Although Henry Wallace is little known today, he would have become president in 1945 when Franklin Roosevelt died if Roosevelt had not denied him renomination as the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate in 1944. Surprisingly, this is the first full-scale biography of Wallace, who, in addition to having held high political office, made important contributions to the development of American agriculture and was a pivotal figure in American liberalism. The study adds new information about Wallace’s life by drawing upon sources not used by previous studies, including Wallace’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) file, his diaries, and his five-thousand-word oral history.
Wallace came from a family knowledgeable about agriculture, but not dependent on farming for its income. His grandfather had founded Wallace’s Farmer, a leading midwestern farm journal, and Henry Wallace was employed for almost two decades as a writer and editor for it before he went into politics. In 1926 he was one of the founders of the Pioneer Hi-Bred seed corn company, which eventually made him a millionaire.
Even though Wallace was a Republican, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him secretary of agriculture in his first cabinet. The authors consider Wallace the most capable secretary ever, in large part because he permanently changed the relationship between government and agriculture. Although he was later denounced for his willingness to work with communists, as secretary of agriculture Wallace was responsible for eliminating the radical faction within the department. The administration’s farm program primarily benefited the larger and better-off farmers, and accelerated the eviction of tenant farmers and sharecroppers from the land. When reformers within the department became aware of this they attempted to change its policies, but Wallace dismissed them.
Wallace was by no means the obvious choice to be the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate in 1940. He had been a Republican who did not register as a Democrat until 1936. He disliked partisan politics and refused to build alliances with Democratic Party professionals whose support would have been helpful. Because of his aloofness and his liberal ideology, big-city party bosses distrusted him and tried to block his candidacy. Roosevelt’s top advisers counseled him against picking Wallace as his running mate, warning that people perceived Wallace as a “wild-eyed” fellow.
At the 1940 national Democratic Party convention Wallace made no attempt to win over the delegates, and a hostile convention rebelled against his candidacy. However, the one man who wanted him to be the party’s vice presidential candidate was the one who counted: President Roosevelt. The authors suggest two main reasons for Roosevelt’s preference. Wallace was very popular among farmers, and he was expected to strengthen the ticket in the midwestern farm belt. In addition, Wallace had become one of the most articulate spokesmen for the New Deal in the late 1930’s, and as it came increasingly under attack Roosevelt considered this an important role.
Wallace’s record as vice president was mixed. He gained wide public support through his speeches. Through these Wallace became the spokesman for the liberal left, urging an expansion of the New Deal at home and abroad. However, his support for the “common man” against the forces of wealth generated powerful enemies. When Winston Churchill suggested that the Anglo-Saxon races (meaning the United States and Great Britain) should jointly rule the world after the war, Wallace gained his lasting enmity by suggesting this was the sort of racial thinking they were fighting the war to destroy.
In the beginning Roosevelt gave Wallace much more administrative responsibility than vice presidents normally had, and Wallace considered himself to be the assistant president. However, in January of 1941 Roosevelt created the War Production Board to mobilize the economy for war, and appointed Donald Nelson as its head instead of Wallace. When Wallace became involved in a power struggle in 1943 with Jesse Jones, the secretary of commerce, Roosevelt backed Jones, much to Wallace’s dismay. Wallace’s political innocence contributed to his defeat in that he had sustained a public quarrel with Jones after Roosevelt had made it clear that the dispute was politically embarrassing to the administration. According to the authors, Roosevelt’s...
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