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Our Favorite Dupe

Henry Wallace was a brilliant progressive with an open mind. That’s where the trouble began.

Illustration by Baldur Helgason

Hours after Harry Truman fired him from the cabinet in September 1946, Henry Wallace issued a statement. He’d been dismissed over a speech implicitly criticizing the president’s hardening anti-Soviet stance. Now, as US and Soviet negotiators wrangled over occupied Germany’s future, he hinted at his own plans: “I, for my part, firmly believe there is nothing more important that I can do than work in the cause of peace.”

So began a two-year political odyssey so disastrous, it came to be rued by almost everyone concerned: Wallace himself; his followers in the short-lived Progressive Party; and, not least, the organization that played the central role in the whole affair — the Communist Party USA.

After leaving the cabinet, Wallace embarked on a nationwide speaking tour and took up a post as the figurehead editor of the New Republic, then the country’s leading organ of Popular Front liberalism. As his presidential ambitions became clear, the Communists’ attitude toward him suddenly changed. The Daily Worker had initially denounced the speech he’d been fired for, labeling it a sinister call for “imperialist intervention.” Now, the paper began to praise him.

As a new group of advisers surrounded Wallace, his old friends grew concerned. In early 1947, when he finished his speaking tour, he met with Michael Straight, the New Republic publisher who’d hired him the previous year. The Communists, Straight warned, had organized all of Wallace’s biggest speaking events. “Can you prove that?” Wallace asked. “No, I can’t,” Straight replied. “Then you shouldn’t say it,” Wallace said.

Unbeknownst to Wallace, Straight himself had been a dedicated Communist in the thirties — a KGB spy, in fact — but had quietly left the party. Straight recalled the meeting years later:

We were like passengers on passing ships, Henry heading for the land of illusions from which I had come. I knew from my own experience that collaboration with the Communist Party would destroy Wallace, but I could not share my experience with him.

He looked on collaboration with the Communists, in or out of Russia, as an idea. He had traveled on a broad highway from Iowa to Washington, and by daylight. He knew nothing of the back alleys of the political world.

Henry Agard Wallace was born in 1888 to a family of Iowa notables, publishers of Wallace’s Farmer, perhaps the country’s leading farm paper. Theirs was a world of wholesome gentility, of sing-alongs and picnics and church suppers, punctuated by broad-minded sermons in the social gospel tradition. Wallace grew up a Presbyterian, a Midwestern Republican, and a teetotaler.

Until well into adulthood, Wallace had only two absorbing interests. One was plants. The other was what we would now call “spirituality.” “All manner of esoteric phenomena fascinated him,” a biographer writes: “seances, symbols, secret societies, rituals, astrology, Native American religion, Oriental philosophy.” In the early 1930s, Charles Roos, a self-styled Chippewa shaman of Finnish extraction, persuaded Wallace that the two of them had been Seneca warriors in their past lives. Wallace trekked to upstate New York to confirm the fact. In 1932, Wallace consulted an astrologist named L. Edward Johndro to help him analyze weather statistics. Standard methods were inadequate, he felt, since they “assume that all terrestrial conditions can be accounted for by terrestrial causes.”

“Very few would have said he was a screwball,” a loyal aide to Wallace once remarked, “but they would have said he was queer.”

But Wallace was also a genuinely brilliant man. An outstanding amateur plant geneticist, he immediately grasped the significance of a new, experimental “double-cross” method for producing hybrid corn, and in 1926 he and a group of partners founded a company to mass produce the seeds. The result was Pioneer Hi-Bred, a corporate titan acquired by DuPont decades later for billions of dollars. It was part of the mid-century scientific revolution in agriculture that multiplied worldwide crop yields.

A self-taught economist and statistician, his 1920 book Agricultural Prices — packed with charts and tables presenting painstakingly gathered data — was a landmark in empirical economics. One statistician called it the first true econometric study published in the United States. Wallace had no truck with elaborate abstract theories, whether in economics or any other field. An admirer of Thorstein Veblen and his institutionalist school of economics, Wallace believed in hard facts; he was averse to dogma. His was a marriage of the mystic’s mind and the tinkerer’s.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt’s agriculture secretary, Wallace gathered around him a brain trust of idealists and radicals, many of them Communists, determined to stem the flood of human suffering in the countryside. Their ambitions sometimes outran political reality and the New Deal revolution in farm policy proved curiously conservative in its long-run effects. Yet seldom has so much practical idealism been concentrated within a single government department. Even among Wallace’s enemies, few questioned his intelligence, integrity, or competence.

Wallace’s status as a liberal icon crystallized with the coming of war and his elevation to the vice presidency. His so-called “Century of the Common Man” speech in 1942, a riposte to Henry Luce’s “American Century” screed, was translated into twenty languages, with millions of copies distributed overseas. A soaring internationalist manifesto, it envisioned a postwar world in which New Deal principles would be stamped into the fabric of American foreign policy. Colonial empires would be dismantled, poor countries would be helped to industrialize, modern medical care and schooling would spread to every corner of the globe.

“A quart of milk for every Hottentot,” sneered the head of the National Association of Manufacturers in an oft-quoted racist jibe. Many, including Roosevelt, came to believe the phrase had actually appeared in Wallace’s speech.

By war’s end, the American political scene was, from today’s perspective, an alien landscape. Thanks to Roosevelt’s wartime rhetoric, a “liberal” was now understood to be a champion of “economic planning” and “industrial democracy,” an “antifascist” and “anti-imperialist,” contemptuous of red-baiting and eager for the Grand Alliance to continue. In November 1945, even Dean Acheson, then the number-two man in the State Department, spoke at a rally of the National Council on American-Soviet Friendship in Madison Square Garden after an address from Paul Robeson hailing Stalin.

