and a far off dream of worldwide racial solidarity. But first, the biggest danger facing America in 1942 didn’t come from Japan or Germany. It emerged from inside the United States. The catastrophic threat of inflation.


Speaker 3: With our entrance into this war, the possibility is staggering as to what could happen. This might be a bigger disaster than what we saw at Pearl Harbor.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Runaway inflation could mean breadlines, civil unrest and the triumph of Adolf Hitler. And one man was in charge of making sure that didn’t happen.

Speaker 2: Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Leon Henderson, administrator of the Office of Price Administration. Thank you, Mr. ANNOUNCER. And good evening.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Today, few people remember who Leon Henderson was, but in 1942, he basically ruled the United States.

Speaker 3: I think it was one of the most powerful unelected officials in the history of the country. He essentially directed the American domestic economy.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The demands Henderson made of ordinary citizens were intrusive and at times shocking.

Speaker 2: While victory isn’t cheap, no one ever said it was. Furthermore, victory isn’t achieved by sitting back and hoping that somebody else will make a sacrifice so that you won’t have to.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Some people considered him un-American, but Leon Henderson didn’t need to be liked. He needed to save the country.

Speaker 2: Maybe all Americans will be a little bit colder, this one, but as a result, it’s going to be harder for Hitler.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: This is one year, 1942. The most hated man in America. When a bureaucrat gets called combative, it’s usually a figure of speech. But Leon Henderson would just literally punch people on a single trip to New York. He got into four separate fist fights with a football fan, a truck driver, and two different cabbies.


Speaker 3: Sometimes he seemed to go out of his way to antagonize people. He could often create more enemies than friends.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Historian Tracy Campbell says that Henderson was profane, complained about a bad back and often spit out of windows. Growing up in the early 1900s, he loved to play baseball, but his greatest passion was arguing with the umpires. Henderson may have been a troublemaker, but he wasn’t a fool. He worked his way through college, earning an economics degree from Swarthmore after a stint as a professor. He joined the federal government in 1934. That was a year after Franklin Roosevelt got to the White House. And so Henderson was there when FDR rolled out his New Deal social programs.


Speaker 3: So he’s at the right place at the right time. He has Roosevelt’s confidence. He just kept rising up the bureaucratic ladder.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: In April 1941, Roosevelt gave Henderson a very big job. He became the director of the Office of Press Administration. Better known as America’s praise czar. As the U.S. prepared for the possibility of war, it was on him to keep the cost of living under control. Eight months into the job, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Speaker 2: December seven, 1941, a date which will live in infamy.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: That address to Congress launched America into World War Two. It’s one of the most famous speeches in American history. But Tracy Campbell says we should really remember the one that came after.


Speaker 3: It’s the next month. January of 1942, when he goes back to Congress. That is, to me, the blockbuster speech, maybe the 20th century in which he outlines the spending plan.

Speaker 2: Our task is hard. Our task is unprecedented and the time is short.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: In his State of the Union, President Roosevelt explained what it would take to fight the war. And what he laid out was mind boggling.

Speaker 2: Our program for the coming fiscal year will cost $36 billion. In other words, more than half of the estimated annual national income.

Speaker 3: In the mid 1930s, our federal budget was no more than 8 billion in total. The whole thing, everything. I mean, this is the kind of spending like we’d never seen before.


Speaker 2: Let no man say it cannot be done. It must be done. And we have undertaken to do it.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Firing up the American war machine was absolutely essential. It was also extraordinarily risky, creating the possibility of unbelievable inflation unless Leon Henderson could stop it.

Speaker 2: So must these rugged old virtues of honesty, thrift and frugality come to the fore and all of us to strengthen our drive for victory?

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: If you’ve bought anything in 2022, you know what inflation feels like. Whether it’s gasoline, groceries or even babysitters, the stuff you spend money on gets more expensive. So why was inflation such a danger in 1942? You can think about it in terms of supply and demand. The government suddenly needed all those billions to start up its war machine. Auto manufacturers would now switch to building tanks and planes. Other factories stopped making products like radios and sewing machines. Limits on imports also made sugar and coffee harder to get. But Americans still wanted to buy cars and sewing machines and coffee. Lots of demand and very little supply meant prices would shoot up and purchasing power would go way down.


