Portrait of a Diarist

In The Price of Vision

The Diary of Henry A. Wallace 1942-1946 (*)


By John Morton Blum



Henry Agard Wallace wanted to be Vice President of the United States, mounted no campaign to secure or retain that office, disliked many of its duties and limitations, and yet desired renomination and resented those who prevented it. Those attitudes reflected predictable responses by the kind of man Wallace was to the nature of the vice-presidency, especially under the conditions that Franklin D. Roosevelt imposed upon the conduct of business during his administrations. The President could prescribe political snake oil even to so practical an intelligence as Wallace’s. At his ebullient best, Roosevelt could engage Wallace’s transcendental faith in progress and brotherhood. Within the privacy of his person, as his diary disclosed, Wallace recognized with bemused skepticism his own accepting vulnerability to the combination of guile and greatness that characterized his chief. In that privacy he also conceded nothing, though officially he had continually to yield, to those decisions of Roosevelt’s that bore adversely on policies to which Wallace attached some personal and larger public importance.

During the portentous years of World War II, the relationship of the President and the Vice President of the United States, their common objectives and their intermittent disagreements, deeply affected their party, their country, even the world. In considerable measure those relationships also forecast the more bitter and ominous conflicts that were later, at a critical time, to force Wallace out of public life and deprive American government of his humane sensibilities.


Wallace’s path into and out of the vice-presidency began in the Middle Border, in the Iowa of the late nineteenth century, where the determining roots of his being grew out of his family, the soil it nurtured, and the culture it both shaped and absorbed. Always a man of that west, Wallace brought to Washington the perspectives and commitments that his western experience fostered continuously from his childhood to his middle life.

He was the third Henry Wallace, the son of Henry Cantwell Wallace and grandson of the first Henry Wallace, “Uncle Henry,” who had grown up on the farm of his Ulster-Scot father near West Newton, Pennsylvania. The first Henry Wallace began his westering in search of a seminary that offered a liberal Calvinist training. After ordination he continued west to Iowa to find a parish comfortable with his own reformist views. Soon he had to escape the tensions of his over-conscientious pastorate by turning to work the good ground of Winterset, Iowa, where he taught his neighbors about the scientific farming he practiced. Believing, as did thousands of Americans – all spiritual heirs of Thomas Jefferson – that farmers were the special agents of the Lord on earth, Wallace believed, too, that they had a duty to preserve the bounty of the earth. Christian faith, agrarian pride, and a conservationist practicality provided the foundations for the secular sermons that Uncle Henry contributed to his local newspaper during the 1880s. Those doctrines made him, too, a devoted Granger whose editorials attacked industry and the railroads – “the trusts” – that seemed to arrogate hard-won earnings of Iowa husbandmen to monopolistic profits of remote eastern capitalists.

Those messages were the texts also of the ablest farm leaders of his generation, Wallace’s friends Seaman Knapp of Iowa State College and James Wilson (“Tama Jim”), another Iowan who was in time to serve the longest term (1897-1913) as Secretary of Agriculture in American history. Together, in sundry ways, they promoted scientific agriculture, sound farm management, and government policies favorable to their constituents. Uncle Henry counseled his constituents primarily through the newspaper he edited, Wallaces’ Farmer, a farm weekly purchased in 1895 by his eldest son and published first in Cedar Rapids and later in Des Moines. He and his two friends, with others of similar mind, took their texts to the entire nation in their “Report of the Commission on Country Life,” prepared in 1908-09 at the instigation of President Theodore Roosevelt. A persuasive summation of the program of agrarian progressives, the report called for redressing the grievances of rural America so as to preserve a “scientifically and economically sound country life.” For Uncle Henry, that objective would ensure the future of the nation. “Good farming,” he believed, “is simply obedience to natural law, just as good living is obedience to moral law.” In 1916 his last will and testament encapsulated his creed: “Religion is not a philosophy but a life.“[1]

No one influenced Henry A. Wallace more than did Uncle Henry. Born in 1888, Wallace as a small child lived in Ames, where his father was teaching at the state agricultural college. In 1895 the family moved to Des Moines where the boy began to spend hours almost daily with his devoted grandfather. From Uncle Henry, who delighted in his grandson’s quick mind and serious manner, young Henry learned about his family, about pioneering, about the land and plants and beasts. He learned, too, to recognize God in nature and man, and to serve him through work – work at the chores that sustained the land and its tillers, and work at the services that profited mankind. “Be sure,” his mother often told her sons, “that you have clean hands. And remember that you are a Wallace and a gentleman.”

Those lessons reached young Wallace from every point of his boyhood compass. His mother, a dedicated gardener, showed him the satisfactions of cultivating flowers, which he always loved. “Become gardeners,” he recommended to his associates many years later. “Then you will never die, because you have to live to see what happens next year.“[2] His father guided him through the laboratories at the college and introduced him to a student he had befriended, a lonely, young black genius, George Washington Carver. The boy, habitually a solitary individual, eschewed his contemporaries to follow Carver, always an encouraging tutor, on botanical excursions. Carver “made so much of it,” Wallace recalled, “...that, out of the goodness of his heart, he greatly exaggerated my botanical ability. But his faith aroused my natural instinct to excel... [and] deepened my appreciation of plants in a way I can never forget.“[3] And like Uncle Henry, Carver saw a divine force in all living things.

The boy’s father encouraged his son’s emerging interests. Henry C. Wallace, “H.C.” or Harry to his friends, eldest of Uncle Henry’s children, had a professional competence in breeding livestock and improving grains. From one of his friends, his teen-age son received some seed corn to test for productivity. With the seed, in 1904, Henry A. Wallace proved that the contours of an ear of corn did not correlate with its propensity to yield. The shape of the ear did not matter; what did was the genetic quality of the kernel.

At sixteen Wallace had discovered that the symmetry of a plant in no way assured its utility; indeed that in all life appearances could deceive. His characteristically tousled hair and rumpled clothes attested to his own indifference to appearance, as did his vigorous but conspicuously inelegant tennis. More important, he had learned from Carver as well as from genetics the lesson that he was later to label “genetic democracy,” a doctrine by no means prevalent in the Middle Border or elsewhere in the United States in 1904.

His other lessons, some yet fully to be absorbed, had similar vectors. The experience of westering, for Uncle Henry and through him for his grandson, was an experience of cooperation, of a mingling of strangers in a common land where essential collective efforts gave individuality a chance to thrive and permitted groups of individuals to bargain with aggregates of distant economic power. The brotherhood of man, an article of Christian faith, was a palpable necessity as a means for surviving the rigors of the receding frontier and for controlling the threatening circumstances of contemporary life. So, too, the application of intelligence to environment, the employment of science to improve the products of nature, the utilization of economic data to manage the otherwise uncertain fluctuations of the market – those acts of mind and will guaranteed an abundance ample for the comfort of all men, truly a land of milk and honey, a new Jerusalem.

At Iowa State College and then on the family newspaper, Wallace refined his understanding of those conclusions. Sober, diligent, ascetic, he made few friends, studied hard, and conducted his experiments with genetics and with techniques for hybridizing corn. His Bachelor’s essay demonstrated the importance of soil-building, one form of conservation, for raising livestock. Problems of land utilization were to interest him for the rest of his life. Though uninvolved in politics, he was, like his father and grandfather, an enthusiastic supporter of Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party in 1912. The regulatory state that Roosevelt advocated, Wallace believed, would ultimately prevail even though the Bull Moose failed. Indeed for the sake of a prosperous agriculture, it had to prevail.

Wallace’s studies in economics and mathematics convinced him of that. After college he undertook to educate himself in those subjects, as well as to exploit the other resources of the Des Moines Public Library. His children remember him arriving home at night always with a stack of books in his arms. Soon an expert on statistical correlations, Wallace used that method to derive accurate indices of the cost of production of hogs. He began publishing those indices in the family newspaper in 1915. On the basis of other data, he suggested in 1919 that productivity cycles in livestock had a seven-year pattern – higher productivity followed rising prices until the saturation of the market led to falling prices that induced lower productivity. Further study, now of census figures, persuaded Wallace that with industrialization and urbanization, the average size of families diminished. With the domestic market consequently curtailed, farmers would need larger markets abroad for their crops. His book summarizing his work, Agricultural Prices (1920), was, in the judgment of one leading economist, “perhaps the first realistic econometric study ever published.”[4] Later Wallace mastered even newer techniques for computing multiple correlations and regressions. With a mathematician as his collaborator, in 1925 he published Correlation and Machine Calculation, an early venture in the creative march toward computer technology. Statistics, mathematics, genetics, scientific husbandry, economics, demography, all those skills impinged upon the future of his Iowa neighbors, the men and women throughout the state who lived on the farms they worked.


Those men and women could control some of the variables that affected them. Wallace proved as much by putting into commercial use his knowledge about hybridization. With some business associates, he founded in 1926 the Hi-Bred Corn Company (later the Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company) to produce and sell hybrid corn. Characteristically, he also realized that the establishment of two competing concerns would help to supply the market, which would need all they could furnish. That act of faith in science, abundance, and competitive capitalism refiected no lack of business acumen. Wallace intended his company to make a legitimate profit. More, he intended his customers to profit from the use of his superior product, and in profiting to improve the quality and reduce the price of corn, to the advantage of all who purchased it. During years of agricultural depression the company shrewdly built the market for its seed by offering it to customers without demanding payment in cash on the condition that they plant half their acreage in hybrid, half in ordinary corn, and then repay a portion of the value of the higher yield on the acres growing the hybrid variety. By 1966, the higher yield from hybrid seed accounted for one quarter of the total national corn crop.

That innovative method for selling seed drew upon the example of Wallace’s grandfather’s friend, Seaman Knapp, who had devised the system of demonstration farming to persuade cotton growers to improve their methods of cultivation. Wallace’s readiness to promote hybrid corn by inducing others also to enter the business revealed in some measure his intellectual debt to Thorstein Veblen, the powerful critic of American capitalism whose books Wallace read with enthusiastic reward. Veblen provided a systematic analysis to support the suspicions of monopoly that Wallace had absorbed from his family and their adherence to the old Granger program. In industries dominated by a few large firms, Veblen argued, management could adjust production to demand in order to sustain prices and profits. That process, administered pricing in the vocabulary of a later generation, held production below capacity. In Veblen’s words, it involved the sabotage by managers of the abundance which engineers were capable of creating. It inhibited productive potentialities which, if realized, would assure plenty for all Americans. Veblen imagined a solution in a revolution that would transfer industrial authority to a soviet of technicians, men committed to maximum production and equitable distribution.

Wallace, educated also by other economists, was moving toward a less dramatic formulation, but one from which he expected similar results. Like other western progressives, he advocated a vigorous application of the antitrust laws and other federal controls to limit the size and power of industrial concentrations, and to prevent them from restricting production or retarding technological advances that increased productivity. Like Veblen, he envisaged a technologically dynamic society dedicated to the efficient making and sharing of industrial and agricultural commodities, a society that would need scientists and managers to fashion an abundant life for the common man. In its agricultural sector, that society – capitalistic but not beholden to laissez-faire doctrines – would function according to the model he had created for marketing hybrid corn. Through management, science and technology would overcome poverty and hunger, “Science,” Wallace later wrote, “...cannot be overproduced. It does not come under the law of diminishing utility... It is perishable and must be constantly renewed.“[5] It was for him the continuing frontier, the limitless source of new plenty and leaping hope.

The selfishness of industrial practices, in Wallace’s view, had its political equivalent in the selfishness of economic nationalism, of protective tariffs and other artificial restraints on international trade. That trade, he believed, if unfettered, would provide the avenue to sharing abundance throughout the world. Wallace had grown up with the “Iowa Idea,” a plan that called for removing or reducing the protection afforded products manufactured by larger corporations, including many products farmers bought, like barbed wire and harvesters. Confronted by European competition, American manufacturers would have to reduce their prices or lose some of their market. In either case, farmers would benefit. Just as important, as Europeans gained access to the American market, they would earn dollars which they could then spend to purchase American agricultural commodities.

