In my forthcoming book, I make glancing mention of the fascinating saga of Henry Wallace, who was Vice President of the United States from 1941 to 1945. In FDR's first terms Wallace served as Agriculture Secretary, launching some of the most revolutionary and controversial programs of the New Deal. As Vice President, he seized the nation's attention with his fiery speech "Century of the Common Man," which was designed as a riposte to Henry Luce's nationalist vision of an "American Century." The speech supplied Aaron Copland with the title of his Fanfare for the Common Man, as letters in the Copland Collection at the Library of Congress attest. Wallace failed to keep his place on the national Democratic ticket in 1944 — what might have happened to the country if he had become president upon FDR's death is anyone's guess — and in the following years he moved toward the radical left. He served for a while as President Truman’s Commerce Secretary, but Truman removed him from the post in 1946 after his views on the Soviets were deemed too accommodating.
Aside from the Copland angle, there's another musical connection in Wallace's story — one that I ended up leaving out of my book, with regret. It involves the even more curious figure of Nicholas Roerich, a figure without parallel in the American political pantheon. Roerich was a Russian symbolist painter who had come to America in the twenties and set himself up as a mystical guru of the Theosophist type. In the early thirties, he succeeded in ingratiating himself not only with Wallace but also with Roosevelt himself, whom he met on at least one occasion. The President took a fancy to Roerich’s proposal for a “banner of peace,” which was designed to fly over artistic monuments around the world to protect them from aerial bombardment. The idea was apparently forgotten by the time of the infernal Allied bombings of 1944 and 1945.
Wallace always had a bent for mystical speculation — it was he who persuaded Roosevelt to place the All-Seeing Eye on the dollar bill — and much of his correspondence with Roerich unfolded in a private code, according to which FDR was the Flaming One and Wallace was, believe it or not, Parsifal. As Agriculture Secretary, Wallace allowed Roerich to go on a grass-seed-collecting expedition in Manchuria, which Roerich apparently attempted to turn into an armed uprising against the Soviet Union — the details remain vague. (John Culver and John Hyde's book American Dreamer is the definitive book on Wallace; a modern biography of Roerich would be welcome.) Learning of Roerich's antics, Wallace broke off relations and had him audited by the IRS. Still, rumors of the affair got out, and helped ensure Wallace’s defeat at the Democratic convention of 1944. Parts of this correspondence were made public during Wallace's quixotic Presidential run of 1948, drawing ridicule to an already doomed campaign.
The musical punchline of the episode? Roerich co-wrote the scenario and created the original sets for The Rite of Spring.