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.
Wallace’s quixotic campaign for the presidency on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948 was a window into the mind of a very peculiar and naïve man, especially when it came to the very real communist threat du jour. Theodore H. White, the man who would write The Making of the President books in the 1960s and 1970s, wrote of Wallace in 1948 that he was “a bitter man; eccentric, ambitious and self-righteous,” and that he surrounded himself with “an unpleasant breed of [Communist] neurotics.” White, a very liberal writer for the leftist magazine The New Republic, ultimately concluded that Wallace “was susceptible to flattery; the Communists flattered him, burned incense in his nostrils, inflated his opinion of himself, wasted his name and honors, and left him beached years later in history as an eccentric, a hissing work in American politics.”
Yep—this was the man who would have been President of the United States during the vital years of 1945-1948.
What might the world have looked like under a Henry Wallace administration? Consider some of the things Mr. Truman had to deal with—starting with the decision to drop the Atomic bomb. What would Wallace have done? Well, we know that a month or so after Truman gave the go ahead for bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Henry Wallace wrote the President a very disturbing letter in which he advocated the immediate sharing of atomic secrets and technology with other nations (including the Soviet Union):
So far as Russia is concerned, I would hope that we could make arrangements for as many Americans going to Russia to study or work in the laboratories and universities as there are Russians coming here. We cannot have a truly effective scientific interchange unless this is done. Hitherto the Russians have learned much more from us than we from them. This is chiefly because we had much to teach but it is also because we didn’t take sufficient advantage of the invitations extended to us. The Russian scientific progress is certain to be very much faster in the future than in the past. Russia has all the potentialities of a young and vigorous nation. To maintain peaceful relations with her we must keep in the closest possible touch with her scientific, agricultural, business, and cultural development. In this way we can both guard ourselves and gain a true friend.
How would President Wallace have dealt with the great economic challenges in 1945 and 1946—labor unrest, shortages and the rest? It is not likely that Henry would have acted like Harry. In 1946, Truman seized the railroads and promised to use the army to run them in a successful effort to get out of control unions to go back to work.
And would he have invited Winston Churchill to speak about a vast and descending Iron Curtain? Nyet. Quite frankly, everything we know about Henry A. Wallace from the 1948 campaign suggests that U.S. foreign policy would have been one surrender after another to Soviet European hegemony. In fact, in 1946 and while serving as Secretary of Commerce under Truman, Wallace advocated cooperation with the Soviets in spite of overwhelming evidence that the Communists had every intention of dominating Eastern Europe. This was in a speech delivered at Madison Square Garden in New York. Truman fired Wallace shortly thereafter.
And regarding the U. S. Constitution, Wallace would have made FDR look like a strict constructionist in comparison. He had long been on the record believing that “a broadly interpreted Constitution” would yield “ample room for the still-distant development” of what he loved to refer to as his “cooperative society.” His vision was for “a national commonwealth rid of competition and based on cooperative production, marketing, and consumption.”
Kumbayahmeets The Internationale.
Henry Wallace was the highest-ranking nut ever to serve the Republic. He was known to think not only out of the box, but also far from reality. Consider some of the strange and embarrassing letters he wrote to a self-styled Russian mystic named Nicholas Constantin Roerich, things like:
“My Dear Guru: The search, whether it be for the lost world of Masonry or the Holy Chalice or the potentialities or the age to come is the one supremely worthwhile in objective. All else is Karmic duty. Here is life.”
Translation? No clue—but that’s the point, the guy was clueless.
No doubt about it, we have all benefited because at a crucial time nearly seven decades ago the ultimate political baton was passed to Harry, not Henry.
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