Reduction of tariffs, as Wallace saw it, also related to the preservation of peace. In the absence of restraints on trade, nations would become more dependent upon each other and therefore less able to embark upon war. To that issue Veblen also spoke. Imperial Germany, he believed, constituted the greatest threat to peace, for the Prussian autocracy and the military elite formed a combination of purpose and power committed to domination and conquest. For Wallace, that grim potentiality could mark the United States if an industrial plutocracy and an ambitious military combined to direct national policy.

Accordingly Wallace anguished over the future of his country when he observed during the years of World War II that Standard Oil of New Jersey, part of a cartel controlled by I. G. Farben, had manipulated patents to prevent the American development of synthetic rubber; that oil companies in general came to foster that development but to oppose increasing natural sources of rubber in Latin America, sources on which the United States would be partially dependent; that industry and the military combined to dampen, almost to eliminate, federal prosecution of firms violating the antitrust laws; that the American cornucopia, sufficient to feed a devastated world, was to be confined, according to the preferences of the same men of money and of arms, to helping only those peoples, whatever their need, whose politics followed American prescriptions; and that the findings of American science were to be similarly contained. Those developments made profits and even plenty the handmaidens of politics. Yet for Wallace politics was only a necessary means for setting policies that would put both profits and plenty within the reach of every man.


Wallace disliked politics in all its aspects. Never gregarious, he was uncomfortable alike in smoke-filled rooms and noisy halls. Shy but candid and sometimes blunt, he lacked small talk. He detested both the manipulation of men and the prolonged conniving it demanded. He learned to campaign, but his speeches, while often effective, made only clumsy concessions to the harmless blarney that ordinarily punctuated political oratory. “Farmer Wallace,” he was called by Alice Longworth, Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter and Washington’s social doyenne. She did not mean it as a compliment, but as usual her description had some substance. In her salon, in her world of genial conspiracies, Wallace was never wholly at ease.

Yet Wallace entered politics, first as an editor supporting compatible candidates, later as a holder of high office, ultimately as a candidate himself, because he had no alternative except to abandon the public policies he urged upon the nation. Like his Iowa neighbors, as a private citizen he could control only some of the variables affecting his life and theirs. The others fell to the control or misdirection or indifference of the government.

Both major political parties continually disappointed the Wallaces. The Republicans during the Taft years did nothing to help agriculture. The Democrats under Woodrow Wilson proved to be rather stingy benefactors. Congress did reduce the tariff and ease conditions for agricultural credit. Further, the Food Administration under Herbert Hoover during World War I stimulated the production of corn and hogs. But, as Wallace’s father continually demonstrated, Hoover – Iowa-born but otherwise bred – paid Iowans meanly for their efforts.

In 1921 Henry C. Wallace accepted appointment as President Warren G. Harding’s Secretary of Agriculture. His son, now editor of the newspaper, had also a close view of the operations of his father’s department. H.C. recruited a staff of experts who brought unprecedented technical talents to their tasks. He was able, too, with Harding’s support, to persuade Congress to enact legislation to assist agricultural marketing and to curb speculation in commodities. But the senior Wallace failed in his program to reach markets overseas. His successful antagonist was again Herbert Hoover, now Secretary of Commerce, whose relentless opposition to promoting agriculture contrasted with his vigorous efforts in behalf of industry. Hoover, so Henry A. Wallace believed, contributed inadvertently to the frustration and fatigue that taxed his father’s strength and reduced his resistance to the operation from which he was unable to recover in 1924.

Before his death, H. C. Wallace had endorsed a plan for agriculture for which his son helped thereafter to organize increasing support. Incorporated in a succession of bills sponsored by Senator Charles L. McNary of Oregon and Representative Gilbert N. Haugen of Iowa, that plan proposed a two-price system for commodities. Government purchases were to sustain the domestic price at the level of “parity” – the ratio between agricultural and industrial prices that had prevailed during the years 1910-14, good years for farmers. The government would sell its purchases abroad at a lower price while taxing farmer-beneficiaries to cover any losses. There were shortcomings to the plan. European tariffs, rising to compete with American protection, would impede the necessary sales. Europeans were in any case short of dollars because of the drain of repaying the United States for debts incurred during the war. More important, the McNary-Haugen plan placed no limits on production, which would increase to unmanageable proportions if the government guaranteed farmers a high price on all their crops. President Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover both opposed the plan, which Congress twice passed and Coolidge twice vetoed, primarily on other grounds. They contended that it would destroy individualism, establish artificial prices, and create a dangerous federal bureaucracy to administer it. Those objections ignored the artificial prices, large bureaucracies, and collective rather than individualistic nature of American corporate enterprise.

A registered Republican, Wallace condemned the GOP for its callousness toward the farmer, whose share of national income was steadily falling, and for its acceptance of the business creed. He urged his readers in 1924 to vote for Robert M. La Follette and his new Progressive Party, and in 1928 to vote for Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic nominee who had endorsed the latest McNary-Haugen bill. Yet so unpolitical was Wallace that he neglected to change his party registration until 1936.

From 1924 forward, he consulted continually with some of the economists his father had employed in the Department of Agriculture, in particular Henry C. Taylor, at one time chief of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, and two younger men, Mordecai Ezekiel and Louis H. Bean, who were to continue fruitfully to advise the department and its head throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He also came to know the two leading academic experts on agricultural economics, John D. Black of the University of Minnesota and later Harvard, and M. L. Wilson of the University of Montana. After the onset of the Great Depression, with its devastating consequences for markets at home and abroad, Black and Wilson worked out the Domestic Allotment Plan, the program that Wallace and like-minded farm leaders endorsed in 1932 as a preferred substitute for the defeated McNary-Haugen proposals. The new plan, the basis for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration of the New Deal, looked to the federal government to pay farmers to withdraw acreage from cultivation and thus curtail their production of crops. The withdrawal of marginal land and the rotation of cultivation of fertile soil applied the principles of conservation. More immediately, reduction in supply to the domestic market would lift commodity prices, while government payments would enlarge farm income, with parity in purchasing power again the goaL

Especially after the crash of 1929, farmers had other crushing problems. Land values had fallen during the 1920s and now shrank further, while the interest payments on mortgage debts incurred during the prosperous war years remained cruelly high. The deflation in commodity prices made the weight of debt intolerable, led to more and more foreclosures, and embittered the countryside. Wallace came to advocate federal action for mortgage relief and controlled inflation. Influenced by Irving Fisher, the foremost American economist of his generation, Wallace served as vice president of Fisher’s Stable Money League. It demanded a commodity dollar, a dollar valued not on a fixed ratio to gold but by a constant relationship to purchasing power, in itself elastic. Wallaces’ Farmer educated its readers in those ideas, while Wallace became a familiar figure at conferences concerned with preserving a healthy rural America.

Like his father and grandfather, Wallace became a reformer without becoming a radical. He saw the need for strong federal action and for a large federal establishment to protect the existence of the independent farmer. Price supports, mortgage relief, and managed money were adventurous departures from past policy. As their advocate, Wallace contemplated major institutional change. But he did not approve farmer strikes to withhold crops from market, or the sudden liquidation of mortgages, or an undisciplined recourse to printing paper or coining silver money. Those more radical measures had their many champions by 1932, for an angry impatience naturally flowed from the desperation of American farmers. But Franklin D. Roosevelt, ihe successful aspirant for the Democratic nomination that year, by temperament a moderate, found the reforms with which Wallace was identified compatible with his own sense of proper remedy. Wallace, one of the experts whose advice Roosevelt solicited, supported him both before and after his nomination. Once elected, Roosevelt decided, after reviewing several other possibilities, that Wallace had the confidence of the farm leaders and the qualities of mind and purpose that he wanted in his Secretary of Agriculture. Wallace accepted the position. Now, in spite of himself, his commitment to agricultural reform had drawn him into politics, both the politics of decision-making within the federal government and the politics of competition between the parties.


There was a part of Henry Wallace that Franklin Roosevelt recognized but never criticized, Some of his less sympathetic associates worried about what they considered Wallace’s mysticism, a quality they considered disturbing and unpredictable in its consequences. Yet Wallace was not a mystic, unless that description, as he once said, applied to any man of Christian faith. What made him seem a mystic to those who called him one was primarily his indomitable curiosity, a curiosity that led him to explore everything that caught his interest, religion not the least.[6]

Essentially Wallace’s religion was the Christianity common in the Middle Border. It had its foundation in faith rather than theology. Like Uncle Henry, Wallace concluded that the rigid tenets of orthodox Calvinism clashed with his generous belief in the pervasive goodness of God. Those tenets were at variance, too, with his sense of the presence of God in nature and life. He did not use the vocabulary of transcendentalism, but he shared the convictions of that creed about the immanence of God in man. Still he also tried continually to find God, not palpably but spiritually, whether in the beauty of growing things, in the symmetry of genetic patterns, or in the evocations of religious rituals. Consequently he experimented with religion, just as he experimented with corn, seeking the most satisfying yield.

Wallace tested his responses to various churches. He was conscious of the spiritual excitement that Methodism could stir but too private a man to find continuing fulfillment in collective rhapsody. The gorgeous rituals of Catholicism also moved him, but Catholic dogma and hierarchy put him off. He tried to feel what the saints had felt by practicing one kind of ascetism or another, but for him deprivation of the flesh or spiritual removal from the world divorced religion too much from life, which he was resolved to serve. He was at times fascinated by the occult and he studied oriental faiths, but they, too, faded to answer his needs, though his reading led him to a concept of Confucius, a “constantly normal granary,” a phrase he adapted for his own use. He settled in the end for membership in the Episcopal church, which he attended regularly during his years in Washington. Here, particularly in the communion service, he received as much as formal religion could offer him. He interpreted the Lord’s Supper his own way. “It is the function of the church,” Wallace said at one communion breakfast, “to emphasize the ties which draw men together no matter how much finite differences may appear to separate them ... Weak as is the church ... it is a synthesizing, centripetal force ... on behalf of the sacredness of the individual and the unity of humanity.“[7] It was the symbol and the agency of the brotherhood of man.

That brotherhood had a special psychological importance for Wallace. Just as he was not a hail-fellow, so, outside of his immediate family, he was not an intimate man. His aloneness in life fostered his need for brotherhood in spirit, a need he recognized in other men, particularly those who lived on the soil. He put it best, perhaps, in discussing the people of Soviet Asia: “All of them ... were people of plain living and robust minds, not unlike our farming people in the United States. Much that is interpreted ... as ‘Russian distrust’ can be written off as the natural cautiousness of farm-bred people... Beneath the ... new urban culture, one catches glimpses of the sound, wary, rural mind.“[8] Those wary men and women Wallace discovered everywhere he went, in Siberia, China, throughout Latin America, as well as in the countryside of the United States and beneath the skins of Americans in labor unions or military regalia or governmental suites. Not their spiritual comfort only, but also, in the shadows of an awful war, the prospects for a genuine peace depended upon a centripetal force that would assure the sacredness of every one of them and the unity of mankind.

Essential though it was, the church was not enough. Always a Calvinist in part, Wallace had a sense of duty, even of mission, to accomplish the work of the Lord. His continual recourse to biblical metaphor was more than the rhetorical habit of a minister’s grandson. He was an austere moralist, impatient less with impiety than with sloth, deceit, selfishness, and materialism. More, he cast himself often as prophet or witness, now in the role of Joseph husbanding his people’s resources, now as Micah beating swords into ploughshares, now as Gideon attacking a wicked citadel. That last role he assumed in 1948, in his predictably futile campaign for the Presidency as the candidate of a disorganized new party, against the advice of his family and his loyal friends, indeed against his better judgment. He had, he felt, to bear witness against the policies he had attacked and for the beliefs he had broadcast.

Yet the compulsions of mission that inhered in Wallace’s religion were balanced by a contemplative gentleness. It was not just that he loved his family, which he did, deeply though undemonstratively. It was also that when he crossbred corn or strawberries, he had more at stake than productivity. He loved the plants, just as he loved grasses – grasses, as he described them, growing quietly taller, silently dropping their seeds onto the earth and into the winds, full fields of grasses bending with the prevailing breeze, full fields observed from the air in huge patterns of contrasting greens and browns. He loved the soil, the way it felt between the fingers, its pungent darkness. Without direct contact with growing things, he lost touch with the universe and its creator. His Washington victory garden, planted in his sister’s yard, provided a useful crop, but more important, gave him when he worked in it a serenity he could capture no other way. In the soil he found his ultimate communion. His was strongly a Social Gospel, but he tempered that gospel with a tenderness that displayed his natural charity. Joseph he could emulate, or Gideon, but at the core he was more akin to Paul.

