by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Oct. 14, 2013.
“Meet the new Assistant President,” James Reston wrote, in the Times, in October, 1941. “His decisions in the next few months or years will undoubtedly affect your job, your rent, and the price of your groceries. And, what’s more important, his decisions may determine the outcome of the war and the basis of the peace.” Reston was describing Vice-President Henry Wallace, the farmer-intellectual from Iowa, who had taken charge of economic planning on the eve of America’s entry into the Second World War. Wallace’s Washington career had begun just eight years earlier, when Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of Agriculture. Disciplined and visionary in equal measure, Wallace had established himself as one of the stars of the New Deal, helping to restore order to the farm business. He was also considered something of an oddball: insiders mocked his fascination with plant genetics and gossiped about his enthusiasm for Nicholas Roerich, a Russian painter turned Theosophical guru. Nonetheless, Roosevelt’s faith in Wallace gave him stature. One adviser implied that Wallace had been picked as Roosevelt’s running mate in 1940 not because he supplied a political advantage but because the ailing President saw him as a worthy successor.
Others in the Roosevelt circle took a much dimmer view of the idiosyncrasies of the “Assistant President”—his righteous liberal crusades, his distaste for machine politics, his pro-Soviet leanings. The President agreed, with some ambivalence, that he should be dropped from the 1944 ticket. Still, a Gallup poll showed that Wallace was by far the most popular of the Democratic candidates, and at the Democratic Convention that year he came close to defeating the Party bosses’ choice, Harry Truman. On the second day of the Convention, there was a huge pro-Wallace demonstration; Claude Pepper, the Florida senator, later said that if he had managed to place Wallace’s name into nomination that evening the Vice-President would have kept his position—and become President upon Roosevelt’s death. When Pepper was only a few steps from the lectern, Party leaders succeeded in having the session adjourned. The next day, the nomination went to Truman. Four years later, Wallace launched a rancorous third-party campaign against Truman, effectively destroying his own reputation.
With the exception of Al Gore, Wallace remains the most famous almost-President in American history. In the past half-century, progressives have often dreamed of a world in which Wallace restarted the New Deal and curtailed the national-security state. The latest iteration of this fantasy appeared in Oliver Stone’s “Untold History of the United States,” a documentary series that ran on Showtime last fall and produced a companion book, by Stone and Peter Kuznick. “There might have been no atomic bombings, no nuclear arms race, and no Cold War,” they write. For conservative historians, however, and for quite a few moderate liberals as well, a putative Wallace Presidency is an end-times scenario of appeasement and Communist infiltration. Thomas W. Devine’s new book, “Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism” (North Carolina), portrays him not as a crucified savior or a demon of subversion but as a tragically flawed figure in whom idealistic conviction went sour. All commentators would agree that Wallace was one of the most curious characters ever to have come within a heartbeat of the Presidency.
With an oblong face, a thick shock of gray hair, and a starchy voice, Wallace resembled a pillar of Washington rectitude from a Hollywood drama. When Time put him on the cover, in 1940, it had Grant Wood execute his portrait. Yet “oddball” is the right word. Wallace refused alcohol, experimented with diets (including a milk-and-popcorn regimen), walked all over the city at an exhausting pace, and threw himself into sports and fads. Despite his vibrant physical presence, he was reserved, at times debilitatingly shy, and inept at small talk. John Culver and John Hyde, in their hagiographic but mesmerizing 2000 biography, neatly summed him up with their title: “American Dreamer.”
Wallace came from a noted Iowa family. His paternal grandfather and his father, both also named Henry Wallace, together founded an influential farm journal, which remains a going concern; since 1898, it has been known as Wallaces’ Farmer. The Wallaces were independent-minded Republicans, assiduously cultivated by national Party leaders. In 1921, President Warren G. Harding picked Wallace’s father to be the Secretary of Agriculture, and he remained in that post until his death, in 1924. While the rest of the economy boomed, farmers were enduring a prolonged crisis, with surpluses accumulating and prices plunging. The elder Wallace pleaded, in vain, for government intervention, and grew disillusioned with his party’s handling of farm issues.