Speaker 3: And so all these pressures could produce something that could be actually ruinous. It could end really our ability to pay for the war if we don’t get some kind of control over inflation from the get go.

Speaker 2: Some call it inflation and others call it a rise in the cost of living, which is much more easily understood by most families.

Speaker 3: Inflation could mean that even people who hold jobs still could not pay the basic commodities of life. You can’t pay your rent. You can’t afford food.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Inflation wasn’t a theoretical concern. During World War One, the cost of food and clothing had more than doubled in the United States, and World War Two looked like it could be a whole lot worse.

Speaker 3: The figures are astounding as to what inflation can do. It truly has no limit.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: These days, we depend on the Federal Reserve to keep inflation under control. The Fed sets interest rates and then the free market responds over time. But in 1942, the United States was mostly counting on one man to avert an economic disaster. The price are.

Speaker 2: Arbitrary for the duration of the way of life of 130 million American people. Is the boss of the Office of Price Administration. Tough, capable Leon Henderson.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Leon Henderson was a liberal Democrat, a believer in the government’s ability to make people’s lives better. After Pearl Harbor, that role was more important than ever. But Henderson wasn’t delivering a sunny message. He saw himself as a prophet of gloom, a man telling his country to prepare for the worst. To fight inflation, everyone needed to sacrifice. And he knew just what that sacrifice should look like.


Speaker 3: For Henderson and for many within the Treasury Department. Higher taxes were one of the best ways to control inflation because you would literally take money out of people’s pockets.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The less cash people have, the less ability they have to buy things. That means less demand for products, which helps keep prices low. Higher taxes also had another benefit. They’d give the government more money to pay for the American war machine with Henderson support. FDR pushed through the largest tax increase in U.S. history. The maximum income tax rate would get jacked up to 88% for the wealthiest Americans, and millions of Americans would have to pay federal income tax for the first time. That wasn’t easy for the country to swallow. So the Treasury Department got Walt Disney and Donald Duck to help with the sales job.

Speaker 2: Your country is at war. Your country needs taxes or guns. Taxes or ships. Taxes for democracy. Taxes to beat the axis and bear arms. Come back twice. That’s the spirit.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: War bonds were another win win proposition. Just like higher taxes. They’d yank money out of people’s pockets and help broke up the military.

Speaker 2: Uncle Sam doesn’t ask plain, ordinary, hardworking citizens like you to give him anything. All he asks is that you loan him $0.10 out of every dollar you make, and he’ll pay you back with interest when he’s won it.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: But Leon Henderson new taxes and war bonds alone wouldn’t keep costs from spiraling.

Speaker 3: If inflation were an easy thing to tackle, we would tackle it. The challenge of it is that it is so immense and so pervasive and can destroy so much and so virtually everything’s on the table.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: In early 1942, the White House gave Henderson even more authority. He now had the power to control the economy, pretty much however he wanted.

Speaker 3: And if you were an average American in 1942, every day you would read a newspaper of a directive from Leon Henderson’s office that would impact your life one way or another.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Take the price of goods. Henderson wanted to make sure that the products Americans bought didn’t cost too much. So he simply declared that they wouldn’t. His Office of Press Administration had the power to decree that a Chevrolet Fleet Master coupe cost a maximum of $815. And that was that.

Speaker 3: The prices that you were paying for virtually every consumer commodity he controlled.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The same was true for rents. Leon Henderson controlled. Those two merchants and landlords may not have appreciated that. But for working class Americans, many of whom saw their wages frozen during the war, price and rent controls could be a huge relief.

Speaker 3: By working more hours than I’ve worked ever, and I still can’t get a raise. But on the other hand, the stuff that I’m going to go by is no longer going up in price. You can love and hate the OPA almost in the same thought.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: At the same time, the EPA’s power and reach were kind of overwhelming. With each passing week, it got more and more enmeshed in American’s daily lives.

Speaker 3: Okay, the moment you wake up, you’re in an apartment of which the rent has been set by Leon Henderson office. The towel you’re using to dry off after the shower. The price of that towel, The cotton would be set by the LPA. There was this thing called the Biscuit and Pretzels Subcommittee. So if you’re taking a break on your lunch and going out to buy a pretzel, even that would be set by the LPA.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: I just love the idea of a biscuit and pretzel subcommittee just because it suggests that there’s a subcommittee on doughnuts. Right.

