Too Good for Politics

AMERICAN DREAMER: A Life of Henry A. Wallace
By John C. Culver and John Hyde [Norton, 608 pages, $35]

The political climate and presidential elections of 1948 were considerably different than this year. The Democratic incumbent was running, and he'd never been elected, instead succeeding his late, popular predecessor. An experienced Republican from New York City who'd previously run led the GOP ticket -- which was predicted to win. And a past Democratic Vice President was running then -- but one spurned, not embraced, by his party.

However, the '48 and 2000 elections also had some similarities. Presidential choices in both were diverse; in '48 they ranged from President Harry S Truman and an ex-Republican Governor, Thomas Dewey, to segregationist "Dixiecrat" Strom Thurmond and Progressive Henry Wallace, FDR's Vice President from 1941 to '45. This year the candidates include current Vice President Al Gore, a "New Democrat," and Texas Gov. George Bush, plus Reform Party thug Pat Buchanan and Green Party Progressive Ralph Nader.

Besides such national figures, the debate and platform now and 52 years ago touched on the same themes of economic justice, farm issues, and peace. John C. Culver and John Hyde's new biography of Wallace -- American Dreamer (Norton) -- reveals a lot about Wallace, who arguably sparked most of the excitement in that contentious '48 campaign. A cerebral country boy who rose to national prominence as a progressive and friend of farmers and workers, he fell from grace with the grass roots, victimized by ruthless Red-baiting and his own naiveté.

Born of Scottish ancestry on an Iowa farm in 1888, Henry A. Wallace was the grandson of Henry Wallace, who started the premier agriculture journal of its time, Wallaces' Farmer; and the son of Henry C. Wallace, a founder of the American Farm Bureau, a Republican and Secretary of Agriculture for President Warren Harding. The youngest Henry Wallace was a solid journalist and devoted scientist, a gifted gardener and inspired inventor. He launched Pioneer Hi-Bred seed company and introduced hybrid corn to Mexico in 1940, boosting production so dramatically there that food imports became unnecessary by 1948.

In the United States, the youngest Henry Wallace refined the science of ag economics so that sensible government farm programs became accepted. Wallace's New Deal programs included the Farm Security Administration, the Soil Conservation Service, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Farm Credit Administration, Federal Crop Insurance Corp., and the Rural Electrification Administration -- helpful services many citizens take for granted now.

"Let no one call Henry Wallace an ineffectual dreamer," wrote journalist I.F. Stone then. "In this town [of Washington, D.C.], which worships 'toughness' but usually mistakes the loudmouthed for the strong, this is an achievement."

By nature nonpolitical, Wallace's political strength came from the people, from rank-and-file folks, and he became well-liked for a long time. He drifted into politics after the unexpected death of his father in 1924 at age 58, which he blamed on then-President Herbert Hoover, who opposed a farm-price-support bill backed by Henry C.

Henry A. switched from the GOP to the Democratic Party, campaigning for challengers to the status quo and winning Iowans' affection, Democrats' respect and an FDR Cabinet appointment after the 1932 election.

It was a time not unlike today, in that it endured a huge gap in incomes in a divided economy, farmers faced financial ruin, and workers experienced corporate terror. Into this waded Wallace, an intelligent and independent progressive who repeatedly advocated that Big Business must be regulated to protect "the little man with the big idea."

As Roosevelt's Secretary of Agriculture during the New Deal, Wallace often sided with liberals but sometimes worked with conservatives -- the agribusiness powers-that-be. Regardless, he always advocated for producers.

"Wallace preached that farmers needed some mechanism to control production," the authors say. "Without a way of collectively acting together, he knew, farmers would always produce themselves into trouble."

Opposing the reforms were the Farm Bureau, which the authors show rejected the New Deal and fell in with agribusiness -- with the packinghouses, distributors, extension agents and a handful of Southerners who controlled Congressional committees. The US Supreme Court also ruled against some of it, striking down key parts as unconstitutional, and the brief against the Court decision was included in FDR's 1936 platform -- co-written by Wallace and Progressive Republican Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin.

At the end of the 1930s, Wallace was a savvy achiever equally comfortable around Washington and rural America, and the US economy was recovering, only to face the threat of a foreign war.

In 1940, the 51-year-old Wallace almost unknowingly found himself in a field of potential running mates to President Roosevelt, men that included William O. Douglas, Alben Barkley, and even Republicans La Follette and Alf Landon (in a fusion/unity ticket idea). With support from labor leader Sidney Hillman, the Iowa delegation and progressive Southerners such as Claude Pepper of Florida, Wallace was offered the Vice Presidential slot by FDR.

Popular with farmers and organized labor alike, Wallace nevertheless was viewed as an outsider by the Democratic machine, so it was somewhat surprising when FDR picked him. Unfortunately, the writers say, the high point of his political career may have been less than two years later, when he was the administration's point man on Capitol Hill, plus head of defense, the economy and for post-war recovery.