To the secular mind, Wallace’s faith seemed outmoded, his witnessing quaint, his spirituality incomprehensible. To the urban mind, his affinity with nature appeared irrelevant and distracting. As for his inquiries into the occult, secular and urban Americans took them for an eccentricity. Washington was filled with the polished, the urbane, and the fashionable, so in Washington Farmer Wallace, spiritually as well as culturally uncomfortable, felt often bored and out of place. As Roosevelt realized, that did not matter. He needed Wallace to manage the Department of Agriculture and its programs, and for that task, Wallace, practical scientist and progressive reformer, was admirably equipped.


During his eight years as Secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace accomplished more than did any one else who has ever held that office. Each of the many programs the department initiated, as one of its officers later attested, “had Wallace’s close attention and support.“[9] Each profited, too, from the support Wallace solicited from the President and from the skills of the administrators, lawyers, economists, and agronomists to whom the Secretary delegated responsibilities for the detailed supervision and the technical research without which the department could not have functioned. They were impressive men, several of whom became Wallace’s lifelong friends. Among the most effective were Rexford G. Tugwell, Wallace’s first Under Secretary, one of Roosevelt’s original brain-trusters, who, like Wallace, had studied Veblen; Mordeeai Ezekiel, senior economic adviser, and his talented associate, Louis Bean; Paul Appleby, chief administrative officer, and Milo Perkins who ran various special programs like the Food Stamp Plan for the distribution of surplus commodities to impoverished Americans; Chester Davis, who for some years managed the Agricultural Adjustment Administration; and, for a brief period, Jerome N. Frank, a brilliant young New York lawyer.[10]

The Agricultural Act of 1933, a keystone in Roosevelt’s recovery program, made national policy of the various proposals with which Wallace had been identified before the election. Among the provisions of the act, one founded the Agricultural Adjustment Administration within the Department of Agriculture to manage the Domestic Allotment Plan. In developing policy under that plan, Wallace confronted two major crises which he resolved with a practical opportunism that revealed both a disciplined toughness and a political sensitivity surprising to his critics.

The earlier episode arose because the Domestic Allotment program was established too late to affect planting or husbandry in the spring of 1933. Farmers in the south had already started their cotton, farmers in the west had already bred their hogs, before the Agricultural Adjustment Administration could begin to make payments for the withdrawal of acreage or the limitation of production. Yet cotton and hogs, glutting the market, were selling at historically low prices. To remove the glut, to prevent it from carrying over to 1934, to raise prices and to increase farm income, Wallace deliberately violated his own profound belief in abundance and its distribution. He mobilized the Extension Service of the department to enlist cotton farmers, in return for bountiful payments ($100 million in all), to plough up a quarter of their crop. Less drastic measures assisted grain farmers. As for hogs, on the advice of local committees throughout the west and of the Farm Bureau Federation, the department purchased and slaughtered six million little pigs. Much of the baby pork was given to the hungry on relief, but Wallace deeply regretted the conditions that had forced his hand. “The plowing under ... of cotton ... and the slaughter of ... pigs,” he said, “were not acts of idealism in any sane society. They were emergency acts made necessary by the almost insane lack of world statesmanship ... from 1920 to I932. He had to play, he explained, the cards that were dealt him; industry had limited production artificially for many years, and “agriculture cannot survive in a capitalistic society as a philanthropic enterprise.“[11]

The unavoidable destruction of crops in 1933 prepared the stage for the successful operation of AAA and in later years for new directions of policy, but a second crisis intruded before Wallace could embark on those new directions. Recourse to the Extension Service, as Wallace knew, reinforced the position within the department of one of its most conservative sections, for the Service had long fostered the interests of the Farm Bureau Federation, an organization dominated by large commercial farmers, whose needs often conflicted with those of small, independent farmers, tenants, and farm laborers. Further, Wallace had had temporarily to accept as head of the AAA George N. Peek, a father of the McNary-Haugen scheme, who remained committed to dumping surpluses abroad rather than controlling production at home. Soon able to get rid of Peek, Wallace replaced him with Chester Davis who, like his predecessor, had the confidence of the Farm Bureau Federation. Wallace felt he needed that group’s large infiuence in Congress, but the price proved high. In 1935 Davis and Jerome Frank clashed over AAA contracts which Frank and his young associates had written to protect farm tenants and sharecroppers in the South. Either he or Frank, Davis told Wallace, would have to go.

Wallace regretfully fired Frank and most of his group in the General Counsel’s office. Frank was shocked, as was Rex Tugwell, for they believed they had been following the Secretary’s wishes. Years later, others believed Wallace had acted to purge the department of communists, of whom a few were in Frank’s office. The latter issue simply did not occur to Wallace. The former pained him, for, as with the little pigs, he realized that he had departed from principle in order to preserve his ability to move ahead, albeit with reduced speed, toward larger goals. He had already concluded that the habit of dissent, typical in his experience of the western Democrats who had jointed La Follette in 1924, obstructed a practical approach to solving urgent problems.

“It seems,” Wallace wrote in 1935, “as though ... Progressives are splendid critics but very poor builders.“[12]

The episode of the purge, perhaps especially Tugwell’s angry disappointment with the Secretary’s expediency, had a double impact on Wallace. It persuaded him, under the tutelage of Will Alexander of his staff, more thoroughly to examine the wretched circumstances of southern croppers, white and black, and of the displaced and miserable migrant farm laborers of the west. He proceeded then more aggressively to seek effective remedies for their problems. He added his own support to the efforts to create the Resettlement Administration (under Tugwell and later Alexander) and the Farm Security Administration (under Alexander, Milo Perkins, and C. B. Baldwin). Those agencies began, though belatedly, to help the downtrodden in American agriculture. Wallace had earlier sponsored the Rural Electrification Administration that carried inexpensive electricity to farm homes, an objective first dered by the Country Life Commission. As Ezekiel wrote, REA “revolutionized the face of rural America.” Further, Wallace’s growing concern for eradicating rural poverty and his growing suspicions of the Farm Bureau Federation sensitized him to the problems of urban poverty and of American blacks, and rekindled his apprehensions about big business and its privileges. By the time of World War II, he had become the champion of the common man alike on the streets and on the land. He had become, too, an opponent of the demands not only of arrogant industrialists but also of the equally arrogant Farm Bureau.

The episode of the purge had also a more personal effect on Wallace. Because he had to decide between Davis and Frank, he had no escape from the politics of allocating power. Because he accepted a short-run loss in order to try to win long-run gains, he had to bend principle to expediency. In so doing, he had to wound an able and trusting subordinate. Later, during World War II, Wallace may have recalled the pains of 1935 when Roosevelt in effect fired him first from the chairmanship of the Board of Economic Warfare and later from the vicepresidency. In both cases the President sacrificed some principle to more expediency; in both he sacrificed a valued colleague to his own assessment of political exigencies. In both instances, Wallace, though gravely wounded, remained loyal to Roosevelt, whom he still preferred to any other chief. The problem, Wallace realized even in 1935, grew out of the New Deal’s style of administration. “In this administration,” he wrote, “the objectives are experimental and not clearly stated; therefore, there is certain to be, from the White House down, a certain amount of what seems to be intrigue. I do not think this situation will be remedied until the President abandons ... his experimental and somewhat concealed approach. There are ... many advantages to this approach but it does not lead to the happiest personal relationships and the best administration.“[13] Roosevelt never abandoned his approach. In the politics of the New Deal, as Wallace discovered, one had on occasion to dish it out, and on other occasions to take it.

The game was worth the anguish if the stakes were high enough. For Wallace they were, for during the middle 1930s he succeeded in advancing his most cherished objectives. The Supreme Court’s invalidation of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 forced the department to devise a constitutionally acceptable alternative. The Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936 and the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 preserved the practice of managing production. „Those measures also put a new emphasis on conservation, on withdrawing acreage not only to reduce crops but also to follow a rational system of land utilization. From 1936 forward, as Wallace said, “the Department launched a positive attack on the dual problem of soil destruction and unbalanced cropping.“[14]

The dreadful dust storms of the years immediately preceding had attested to the indispensability of protecting the “voiceless land.” Those disasters also reminded Americans of the vulnerability of agriculture to nature and of the possibility of shortages in food stuffs. The act of 1938 gave Wallace the opportunity he had long sought to create an „ever-normal granary,” to employ government purchases, storage, and sales so as to assure adequate supplies without future gluts or shortages. The resulting program provided food for Americans and their allies during the extraordinary years of World War II and the early postwar period. As Wallace admitted, he had not foreseen the war when he formulated his program, but his success led him to hope, as he wrote in 1942, for the establishment of an ever normal granary on a world-wide scale. That concept underlay the plans recommended in 1946 by Sir John Boyd Orr, Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, plans Wallace energetically endorsed. He had earlier adopted comparable policies to build up American strategic reserves through the Board of Economic Warfare.

Just as the accumulation of reserves depended upon sources abroad, so, as Wallace saw it, did the efficient functioning of the American economy. Contending during the 1930s, as he long had, that “America must choose,” he related the choice to national prosperity. The option lay between domestic self-sufficiency, which would inhibit and distort economic growth, and open international trade, which would encourage the United States to produce and export what it did best and to import goods produced more efficiently elsewhere. Wallace took the side of maximum growth, for it would provide employment for men and capital and permit the elimination of want. The New Deal’s reciprocal trade treaties took a limited step toward freer trade, hut Wallace envisaged much more dramatic changes that would open all markets and all shipping and air routes. The war spurred him to urge even more insistently interrelated policies to promote free trade, economic growth, and full employment.


Wallace’s objectives, accomplishments, and expanding sympathies marked him by 1940 as one of the country’s outstanding statesmen. He had demonstrated the personal loyalty to the President that John N. Garner, Vice President since 1933, so stubbornly withheld. Wallace had, too, the liberal credentials that Roosevelt wanted for his running mate in 1940. And during the first six months of that year Wallace had taken a position on the war in Europe that answered Roosevelt’s political needs.

The President, in the view of his isolationist critics, was leading the nation too close to the conflict abroad. ln the view of those, still a minority, who wanted at once to join the endangered British cause, the President had delayed too long in taking steps to supply Great Britain and to develop American armed forces for employment overseas. Privately Roosevelt may have shared the latter assessment but politically, he believed, he could not afford either to increase his pace or to give the isolationists further cause for complaint. Wallace stood about where the majority of Americans did after the Germans had overrun most of western Europe. He detested Nazism, which he continually attacked, as he always had. He saw potential danger to the Americas in Germany’s advance. He therefore preached hemispheric solidarity and national preparedness – the mobilization of the economy and of a strong and balanced military force. “We must,” he told Roosevelt, “be in a position to command fear and respect.“[15] Yet Wallace also opposed American entry into the war and resisted the thought that it was inevitable. Further, he believed that mobilization need not entail a surrender of policy to generals and financiers, and that a good neighbor should sponsor democratization along with friendship in Latin America. Indeed with the spread of fascism in Europe, the new world more than ever before had to provide a persuasive example of effective democracy.

Wallace, as Roosevelt insisted, suited his needs, but few of the President’s counselors or of the party leaders agreed. Wallace had always ignored the powerful captains of the great Democratic city machines. He disliked and distrusted, perhaps even despised, men like Kelly of Chicago and Hague of Jersey City, who felt the same way about him. His increasing zeal for civil rights for black Americans and for relieving the poverty of the sharecrpppers of the South, many of them black, offended most of the influential senior southern Democrats in the Senate. Like many of their northern colleagues, they considered his ideas radical, his religion puzzling, and his manner remote.