Speaker 3: It was. It was a subcommittee of the baking committee. It’s the kind of bureaucracy that drives so many people crazy. But that’s what was necessary to determine the price of virtually every commodity purchase.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Leon Henderson was the public face of that vast pretzel pricing bureaucracy. And in 1942, he became a huge celebrity, the man with all the answers.

Speaker 2: I think someone ought to be able to tell it. I’m going to write to Washington about it. To the man in charge.

Speaker 3: Leon Henderson So people knew who he was and his image was everywhere because they understood just what kind of power they had over their lives. And his name was mentioned, at least at times in early 1942, as a possible presidential candidate in 1944.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Leon Henderson was on the cover of Life and Time magazines, and anyone who saw him wasn’t liable to forget it.

Speaker 3: Henderson in some ways was a Hollywood image of this, you know, cigar smoking ashes on his suit, larger than life kind of figure. He always had a cigar in his mouth, wore big hat.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: That profile of Henderson and Life magazine said his clothes gave him the appearance of having just been in an accident. It described him eating meat with his hands and the presence of half the important people in Washington. And it said that when he was a college instructor, he’d thrown a student down the stairs for complaining about a bad grade.

Speaker 3: He had a temper and you can see it coming out in some of his even his radio shows. He didn’t suffer fools for a second.


Speaker 2: Well, let’s hear what the folks back home have to say.

Speaker 2: 100 million questions with price Administrator Leon Henderson comes to you each Thursday. At the same time over most of these same stations.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Throughout 1942, Leon Henderson went on the radio to respond to citizens questions and complaints, big and small. He even tried to settle a dispute over $8 a month in rent.

Speaker 2: I’ve been living here for three months, paying $30 a month for five rooms an attached garage. Recently, I discovered that the rent had only been $22 a month before our freeze date. The landlord claims he is allowed to charge more because he added the garage in an extra room and insulated the house. I claim that his hard luck being the landlord who is right, the landlord’s right. From the tone of that letter, I’d say he got the wrong bull by the horns. Rent control isn’t a device to crack down on landlords. It’s meant to correct abuses and inequities. And it works both ways.

Speaker 3: We like people that tell it like it is. Well, Leon Henderson would tell it like it is regardless of the audience.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: In 1942, that meant admitting the taxes and war bonds and price controls still weren’t doing enough to stop inflation. And the news from overseas wasn’t any better. The Japanese were gaining ground in Asia and the Pacific, and Nazi Germany continued pillaging through Europe. It was going to be a long war and Leon Henderson knew that if the Allies were going to win it, everyone needed to sacrifice even more.

Speaker 3: He was not afraid to go to an agricultural convention and ask for huge sacrifices from farmers. He then wasn’t afraid to go the next day to a labor union, tell them that their wages would have to be frozen when.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: People cast him under their breaths.

Speaker 3: I’m sure they did. But there was this aspect of his personality, I think, embraced that. Someone once said that Henderson’s great strength was that he enjoyed saying no.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: In 1942, Leon Henderson would say no to one of America’s most cherished freedoms the right to buy whatever you want, whenever you want.

Speaker 2: A plan to see to it that everyone gets an equal share of what there is. That plan is called rationing. So here’s the plan that’s fair and square. Everybody gets their share. No more griping anywhere. You get the point. This is row one for you. One one for me. Since we’re baby share, I like victory. Get the point, Mrs. Brown.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: To win the war, the United States needed an enormous arsenal. Planes, tanks, gas masks, combat boots. Every item on that list required a raw material that was in desperately short supply.

Speaker 2: Well, Charlie, one of the last contracts we’ll get if we don’t get rubber, we’ll have to stop making good things.

Speaker 4: So a world without rubber is a very immobile world. In 1942.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: That’s Sarah Fro Hart Lane. She’s a history professor at Ripon College.

Speaker 4: If you’re going to transport militaries and you’re going to transport supplies, you have to have rubber.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: And you need to get rubber from a tree.

Speaker 4: You need to get rubber from a tree. The natural rubber, Yes. So when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Japan also seized control of territories in Southeast Asia that had at least 90% of the rubber supplies that the United States was counting on.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: That caused a big snarl in the global rubber supply chain. Leon Henderson declared that not a pound of rubber can be spared for other than war purposes. This was the beginning of the EPA’s rationing program, strict limits on what Americans could buy and when they could buy it.

