Having started reading a biography of Henry Agard Wallace out of sheer curiosity, I was surprised to find his political biography to be eerily relevant to our current political environment. Wallace was a scientific breeder and farmer whose family owned a popular Iowa farmer’s newspaper. He wrote for and edited the paper and later founded the Pioneer Hy-Bred corporation, which sold hybrid corn, chickens and other produce, which became a multi-billion dollar concern (an entrepreneurial capitalist irony that will become richer as the story proceeds). He was originally a Republican, like his father, Henry C. Wallace, who served as Secretary of Agriculture under Harding. The inaction of the Republicans in the face of the terrible suffering of the Great Depression drove Henry A. Wallace into the arms of more the pragmatic and experimental New Dealers within the Democratic Party.
If you are like most people, the name Henry Wallace might be familiar, but you aren’t sure exactly why. Henry Wallace became Secretary of Agriculture in the first two Roosevelt Administrations, where he presided over some of the largest and most influential New Deal programs. In 1940, Wallace joined the Presidential ticket to shore up Roosevelt’s left wing. As Vice President, Wallace was unusually active in war planning and setting policy, and headed the Economic Warfare Board. Heading into the 1944 Presidential season, Roosevelt decided to run for a fourth term, despite his failing health, and Wallace was his heir apparent, polling the far beyond any other contender for the Presidency in 1948. But due to political maneuvering still not fully understood, but clearly approved of by the ailing Roosevelt, Wallace was dumped from the ticket and Truman was chosen instead.
To his credit, Wallace continued to support the man who ousted him, stumping tirelessly for the 1944 Roosevelt-Truman ticket. He was rewarded with the key position of Secretary of Commerce. But when Roosevelt died just months into his fourth term and Truman became President, it was only a matter of months before the entire Roosevelt New Deal cabinet was purged and replaced with more conservative and less reformist figures; even the reviled Herbert Hoover was brought into Truman’s cabinet. Wallace was the last to go. Of course, Wallace was still hugely popular in the Democratic Party and widely expected to challenge Truman for the Presidency in 1948.
Unfortunately for Wallace, he was out of step with the political environment of the post-war period. Wallace was an internationalist who strongly supported the United Nations, the power of diplomacy and compromise, and the need to live in peace with the Soviets in the new nuclear age. He believed that a new Century of the Common Man must be created or humanity would not survive. He strongly believed that an accommodation with the Soviet Union was possible, and that America must get out in front of the de-colonization movement in the global south or ultimately be seen as just the latest oppressive imperial power by the rest of the world. He was likely right on every count now that historians have gotten at the Soviet archives of the time, but he was a ripe target for the Red Scare and the ‘us vs. them’ mentality of the growing Cold War.
Wallace came under constant attack both from the Right and from those in his own party now invested in the anti-communist hysteria and Cold War hard line of Truman. He was easily denied the nomination of the Democratic Party, but that was not about to stop Wallace from carrying forward with a message of peace and tolerance that he believed was right for America. He became the leader of a third party, which adopted the venerable name of the Progressive Party, under which ran the Presidential third-party challenges of Teddy Roosevelt and Robert LaFollete
Wallace idealistically insisted that the membership of the party be open to any American, and thus left the door open for both actual infiltration of Communists intent on using Wallace’s party as a popular front, and to the condemnation of his opponents who cynically overstated the degree of Communist influence in the Progressive Party. In the hysteria of war, red-baiting, and fear mongering created and abetted by Truman’s faction and the Republican controlled Congress, Wallace’s electoral chances sunk like a stone. With many Americans thinking that if Wallace wasn’t himself a Communist (enter the irony that by this time Wallace was independently wealthy from his holdings in Pioneer Hy-Bred, the company he started) then he was a fellow-traveler, or a naïve dupe.
Like Gideon’s army, the further Wallace marched, the smaller his army became. He and his supporters were reviled, attacked, beaten, threatened at work and at school, demonstrated against, and harassed at every turn. Wallace ended the campaign with less than 3% of the popular vote and not a single electoral vote, and as perhaps the most widely despised man in the country, when once he had been the most respected figure in public life, a Vice-President, and the most prominent figure of the New Deal outside Roosevelt himself.
In every way, the Progressive Party and Wallace were ahead of their time. The Progressive Party platform of 1948 reads like a to-do list for 20th century liberalism: desegregation, equal pay for the sexes, living wages, universal health care, workplace safety, environmental protection - the list is daunting, and much of is yet unaccomplished. Wallace’s challenge from the left on domestic issues forced Truman to adopt the liberal domestic agenda he’s now revered for to win back the left of his party, even as he moved rightward with the confrontational ‘Truman doctrine’ in international affairs. The pressure from the Progressives to adopt anti-Jim Crow positions, caused the Democratic-Dixiecrat split that landed Strom Thurmond on a segregationist Presidential ticket and set the stage for the Republican southern strategy under Nixon.
It’s sad to consider how much Wallace could have achieved had he been Vice President after 1944 instead of Truman. Fifty years of Cold War might have been averted, but for the power of fear, bigotry, and hatred in our politics. It is those very same tendencies that have worked against genuine progress and peace in our own time. More than 50 years on, and still we haven’t been able to banish hysteria and fear as prime factors in our political life.
Henry Agard Wallace was a true liberal and a devout and humbly Christ-like man. The only contemporary example of a politician at that level who acted from humanitarian principles so consistently is Jimmy Carter. Perhaps saints aren’t made for political leadership. When asked what is a liberal, Henry responded, “To me a liberal is one who believes in using in a non-violent, tolerant and democratic way the forces of education, publicity, politics, economics, business, law and religion to direct the ever-changing and increasing power of science into channels which will bring peace and the maximum of well-being both spiritual and economic to the greatest number of human beings. A liberal knows that the only certainty in this life is change, but believes that change can be directed toward a constructive end.”
I can't help but see much of today's Democratic leadership in Henry Wallace, vainly struggling against a mass hysteria of fear and hatred to have their message of reason and common-sense heard. Like Truman, some Democrats seek do seek to capitalize upon the public's fear to push their own agenda and career, but far more commonly today it is the Republicans who are appealing to the electorate's worst instincts. There may never come a time when the electorate is immune to their own worst instincts, but perhaps there will come a time when it will be socially and politically unacceptable for a politician to prey upon the public in such a way.