Wallace also lacked the confidence of Roosevelt’s circle of immediate advisers, particularly those whom Felix Frankfurter had recruited. They knew he was learned, but he was not one of them, and by their standards he had none of the polish the White House required. For his part, Wallace did not quite trust them. He called them “connivers” and considered them preoccupied with power, though he knew they had made significant contributions to reform. Even Ben Cohen, perhaps the gentlest and ablest man in the group, operated too guardedly for Wallace’s taste. Cohen, along with some others, feared for a time in 1939 that Paul McNutt, a handsome but vacuous Indiana Democrat, might be Roosevelt’s choice for the vice-presidency. Against that chance, Wallace observed that “the New Dealers” – he used the phrase pejoratively – resisted taking a “position of too great an opposition against McNutt... The New Dealers... don’t like the McNutt possibility but feel they must prepare for it as a contingency.” Wallace did not feel that way, nor did he have any enthusiasm for a Vice President selected from the inner circle of the White House or from its outer fringe, perhaps Harry Hopkins, the President’s eminence grise, or William O. Douglas. They were little to be preferred, he felt, to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, a favorite of conservative Southerners, or National Chairman James A. Farley, whom the city bosses liked.

Farley, an active candidate, felt that Roosevelt was blocking his ambitions. Always on pleasant terms with Wallace, Farley early in 1940 complained to him about the President. “Farley was incorrect,” Wallace judged, “in calling the President a sadist although there is a certain amount of that element in his nature. The predominant element, however, is the desire to be the dominating figure, to demonstrate on all occasions his superiority. He changes his standards of superiority many times during the day. But having set for himself a particular standard for the moment, he then glories in being the dominating figure along that particular line. In that way he fills out his artistic sense of the fitness of things.“[16]

In spite of that insight, in spite of the opposition he knew he provoked, Wallace was a completely receptive, though never an active, candidate for nomination. He organized no movement on his own behalf because, as he told a cabinet colleague, “I did not look on myself as very much of a politician.“[17] He did not think that nomination as Vice President would lead to the Presidency, for unlike Farley, he expected Roosevelt to live out a third term. “The President,” Wallace observed, “is more likely to maintain his vitality by being President than by retiring.“[18] Nor did he expect Roosevelt to retire. One of Wallace’s Iowa friends asked him if he “was interested in having my name presented to the national convention in case the President did not run. I told him that it was scarcely worth thinking about because I was so certain the President was going to run. I said, of course, if the President did not run, I would be interested.” As for the vice-presidency, “I said that would depend altogether on what the powers that might be might think would best insure victory.“[19]

Roosevelt was the power that was. To a reluctant convention he dictated the choice of Wallace as his running mate. He even contemplated withdrawing himself if the convention should reject his selection. It almost did, but Roosevelt’s adamancy, the energetic politicking of Harry Hopkins, the President’s emissary on the floor, and the timely appearance of Eleanor Roosevelt as her husband’s special ambassador for Wallace brought the unhappy delegates around.

Roosevelt made Wallace Vice President in 1940. Four years later, when Wallace had far more support within the party, Roosevelt dumped him. He announced his personal preference for Wallace but he also expressed his satisfaction with several other possible candidates and then let the party leaders move the convention to a decision he had previously approved. That change in Roosevelt’s tactics, as Wallace realized, constituted a complete reversal. The President again had been the dominating figure, filling out, now to Wallace’s disadvantage, “his artistic sense of the fitness of things.”


Receptive though he had been to nomination as Vice President, Wallace discovered little satisfaction in that office when he entered it in January 1941. Usefully busy almost every day for the eight preceding years, he now had almost nothing to do. Presiding over the Senate’s meandering debates bored him. Often he appeared to doze in the chair. More often he turned the chair over to a colleague. The democratic Majority Leader, Alben Barkley, an engaging Kentuckian, ran the business of the Senate. Most of the members of that body respected Wallace but few welcomed him to the informal gatherings, the Senate’s club, which by temperament he had no desire to join. He had, Wallace said, more time for tennis than ever before in his life, but seldom had the nation faced more urgent issues. For their resolution Roosevelt intended to harness Wallace’s talents, but he was slow in finding an appropriate role for him, for he was slow in establishing offices properly geared first for mobilization and then for war. While the President procrastinated, Wallace educated himself in the problems of national defense and of the defense economy by discussing them regularly with experts on the staffs of the White House, the departments, and the defense agencies. At Roosevelt’s initiative, he was among the few originally to learn about S–1, the then infant project to develop an atomic bomb. In July 1941 the President gave him a first assignment as chairman of the Economic Defense Board, established at that time as a “policy and advisory agency” to deal with “international economic activities” including exports, imports, preclusive buying, shipping, foreign exchange, and similar matters.[20]

That mandate, as it turned out, was as broad as the agency’s actual authority was narrow. Power over its supposed functions remained dispersed among the executive departments, and decisions, when they were made, remained the prerogative of the White House. So, too, with the Supply Priorities and Allocations Board that the President created in August 1941 with Wallace as chairman. In characteristically Rooseveltian fashion, it was superimposed upon the Office of Production Management, which had been crippled by friction within its staff and by its rivalry with the War and Navy departments. SPAB was to serve as the coordinaung center for defense mobilization. It failed for the reasons that had vitiated the Economic Defense Board and OPM.

Even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, those responsible for mobilization chafed at Roosevelt’s reluctance to delegate and centralize authority. The advent of war forced the President to act. At least in theory, real authority over the domestic economy was granted in January 1942 to the new War Production Board under Donald Nelson, a former vice president of Sears, Roebuck who had been executive director of SPAB. Wallace was to sit as chairman, along with various Cabinet officers as members, of WPB’s governing committee. He liked and admired Nelson, but he did not, as one friend observed, “find it congenial to work with the big businessmen who dominated that organization, nor with the admirals and generals who were their military counterparts.“[21]

Far more satisfying to the Vice President, Roosevelt had also made him chairman of another new agency, established by executive order on December 17, 1941, the Board of Economic Warfare. It was to assume the responsibilities of the Economic Defense Board but with strengthened authority – as it turned out, less than enough – to deal directly with foreign governments in the procurement of strategic materials and related functions. Wallace now had a mandate, one he believed he could use both to abet the war effort and to influence postwar policy.

As he had in the Department of Agriculture, Wallace in the Board of Economic Warfare devoted himself to questions of policy and delegated responsibility for daily administrative and technical decisions. The major weight of that responsibility he assigned to his executive director, Milo Perkins, an old friend and associate and an energetic promoter of Wallace’s own purposes. Under Perkins were the three sections of BEW: the Office of Imports, charged with procuring strategic materials and with preclusive buying all over the world, but especially in Latin America where neither the Germans nor the Japanese had become a military threat; the Office of Exports, which was to use its licensing authority to prevent goods from reaching Axis nations; and the Office of Warfare Analysis, which selected targets of economic importance for strategic bombing. The first of those sections commanded most of Perkins’s and Wallace’s attention, and its operations were the bases for the controversies that were to mark the history of the agency.

About two months after the establishment of BEW, with those controversies in their first stages, Wallace resumed keeping a diary. Twice before he had initiated and abandoned that practice, on both occasions initiating it when political events in Washington especially involved him. He had kept a diary briefly during the Davis-Frank episode, and he had again for the months preceding his nomination for Vice President. Now he began once more, with few lapses until he left public office. The content of the diary revealed his continual engagement in political developments within government and in the policies that politics affected. More than an outlet for reflection, it served, as its author intended, as a record of his activities. Such was also the case with the diaries of so many of Roosevelt’s Cabinet, Henry Stimson, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Harold Ickes, and James Forrestal in particular. With varying degrees of self-consciousness, they recorded an account of what they had said and heard and done, an account to which they could refer should some colleague challenge their consistency or veracity. Such challenges emerged from the personal frictions engendered by Roosevelt’s style of administration. As Morgenthau, speaking from experience, warned Wallace, relationships with Jesse H. Jones especially imposed on a prudential man the self-protective task of keeping a full record. Like the diaries of his colleagues, Wallace’s diary, while incidentally convenient for history, had a more contemporary and expedient use.

While he kept the diary for himself, Wallace in 1942 also took his thoughts to the American people with greater frequency and moment than ever before. No member of the administration except the President made more public speeches or attracted more continual attention. Roosevelt probably planned it that way. In the interests of national unity and of harmony within the Grand Alliance, the President during the war years moved with more than his customary caution. But Roosevelt typically was less cautious privately than he appeared to be in public. By no means averse to examining bold policies for adoption once the war had been won, he needed a scout to test the responses of both national and international audiences, a semiofficial spokesman whose proposals he could embrace if they were well received or repudiate if they were not.

The President did not have to cast Wallace in that role, for the Vice President without prompting seized every occasion he could to publicize his hopes for the postwar world. Indeed Wallace was restless with the failure of the American government to set forth in clear detail a plan for the future that would lift the spirits and galvanize the wills of men everywhere. He fretted not the least because the relative silence from the White House permitted other voices to seem louder and more persuasive than in his opinion they should have. So, for one example, though he shared many of the sentiments of Wendell Willkie’s One World, he distrusted Willkie’s instincts in domestic policy. So, for another, he detested the confident chauvinism of Henry Luce’s “American Century.” Like Archibald MacLeish, the eminent poet who served for a short and unhappy season as the head of the Office of Facts and Figures, Wallace believed that Roosevelt was forgoing a commanding opportunity to define the war as a vehicle for practical idealism. The President, preoccupied with military problems and the conflicts among the nation’s major allies, emphasized victory above all other considerations. After victory, he told MacLeish, he would speak more concretely about the nature of the peace. Wallace, for his part, while always committed to the eradication of Nazism as a first priority, was determined, too, to stir the blood of democrats everywhere, to prophesy, as he did, the coming century of the common man.

His rhetoric in that cause gave a testamental cast to the sundry objectives that engrossed him. As his diary disclosed, his activities on the Board of Economic Warfare aroused the quick opposition of two of the most powerful conservatives within the administration, both noted for their irifluence on the Hill, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of Commerce Jesse Jones, who was also head of the federal lending agencies. Both men had a long record of defending any apparent invasion of what they jealously considered their personal domains. Now Hull resented any independence from State Department supervision of BKW representatives negotiating with foreign governments. Jones was even more indignant over Milo Perkins’ efforts to arrange loans for the development abroad of sources of strategic materials without proceeding through the dilatory, sometimes obstructionist, lending agencies. Enlisted by Perkins, Wallace tried to persuade Roosevelt to grant BEW independence from Hull and Jones, but the President, under pressure also from Wallace’s antagonists, gave BEW more the semblance than the sinew of what it sought.

The bureaucratic struggle merely clothed fundamental disagreements about policy, particularly in Latin America. There Wallace and Perkins had two large goals. “International trade,” Wallace had earlier written, “has always been closer to economic warfare than the American people have been trained to think.“[22] Through international trade he endeavored in Latin America to develop sources for essential materials of war – rubber and quinine for two – which the United States had previously obtained from areas the Japanese had conquered. Preclusive buying also denied those and other materials to the Germans. The procurement of adequate supplies, Wallace believed, depended upon increasing the productivity of Latin American workers, whose physical strength and morale suffered from malnutrition, disease, miserable sanitation and housing, and skimpy wages. Efficiency demanded social reform, as did the first step toward a decent future for the laborers. BEW tried to take that step by writing into procurement contracts abligations on the part of Latin American governments or entrepreneurs “to furnish adequate shelter, water, safety appliances, etc.,” to consult with BEW “as to whether the wage scale is such as to maximize production,” and to cooperate “in a plan to improve conditions of health and sanitation,” a plan for which the United States would pay half the costs.[23]

Hull attacked that policy indirectly. The State Department endorsed some of BEW’s conditions for contracts, but it also complained that the conditions as a whole constituted interference in the domestic affairs of a foreign nation, a course the department claimed to eschew. Noninterference, as practiced by the State Department, had special connotations. The doctrine served for several years as Hull’s excuse for protecting pe pro-Nazi but officially neutral government of Argentina from the disciplinary measures of economic warfare recommended continually by Army Intelligence and the Treasury Department. Too, the State Department helped to arrange shipments of Lend-Lease arms to Latin American governments, non-fighting allies against the Axis, that were openly repressive toward workers and peasants. Hull knew that Wallace welcomed social change in Latin America. Indeed Wallace had identified that change with peaceful revolution. The Board of Economic Warfare did not demand that Latin American states alter their laws; it attempted only to write contracts to help Latin American markers. But that was too much revolution for Hull, and therefore by his standards too much interference.

