Who Was Henry A. Wallace?
The Story of a Perplexing and Indomitably
Naive Public Servant
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
[Reprinted from: Los Angeles Times, 12 March
Political leaders in our democracy come in many varieties, as the
present campaign suggests and as history amply records. One of the
more curious examples in this century was Henry Agard Wallace of Iowa,
editor, geneticist, economist, businessman, the best secretary of
agriculture the country has ever had, a vice president of the United
States during World War II, a third (or, as it turned out, fourth)
party candidate for president at the start of the Cold War and, at the
same time, an incorrigibly naive politician and privately a mystic
given to improbable spiritual quests.
The oddities of Wallace's life seem to have discouraged biographers.
Monographs have appeared on aspects of his career, but there has been
no adequate one-volume biography. Now John Culver, a distinguished
Iowa legislator who served five terms in the House of Representatives
and one in the Senate, and John Hyde, a former Des Moines Register
reporter, have teamed to write the life of the man they term their "state's
greatest son." With unimpeded access to Wallace's diaries, his
family papers, the 5,000 pages of his oral history and his
thousand-page FBI file, supplemented by interviews with the vanishing
group of people who actually knew Wallace, Culver and Hyde have
produced in "American Dreamer" a careful, readable,
sympathetic but commendably dispassionate biography.
Henry Agard Wallace came from an eminent family in the Farm Belt, a
family of editors rather than of dirt farmers. His grandfather, the
first Henry Wallace, began as a minister and ended as an editor,
founding Wallace's Farmer, a journal dedicated to the cause of
scientific agriculture and to defense of the farmer's role in the
national economy. His father, Henry Cantwell Wallace, took over
Wallace's Farmer and, when appointed secretary of agriculture in
Warren G. Harding's administration, turned over the editorship to his
son young Henry, known to friends as "H.A."
H.A. inherited a passion for the modernization of agriculture, a
talent for genetics, statistics and agricultural research and a
conviction that farmers, who had not shared in the fabled prosperity
of the 1920s, required federal support to achieve stable incomes. He
inherited also a strong religious, mystical, even messianic compulsion
that undergirded his life.
The Wallaces were a relatively prosperous family. For H.A.'s 21st
birthday, his father chartered a railroad car to bring the guests to a
formal dinner dance at a Des Moines country club. H.A., however, was a
shy young man, something of a loner, devoted to hybrid corn,
econometric analysis of farm prices, the McNary-Haugen bill to raise
farm income and teaching William James' "Varieties of Religious
Experience" to his adult Sunday school class. When Presbyterian
elders objected to James, H.A. quietly resigned from the church.
The Wallaces were also a Republican family, but in the spirit of
Theodore Roosevelt, not of Herbert Hoover. H.A.'s father and Hoover,
Harding's secretary of commerce, were bitter foes in the Harding
cabinet. After his father died in 1924 at the age of 58, H.A. blamed
Hoover for his death and opposed him for this and other reasons in the
1928 and 1932 elections. When a Democrat made the White House in 1933,
Wallace was one of the two Republicans Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed
to his cabinet, giving him his father's old job (the other Republican
was Harold Ickes as secretary of the Interior).
Wallace was a great secretary of agriculture. In 1933 a quarter of
the American people still lived on farms, and agricultural policy was
a matter of high political and economic significance. Farmers had been
devastated by depression. H.A.'s ambition was to restore the farmers'
position in the national economy. He sought to give them the same
opportunity to improve income by controlling output that business
corporations already possessed. In time he widened his concern beyond
commercial farming to subsistence farming and rural poverty. For the
urban poor, he provided food stamps and school lunches. He instituted
programs for land-use planning, soil conservation and erosion control.
And always he promoted research to combat plant and animal diseases,
to locate drought-resistant crops and to develop hybrid seeds in order
to increase productivity.
Today, as a result of the agricultural revolution that in so many
respects Wallace pioneered, fewer than 2% of Americans are employed in
farm occupations--and they produce more than their grandfathers
produced 70 years ago.
