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