The third Henry Wallace was born in 1888, and grew up first on a farm and later in Des Moines. He studied agriculture at Iowa State, his senior thesis devoted to the topic of soil conservation. In 1914, he married Ilo Browne, a fashionable woman of considerable means. At first, he seemed content to write editorials for Wallaces’ Farmer, peruse mystical literature, and undertake agricultural research. He thought that he could increase corn crops by cross-breeding and inbreeding, and in 1922, working with a Chinese strain and one supplied by the plant geneticist Donald Jones, he developed what became the first commercially successful hybrid corn. Soon, with the help of Ilo’s money, he started Pioneer Hi-Bred, a hybrid-seed company. After the death of his father, Wallace became a national farm authority by default. Herbert Hoover had long been a family enemy, and when F.D.R. challenged Hoover, in 1932, he turned to Wallace for guidance. The next year, Roosevelt was in the White House, and Wallace took his father’s old job at Agriculture.
The Great Depression and its aftermath brought out the best in Wallace. Endowed with emergency powers, he regulated prices and bought up surpluses. His methods verged on the Draconian— at one point, he ordered a mass slaughter of piglets—yet skeptics grudgingly admitted that he had righted a desperate sector of the economy. Although conservatives on the Supreme Court overturned much of his farm policy, he showed political cunning in fostering substitute legislation. As the New Deal lost momentum, Wallace became its most forceful defender. At the same time, he anticipated problems that were not yet on many people’s minds. In 1936, he wrote, “Probably the most damaging indictment that can be made of the capitalistic system is the way in which its emphasis on unfettered individualism results in exploitation of natural resources in a manner to destroy the physical foundations of national longevity.”
Wallace’s mystical propensities now had national ramifications. One day, he became fascinated by the pyramid-with-an-eye figure that appeared on the American seal, and proposed that it be incorporated into the national currency. Roosevelt had it placed on the dollar bill, where it remains, to the delight of college stoners. In 1929, Wallace met Nicholas Roerich, who first made his name as a painter in the Symbolist vein. In artistic circles, he is remembered chiefly for having co-written the scenario of, and created the sets for, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” In the twenties, Roerich and his wife, Helena, blended aspects of Theosophy, Hinduism, and Tibetan Buddhism into a doctrine called Agni Yoga, which was presented in such treatises as “Fiery Stronghold” and “Flame in Chalice.” (You can examine copies at the Roerich Museum, on West 107th Street, in Manhattan.) Wallace diligently studied Roerich’s writings and wrote to him in terms such as these:
Long have I been aware of the occasional fragrance from that other world which is the real world. But now I must live in the outer world and at the same time make over my mind and body to serve as fit instruments for the Lord of Justice....Yes, the Chalice is filling.
In 1934, Roerich was put in charge of a Department of Agriculture expedition to collect drought-resistant grasses in the Gobi Desert. When he began roaming around with a band of rifle-bearing Cossacks, setting off diplomatic protests, it became clear that agriculture was not uppermost in his mind. His true aim remains a matter of conjecture: some thought that he was hoping to overthrow the Soviet Union, others that he was seeking signs of the Second Coming. When it became apparent that Roerich was, in fact, a bit of a con artist, Wallace shut down the expedition and had Roerich audited by the I.R.S.