To Washington, H.A. remained something of a mystery. He neither
smoked nor drank nor swore nor partied nor small-talked. He did not
enjoy the rough-and-tumble of politics. A frugal man, he lived
modestly and disdained the amenities of life. He was married to a
pleasant, nonpolitical woman: No one saw them kiss, nor did anyone see
them fight. Politicians found him baffling. One said, "Henry's
the sort that keeps you guessing as to whether he's going to deliver a
sermon or wet the bed."
Wallace had his share of controversies in the highly contentious New
Deal family. But he was an evangelist for his views of democracy. "You
have been doing one of the finest bits of public education that I have
seen done by anybody in a very long time," Walter Lippmann wrote
him in 1934. In that year alone, Culver and Hyde tell us, Wallace
traveled more than 40,000 miles to all 48 states, delivered 88
speeches, signed 20 articles, published two books and met with
reporters by the score. He was becoming the unofficial philosopher of
the New Deal, almost the heir presumptive of FDR, a status seemingly
confirmed when the president in 1940 imposed him, as his running mate,
on a somewhat dubious Democratic convention.
Wallace began as vice president by removing the well-stocked bar and
the well-used urinal his predecessor, John N. Garner, had installed in
the vice presidential office in the Capitol. Like all vice presidents,
Wallace was bored by his constitutional duty of presiding over the
Senate; FDR soon gave him greater administrative responsibility than
any other vice president has had, before or since. But Wallace lost
bureaucratic power in a long-running feud with the tough Texan
conservative Jesse Jones, the head of the Reconstruction Finance
Corp., who had much more support on Capitol Hill.
In 1944 FDR sent him on a disastrous trip to East Asia. In the Soviet
Union, the Russians fooled him by turning the slave labor camp at
Magadan into a Potemkin village and in China, the columnist Joseph
Alsop persuaded him to cable the president recommending that Gen.
Joseph W. Stilwell be recalled. Wallace was really too naive for a
hard world. Though he remained the favorite of labor and the liberals,
FDR dumped him as his running mate in 1944 in favor of Harry S Truman.
Wallace was, not unreasonably, bitter about the dissembling manner in
which Roosevelt had handled his dismissal. He felt betrayed and, in a
remarkable lapse for a man not given to earthy language, wrote in his
diary about one of FDR's explanations, "I did not even think the
word 'bullshit.' "
* * *
The sadness about Wallace is that few remember his serious
achievements as a scientist and as a public servant. If people recall
anything about him today, they think of the "Guru letters"
and of the 1948 campaign, neither of which enhances Wallace's stature.
Culver and Hyde deal candidly and in detail with the first and
candidly, though a bit skimpily, with the second.
When Wallace left the Presbyterian Church, they write, "[f]or
the next decade and a half, he explored the spiritual universe,
sometimes to its outer reaches." As a young man, he had been much
taken by a book called "In Tune with the Infinite" by an
Emersonian popularizer named (presciently) Ralph Waldo Trine. A divine
spiritual force, Trine wrote, flows through all living things.
Intuition is the means by which one subordinates individuality to the
universal spirit. Wallace described himself as a "practical
mystic" who believed God was in everything and that, if you went
to God, you could find the answers. He was, Culver and Hyde write, an
"ardent seeker of cosmic truth . . . engaged upon a fantastic
spiritual voyage, a quest for religious understanding that took him
from the pews of mainstream Protestantism to the esoteric fringes of
Eastern occultism." "Fundamentally," Wallace wrote a
friend, "I am neither a corn breeder or an editor but a searcher
for methods of bringing the 'inner light to outward manifestation.' "
Wallace's search for inner light took him to strange prophets. The
scornful right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler called him "a
spiritual window-shopper." It was in this search that he
encountered Nicholas Roerich, a Russian emigre, painter, theosophist
and con man. Wallace did Roerich a number of favors, including sending
him on an expedition to Central Asia presumably to collect
drought-resistant grasses. In due course, H.A. became disillusioned
with Roerich and turned almost viciously against him. (The account of
the Roerich affair in "American Dreamer" might well be
supplemented by the chapters on Roerich in the recent book "Tournament
of Shadows: The Race for Empire in Central Asia and the Great Game"
by Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac.)