Like Wallace, Hull was a dogged proponent of freeing international trade from artificial restraints. Like Wallace, he was eager to enlarge American markets abroad in the postwar period, temporarily by advancing generous credits. But the Secretary of State and most of his colleagues equated that objective with the spread of American institutions, political and economic. They expected their trading partners to be or to become capitalistic republics in the model of the United States. When the war ended, they attached political conditions to commercial negotiations. Wallace did not. He sought postwar trade with any nation, whatever its system of government or pattern of property ownership. And, during the war, he wanted American credits, trade, and eonuacts to turn the calendar toward the century of the common man. He lost.

As much as Hull, Jesse Jones contributed to that defeat. The delays and the parsimony of Jones’ lending agencies retarded procurement, as Wallace and others demonstrated and Jones self-righteously denied. Wallace found just as aggravating the political objections to BEW contracts, which Jones claimed were needlessly costly. Preoccupied with prices and interest rates, Jones never grasped the greater importance, during the crisis of war, of productivity, one of Wallace’s goals. He did understand and reject Wallace’s long-range social concerns, which he scoffed at as an international WPA. He scoffed, too, at Wallace’s worries about the postwar implications of American policy on synthetic rubber. Wallace feared that federal assistance for the synthetic rubber industry, which he knew was essential for wartime supply, would lead to postwar tariff protection for that industry, and consequently inhibit postwar natural rubber developments which BEW was nurturing in Brazil and elsewhere. As ever, Wallace argued that without a market in the United States, those natural rubber producers would be unable to survive, and unable, too, to purchase American products. Jones fixed his interest on the postwar profits of the domestic rubber industry.

Jones had the sympathy and support of like-minded senators, including senior southern Democrats like Kenneth McKellar and Harry Byrd, who chaired powerful committees. They gave him a platform from which to attack BEW, its policies, and the concessions to it that Roosevelt had made. Where Hull ordinarily expressed his negative opinions in colorful but private invective, Jones habitually broadcast his vitriol. He both offended and infuriated Milo Perkins, who regrettably struck back in kind. Provoked largely by Perkins, so did Wallace, with little more circumspection. After several public skirmishes, the open warfare between two of his subordinates, a circumstance Roosevelt would not tolerate, led to the President’s decision in June 1943 to abolish BEW. He transferred its functions to a new superagency, the Office of Economic Warfare, and appointed to the chairmanship of the body Leo Crowley, whose ability to flatter the President and to placate Congress considerably exceeded his taste for reform or his personal probity. Perkins left the government. Wallace remained, his authority and status severely diminished, his spirit undeterred.


Wallace’s “Century of the Common Man,” a major address he delivered in May 1942, set forth themes which he repeated and elaborated for the next several years. They grew out of his previous ideas, some partially formed even in his youth, and they foreshadowed the disagreements between him and others in government during his last year in office. Yet his speeches, book, and articles said less about his precise objectives than did his diary, and his written words communicated his purpose only in the context of the actual issues to which he adverted daily. Each theme he associated with the century of the common man had hard correlatives in the questions that occupied wartime Washington.

Peace, the essential first condition for the future of mankind, meant different things to different Americans during World War II. For Wallace, the establishment and preservation of peace demanded a true internationalism, a world community of nations and peoples linked economically and politically through the agency of a United Nations. His vision included his familiar convictions about trade and economics, and his expectations for the economic development of underdeveloped areas along the lines that BEW drew. As he saw it, with the end of the war the United Nations would assume the bulk of that task. It would first have to concentrate on the restoration of areas devastated by war, a function which devolved before the end of hostilities to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. An enthusiast for that agency, Wallace recognized that it had to rely in its early work primarily on American resources, for the United States alone of the great nations was emerging from the war with an ebullient economy. But Wallace believed that American wealth should not give the United States a proportionate influence either in UNRRA or within the United Nations. Those agencies, in his opinion, had to bend to multilateral direction and to serve multinational interests.

The internationalizing of responsibility for providing nourishment, relief, and development throughout the world depended upon political internationalism, which Wallace stressed. It could eventuate only with the end of European imperialism and with the abandonment of balance-of-power politics. On that account, he was especially critical of the British, particularly Winston Churchill. Continued British domination over India, in Wallace’s understanding, violated the whole purpose of the war, as did Churchill’s impulse for empire, his unabashed belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority, his disdain for China and distrust of Russia, his preference for secret negotiations, and his manifest intention to hold the reins of world leadership, whatever the semblance of world government, in British, American, and, unavoidably, Soviet hands.

Roosevelt, too, expected the great powers to dominate the UN and enjoyed and exploited his secret conferences either alone with Churchill or in the larger company that included Stalin. But the President seemed to Wallace to share his anti-imperialism and even some of his other doubts about the British. So also, Roosevelt was determined to get along with the Russians. Further he was as emphatic as was Wallace in calling for the withdrawal of British arid European, as well as Japanese, political influence in East and Southeast Asia. They looked forward there not to American encroachments but to the independence, in most instances after a period of transition, of the various Asian peoples. In the case of China, as they both realized, Chiang Kai-shek could expect to rule only if he cleared out the corruption of the Kuomintang, embarked upon major social reform including distribution of land to the peasantry, and reached a modus operandi with his communist opponents, whose growing strength fed on the discontent his policies fostered.

Still, Roosevelt’s concern for victory first and victory as fast as possible resulted in wartime decisions that struck Wallace as ominous for the future. The United States, Wallace believed, had to align itself unequivocally with the forces of democracy everywhere. On the ground of military expediency, Roosevelt did not. He authorized the negotiations and arrangements in North Africa and Italy that made notorious fascists the approved local agents of Anglo-American occupation. The State and War Departments nurtured those policies which Wallace came privately to oppose.

Wallace also parted with the President, though without public or private acrimony, over the question of the peace-keeping role of the United Nations. Roosevelt talked in general terms about a postwar international police force to prevent aggression, but while the fighting continued, he deliberately postponed serious consideration of the nature and structure of such a force. Indeed he seemed often to regard it as a convenient substitute for the positioning of American units abroad. Further, he was too busy with grand strategy to give time to detailed postwar planning. More important, he did not want predictable British, American, and Russian disagreements atiout postwar policies to impede the functioning of the wartime alliance. He sensed, too, that the Congress and the American people were loath to approve much more than the principles of international organization, and he dreaded a divisive domestic debate that might generate the kind of opposition to a United Nations that had defeated Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations. Roosevelt had not wholly decided about his course. He did expect after victory rapidly to withdraw American forces from Europe and Asia. He had no apparent sympathy for postwar Ameiican military adventures overseas. Yet his announced descriptions of postwar world organization, at best opaque, appeared to presume a political stability founded on a balance of influence among the strong.

Wallace for his part advocated wartime planning for a United Nations that would exercise responsibility for peace and for disarmament. Like Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, he saw regional agreements as a necessary foundation for the larger mandate of the UN. Regionalism, as he later admitted, could provide a cloak for spheres of influence – of the United States in the Americas, of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe, and of the British, French, and Chinese in areas of their traditional concern. But he counted on the United Nations to prevent regionalism from becoming colonialism. Further, to estop aggression of any sort he advocated endowing the United Nations with an own army and air force, and with authority to impose economic sanctions.

He contemplated a degree of surrender of national sovereignty to an international body larger by far than was acceptable to any but an insignificant few in high offices in any of the governments of the major partners in the war against the Axis. Indeed few Americans who understood Wallace’s purpose fully supported it. The senior members of the State Department especially looked upon his proposals as fanciful. So did the senior Democrats in the Senate, while the Republican leadership was even more chary of international commitments. For those critics, as for most of their constituents, peace, in whatever international garment, implied primarily “freedom from fear” – from threats to the security of the United States. That security was to be assured essentially by American power alone or in willing alliance with demonstrably trustworthy friends. As Wallace realized, from that position the step was short to unilateral American adventurism undertaken in the name of peace.


As in international, so in domestic policies, Wallace by 1944 had advanced well beyond the consensus of the American people and their congressional representatives.[24] That gap reflected their conservatism, for Wallace, by no means alone in the forward sector, had not departed from the traditional objectives of American reform movements or the growing body of economic doctrine of the time.

The bases far the political democracy that Wallace associated with his century of the common man were so conventionally American that he did not need to spell them out. The nuances of his speeches and the thrusts of his activities indicated that he meant by political democracy representative government, universal suffrage, and the civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. Those conditions did not wholly obtain during the years of World War II. He worried particularly about the distortions of representation that resulted from the disfranchisement of blacks in the South, from the power of Democratic machines in the North (Chicago especially bothered him), and from the influence that wealthy individuals and corporations exerted on Congress and on some executive agencies. He also despised the redbaiting techniques of the Dies Committee in the House and the McKellar Committee in the Senate. Obsessed with fears about radicals, those committees, reckless in their accusations, bullied the witnesses they disliked. Again and again in his diary Wallace expressed his own reservations about “Communists” or “reds,” but in his distress about the tactics of the witch-hunters in Congress and the FBI, he constantly also expressed a discriminating opposition to professional anticommunists.

Only men with the truncated mentality of Dies or McKellar could discover, as they did, sinister and radical tendencies in Wallace’s ideas about economic democracy. Wallace simply incorporated his understanding of wartime developments into his long-standing proposals for promoting and distributing an economy of abundance. The experience of the war provided a telling verification of the theories of John Maynard Keynes and his American interpreters and disciples. The enormous federal deficits of the war years spurred private investment and employment, and achieved at last the full recovery that had eluded the New Deal. To Wallace, as to the Keynesians he regularly saw, it was patent that properly managed federal fiscal policy could sustain prosperity in the postwar years. Accordingly he believed, with Roosevelt, in the ability of the government to establish and preserve the conditions that would provide sixty million jobs, a figure that seemed outrageously high in 1944 to the adherents of conventional economics. In order to achieve that goal, as Wallace understood, the government had systematically to employ experts to study the economy and its performance, and to make continual recommendations about federal fiscal and monetary policies to sustain maximum employment. To that end he supported each of the series of bills introduced by Senator Murray of which the last was passed, after revisions, as the Employment Act of 1946.

The long years of depression had whetted the interest of all Americans, however much they disagreed about means, in achieving an economy of plenty. Americans, however, disagreed profoundly about how and to whom to allocate shares of prosperity. Debates about the particular aspects of that general question proceeded through the war years. After the Democratic reverses in the elections of 1942, a coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats controlled congressional decisions. While that coalition tried, with considerable success, to roll back the New Deal, the President accepted most of the defeats his policies suffered without more than token protest. Eager for the support of the conservative coalition for his military and foreign policies, he deferred battle over domestic issues. “Dr. New Deal,” Roosevelt told the press, had been succeeded by “Dr. Win-the-War.” Depressed by the resulting situation, Henry Morgenthau commented that he could put all the remaining New Dealers in his own bathtub. He exaggerated. There was in Washington a group of young liberal Keynesians who were eagerly planning a new postwar New Deal. They had the significant cooperation of the leadership of the CIO and the Farmers’ Union. In the Senate they had influential friends like Claude Pepper of Florida and Robert Wagner of New York. And they had visible champions in high office, of whom Wallace was the most senior in rank and most articulate in speech. His program for economic democracy reflected their thinking, as well as his own.

As he had for so long, Wallace during the war combated the power of big business. In the continuing struggle for control of the War Production Board, he sided with Donald Nelson, a protector of small industry, against Ferdinand Eberstadt, the ingenious investment banker who represented the preferences of the armed services and their corporate allies.[25] Increasingly in 1943 and thereafter, Wallace also consulted the lawyers in the antitrust division of the Justice Department, serious young attorneys who were frustrated by the President’s suspension of antitrust proceedings at a time when bigness was growing rapidly. With them, Wallace attacked American corporate giants that had been (and would again be) associated with international cartels, and, like them, he searched for ways to revise the patent laws so as to prevent monopolies based on patent rights, especially patents developed at large cost to the federal government. He was not anti-business but anti-bigness; he was not an opponent of capitalism but a proponent of competition.