In 1940, after Roosevelt chose Wallace as his running mate, word of his letters to Roerich spread through political circles. (A Roerich associate had peddled copies to anti-Roosevelt operatives.) The President was not greatly concerned: he, too, was prone to occult dabblings and, as the historian Torbjørn Sirevåg has shown, had his own exchanges with the Roerich circle. In 1935, Roosevelt had endorsed Roerich’s plan to prevent the bombing of cultural institutions and monuments by flying Banners of Peace above them—a noble scheme that failed to stop the firestorms of the Second World War. Wallace later claimed that it was Roosevelt’s idea to send Roerich to Central Asia. When Roosevelt’s advisers became aware of the letters, there was talk of dropping Wallace from the ticket, but the President held firm. Ever ruthless and adroit, he let it be known that, if the letters were published, his Republican rival, Wendell Willkie, might find himself beset by inquiries about his affair with Irita Van Doren, the literary editor of the Herald-Tribune. The press stayed silent.
Roosevelt did express doubts about Wallace’s political abilities, considering him “too aloof” and unversed in the art of greasing the wheels. After a robust start in the Vice-Presidency, Wallace fell into a territorial battle with Jesse Jones, the Secretary of Commerce, who had dragged his feet in importing materials for wartime production. A more skilled operator could have worked out a compromise, but in 1943 Wallace went public with inflammatory charges that Jones’s “obstructionist tactics . . . have been of major consequence in this job of waging total war.” He all but called Jones a traitor. Roosevelt hated the spectacle of such infighting in wartime, and probably lost faith in Wallace at that moment.
There was also unease about Wallace’s friendliness toward the Soviets and his pointed disavowals of conventional patriotism. In 1942, Wallace gave a remarkable speech, titled “The Price of Free World Victory,” in which he subverted a favorite slogan of the publisher Henry Luce:
Some have spoken of the “American Century.” I say that the century on which we are entering—the century which will come out of this war—can be and must be the century of the common man....There must be neither military nor economic imperialism. . . . International cartels that serve American greed and the German will to power must go....The people’s revolution is on the march, and the devil and all his angels cannot prevail against it.
Not even William Jennings Bryan had employed such a combustible mixture of radical and religious rhetoric. The speech was so rousingly leftist that it inspired Aaron Copland to compose “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
Wallace was hardly the only politician of the period to form an unduly rosy picture of Stalin’s regime, but he went further than most. In May, 1944, he embarked on a good-will mission to Soviet Asia and China, and during a tour of Siberia he fell for an elaborate Potemkin-village presentation. In his 1946 travelogue, “Soviet Asia Mission,” he wrote admiringly of Red Army choruses, needlepoint artwork, and enlightened farming methods. “The larch were just putting out their first leaves, and Nikishov gamboled about, enjoying the wonderful air immensely,” Wallace wrote. He was referring to General Ivan Nikishov, the master of the Kolyma Gulag system. In China, Wallace showed himself more alert to the shortcomings of Chiang Kai-shek. (He did not favor the Communists, though, as he was later accused of doing.) A diplomatic amateur, he was too easily impressed by whichever host responded to his interests or appreciated his gifts, which included a shipment of fifty baby chicks and a glow-in-the-dark portrait of Stalin executed in radioactive paint.
After Wallace returned home, the drama of the 1944 Convention played out. Roosevelt offered wan public support for his Vice-President while privately cutting him loose. Wallace felt betrayed, and after Roosevelt’s death, in April, 1945, his bitterness metastasized. Truman seemed to him the puppet of warmongers. Even though Wallace had been moved to the Commerce Department, he persisted in speaking out on foreign affairs. In 1946, he proposed that America reject “British imperialistic policy”—a shot at Churchill, whose Anglo-Saxon braggadocio he detested— and respect the Soviet sphere of influence. Truman reviewed the speech in advance and approved it; after Wallace gave the speech, however, Secretary of State James Byrnes objected, and Truman asked Wallace to resign. A few weeks later, Wallace assumed the editorship of The New Republic, and berated Truman at every opportunity.