Wallace had written Roerich and others of the cult a series of
so-called "Dear Guru" letters. These letters fell into the
hands of political foes and, though not used in the 1940 campaign,
were brought up in 1948, when Wallace ran for president as candidate
of the newly formed Progressive Party. Wallace's comments on the
letters were markedly evasive and disingenuous. The 1948 campaign as a
whole showed Wallace far from his best.
The onset of the Cold War had divided American liberals. Most New
Dealers believed that liberalism and communism had nothing in common,
either as to means or as to ends, and joined Americans for Democratic
Action, a new liberal organization that excluded Communists. On the
other hand, the Progressive Party represented the last hurrah of the
Popular Front of the 1930s. As the radical journalist I.F. Stone wrote
in 1950, "The Communists have been the dominant influence in the
Progressive Party. . . . If it had not been for the Communists, there
would have been no Progressive Party."
Wallace, in a messianic mood, saw himself as the designated savior of
the republic. Naively oblivious to the Communist role in his campaign,
he roundly attacked the Marshall Plan, blamed Truman for Stalin's
takeover of Czechoslovakia and predicted that Truman's "bipartisan
reactionary war policy" would end with American soldiers "lying
in their Arctic suits in the Russian snow." The United States,
Wallace said, was heading into fascism: "We recognize Hitlerite
methods when we see them in our own land." He became in effect a
Wallace campaigned energetically and courageously, insisting on
unsegregated audiences in the South. But he grew increasingly strident
in his denunciation of the Truman administration, predicting that
Truman would be "the worst defeated candidate in history."
Oddly, though the success of his Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Co. had made him
a wealthy man, Wallace contributed only $1,000 to his own campaign.
In their sympathy for their subject, Culver and Hyde do not do
justice to the principled objections American liberals had to
Wallace's alliance with the Communists. Eleanor Roosevelt herself led
the repudiation of Wallace in column after column. "The American
Communists," she wrote, "will be the nucleus of Mr.
Wallace's third party. . . . Any use of my husband's name in
connection with that party is from my point of view entirely
dishonest." Only one prominent New Dealer, Rexford G. Tugwell,
supported Wallace, and the Communist presence led him to drop out of
the Wallace campaign before its end.
"American Dreamer" does not make much of Mrs. Roosevelt's
opposition nor mention Tugwell's withdrawal nor mention the statement
signed by leading New Dealers--Ickes, Francis Biddle, Thurman Arnold,
Archibald MacLeish, Aubrey Williams, Herbert Lehman, Elmer Davis and
many others--rejecting Wallace and calling on liberals to vote for
Truman because "the Progressive Party has lined up unashamedly
with the forces of Soviet totalitarianism." Culver and Hyde do
not quite defend the Wallace of 1948, but they let him down more
easily than he deserves. In the end, he came in fourth, behind even
the Dixiecrat candidate, Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, Wallace broke with the
Progressives and backed the United Nations and the United States. He
had meanwhile retired to his experimental farm in upstate New York.
Working with plants and chickens, he was a serene and happy man.
Thinking about politics, he was bitter and defensive, firing off
letters to people who he thought had traduced him. He voted for
Eisenhower in 1956 and gave Nixon some support in 1960.
In 1961 Kennedy invited him to his inauguration ceremony and
luncheon. Wallace was much touched. "At no time in our history,"
he wrote Kennedy, "have so many tens of millions of people been
so completely enthusiastic about an Inaugural Address as about yours."
Wallace died in 1965 of Lou Gehrig's disease, a nearly forgotten man.
Culver and Hyde have done a sound job of restoring him to history.
There are a few minor errors: It was the newspaperman Gardner Jackson,
not the economist Gardiner Means, who had been involved in the
Sacco-Vanzetti defense and was purged from the Department of
Agriculture in 1935; it was Harry Dexter White, not Lauchlin Currie,
who helped invent the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund;
neither F.O. Matthiessen nor William Henry Chamberlin was a Harvard
historian (one was a Harvard professor of literature; the other had no
Harvard connection), and both their names are misspelled. But in the
main "American Dreamer" is a substantial and workmanlike
biography of a valuable, perplexing and indomitably naive public