So, too, Wallace allied himself with the workers against their employers. He had earlier applauded the success of the CIO in using collective bargaining to increase the share of labor in corporate profits. Unions, he believed, would have to function to that end after the war. Though he deplored wartime strikes that retarded production, he recognized the validity of many of the demands of the strikers and he opposed congressional efforts to punish union labor and its leadership. Supporting Roosevelt, Wallace also advocated holding down wartime agricultural prices so as to prevent inflation from eroding the gains in income that labor had achieved. To his satisfaction, the strength of the unions, the impact of wage and price controls, and the incidence of wartime taxes resulted during the war years in a significant redistribution of income favorable to working men and women.

Wallace stood behind other programs to assist industrial and agricultural workers. He advocated federal support for education, especially in technical and scientific subjects, so as to make learning available to qualified candidates who could not otherwise afford it. He praised the proposals of the National Resources Planning Board (an agency which congressional conservatives dissolved out of spite) and of the Social Security Administration for postwar increases in old age and memployment benefits, and for postwar extension of coverage to millions of Americans then still outside of the social security system. Eager to improve the delivery of health care within the United States, he commended the program Henry Kaiser had devised for the collective care of workers employed by his firms. Wallace applauded, too, the less adventurous but still controversial plan of the Social Security Administration to include medical insurance within its province. “Socialized medicine,” as the American Medical Association called it with characteristic imprecision, stirred up so much opposition that Roosevelt would not attach his prestige to a Treasury measure sponsoring it. He could not, the President argued, take on the AMA in the middle of a great war. Wallace could and did, as did Bob Wagner and the other authors of the unsuccessful Wagner-Murray-Dingell bill for revising social security to encompass medical insurance.

For Wallace, then, economic democracy directly affected the common man. It would increase national income by utilizing fiscal policy to encourage economic growth and antitrust policy to discourage monopolistic restraints on production. It would increase the share of the common man in national income. It would also provide him with protection against the trials of unemployment, old age, and illness. Taken together, those purposes constituted what Roosevelt meant by “freedom from want.” Taken together, they also constituted what Wallace’s critics called either communism or socialism or the welfare state. They were anathema to the still formidable number of businessmen and their lawyers, accountants, and clerks who believed, in spite of all that had happened since 1929, in something they called “the American system,” by which they meant the political economy of the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover years.

Wallace disturbed an equally large constituency by his advocacy of „genetic democracy,” another major facet of his century of the comn man. The phrase was peculiarly his own. His experiments in hybridizing corn had led him to an adjective for which most other men substituted “racial.” He meant that and more. He urged equal opportunities for black Americans in voting, employment, and education, but he sought the same objectives for women of whatever color. Further, he envisaged in the not distant future equal political and economic opportunities for Asians and Latins, not only for American citizens. In the case of the Jews, he came before 1944 to agree with the Zionists that a prosperous and dignified future for European Jews, particularly after the ghastly experience of Nazi persecution, could materialize only in an independent Jewish state in the area of Palestine, then British-controlled. His were politically dangerous convictions. Even during a war against Nazism, most white Americans remained openly prejudiced against men and women of darker skins, most were uneasy about directly assisting European Jews, most were indifferent about the rights of women. Indeed Roosevelt disagreed with Wallace. The President had doubts about Zionism, little patience with militant women, and little respect for most women in public life. Further, he had condoned the incarceration of the Japanese-Americans, and he had erected a bureaucratic barrier of personal aides to spare him from having to listen to the legitimate demands of American blacks. Wallace’s genetic democracy put him in a lonesome salient far out ahead of the army of American voters and of their elected commander.

He had a related vision still further from the American consensus. It was a prospect incomprehensible except to those few who shared Wallace’s belief in the brotherhood of man, his faith in the experience of westering as an avenue to that brotherhood, and his conviction that commerce brought and held societies together. When first he met Molotov, he described to him, as he later did in print for American readers, a huge stretch of highways and airports reaching northward from the west coast of South America to Alaska and across the Bering Sea westward through Siberia to European Russia. Along that line he saw potentialities for a vibrant commerce. When he reflected about strategy in the Pacific, Wallace gave Alaska a high priority for defense, (or he viewed Alaska as the last American frontier. But the larger frontier, the one he postulated for settlement and development in the late twentieth century, made Alaska only one part of a vast area that also included Soviet Asia and Mongolia. There he believed a commingling of peoples from America, Siberia, China, and Mongolia could build a new center of civilization, a center founded on agriculture, the commerce to sustain it, and the industry that would follow population and employ the extraordinary resources of the northern Pacific triangle. That prospect beguiled him before his visit to Soviet Asia and China. The observations he made on that trip, recorded in his diary and in his Soviet Asia mission, confirmed his sense of the possibilities for realizing the prospect. The rivalries of international politics made it only a dream in 1944, but it was precisely those rivalries which Wallace believed had to be tempered and contained so that the century of the common man could begin in the northern Pacific as in all lands.

Wallace’s beliefs provoked the opposition to his renomination that was virtually universal among Roosevelt’s advisers and the Democratic party leadership. He knew they did not want him. He knew, too, that thousands of rank and file Democrats shared his kind of aspiration and supported his candidacy. But in 1944, as in 1940, he did not campaign. By default rather than by direction, he left his chances to a few friends who were almost as clumsy and uninfluential as they were ardent and dedicated. At Roosevelt’s request, Wallace even left Washington for Asia during the critical weeks before the national convention. Again, as in 1940, he knew his presence or his activity made little difference. The decision about the nomination was the President’s to make. And Roosevelt dropped him. The President’s disingenuous remarks during their discussion of the nomination wounded Wallace at least as much as did the President’s decision. Once he became aware of it, Wallace fought, too late and with too few allies, to hold his office, but he accepted defeat in good grace and campaigned hard for the ticket. That earned Roosevelt’s gratitude and Wallace’s nomination as Secretary of Commerce.

The episode confirmed Wallace’s sense of the President’s style. Eager to dominate yet reluctant to offend, Roosevelt hated to tell a loyal friend the simple truth when that truth was bound to hurt. Instead he fenced, he turned to humor, evasion, and half-truths. He would have been kinder in 1944 to tell Wallace the truth, for Wallace had the character to accept it. The truth was that the renomination of Wallace would probably have hurt the ticket. Wallace admitted as much in 1951 in conversation with an interviewer who asked him what would have happened if he had been renominated and then succeeded to the presidency after Roosevelt’s death. “Anyone with my views,” Wallace answered, “would have run into the most extraordinary difficulties... It would have been a terrific battle for control of public opinion... It’s quite possible that I would not have been able to get the support of Congress.“[26]

Indeed, it was quite probable, for the Senate, with the Democrats bitterly divided, in 1945 barely approved Wallace’s appointment as Secretary of Commerce, and then only after stripping that office of the lending authority Jesse Jones had exercised. As for public opinion, in 1944, as Wallace realized, it was running against him. In his own retrospective assessment, the American people were “prosperous, fully employed, complacent.” They were weary of controls, weary of shortages, eager for victory and for postwar security and personal comfort. They were not seeking new obligations, new causes, or strange adventures.[27] Accordingly they were uncomfortable with the implications of Wallace’s century of the common man. In Wisconsin the voters had eliminated Wendell Wilkie, Wallace’s closest Republican counterpart, from the race for his party’s nomination. Roosevelt, acepting the counsel of his advisers and of his own instincts, removed Wallace, who had taken positions the President was willing to have tested but, in the President’s judgment, had failed the test. Wallace had said in 1940 that the question of his nomination was subordinate to the best interest of the party. In 1944 he had not changed his mind. Though he and his friends thought that his renomination would strengthen the ticket, he had to defer to Roosevelt’s contrary conclusion. He would have found it more palatable if the President had been more candid.


After Roosevelt’s death, Wallace remained in the Cabinet because he expected, as Secretary of Commerce, to initiate programs to expand both the American and the world economy, and because he hoped to exert a liberalizing influence within the government. As he confided in his diary, he did not trust the new President. Harry Truman, though his own record was clean, had ties to the corrupt Pendergast machine in Kansas City. His sponsors included men like Robert Hannegan and Edwin Pauley whose motives and methods Wallace suspected. Further, in Wallace’s view Truman had followed a devious course in winning the vice-presidential nomination. In time, Wallace was to consider his suspicions confirmed. Where Roosevelt had been engagingly disingenuous, Truman, in dealing with Wallace, became transparently dishonest. But at first, though he did not much like Wallace, the President was disarming. His apparent openness, his earthiness, his self-effacing eagerness to master his new office and its problems persuaded Wallace that they might be able to work together productively.

They remained within reach of each other on domestic policies. Truman approved Wallace’s plans for reorganization of the Commerce Department, though he kept Wallace off the governing board of the Export-Import Bank. After some hesitation, the President gave his full support to the employment bill. With less commitment than Wallace, he also supported the continuation of the Office of Price Administration and its efforts to retard inflation. He recommended continuing wartime policies designed to provide equal employment opportunities for blacks. He opposed Republican measures to cripple labor unions, but he had limited sympathy for the postwar militancy of the CIO, and he recommended punitive action against the railroad brotherhoods when they walked out on strike. Recognizing his own political weakness in labor circles, Truman, as he later disclosed, kept Wallace in the Cabinet primarily to placate the unions. He listened to Wallace’s advice about labor issues and on occasion used him as an emissary to CIO leaders. That role pleased Wallace, who also knew that Truman as a senator had voted consistently for New Deal measures. As President, he now urged Congress to expand social security, to provide for national medical insurance, and to increase minimum wages. No more than Roosevelt could he be faulted for the conservative coalition in Congress or for the yearning for “normalcy,” so like the mood of the early 1920s, that infected so many Americans, war veterans not the least.

To Wallace’s growing disillusionment, however, the President acted in a manner at variance with his rhetoric. It was not the conservatives in Congress but Truman himself who altered the profile of the Cabinet. Like any President, he naturally wanted his own men around him men loyal to him, not to the memory of FDR. But most of those he chose struck Wallace, as they did others, as less able than their predecessors, less liberal, and often meaner in personal and public spirit. Wallace had never found James F. Byrnes, the new Secretary of State, a sympathetic colleague. He had liked Henry Morgenthau and valued his spontaneous enthusiasm for myriad good causes, but after Morgenthau resigned, Fred Vinson and John Snyder, both personal friends of Truman, brought to the Treasury department a narrow view of both domestic and international issues. Wallace had had his problems with Harold Ickes, but he cheered Ickes’ opposition to the nomination of Edwin Pauley, another Truman crony, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The Senate blocked that appointment, for Pauley’s associations with the oil industry made the prospect of his control over Navy oil reserves ominous. Still, Ickes resigned, dubious as was Wallace about Truman’s concern for the conservation policies Roosevelt had nurtured. Even more disheartening had been the President ’s earlier selection of Howard McGrath to replace Francis Biddle as Attorney General. A political hack from Rhode Island, McGrath filled the Justice Department with nonentities who vitiated the antitrust division that Biddle’s men had energized. The incompetence as well as the permissiveness of many of the newcomers to the Justice and Treasury Departments led to the series of episodes of petty corruption that later gave Truman’s cronies a deservedly shoddy reputation, one that hurt the President, too. Wallace, who saw government gradually losing its indispensable integrity before those scandals occured, lamented equally the concurrent loss of constructive social purpose. The President’s selection of associates, in Wallace’s opinion, cost him much of his credibility.