Wallace’s messianic belief in his ability to single-handedly reverse American foreign policy led him into treacherous waters. In late 1945, he met with the Soviet diplomat Anatoly Gorsky, who also ran the N.K.G.B.’s Washington station. According to decrypted Soviet-intelligence communications that were released in the nineteen-nineties, Walllace argued for the sharing of atomic technology and asked Gorsky for help in defeating the anti-Soviet faction in Truman’s Administration. “Wallace did not elaborate,” Gorsky reported to Moscow. “And it was not appropriate for me to insist.” What kind of help did Wallace have in mind? The missive was marked urgent for Stalin’s attention, but no action seems to have been taken. Stalin may have been as perplexed by Wallace as everyone else.
Wallace’s relationship with Communism is the most fraught aspect of his career, and it dominates Devine’s book, which might be called a revision of the revisionists. At intervals since the seventies, scholars on the left have argued that Wallace’s politics—embodied most conspicuously in his run for the Presidency on the Progressive Party ticket, in 1948—opened a window of opportunity for the advancement of labor, race, and internationalist causes, and that Cold War red-baiting closed it prematurely. Devine takes a far more skeptical view of the Progressive crusade, in which Wallace styled himself the head of “Gideon’s Army,” after the Biblical figure who defeated the Midianites with three hundred men. Wallace emerges as high-minded but psychologically scarred, a politician who damaged the prestige of his favorite causes. The campaign “demonstrated the bankruptcy of Popular Front liberalism,” Devine writes, and “helped crystallize the Cold War consensus.”
The 1948 Progressive Party, an organization formed around the Wallace candidacy, was a strange mélange of forces and ideas. Wallace maintained his New Deal-era rhetoric, inveighing against the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism and advocating a foreign policy that Devine characterizes as “Christian utopianism”—a faith in the good intentions of the world’s nations. Meanwhile, American Communists took over the Party organization, using shady parliamentary maneuvers to shape the platform. More than a few avowed or secret Communists had worked in Wallace’s vicinity at the Department of Agriculture and at the Agricultural Adjustment Administration; among them were John Abt and Charles Kramer, both subsequently identified as sources for Soviet intelligence. When, at the end of 1947, Wallace announced that he was running for President against Truman, Abt became his chief counsel and Kramer his speechwriter.
Although Wallace had little interest in Communist ideology, his operatives began feeding him Party-line polemics. He denounced the Marshall Plan (it would turn Europe into a “vast military camp, with freedom extinguished”); he proposed that Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia was comparable to American intervention in France; he likened Truman and Thomas Dewey to Nazis. More than once, material from Daily Worker editorials showed up in Wallace’s speeches. The most dismaying instance was his cavalier response to the death of Jan Masaryk, the Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, who had allegedly committed suicide by jumping out of a window. (He was probably murdered.) Wallace suggested that “maybe Masaryk had cancer,” and compared his death to the recent suicide of a disheartened Republican politician. The Daily Worker had made the same analogy two days earlier.
Many of Wallace’s admirers were crestfallen to see him caught up in this doctrinaire machine. They accepted the presence of Communists in the campaign, but hated their bullying tactics. “I will work with Communists,” one Minnesota progressive said. “I will not work for them or under their domination.” The ranks of the disenchanted included Eleanor Roosevelt, who had vigorously supported Wallace in 1944. Now she compared him to Neville Chamberlain.
The previous year, portions of the Roerich letters had finally been published, by the Hearst columnist Westbrook Pegler, and Wallace’s attempted stonewalling of the issue caused his stock to drop further. During the Progressive Convention, in Philadelphia, Wallace waved away the topic, saying that his questioners were Pegler stooges. H. L. Mencken rose to ask, “Would you consider me a Pegler stooge?” Mencken more or less invited Wallace to laugh the letters off as an indiscretion, but Wallace was incapable of doing so. From then on, the campaign was covered mainly as a farce. I. F. Stone wrote, “In thirty minutes, cross-legged, saying ‘Oom’ with alternative exhalations, I can conjure up a better third-party movement than Wallace’s.”
