In the spirit of the recent holiday, among the many things for which Americans should be thankful is a political decision made more than 67 years ago as the Second World War was beginning to wind down and as the nation’s voters prepared for a presidential election. It was one of Franklin Roosevelt’s finest moments of decision, though admittedly, one he exercised reluctantly.
By 1944, FDR was living on borrowed time. It was a hardly a secret that health issues he had been dealing with were reaching critical mass, though only a few insiders had any idea as to the seriousness of his condition. When he ran for an unprecedented fourth term as President that year, he did so with the valley of the shadow of death looming just beyond the horizon.
This made the issue of the Vice Presidency much more important than usual. Entering that political year, Roosevelt was on his second VP, the first—John Nance Garner—had opted out after two terms. In his stead served a political oddball named Henry Agard Wallace. And if Franklin Roosevelt hadn’t dumped Mr. Wallace from the ticket in favor of Harry S. Truman that year, the post-World War Two world would have been significantly influenced by a pro-Communist lackey for the Soviet Union, who once suggested that “if we could practice eugenics on people. We could turn out a beautiful golden race.” Up to that fateful year, Wallace—who was the poster child for strange—was but a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.
This issue has been recently revisited by historian David Pietrusza in his masterful new book, 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America. Pietrusza dissects that watershed election cycle with compelling portraits of the people who then occupied the country’s political stage, names such as Truman, Dewey, Stassen, Eisenhower, Thurmond, Humphrey, Taft, MacArthur, and a host of later-to-be-famous support players.
But by far the most fascinating part of the book, at least to this writer, deals with Henry A. Wallace, if only for the portentous prospect of that man actually becoming President of the United States. Of course, in the 1948 campaign that possibility was next to nil—but four years earlier it was very real. You almost have to read the Wallace story backwards to get the full picture of what might have been had FDR kept him on the ticket and it would have been Henry instead of Harry taking the presidential oath on April 12, 1945.