Presidents tend to be early adopters of communication technologies. For example, in 1896, William McKinley filmed the first campaign commercial, which ran in movie theaters. On 06 December 1923, Calvin Coolidge was the first president whose State of the Union speech was broadcast live on the radio.
On Tuesday 04 September 1951, at 7:30 pm Pacific, President Harry Truman delivered the first transcontinental television broadcast.
From the New York Times front page the following day, “TV Spans U.S. for First Time As President Talks at Parley:”
… viewers on the East Coast from Boston to Atlanta simultaneously watched President Truman as he made the principal speech at the Japanese Peace Treaty Conference in San Francisco.
The images reproduced on the screens in the New York area, nearly 3,000 miles from the scene, had excellent clarity and compared favorably with programs of local origin.
The New York Times reported that 94 of the country’s 107 stations carried the broadcast in 52 cities. Stations that did not carry it were not yet connected to the network. Before that broadcast, West Coast TV stations would receive a kinescope of their broadcast programming via the mail.
The U.S. had about 12,000,000 television sets in 1951. By 1955, half of all U.S. homes would have a black-and-white television set. An estimated 30,000,000 people (20% of the US population) saw the broadcast, the largest television audience to date.
The opening session was not the only one “live streamed.” In addition to the treaty signing on Saturday 08 September 1951, networks broadcast some sessions Wednesday and Friday.
This was the first broadcast to use the Bell System (installed by AT&T) microwave radio-relay skyway. At the request of the U.S. State Department, the network had opened a month early.
Costing $40,000,000 (~$465,000,000 today), the network of 107 microwave towers, about 30 miles apart, could transmit both telephone and television signals across the continent.
The skyway was the largest network of its kind when it opened, and it marked the first time telephone conversations and television broadcasts were made via microwaves, not transmission wires.
Because there was only one channel, the four networks needed to share it. Yes, four. The one you probably don’t know: the DuMont Network (1942-1956).
In 1951, Bell had reported that the network was designed primarily to carry telephone calls. In 1999, AT&T sold most of the network, which had continued to grow after its 1951 creation.
Truman made the first presidential address on television in 1947.
The San Francisco Peace Treaty
After World War II ended in 1945, the American military had occupied and closely monitored Japan on behalf of the Allies. By 1951, Truman believed the Allies needed to “restore our former enemy to the community of peaceful nations.” He was proud of Japan’s new constitution, unions that could protect the rights of laborers and voting rights for women.
On 08 September 1951, 48 nations signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty.
[The treaty] officially ended Japan’s position as an imperial power, provided compensation to those who had suffered in Japan during the Second World War, and terminated the Allied post-war occupation of Japan.
Congress ratified the Multilateral Treaty of Peace with Japan on 20 March 1952.
- President Truman’s Address in San Francisco at the Opening of the Conference on the Japanese Peace Treaty (transcript)
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National WWII Museum (archive)
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