All the same, Wallace had some magnificent moments on the trail. In the early New Deal days, he had not been a vocal progressive on race, but during his Vice-Presidency he embraced civil rights, stating that “the poll tax must go.” In 1948, he travelled the South with a multiracial staff and refused to speak in segregated settings. He was pelted with eggs and tomatoes and, many times, faced the threat of violence. In Birmingham, Glen Taylor, Wallace’s running mate, attempted to use a door marked “Colored,” and was arrested on the orders of Eugene (Bull) Connor, the city’s infamous commissioner of public safety.
The calmly withering Devine argues that, even as Wallace drew attention to the ugliness of segregation, he ended up “exacerbating racial tensions.” Although black voters were grateful for Wallace’s efforts, they tended to be wary of his politics, and voted overwhelmingly for Truman. Even so, Devine might have given Wallace a little more credit; Curtis MacDougall’s 1965 three-volume history, “Gideon’s Army,” gives a fuller, more sympathetic picture of the Southern phase of the campaign. On his best days, Wallace achieved a real nobility as he denounced segregation and challenged racists: “Are you an American? Am I in America?” The folk singer Pete Seeger travelled with him, and at the end of the day Wallace often asked to hear Seeger sing a campaign ballad, “Passing Through”: “I was at Franklin Roosevelt’s side, / Just a while before he died, / he said, ‘One world must come out of World War Two.’ ”
The final vote count for Wallace was humiliatingly low: a little more than a million. He began to realize that his Communist supporters had manipulated him. With the onset of the Korean War, he backed away from his party and revised his foreign-policy positions. In 1952, he published an article, “Where I Was Wrong,” in which he abruptly announced that Soviet Communism was “utterly evil.” He drifted back to the Republicans, voting for Eisenhower in 1956, and meeting secretly with Nixon, in 1960. For the most part, though, he avoided politics. On a farm in upstate New York, he immersed himself in agricultural research. He died in 1965, from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Wallace was, in the end, a dangerously incoherent politician. Even as he swung from Iowa Republicanism to far-left internationalism and then rightward again, he had an air of being inflexible: he might be called an impressionable moralist. As Devine puts it, he “abhorred negotiated solutions based solely on power considerations.” In other words, he abhorred politics. There is no telling what might have happened had he become President. Perhaps he would have appeased the Soviets; perhaps he would have dragged the U.S. into a confrontation.
Yet Wallace deserves to be remembered as something other than a failed messiah. For one thing, the man once attacked as the greatest living threat to the American way succeeded in making a vast amount of money. The companies he founded—Pioneer Hi-Bred, the hybrid-corn concern, and Hy-Line Poultry Farms, a chicken-breeding operation— became agricultural giants. If you had eggs this morning, there is a good chance they came from a Wallace chicken: forty-four per cent of the world’s eggs are produced by hens that derive from the genetics of Hy-Line poultry stock. In the late nineties, DuPont bought Pioneer Hi-Bred for nearly ten billion dollars. It is one of history’s little ironies that the organic-eating grandchildren of the 1948 Progressives disdain the industrial agriculture that Wallace pioneered.
Even more consequential was Wallace’s role in the career of the agronomist Norman Borlaug, who, in 1970, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in developing disease-resistant wheat. Borlaug, an Iowa native who grew up reading Wallaces’ Farmer, made early breakthroughs while working at a Mexican research station set up by the Rockefeller Foundation. That project was, as Borlaug later said, “inspired by Henry Wallace.” In 1940, shortly before being sworn in as Vice-President, Wallace went on a driving tour of Mexico, with his wife and an aide. He was dismayed to see farmers struggling to harvest crops from depleted fields, and became convinced that new varieties of corn and wheat could bring enormous benefits. Knowing that congressional action was unlikely, he urged the Rockefeller Foundation to underwrite research. “Expand the means of subsistence,” he said. Borlaug’s research is credited with having ended famines around the world and saved a billion lives. Wallace failed at politics, but as a bureaucrat he exhibited a kind of genius, and in that one meeting he accomplished more than most politicians do in a lifetime.