Over fifty years after his death, Henry A. Wallace, America’s Vice President from 1941-1945 and an independent candidate for president in the 1948 election, continues to evoke strong emotions. On the left, Wallace remains a figure of veneration for his progressive ideals and promotion of world peace, while among conservative and centrist Democrats, he is considered a naïve dupe of communists who underestimated the Soviet “threat.”.
John Nichols’ latest book, The Fight For the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace’s AntiFascist, Antiracist Politics (Verso, 2020) offers a convincing case that those on the left were correct: that Wallace was indeed a visionary who was ahead of his time in warning about a right-wing drift in American politics and danger of corporate fascism and whose policy of cooperation with the Russians might have averted the Cold War.
According to Nichols’, Wallace’s removal from the Democratic Party ticket due to back-door machinations at the 1944 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, was a major turning point in American political history. It began the Democratic Party’s trajectory away from the progressive ideals underlying Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and towards the embrace of neoliberalism. Nichols in turn believes that the time is ripe for a new generation of Democratic Party leaders to reclaim Wallace’s legacy, and revitalize his political platform, which centered on promoting racial and gender equality and the interests of American working people, and advancing a peaceful foreign policy.
Nichols is a political correspondent with The Nation, who has covered progressive politics for many years and written various important books on left-wing movements. His latest offers another important contribution whose analysis is very similar to Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s 2012 book, The Untold History of the United States, which casts Henry Wallace as the main hero who might have averted disasters like the Vietnam War.
Wallace himself had warned about Vietnam in his last political act, writing on his death bed in November 1965 that “the [anticommunist] policies of [Harry] Truman and [James] Byrnes [Secretary of State, 1945-1947] will yet make this country bleed from every pore.” (p. 154) Twenty years earlier, Wallace had promoted the alternative of peaceful cooperation with Russia and spoke out about the dangers of a nuclear arms race. Among those inspired by his rhetoric was a young political science professor at Dakota Wesleyan University, George McGovern, who became the 1972 Democratic Party nominee for President (McGovern had become a pacifist after serving as a bombardier in World War II). McGovern told Nichols a few years before his death in 2012 that
“the Russians had 27 million people killed in World War II; the whole country was laid to waste – I mean the physical country as well as the people – and it seemed to me they would probably be the last country in the world that wanted to start World War III. And so, when Henry Wallace, who had been secretary of agriculture, and later vice president, when he started saying what I thought, I swung over to him. I was that ex-Republican who was looking for somebody who would lift the banner of peace.” (p. 128).
Henry Wallace was an Iowan whose father had served as Secretary of Agriculture in the Harding and Coolidge administrations. As a young man, he worked as a writer and editor on his family’s farm journal, Wallace’s Farmer, and later founded a company that developed hybrid corn. In 1924, Wallace embraced Wisconsin Senator Robert M. LaFollette’s progressive campaign for the presidency, which inspired his own political career. After a successful stint as Agricultural Secretary during the Great Depression, Wallace was added to the 1940 Democratic Party ticket because Franklin Roosevelt wanted an outspoken antifascist as his Vice President. According to Nichols, Wallace thrived in that position and became “the most powerful Vice President in the nation’s history.” Among his tasks was the chairing of the Economic Defense Board in which he coordinated the delivery of arms and other materials to allies in Europe.
Once it was clear that the Nazis were going to be defeated, Wallace began promoting a postwar vision of international cooperation that he felt could sustain world peace. In a 1943 speech, he proclaimed that “we will not be satisfied with a peace which will merely lead us from the concentration camps and mass murder of fascism into an international jungle of gangster governments operated behind the scenes by power-crazed, money mad imperialists.” (p. 56) Against Henry Luce’s vision of a new American Century, Wallace called for a new “Century of the Common Man” in which colonialism would be abolished and wealthier nations assisted newly independent ones to industrialize and achieve higher living standards for their people.
Wallace at the same time began warning about the growth of a home-grown fascism, driven by “ones whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends.” (p. 59) Nichols see these remarks as prescient in the era of Trump. Wallace’s warning was not heeded at the time, however. The New York Times rebuked Wallace for his supposed “demagoguery,” stating that powerful people in the country “may be shortsighted and behind the times and not as well advanced as Mr. Wallace in their social thinking,” but were not “fascists.” (p. 57).