Speaker 2: That’s what a rationing plan is for Mrs. Brown. Mrs. Jones.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: In 1942, there would be no new mattresses, pencil erasers or elastic girdles. And old scraps were suddenly a valuable commodity.

Speaker 2: I want to talk to you about rubber. About rubber and the war.

Speaker 4: Franklin Roosevelt has a radio appeal asking people to get every single bit of rubber out of their attics, out of their garages, anywhere they can possibly find rubber.

Speaker 2: We wanted in every form old tires, old rubber raincoats, old garden hose, rubber shoes, bathing caps, gloves. If you think it’s rubber, take it to your nearest filling station.

Speaker 4: Rubber bands are donated, which I think is a great symbol of like this is not actually solving the problem. Right.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The one thing that could potentially solve the problem was using fewer tires. That would mean changing how Americans drove. And that would be a very hard sell.

Speaker 4: The Office of Press Administration says civilians are not allowed to own more than five automobile tires. They have to sell back any other ones to the government. Then there’s an effort to get people to drive more slowly so that they’re conserving rubber that way. The speed limit becomes 35 miles per hour nationally.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: So did these rules that you just laid out, did they work in any appreciable way?


Speaker 4: No. Americans kept driving.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Regardless of the rules. The nation’s cars just continued rolling. That meant rubber tires were getting used up and replaced at an unsustainable rate. Leon Henderson believed the Allies would be totally out of rubber by 1943. So the Office of Price Administration took a more drastic step. If people wouldn’t stop driving on their own, the U.S. government would restrict their fuel supply.

Speaker 2: Although America is the biggest oil producing country in the world, the economy experts in 17 states are out to cut down the consumption of gasoline.

Speaker 4: If you can make it so people actually don’t have enough gasoline to run their cars, that will keep them from using up their tires too quickly.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: To get any gasoline at all. You’d need a ration card. A piece of paper issued by Leon Henderson Zopa that showed how much fuel you were entitled to buy.

Speaker 2: And B ration cards give a rate of from 3 to 8 gallons a week. Okay, It’s an eight card. Three gallons.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Those cards were handed out by 8000 local rationing boards. Leon Henderson is mega bureaucracy in action. Now a bunch of Americans started turning on the OPA. They thought their gas rations were too meager and that all those bureaucrats should mind their own business.

Speaker 4: A lot of people grumbled about gasoline rationing and did not want to comply. Surveys suggest about a third of Americans didn’t believe it was even necessary.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Some of Leon Henderson critics were more than just a little skeptical. You could call them rationing deniers.

Speaker 4: You have the people who are just like, look, the government’s making all this up. And what they do is they take all these quotes from different agencies and all these headlines that have seemingly contradictory information and turn it into this really just skepticism that there is anything truthful about the government messaging in wartime.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: One pamphlet published by an anti-communist group said Henderson was laying the groundwork for a marxist coup. In reality, he was just trying every possible strategy to get people to follow the opera’s rules. He issued threats saying the government might start confiscating tires from personal vehicles. He also encouraged good behavior by making a spectacle of himself.

Speaker 2: Hard working, hard hitting place. Administrator Leon Henderson. That’s a patriotic example to citizens everywhere.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: America’s price czar pedaled around Washington on a victory bike with reclaimed rubber tires, doing his part to encourage an alternate mode of transportation.

Speaker 2: Make no mistake, this regulation is a war measure. It’s a guarantee to the American people that their cost of living will stay put.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: That victory bike got a lot of press coverage, probably because Leon Henderson wrote it with his stenographer dangling her legs from a basket in the front. But even that image didn’t do much to brighten the public mood. Sugar rationing started in May. Coffee would follow if everyone at home used less than the troops overseas wouldn’t have to do without. But the people writing in to Leon Henderson’s radio show weren’t exactly waving the American flag.

Speaker 2: We are trying to help our government in every way we can. But sometimes we wonder, what do men in charge of our government are doing? How can you expect everybody to get along on the same ration of coffee? My husband works nights and needs extra coffee beside £1 for five weeks.

Speaker 3: If you felt like someone else was getting more than what you were. The whole idea of systemic rations could unravel.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Tracy Campbell says that disgruntled Americans turn to illicit sources for goods.