The last of the New Dealers to remain in the cabinet, Wallace held on primarily because of his overriding concern about military and foreign policy. Truman let him stay in order to appease the restless liberal intellectuals and labor leaders. Wallace symbolized their hopes, as long as he was there, though they might grumble about Truman, they were unlikely to desert him. Only slowly did Wallace learn that he was just a symbol, that he had no influence, that Truman from the outset had had no intention of taking his advice. The President let him talk, but he made him an outsider. As they moved apart from each other, Truman contributed to the ultimate separation by dissembling in what he told Wallace. Though Wallace would probably have disputed anyway, he could not be expected to understand, much less to approve, policies about which he was at least partially misinformed.[28]

Still, the failure of communication between Truman and Wallace counted for less than did their fundamental disagreement about the role of the United States in world affairs. They started with different assumptions. The President and his closest advisers believed that national security depended upon military strength and position, on a large and poised strategic air force that could retaliate in the event of an attack, on the availability of safe bases from which both bombers and naval aircraft could operate, and on a large reserve axe ready for quick mobilization. They were, in a sense, preparing for the war that had just ended, for defense against another blitzkrieg or another attack upon Pearl Harbor. They were fashioning a system of deterrence (before that word had hecome the vogue), a system to which the American monopoly ef the atomic bomb gave unparalleled power. But there was no point in building that system of defense in the absence of an enemy. They identified the Soviet Union as that potential enemy. That identification rested on several premises. Those who made it considered Russian policy in Poland and in the eastern zone of Germany evidence of an expansionist purpose at least as extensive as were historic Russian ambitions in the Black and the Mediterranean seas. They tended to forget or to ignore the natural concern for their own security that the Russians felt, especially about Poland through which the Germans had attacked twice within one generation. They tended, too, to overlook the Russian need for reparations to replace capital equipment destroyed by war and unavailable from the United States in the absence of a credit which the State Department would not approve. Too, suspicions of the Soviet Union fed on American fears about communism as a doctrine and about Stalin as a dictator, as a mad and evil genius who quickly replaced Hitler in American demonology. The Soviet Union did intend to protect its interests as it defined them, but Truman’s councelors exaggerated the dangers to the United States inherent in that intention. Truman’s own tough talk to Molotov early in his presidency expressed his real opinion of the Soviet Union better than did his more placatory public pronouncements. And more and more the President accepted as fact the presumptions about a Soviet menace that were advanced with rising emphasis by Secretary of State Byrnes, Ambassador Averell Harriman, and their staffs.

Wallace proceeded from a different set of assumptions. National security, in his view, depended not on American arms but on a strong United Natians, on the abatement of international hostilities rather than the deployment of American forces, on comity, not deterrence. A large reserve army, a powerful strategic air force and navy, the bomb, and a global ring of American bases, he argued, served only to alarm the Soviet Union, obviously the only potential target for American strength. So alarmed, the Russians in their turn were bound to be hostile. It was not some demoniacal quality in Stalin or in communism, as Wallace saw it, but ancient Russian fears that accounted for their policies in eastern Europe. New anxieties about American encirclement would provoke them to an arms race that no nation could afford and the peace of the world might not survive.

As before, like some others in Washington, Wallace accepted the existence of spheres of influence as at least a temporary circumstance of the postwar period.[29] He did not expect the Soviet Union to intrude in Latin America, and he did not expect the United States to intrude in eastern Europe. Probably he underestimated the repression that accompanied Soviet domination; certainly he did so in 1947 and 1948. But at no time, his critics to the contrary, did Wallace condone repression by any nation. Rather, he believed that the elimination of international tension would, over time, lead both to a softening of Soviet foreign policy and a relaxation of police methods within areas of Soviet control. To encourage that relaxation he advocated more patience in diplomacy than Byrnes or Truman ordinarily displayed. He urged, too, energetic cultivation of Soviet-American commerce, first of all by the extension of a credit to Russia, exactly the policy Harriman and the State Department blocked. The establishment of a basis for trade, Wallace predicted, would serve the economic advantage of both nations and help gradually to convert suspicious hostility to tolerant rivalry between two different political and economic systems. He wholly expected the American system to prove its greater worth.

Truman’s stance toward the Soviet Union was the most continual but by no means the only source of distress to Wallace. He worried, too, about relations with Great Britain, with Latin America, and with China, as well as about decisions affecting the control of the atomic bomb. With respect to China, he had no quarrel with Truman’s attempt, unsuccessful though it was, to work out an accommodation between Chiang Kai-shek and the communists. In contrast to Truman, however, Wallace held that the presence and deployment of Soviet troops in Manchuria, which militated to the advantage of the Chinese communists, accorded with agreements between Roosevelt and Stalin. Still, Wallace and Truman agreed that the United States had done and was doing all it could for the Generalissimo; if he fell, the fault would be his.

They came close to agreement, too, about domestic control of atomic energy, though not about related international policy. Wallace, who had known from the beginning about the project to develop the atomic bomb, turned for advice about its control to the nuclear scientists who had created it. Informed by those physicists, whom he trusted as the experts in their field, he concluded that atomic weapons were far too destructive to be left to the control of the military. Too, the development of atomic science was far too important to be removed from control of the physicists. Wallace realized there was no secret about atomic energy. European scientists had played indispensable roles in the American project; the Germans and Japanese had built cyclotrons during the war; the Soviet Union, whose scientists were first-rate, had an atomic bomb within its reach if it was prepared to defray the enormous costs of making one. But the prospect of a nuclear arms race appalled Wallace. He envisaged instead the utilization of atomic energy as a source of power and a field of research, in both thrusts as a boon instead of a threat to mankind.

Those considerations accounted for his opposition to the May-Johnson bill which would have left the military with authority over American atomic development. With many of the nuclear scientists, with the essential assistance of Director of the Budget Harold Smith, and against the devious opposition of General Leslie Groves, Wallace encouraged the drafting and enactment of the McMahon bill. It provided, he felt, even after unfortunate amendments designed to mollify congressional saber-rattlers, acceptable assurances of civilian control over the domestic atomic energy program.

The McMahon Act could not guarantee that civilian authorities, the President included, would not yield to military counsel. In Wallace’s opinion, many of them already had. Vannevar Bush had supported the May-Johnson bill, as for a time had other scientists and administrators of organized science including James B. Conant. Even Robert Oppenheimer had not enlisted against it, and until Harold Smith. and others persuaded him to reconsider, Truman had gone along with Bush and thus with General Groves. In the end the President did exert his influence for the McMahon measure, but he accepted, with far more equanimity than did Wallace, the amendments to the bill that gave the military a stronger voice than most of the veterans of Los Alamos deemed safe or wise.

With too few exceptions to matter, congressmen felt a kind of panic at the thought of sharing the supposed secret of the bomb with any nation, especially with the Soviet Union. Yet science recognized no national borders. Passionately, therefore, Wallace advocated a policy of openness about American scientific information, as his communications to Truman and others disclosed. That policy would ease apprehensions about American intentions, a politically desirable eventuality. It would also avail people everywhere of knowledge with which they could harness atomic energy to build an abundant society. That view, close to the opinion of Secretary Stimson and a few others in the cabinet, was neither radical nor irresponsible. The sharing of basic scientific information did not imply the disclosure of technical details about the production of fissionable materials or the triggering mechanism for an implosion weapon. But the sharing of basic scientific information seemed to the timid and the ignorant equivalent to the loss of a precious secret on which national security depended. So thought Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal. So thought enough congressmen and ultimately, with less intensity, the President himself, to limit American flexibility in approaching the issue.

Privately Truman concluded that Wallace’s opinions about atomic policy were unsafe. He also took pains not to venture beyond what Congress would approve. He could not obtain that approval without Republican support, so in atomic, as in all foreign policy, he paid the high price of bipartisanship. At the least that price involved continual concessions to the outsized vanity of Senator Arthur Vandenberg, senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. On that and other accounts, Truman found it necessary often to employ anticommunist rhetoric, which he seemed not to consider distasteful. Further, he drew back without any prodding from offering the Soviet Union anything, even basic scientific information that he could not long keep secret, without receiving in return something he felt he had been denied. In the case of atomic energy, he moved to circumvent the Soviet position on the use of the veto in the Security Council of the United Nations. The proposals that he had Bernard Baruch put forward in the UN were less liberal than the preliminary recommendations drafted by David Lilienthal and Dean Acheson, who was by no means soft in his view of Moscow. As Wallace complained, the Baruch plan, unlike Acheson’s, eliminated the veto as it applied to questions of atomic energy while it also guaranteed for a decade American monopoly of atomic weapons, and offered the Soviet Union information only on the installment plan, with each installment conditional upon Soviet good behavior during the previous period. A proud and powerful nation, capable of mounting an atomic energy program on its own, was bound to reject the Baruch proposals. A more generous offer, Wallace believed, would have won Soviet trust and acceptance. As he saw it, men like General Groves, Secretary Forrestal, and Baruch had infected American opinion and warped American policy. As for Truman, who had seemed to wobble for months, he struck Wallace, as he did Eleanor Roosevelt, as a weak and vacillating man.

By Wallace’s standards, the President also appeared cynical. Truman looked upon Latin America as a counter in the game of world politics. To hold the nations to the south to a hemispheric coalition dominated by the United States, the President through his spokesmen at San Francisco arranged the admission of Argentina, then manifestly a fascist country, to the UN. That maneuver aroused the suspicions of the Soviet Union, which had been no less cynical in its role in the polities of the conference. It also presaged the meretricious manner of the State Department in Latin American relations – the appointment of ambassadors content to cooperate with the conservative forces of the military, the church, and the large landholders; the arming of those governing coalitions which used the weapons they received to stifle opposition; the abandonment of the objectives the Board of Economic Warfare had advanced. Wallace had seen Latin America as the first beneficiary of the policies he advocated for the common man. Now he watched the President and State Depaitment revert to the neocolonialism of the 1920s, to a policy pitched to the alleged needs of national defense and the palpable advantage of American investors, a policy impervious to the woeful conditions of daily life which he believed the United States had an obligation to mitigate.

Wallace also interpreted as cynical Truman’s early approach to the Palestine question. Disinclined to alienate Great Britain, the President yielded to London’s anxieties about placating the Arabs and protecting British control in the Middle East. The definition of Palestine’s borders and the limits on Jewish immigration on which British and American negotiators first agreed left Palestine too small and weak for economic development or military security, and left thousands of displaced European Jews without access to a permanent home. Wallace, who urged Truman to demand a solution more favorable to the Jews, played on the President’s political sensitivities. British convenience and prospects for American oil investments in the Middle East came gradually to count less with Truman than did the Jewish vote. But Wallace had meanwhile concluded that the President had little more humane concern for the Jews of Europe than for the impoverished in Latin America. He also considered the President’s original position on Palestine as typifying an unfortunate course of American relations with Great Britain.

That issue disturbed Wallace as much as did any other. He admired the heroic role of the British common people in their resistance to the Nazis. But like so many Middle Western democrats, he despised the british upper classes for their haughty manner and their arrogance about race, national origin, and social position. Further, he blamed them for British imperialism, which he wished to eradicate. On that account he distrusted Churchill, alike for his aristocratic ways and his imperialistic sentiments, so freely expressed whenever the Prime Minister visited Washington. Even after the election of a Labor government, Wallace feared that Great Britain would remain Churchillian in purpose, would continue to hold the uncritical affection of Anglophiles in the Department of State, and would induce the United States to assume a partnership in world politics. He had trusted Roosevelt to resist that role, but Truman was more vulnerable to British influence, partly because he shared Churchill’s fear of Russia, partly because among his closest advisers were men like Dean Acheson, who characteristically associated American with British interests.

From April 1945, when Roosevelt died, through the remainder of the year, Wallace grew more and more restive with the international policies of the administration. Increasingly he realized that Truman in private conversations gave him assurances that the President’s public actions contradicted. Still Wallace allowed himself to hope that Truman might change. During 1946 he lost that hope. The Baruch plan alarmed him. So did the hard line toward the Soviet Union that Averell Harriman advanced upon his return from Moscow to Washington, the tough policy that Secretary of State Byrnes pursued in his negotiations with the Russians, the tough talk of State Department Russian specialists like Charles Bohlen and George Kennan. They read Stalin’s monitory address of February 9, 1946, as a trumpet of hostility, of communist militancy and Russian expansionism. Wallace read it as a regrettably inimical response to threats that Stalin perceived in his exaggerated interpretation of American policy. According to that reading, there was still room for reciprocal understanding. But then at Fulton, Missouri, with Truman on the platform, Churchill delivered his celebrated “iron curtain” speech, that called for a fraternal alliance of the Englishspeaking people. It was precisely the alliance Wallace most opposed. Involving, as it did, the fading grandeur of the British empire and the implicit threat of the atomic bomb, it was addressed aggressively aginst the Soviet Union. It portended the rejection of spheres of influence in Europe that had been defined by the deployment of troops at the end of the war. It invited Anglo-American penetration of the Soviet sphere. Speaking at Stuttgart, Germany, in Septeinber, Secretary of State Byrnes sounded the first notes of that new policy which would gradually make the United States the catalyst, initially in the economic and later in the military reconstruction of West Germany as a part of a larger anti-Soviet bloc.