The Times’ attack on Wallace signaled that the liberal establishment was against him. At the 1944 Democratic Party Convention, the plot to remove him went forward – despite Wallace’s high popularity ratings. On the night of July 20th, Congressman Claude Pepper from Florida was blocked from taking the microphone in Chicago stadium after he had started a parade in support of Wallace’s re-nomination. A subsequent blackout forced the convention to reconvene the next day when party bosses rigged the vote in favor of Senator Harry S. Truman, who had risen in the corrupt Prendergast political machine in Missouri.
When FDR died nine months after the convention, Truman instead of Wallace became President and history was altered for the worse. Truman authorized the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, embraced the Cold War, dispatched the military to Korea and authorized an acceleration of military assistance to French forces in Indochina. He also lost control of Congress to conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats who gutted the New Deal’s labor protections with the Taft-Hartley Act, and permitted the Smith Act trials of American Communist Party leaders, editors and elected officials.
We cannot know for sure if things would have turned out better if Wallace had won the re-nomination and succeeded FDR as President. It is quite possible that there would have been a conservative backlash against Wallace that would have thwarted many of his plans or led to his removal from power. However, there is also the possibility that Wallace could have governed effectively and built a consensus around his ideals and changed America’s political landscape in a more progressive direction.
As it stood, Truman began the Democratic Party’s transformation away from the progressive populist programs of the New Deal and towards its becoming a party that chose leaders who “see their role as managerial rather than big reform,” according to Nichols. (p. 85) Many of the party’s standard bearers since that time – from Adlai Stevenson, to Lyndon B. Johnson, to Bill Clinton, to Barack Obama – have supported ill-conceived military interventions and contributed to the dismantling of New Deal measures such as the Glass Steagall Act promoting a separation of routine banking and investment banking functions.
After serving briefly in Truman’s Cabinet, Wallace himself made an independent run for the presidency in 1948 as leader of the Progressive Party, though was subjected in that campaign to vicious red-baiting attacks. In the 1950s, he supported Dwight Eisenhower whose farewell address warned about the growth of the military-industrial complex. George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign represented an Indian summer for the Wallacites, though McGovern was rebuked by the party establishment like his mentor and soundly defeated by Richard M. Nixon.
By the mid-2010s, after years of Democratic Party acquiescence to the right-wing political agenda, things had gotten so bad that progressives began to revitalize under new leaders who were beginning to revive some old Wallacite themes. Nichols expresses hope at the end that these progressives can win back the Democratic Party’s soul, with Wallace as their inspiration.
One hopes that Nichols is correct, however, there are grounds to believe that he may be wishful in his thinking and that progressives are better off forming their own party. The progressives whom Nichols’ lauds like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez do not always live up to Wallace’s big footsteps if we consider foreign policy. Whereas Wallace’s vision of world peace was undergirded by his promotion of peaceful cooperation with Russia, Sanders and Cortez have supported sanctions directed against Russia, providing military aid to the anti-Russian government in Ukraine, beefing up troop levels in Eastern Europe, and funding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which Wallace would have opposed.
In a betrayal of Wallace’s spirit, Sanders further welcomed an F-35 building program in his home state of Vermont, voted in favor of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that inaugurated the War on Terror, supported Obama’s illegal war on Libya, said Obama’s drone program “did some good things” and “took people out who needed to be taken out,” supported sending 250 U.S. troops to Syria to train “moderate” anti-Assad rebels who were actually jihadists, and supported military appropriations for the war in Afghanistan up until 2015 along with military strikes in the Balkans in the 1990s which were based on fraudulent pretexts.
The shenanigans underlying Sanders defeats in the 2016 and 2020 Democratic Party primaries meanwhile shows that while providing some space for progressive views, the Democratic Party establishment has not changed at all from Wallace’s day, and will never tolerate a progressive receiving the nomination for president (or if it does, like in McGovern’s case, they will ensure that he/she does not win). The party will also try and coopt progressive members of Congress and to get them to go along with key Democratic Party platforms and talking points which may be regressive. An example of the latter is Cortez and Sanders’ embrace of the Russia Gate narrative which has spread a lot of misinformation and alarmism about Russia and is driving us into a new Cold War, with consequences that could be as bad as the last one.
Liberals may generally be freer to pursue a genuinely progressive agenda if they form their own party and focus on winning elections at the state and local levels. They could in turn shape the national conversation and dialogue and pressure the Democratic Party to amend its policies as the Socialist and Populist parties were able to effectively do at the turn of the 20th century. As an independent thinker and visionary, Wallace himself did not blindly support the Democratic Party and left it when it betrayed him and his vision. His example could thus be a guide behind an effort to form a new progressive party which carries forward the torch laid out by one of America’s most dynamic political leaders.