Speaker 3: Black markets started rising the moment that rationing started. It wasn’t hard to find it if you were willing to participate in it.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: There were black markets for oil and condoms and everything else that consumers craved. Some butchers turned into meat ledgers selling steak on the sly for a huge markup. One government propaganda film discouraged illegal meat buying by showing a shopper get confronted by her own conscience.

Speaker 2: What are you doing in this black market? Well, I only wanted a little piece of red meat. You know how good I get when I don’t have any. For a while, you pick it up.

Speaker 3: Black markets obviously contribute to inflation. If you’re spending more on products you shouldn’t be getting in the first place. That’s going to hurt the war effort as well.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: On his radio show. Leon Henderson could be sharp with almost anyone, but he saved his strongest words for Americans who dipped into the black market.

Speaker 2: I don’t suppose she realized that woman and anybody that bought those black market coupons, they might just as well a stolen oil from a tanker on its way to our soldiers in North Africa, because that’s in effect, precisely what they did do.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: As the year went on, nobody’s heads got any cooler. Leon Henderson and his fellow Americans were heading for a final showdown.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: In the spring of 1942, the war was looking increasingly precarious in Asia and Europe.

Speaker 2: On April nine, the time falls on. The infamous death march begins for 35,000 and people, two American and Filipino captives.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The U.S. surrendered all of its troops from the Philippines to Japan. The Nazis went on the offensive in Russia and on the home front, millions of people were pushing back against Leon Henderson rules and sometimes going around them. Henderson and the man he answered to Franklin Roosevelt weren’t feeling sympathetic. The yearly inflation rate was up to 13%, two and a half times what it had been the year before. And the president was losing patience.

Speaker 2: After the women and children from Hitler is starving, well, are the rationing of tires and gasoline and sugar is too great a sacrifice.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Leon Henderson was not about to back down. Instead, he dreamed up even more radical ideas to stop inflation, like capping individual incomes at $50,000.

Speaker 3: The tension would really bubbled to the surface in the summer, in the fall of 1942, that this had gone way too far and that it was setting too much of a permanent precedent. One member of Congress said America must destroy the OPA or the OPA will destroy America at the end of it.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The income ceiling never happened. But Leon Henderson did do something radical. In May, he required every large retail store in America to post a maximum price for pretty much every item. Newsweek magazine called it totalitarian. The next month, Henderson asked Congress to pay for 100,000 Office of Price Administration agents, the staff he needed to make sure Americans were following his rules. Congress refused and Henderson sulked, he said. I predicted when I took this job that I would soon become the most unpopular man in America, and I seemed to be making progress. Some of that unpopularity was of his own making around the time he talked about confiscating American’s tires. He took a vacation to Miami, where he was photographed around town with money to burn.


Speaker 3: At a time in which we’re asking Americans to ration goods and to watch every dime they’ve got. The image of the OPA director with a wad of cash at a roulette wheel didn’t go over well. But again, Henderson didn’t care.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Henderson’s Office of Price Administration, with its pretzel subcommittees, was increasingly seen as big government run amuck. Federal contractors complained that they had to fill out more than 50 questionnaires per month. One of the EPA’s own lawyers was dismayed to a young man named Richard Nixon. He said his close up view of all those mountains of paperwork helped transform him from a liberal to a conservative.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: By the fall of 1942, Leon Henderson didn’t have many supporters left. Consumers hated his exasperating rules. Corporations hated his crushing price controls. Congress hated his arrogance, and everyone hated that. All these sacrifices the OPA was demanding didn’t seem to be having any tangible effect on the fight overseas. When the Democrats got trounced in the November midterms, that was it. Leon Henderson own party had seen enough.

Speaker 3: He was the obvious sacrificial lamb that the Democrats could turn to. If they could put the blame on Leon Henderson, then it wouldn’t go any higher.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Henderson got the message. America’s price czar resigned in mid-December, telling the president that he had a bad back. He’d later help found a liberal interest group. But his days in power were over. Leon Henderson would never serve in government again.

Speaker 3: There’s this photograph of Leon sitting in a stairwell at the Democratic convention in 1948. In Life magazine, he just has his head in his hands, looking so forlorn and sad because I think he realized at that point he had nothing left.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Leon Henderson had been asked to do one job, keep inflation from skyrocketing. It was a thankless task and an almost impossible one. But something surprising had started to happen in the middle of 1942. Inflation headed in the right direction.

