Brannan, Charles Franklin

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Brannan, Charles Franklin

(b. 23 August 1903 in Denver, Colorado; d. 2 July 1992 in Denver, Colorado), government official and advocate for farmers’ rights, best known for the Brannan Plan, developed during his tenure as secretary of agriculture under President Harry S. Truman.

Brannan was the son of John Brannan, an electrical engineer, and Ella Louise Street. He graduated from West Denver High School in 1921 and spent some time at Regis College before transferring to the University of Denver, where he went to law school, earning an LL.B. in 1929. Upon being admitted to the bar in 1929, he practiced law in Denver. He married Eda Seltzer on 29 June 1932; they had no children.

Brannan started his career in government service in 1935, when he was appointed assistant regional attorney of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Resettlement Administration in Denver. In 1937 he became the regional attorney at the Office of the Solicitor, Department of Agriculture, in that city, and in 1941 advanced to regional director of the Farm Security Administration for Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. In 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Brannan assistant secretary of agriculture under Claude R. Wickard; Brannan continued under the next secretary of agriculture, Clinton P. Anderson. During that posting he was agricultural adviser to the American delegation to the United Nations Conference for International Organization in San Francisco, and vice chairman of the board of directors of Commodity Credit Corporation.

Brannan was a champion for the family farm and an early and enthusiastic New Dealer. He became an aggressive apostle of the Roosevelt-Truman farm program. When Republicans attacked the Democrats’ agricultural policies during the 1948 election, Brannan took to the stump, making about eighty speeches in thirty farm states. He was a decisive force in earning Truman the farm vote and helping make the upset election victory over Thomas Dewey a reality. Some of the largest Truman upsets were in the farm states—including Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa—that Dewey had carried against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944.

On 2 June 1948 Brannan was inducted as secretary of agriculture, following his appointment by President Truman. He held the post until January 1953. As secretary, Brannan is best remembered as the author, in 1949, of a set of controversial legislative proposals that became known as the Brannan Plan. This was the first post-World War II initiative to attain steady prices for farmers while ensuring that the cost of commodities was determined by market forces. Brannan described the plan in the May 1949 Democratic Digest as “a farm income and price support program which is dedicated to the interests of all the people.” Its aim, Brannan stated, was to “build bigger industrial markets and employment, maintain high-level production of farm commodities, conserve natural resources, maintain reserves for national security and strengthen the rural community.” The plan was supported by the National Farmers Union but fiercely contested by the American Farm Bureau Federation and a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress, who defeated the legislation in July 1949. In an interview in 1981 Brannan reiterated that the Brannan Plan “was the first real, direct and open attempt to give consumers the benefit of our abundance.”

Upon his retirement from government service in 1953, Brannan resumed private law practice. His primary client was the National Farmers Union and its subsidiary insurance and related business enterprises. Within a year, he had become the union’s general counsel; he served in this capacity until 1990. This work allowed him to continue to support the ideas expressed in the Brannan Plan as well as his emphasis on conservation of soil and water. He continued to push farmers to be “rightfully” preoccupied with conservation of soil and related water problems. He pointed out that farmers, their organizations, and the government were ignoring the “enormous amounts” of water being used to increase production and that a water crisis was imminent. He stressed that the most important hazard was water pollution and that it was time to start “cleaning up our rivers,” in order to “safeguard permanent abundance and prosperity” in the United States.

Brannan was active in numerous community and national organizations. He served as president of the University of Denver Alumni Association and vice president of the Harry S. Truman Library Institute for National and International Affairs from 1981 until his death. He died in 1992, while he was in a Denver hospital undergoing tests for a heart ailment, and is buried in the Denver area.

Brannan emphasized that the government and farm organizations must work together in shaping farm policy, and that no one person or organization should be the sole representative of the farmers of America. His contributions include the introduction of agriculture price-support recommendations, a successful grain storage program, and the ratification of the International Wheat Agreement (1949). He was also effective as the adviser to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations and as chairman of the U.S. delegation to the Inter-American Conference on Agriculture. Parts of the Brannan Plan eventually became law as late as 1973.

Brannan’s papers, covering the years 1933-1991, are housed at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri. Information on Brannan is also in the records of the National Farmers Union at the University of Colorado. Brannan’s role in shaping agriculture policy in the Truman administration is discussed in David McCullough, Truman (1992). See also John Kerr Rose, The Brannan Plan: A Proposed Farm Program (1950), and Reo M. Christenson, The Brannan Plan: Farm Politics and Policy (1959). An obituary is in the Washington Post (5 July 1992).

Joan Goodbody