American Dreamer

by John C. Culver

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1820

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 closest advisers believed it was at this point that Roosevelt decided not to keep Wallace on the ticket in 1944.

Wallace’s frequent public speeches insisting that World War II was a “people’s war” and that it should be followed by a “people’s peace” generated intense popular support. A Gallup poll taken six months before the 1944 Democratic national convention indicated that rank-and-file Democrats preferred Wallace as the vice presidential candidate by a large margin over any other contender, and the majority of the delegates to the convention also wanted him to remain on the ticket. However, in one of the great turning points of American political history, Harry Truman, rather than Wallace, became Roosevelt’s running mate.

Wallace contributed to his own downfall by refusing to make any attempt to influence convention delegates in the way candidates normally do. Roosevelt played the crucial role, however. Although he told Wallace he wanted him to be on the ticket, Roosevelt instructed his advisers to ensure that the convention voted for Truman. When the convention occurred, the delegates originally preferred Wallace, but the Democratic Party bosses regained control of the convention and secured Truman’s nomination. As the authors suggest, this was a crucial decision because all parties involved realized that, since it was doubtful that Roosevelt would live through another term, the vice presidential nominee would likely become president.

Convinced that Jesse Jones was backing an anti-Roosevelt movement in Texas, in 1945 President Roosevelt removed him from the cabinet and appointed Wallace in his place as secretary of commerce. In that position Wallace was especially concerned that the unemployment rate not return to the levels of the 1930’s as millions of men were demobilized from the armed forces. Under his direction a bill was drafted which, as the Employment Act of 1946, implied that the federal government was prepared to accept responsibility for maintaining a high level of employment by using methods recommended by John Maynard Keynes, the British economist. In this effort, and in other respects, Wallace emerged as the national leader for American liberalism.

While secretary of commerce, Wallace voiced strong objections to the administration’s foreign policy, and he was dismissed when he refused to stop. Shortly afterward, Wallace became editor of the liberal journal The New Republic. The publisher saw this as a means of strengthening the Democratic Party’s progressive wing while increasing The New Republics circulation. However, Wallace made it clear from his first editorial that if the Democratic Party was not prepared to change, then he was willing to work outside that party.

The formation of the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA) late in 1946 was a watershed for Wallace and for American liberalism. Wallace addressed the meeting at which the group was formed and became its leader. It accepted all progressives as members, even if they were communists. Wallace viewed the group as a means of forcing Truman further to the left and did not realize until later that others intended it to be the beginning of a new political party that would run Wallace as its candidate in 1948.

Wallace had anticipated that the PCA would be a rallying point for all liberals and was genuinely surprised when it divided them in a manner that reduced their influence on American politics. Shortly after the PCA was formed, a group of anticommunist liberals formed the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). Fearful that the PCA and Wallace were allowing liberalism to be linked to communism, the ADA refused to allow communists to be members of their organization and opposed Wallace’s conciliatory policy toward the Soviet Union. While Wallace had previously been widely recognized as the leader of American liberalism, he was repudiated by most New Deal liberals because of his association with the PCA.

Wallace’s views on communism contributed to his loss of public support after 1946. He was not a communist, and when he met with the head of the American Communist Party he made it clear that he could never be one because he was a progressive capitalist who believed in God. Wallace did not fear communism, though, either in the United States or abroad. He did not object to communists working in his campaign, and he was outraged by Truman’s introduction of a loyalty oath to remove communists from government employment.

It was primarily Wallace’s views on foreign policy that led to widespread accusations that he was a spokesman for communism. Wallace was convinced that the atomic bomb had fundamentally changed international relations. Aware that nuclear war could mean the destruction of civilized life, Wallace was an early advocate of détente with the Soviet Union. He urged the international control of nuclear technology to avoid an arms race and denounced the Truman Doctrine because it would increase tensions with the Soviet Union. Although in some instances his opinions were misunderstood, the authors indicate that Wallace’s views were often misrepresented by those intending to discredit the left.

In December, 1947, Wallace announced his candidacy for president in biblical terms, referring to his followers as Gideon’s Army. It was a quixotic campaign since it lacked an organization and funds. Almost from the beginning, the campaign was hampered by the departure of top people: Wallace’s key adviser, Harold Young, resigned and later voted for Truman, while Rex Tugwell, originally a member of the executive committee directing the campaign and the only prominent New Deal liberal to support Wallace, also withdrew. Despite the obstacles, Wallace waged a courageous campaign in which he challenged the Southern system of segregation. Denounced as a radical, he finished a poor fourth.

After having been in turn a Republican, a Democrat, and a Progressive, in 1950 Wallace resigned from the latter party because it refused to condemn the North Korean invasion of South Korea. Wallace’s political behavior in the 1950’s seemed erratic to some observers. After supporting Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952, Wallace voted for Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, but the authors suggest this was because Wallace thought Eisenhower would be better able to control the U.S. military than Stevenson.

While some have dismissed Wallace as an impractical dreamer who became the dupe of the American Communist Party, the authors largely succeed in rescuing his reputation. While admitting that Wallace’s political innocence contributed to his downfall, they portray him as a victim of the Cold War. Some of the most important policies Wallace advocated were adopted after 1960, including desegregation of public facilities and détente with the Soviet Union, but because of the Cold War Americans were unwilling to take his proposals seriously until decades later.

Sources for Further Study

The Economist 354 (March 11, 2000): 90.

Houston Chronicle, June 4, 2000, p. 16.

Library Journal 125 (March 1, 2000): 104.

Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2000, p. 3.

The Nation 270 (June 12, 2000): 42.

The New Republic 222 (June 12, 2000): 44.

Publishers Weekly 247 (March 20, 2000): 85.

Washington Monthly 32 (May, 2000): 41.

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