Speaker 3: By June of 1942, the Consumer Price Index, I think, had risen by just 1/10 of 1%.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Leon Henderson and Franklin Roosevelt had been warning about runaway inflation. Now, the annual rate was actually creeping downward from 13% to 11% to 9%.

Speaker 3: And by 1944, when we are spending more than ever, the inflation rate for the entire year was just over 1.6%. It had been reduced to almost nothing.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: How much credit does Henderson deserve for keeping inflation under control?

Speaker 3: Let’s put it this way If inflation had not been brought under control, we would probably be blaming Henderson for not having done what he needed to do. So I think he deserves a lot of credit. And for Leon Henderson, we later said that that was his greatest achievement and he said, I’d rather be remembered for that than for the people who love me.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: One of the lessons of Leon Henderson rise and fall in 1942 is that Americans don’t like to get bossed around.

Speaker 4: Americans weren’t asked by comparison to much of the rest of the world to do that much.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Historian Sarah Fro Hertling.

Speaker 4: But even that relatively little amount that Americans were asked to do, many not all, but many resisted that. I’m not trying to say that Americans were just terrible human beings. This was a time of incredible stress. And it is a very reasonable human impulse to want to see what you can get away with.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The United States never did run out of rubber, in part because scientists developed a synthetic replacement. But the story America told about itself during and after the war emphasized something else. Corporate advertising and government propaganda films focused on sacrifice that everyone on the home front had patriotically scrimped and saved. The truth is way more complicated and a lot more interesting. Americans did scrimp and save sometimes. They also complained and acted in their own self-interest. That’s what people do, no matter what generation they belong to. In the United States in 1942, freedom meant defeating the axis. It also meant filling up your tank whenever you wanted, and it meant sending Leon Henderson packing.

Speaker 3: You have this centralized bureaucrat making overwhelming decisions and having to answer to no one except one other elected official, and that while Henderson was on kind of the left wing of the Democratic Party and stood for a lot of small d Democratic things, I think for others he was the antithesis of democracy, which is, you know, kind of the tough part about having to wage a total war in a society that is based on individual liberty.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: And that’s something Leon Henderson understood very well.

Speaker 2: The men and women that write those letters, they are right in thinking that in a democracy like ours, people are entitled to be heard and they have a right to complain too. That, to me, seems the only way a democracy can function successfully.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Leon Henderson died in 1986 at 91 years old. His obituary in the Washington Post said that despite the furor that surrounded him, his work at the Office of Price Administration came to be seen as one of the great economic successes of the war effort.


Speaker 3: There’s this great meeting in 1960. Of all the old surviving new dealers and just two seats down from Eleanor Roosevelt is Leon Henderson himself, but still looking alienated, looking like he still doesn’t belong. Even within this group, it’s almost like he vanished into thin air not long after this, even though at one point it was one of the most powerful Americans in any point in our history.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Next time on one year 1942, In a time of war, marriage becomes a national obsession.

Speaker 4: So, you know, an 18.

Speaker 2: Year old who had a girlfriend might marry.

Speaker 4: Her because who knows what’s going to happen next?

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Was romance any part of it?

Speaker 4: Define romance.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: One year is written by me. Josh Levine, our senior producer, is Evan Chung. This episode was produced by Sam Kim, Sophie Summergrad, Evan Chung and Me. It was edited by Evan Chung and Derek John, Slate’s senior supervising producer of narrative podcasts. Our senior technical director is Mary Jacob. Hayley Allen created the artwork for this season. Tracey Campbell’s book is The Year of Peril America in 1942. You can send us feedback and ideas and memories from 1942 at one year at, and you can call us on the one year hotline at 2033430777. We’d love to hear from you.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Special thanks to Bill Steigerwald, Leslie Sybille Eck, Sol Worden, Joel Anderson, Christina Carucci, Rebecca Onion. Madeleine Ducharme, Jordan Weisman. Jesse SHAPIRO. Bill Carey. Katie Rayford. Ben Richmond. Caitlin Schneider. Cleo Levin, Seth Brown, Rachel Strom and Alicia montgomery, Slate’s VP of Audio. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with more from 1942.