Wallace, however, had been ousted as Roosevelt’s 1944 vice-presidential nominee, in a conservative coup that installed Harry Truman in his place. Truman, who assumed the presidency after FDR’s April 1945 death, began replacing aging or retiring New Dealers with a new crowd: back-slapping, small-town courthouse-ring types with little loyalty to liberalism. Like many staunch New Dealers, Wallace was especially alarmed by Truman’s emerging anti-Soviet line.

The Communist Party was changing, too. Gone was its patriotic wartime face, festooned with American flags and encomiums to Abraham Lincoln. Gone, too, was its desire for meaningful alliances on the Left. Responding to signals from Moscow, the CPUSA effected a postwar U-turn, dumping Earl Browder, its Popular Front leader, in favor of William Z. Foster, an increasingly sectarian veteran Communist. Foreseeing an imminent revival of fascism and imperialist war, the party now insisted on playing a “leading role” in any “anti-monopoly coalition” of the Left. The change of line had an element of farce: most historians believe the Party misinterpreted Moscow’s signals, which were mainly aimed at European Communists.

As historian Thomas W. Devine has shown in his devastating account of the Wallace crusade, by the time the campaign was underway practically every knowledgeable observer could see it was being run by the Communist Party. Everyone, that is, except Wallace.

Calvin “Beanie” Baldwin, his campaign manager and top aide, kept his own affiliation secret, but in left-wing circles it had long been widely assumed. The head of research for Wallace’s new Progressive Party was also a secret Communist, and wrote most of the candidate’s stump speeches. In February 1948, Wallace presented his alternative to the Marshall Plan at a hearing of the House foreign affairs committee; his testimony was written for him by Victor Perlo and David Ramsey, both secretly Communists. Wallace’s convention acceptance speech was penned by Hannah Dorner, another concealed Communist.

Wallace dismissed the fears of friends who tried to point out these facts. Such concerns, he thought, could only lead to red-baiting.

But it was the content of what he said on the stump that did the most damage. Rather than present a realistic critique of Truman’s Cold War policies, Wallace spent the campaign making ludicrous factual claims and increasingly nonsensical arguments, a mélange of Party propaganda and Sunday-school platitudes. Was Moscow interfering in East European politics? “It is impossible to know what the truth is from the American press.” What about the Communist coup that had just installed a Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia? There were no grounds to say “that the present political situation in Czechoslovakia is less democratic than the situation in France,” he insisted. The US had “blocked” plans by Britain’s Labour government to nationalize its steel industry, he charged — a claim that prompted left-wing Labour MP Jennie Lee, a one-time Wallace admirer, to write in exasperation, “Where does Wallace get that sort of story?” (A recent article in the Daily Worker, as it turned out).

Wallace’s critique was grounded in his conviction that no real clash of interests divided the US from the USSR. Rising tensions were simply due to the greed and ill will of “monopolists” and “warmongers” in Washington. A lasting peace could be achieved if only “President Truman would take all those things which he believes we want from Russia, and if Stalin would take all those things which he believes Russia wants from us, and at a meeting of the two heads of government, each item was canceled against each other.”

“He sees only what he yearns to see,” bemoaned Harold Laski, a leading British socialist and former Wallace supporter. “And he has bitter anger for those who cannot see beyond reality to the visions by which he is haunted.”

By the time Wallace accepted the Progressive Party’s nomination that summer, former supporters were abandoning him in droves. The convention had put the Communists’ cynical maneuvering — and the non-Communist delegates’ blinkered unwillingness to challenge it — on glaring display. Ordinary voters who’d petitioned to place Wallace on the ballot were now telling party door-knockers they wouldn’t vote for him in the fall. Liberal luminaries, like the famed New Dealer Rex Tugwell, began drifting away. State party organizations experienced mass resignations. When Wallace first decided to run, his aim had been to win three million votes. He ended up with less than half that number, and finished in fourth place.

In the long run, the Wallace campaign had three outcomes. It catastrophically isolated the Communist Party, sundering its ties to the labor movement and heightening its vulnerability to the coming tsunami of Cold War repression. Partly for that reason, it accelerated American liberalism’s drift to the right, from an adventurous social-democratic reformism to a sterile “vital center” liberalism. Finally, it cemented the Democratic Party loyalties of key groups in the American working class — Catholics, trade unionists, and above all, blacks, who flocked to Truman’s civil rights program.

Why did Wallace do it? According to that era’s vital-center orthodoxy, the essence of the liberal worldview is a skeptical, empirical cast of mind. Radicals, in contrast, shackle themselves to rigid theories. By that definition, Wallace was no radical. “A central characteristic of Henry A. Wallace’s personality,” writes a biographer, “was independence of mind. He was open to any idea, however silly sounding, until he could test its validity. He was prepared to reject any idea, no matter how broadly accepted, that would not stand the weight of inquiry.”

But in the end, his open-mindedness did him no favors. In 1892, when Wallace was still the four-year-old child of an anti-monopoly Iowa newspaperman, Friedrich Engels wrote acidly to a friend about the American reform movements of the day. “The tenacity of the Yankees,” he argued, “is a result of their theoretical backwardness and their Anglo-Saxon contempt for all theory. They are punished for this by a superstitious belief in every philosophical and economic absurdity, by religious sectarianism, and by idiotic economic experiments.”

Henry A. Wallace was nothing if not open-minded. His mind was so open his brains fell out.