There were provocations, as Wallace knew, for Byrnes’ address. The Soviet Union had permitted no democracy in the areas it ruled; it had seized German industrial equipment and commandeered German labor in its eastern zone; it had broken promises made at Yalta and at Potsdam; it had disregarded human rights in Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe; it had been intransigent in preventing a common policy for occupied Germany as a whole. But the United States had been intransigent, too, in its unilateral control over occupied Japan, in its deployment of strategic air power, in its manipulations in Latin America. American occupation authorities in Japan had wantonly destroyed the Japanese cyclotron. Washington officials, while denying a credit to Russia, had arranged one for Great Britain, possibly on harder terms to the Labor government than they would have extended to the Tories.

Politically and ideologically, the world had begun to polarize by September 1946. Wallace’s hopes were evaporating for the kind of world he had associated with a century of the common man. At Madison Square Garden on September 12, he tried again to put his message across, to warn against Churchill’s proposals and to urge another approach to the Soviet Union. He criticized alike British imperial and Russian political practices, and the communists in the audience booed him, for he was pleading not for Russia but for peace. Truman, who had read and approved the speech, disavowed it after Wallace’s opponents opened fire and Byrnes and Vandenberg insisted that the speech impeded their diplomacy at the ongoing conference of foreign ministers. On Truman’s order, Wallace promised to speak no more until that conference was over. But that tenuous arrangement only postponed the obvious solution. Byrnes, dissatisfied, demanded that Truman fire Wallace, and Truman did. The President had, after all, issued the directions Byrnes was following. As Wallace and Truman both knew, there could be at any one time only one American foreign policy. Once the issue was openly joined, Wallace had to go.


Though Truman’s administrative decision was incontestably correct, his foreign policy was not. Like his critics at the time, so critics since have questioned both his presumptions and his tactics. Wallace was one of the first to do so. In the absence of access to the Soviet archives, there can be no sure assessment of Wallace’s case. American povocations may only have confirmed fixed Soviet decisions about postwar policy. But provocations there certainly were, as Wallace argued. At least until the time of Fulton, the possibility existed of a practical accommodation between the United States and the Soviet Union, of a temporary coexistence of mutually suspicious spheres of influence, of a gradual lessening of hostility and a gradual movement, as Wallace recommended, first toward commercial and scientific and then toward political cooperation, all within the framework of the United Nations. Even after the Fulton speech, the United States could have assisted the countries of the Southern Hemisphere more on an altruistic and less on a political basis. American records, easy of access, disclose that Truman never expected a rapprochement with the Soviet Union. Wallace had reason to disagree. He had the prescience to realize that the hard line abroad would generate hysterical reactions to dissent at home, lead to the postponement of urgent domestic reforms, and encourage military adventures costly alike of men and morale. He had the foresight to propose alternatives to which the United States government turned only after a quarter century of terrible waste had made accommodation more attractive to most of the American people. Yet in the months immediately following his departure from public office, Wallace’s insights were cloudy. As his fears about Truman’s policies grew, so did his vulnerability to those who were urging him to run for the presidency on a third party ticket.[30] He was tempted to embark on that unhappy course on several counts. Out of government, he was removed from the councils of state to which he had often contributed and from which he had often also learned. He was removed, too, from easy access to the kinds of experts who had given him such influential assistance in earlier years, for one example in the making of agricultural policies. He had to rely instead more on his intuitions and hopes than on hard data and salient technical knowledge. Further, those who now advised him lacked the experience and judgment of his former counselors. Many of the men in the group around him were naive; some were eager to use him to advance their own interests; none had much political insight. Yet their pressure moved  Wallace less than did his own temperament. Believing that Truman was leading the country and the world toward war, committed to a contrary view of the new century, Wallace disregarded the warnings of his family and old friends and followed his own compulsion to stand political witness to his faith.

In his eagerness to find a rapprochement with the Soviet Union, he blinded himself to the mounting evidence of Russian tyranny in eastern Europe. In his determination to resist redbaiting, he became indifferent to the debilitating tactics of communists within his Progressive Party of 1948. For several years, his passion overcame his practicality.

Even so, he remained perceptive. Long an advocate of American assistance in the rebuilding of the European economy, he urged employing international agencies to administer aid programs and granting aid exclusively on social and economic rather than political bases. Those considerations led him to underestimate the responsibility of the Soviet Union for keeping eastern Europe out of the Marshall Plan. Earlier, however, he had protested against the Truman Doctrine and its applications in Greece and Turkey. As Wallace then said, that doctrine ignored and weakened the United Nations, substituted unilateral for multilateral aid, and gave military assistance unfortunate priority over economic assistance. Worse, the anticommunist rhetoric of the doctrine expressed a universal commitment to antirevolutionary interventions. As Wallace foresaw, both the precedent and the rhetoric had ominous portents.

Indeed Wallace’s fundamental trepidations about American policy, all of them prominent before he left office, had become by the early 1970s common criticisms of the history of the interceding years. The collusion of the military with those industrial interests that depended upon defense expenditures had resulted in enormous waste and bureaucratic inefficiency. The military-industrial establishment against which Dwight D. Kisenhower warned his countrymen in 1961 had worried Wallace two decades earlier. Indeed the military, as Americans learned by 1970, had proved unable to maintain the standards of financial probity and disciplined warfare on which professional soldiers liked to pride themselves. Unilateral military intervention, as Wallace had feared, had become something of a national habit, with the war in Vietnam only the most recent and most dreadful example of the corrupting dangers of American adventurism. Too, war and preparation for war, deterrence and its cost, balance-of-power politics with their related expenditures – even bribes – for the purchase of allies, had debilitated the UN and absorbed national income needed for domestic social programs, the very programs Wallace had urged for relief of poverty, conservation of the land and its resources, education of the young, the delivery of health care, and the protection of the aged. The inversion of national priorities, attacked in 1968 by Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy and in 1972 by George McGovern, had drawn Wallace’s criticisms in 1942.

In other ways also Wallace proved prescient, a man far ahead of times, as he had so often been. After the revolution in Cuba, Washington recognized Latin America again as a continent full of people, not just a reservation for private investment and seductive military aid. The Alliance for Progress that John F. Kennedy launched in 1961 had as its social targets precisely those of the Board of Economic Warfare. Even Richard Nixon discovered what Wallace had always maintained, that communist ideology did not constitute an insuperable hurdle to communication. In 1971 Nixon went to China, which he had condemned as demoniacal for more than two decades, and in 1972 to Moscow, there to suggest that the encouragement of commerce between the Soviet Union and the United States would benefit both nations and ease their political relationship. For saying such things Wallace had been called a red or at least a pink from 1946 through 1948, as were others of his opinion, with Nixon one of their most fervent accusers.

The irony of history should have restored Wallace’s reputation, but in the early 1970s he was still remembered more for his occasional fallibility than for his extraordinary foresight. Three decades earlier he had imagined a splendid century which still had yet convincingly to begin. He would have welcomed a century of the common man, as he welcomed the New Deal, whenever it began. He would have lost none of his verve for administering the agencies to promote it, shed none of his worries about the persisting impediments to it, surrendered none of his zeal for opposing the enemies of it. While he found armor for his missions in his faith, while he preached his best hopes, Henry A. Wallace sought their fulfillment less in his message than in the hard labor of learning and doing. By his works, he believed, practical Christian that he was, men would know him.

In his works they would find a good man.


(*) Edited and with an introduction by John Morton Blum, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company 1973

[1] Quoted in Edward L. and Frederick H. Schapsmeier, Henry A. Wallace of Iowa: The Agrarian Years, 1910-1940 (Ames, 1968), p. 15. For the period it covers, the Schapsmeiers’ thorough work has been continually an important source for this introduction. Also useful for that period were Russell Lord, The Wallaces of Iowa (Boston, 1947) and Mordecai Ezekiel, “Henry A. Wallace, Agricultural Economist,” Journal of Farm Economics, Vol. 48, No. 4, Part I, November 1966, pp. 789-802.

[2] Henry A. Wallace, “The Department as I Have Known It,” Ms., Wallace Papers in the possession of his family.

[3] Quoted in Schapsmeier and Schapsmeier, Wallace: Agrarian Fears, p. 19.

[4] Ezekiel, “Wallace.”

[5] Wallace, “The Department as I Have Known It.”

[6] For a somewhat contrary but informed and incisive view of the questions covered in this section of the introduction, see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Coming of the New Deal (Boston, 1959), pp. 28-34.

[7] Wallace Diary, February 22, 1940.

[8] Henry A. Wallace, Soviet Asia Mission (New York, 1945), p. 21.

[9] Ezekiel, “Wallace.”

[10] The best account of the agricultural policies of the early New Deal, an account on which I have relied heavily, is in Schlesinger, Coming of the New Deal, Ch. 1. Also helpful and sometimes of a contrasting interpretation were the works of the Schapsmeiers and of Ezekiel, cited above.

[11] Quoted in Schlesinger, Coming of the New Deal, p. 63.

[12] Wallace Diary, January 26, 1935.

[13] Wallace Diary, February 3, 1935.

[14] Wallace, “The Department as I Have Known It.”

[15] Wallace Diary, May 22, 1940; see also January 2, 1940, on hemispheric policy.

[16] Wallace Diary, January 18, 1940.

[17] Wallace Diary, May 24, 1940.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Wallace Diary, June 27, 1940.

[20] Edward L. and Frederick H. Schapsmeier, Prophet in Politics: Henry A. Wallace and the War Years, 1940-65 (Ames, 1970), p. 9.

[21] Ezekiel, “Wallace.”

[22] Wallace Diary, June 6, 1940.

[23] Quoted in Schapsmeier and Schapsmeier, Prophet in Politics, p. 45.

[24]Compare the Wallace Diary with the analysis of public opinion in Jerome S. Bruner, Mandate from the People (New York, 1944) and the analysis of congressional roll calls in Roland Young, Congressional Politics in the Second World War (New York, 1956); see also Richard Polenberg, War and Society: The United States 1948-1965 (Philadelphia, 1972).

[25] See Bruce Catton, The War Lords of Washington (New York, 1948), chap. 10ff.

[26] Oral History, Henry A. Wallace, pp. 4566-4570, Oral History Project, Columbia University.

[27] Ibid. and Bruner, Mandate from the People.

[28] The entire discussion in this section of the introduction rests primarily upon Wallace’s Diary and Harry S. Truman, Year of Decisions (Garden City, 1955). On questions of military and foreign policies, I found particularly stimulating Walter La Feber, America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-1966 (New York, 1967). Also useful was Thomas G. Patterson, ed., Cold War Critics (Chicago, 1971). For another informed but doctrinaire interpretation, see Norman D. Markowitz, The Rise and Fall of the People’s Century: Henry A. Wallace and American Liberalism, 1941–1948 (New York, 1973).

[29] On that attitude in the early postwar period, see H. Stuart Hughes, “The Second Year of the Cold War,” Commentary, August 1969, pp. 27-32.

[30] Wallace kept no diary after he left office. Further, there. is no wholly satisfactory study of his role during the years 1946-48 or of the Progressive Party, for his papers for that period have not been available. One useful brief account and another compendious one are respectively Karl M. Schmidt, Henry A. Wallace: Quixotic Crusade 1948 (Syracuse, 1960) and Curtis D. MacDougall, Gideon’s Army, 3 vols. (New York, 1965). The sympathies of the latter imbue Markowitz, The Rise and Fall of the People’s Century.