"Henry Wallace thinks big and sees far," commented Iowa Farmers' Union president Fred Stover.

Hard-working, thrifty and devoted to public service and to FDR, Wallace remained loyal to Roosevelt and the New Deal. But his opponents increased: conservatives and corporations, Southern Democrats and British imperialists, segregationists and even FDR himself, who eventually told party bosses that though he preferred Wallace as his VP, he would no longer insist upon it.

Shortly before Democrat bosses would abandon Wallace for Truman, what was to be labeled McCarthyism began to rise -- led by Texas Congressman Martin Dies, who accused "35 high government officials" with activity in the Communist Party or front organizations.

"The most rabid Red-baiters thought Wallace himself a Communist," the authors write. "Millions [more] came to believe he was a 'dupe'."

Some two months before the Democrats' convention in 1944, Wallace was sent overseas for 51 days.

Overwhelmingly favored as FDR's running mate at the start of the convention, Wallace saw bosses lobby delegates hard, and he was dumped -- relegated to Secretary of Commerce after the election, and eventually fired for criticizing Truman.

After Wallace had been rejected by the Democratic Party leadership, he received messages of condolences from such figures as writers Upton Sinclair and Archibald MacLeish, politician-lawyers Abe Fortas and Felix Frankfurter, the UAW's Walter Reuther, and even Republican Nelson Rockefeller.

By late 1947, Wallace was persuaded to work with the Progressive Citizens of America and like-minded groups, then to head up a new Progressive Party ticket by a coalition including the CIO, various New Deal faithful, left-wing intellectuals and entertainers, progressive farmers, civil-rights organizers, liberal church leaders, and even Communists who'd cooperated with US efforts in the Popular Front against Hitler.

As the focus of a renewed movement, he made some blunders, such as defending Stalin's expansion into eastern Europe, opposing the Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe, and suggesting the West abandon Berlin to Russia.

In the 1948 election, Wallace became a victim of Red Scare tactics and his own naive outlook and actions. For instance, while well-known figures such as novelist Norman Mailer, actor Paul Robeson, New York Times reporter James Aronson, and singers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger all tried to help, the Establishment tried to harm him, and did. In Illinois, the Progressives' candidate for the US Senate was physically attacked in public as police watched and did nothing. The mainstream press either published vicious Red-baiting attacks or ignored the campaign altogether. The Chicago Tribune and its radio station, the Mutual Broadcasting affiliate WGN-AM, refused to cover Wallace's announcement he would run, even though he made his statement in Mutual's Chicago studio.

Even some former colleagues opposed Wallace's run -- Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, AFL leader William Green, liberal writer Dwight MacDonald, Democrat allies such as Eleanor Roosevelt and New York liberal Robert F. Wagner.

He was soundly defeated.

Other books have covered some of this, notably Zachary Karabell's The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won The 1948 Election, and John Maze and Graham White's Henry A. Wallace: His Search for The New World Order. But none have had the personal glimpses and telling details of this title, the product of a 10-year project by Hyde and Culver.

For example, the authors reveal Wallace to be somewhat of an innocent searcher into spiritual matters, ranging from a Native American medicine man and an astrologer to a "mystic poet" and a Russian expatriate peace activist. Wallace eventually was hurt by such curiosities -- particularly letters not necessarily intended to be anything but private correspondence.

But Wallace was a survivor. By the summer of 1950, when he severed ties with the remnants of the Progressive Party over the Korean War (the Progressives opposed intervention in Korea, but Wallace backed Truman's UN military presence), he was regaining control over his own destiny, and enjoying new roles.

The ending to his public career was as swift as its beginning. A respected ag magazine editor at 28, he was US Secretary of Agriculture at 45; by the age of 53, he was FDR's vice president and confidante, but by age 59, he'd been rejected by his adopted party and also by the voters considering his third-party run at the White House. He became an elder statesman and individual voice prone to independent, even unpredictable candor.

Wallace once more became a gardener and farmer, a scientist and infrequent commentator on current events. He endorsed the GOP's Dwight D. Eisenhower as a voice of moderation to beat back the Communist witchhunts that had hurt him. In the 1960 Presidential contest, Wallace didn't support the old Red-baiting Cold Warrior Richard Nixon, but he did criticize John F. Kennedy's proposed farm program as unrealistic. He advised Lyndon Johnson on trade, rural poverty and the problem of farmers being driven from their land.

Wallace died in 1965 of complications from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS -- "Lou Gehrig's Disease"), and was remembered by then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who said Wallace was "a scientist and a statesman, a politician and a philosopher who was devoted and dedicated to peace -- but above all he was a good man."

Finally, Culver and Hyde's book makes readers think that either Wallace wasn't suited to politics, or that politics is no longer suited to people who are plain-speaking, maybe naive, and willing to serve their peers.

Bill Knight of Elmwood, Ill., writes and teaches journalism at Western Illinois University.

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