The Early Years, 1888-1909
Scientist and Advocate, 1910-1932
Secretary of Agriculture, 1932-1940
The Working Vice President, 1940-1944
Secretary of Commerce, 1944-1946
Champion of Liberalism, 1946-1950
Return to Science, 1950-1965
Born on a small family farm outside Orient, Iowa on Oct 7, 1888, Henry Agaard Wallace was the third member of the Wallace family to carry the name "Henry." It was a name that carried responsibilities. His grandfather, "Uncle Henry," a former Presbyterian minister, was the respected editor of Iowa Homestead, a journal of farming and rural life. And young Henry's father, Henry Cantwell Wallace, would eventually rise to become Secretary of Agriculture under President Warren G. Harding. In 1892, the Wallace family moved to Ames, Iowa, where Henry C. Wallace completed his course of study at the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, and became a professor of dairying in 1893.
Though the son and grandson of very influential men, his mother, May Wallace, was perhaps his earliest influence. It was she who first encouraged him in his love of plants, but it was one of his father's students, and later colleagues, who was to give Henry's interest in plants a scientific direction. George Washington Carver, the future agronomist and Chair of the Department of Agriculture at the famed Tuskegee Institute, took Henry with him on his walks collecting specimens in the fields around Ames. Wallace was only eight years old when Carver left for Tuskegee in 1896, but Carver's influence was particularly important, because it gave Henry a model of the deeply religious scientist, one who saw God's presence in every living thing. This deep faith in the spark of divinity within each living thing was to guide Henry A. Wallace throughout his life.
Wallace's first important experiment took place in 1903, when at the age of 15, he proved that corn yield was independent of the aesthetic quality of the ear. At the time, the appearance of the ear was used to judge the fitness of seed corn. At corn shows, judges would examine ears of corn for uniformity of rows, kernel shape, and ear length to determine the best types of corn. But Henry was skeptical of the relationship between appearance and yield, and when Perry G. Holden, a family friend and a leading corn judge, gave Henry some prize-winning seed, Wallace's experiments proved that there was no relationship between yield and appearance.
After graduating from college in 1910, Wallace turned away from academia to pursue his own studies. The wide-ranging nature of his studies from agriculture to genetics to economics to mathematics gave Wallace a breadth of understanding that would become his hallmark. Throughout his life, whether he was working with hybrid corn, national agricultural policy, religion, or international relations, Wallace's broad base of knowledge, his insatiable curiosity, and his large well of compassion would help him to see beyond immediate problems to envision a better future.
His first achievement after school was to teach himself statistics, which he then used to make a number of discoveries about agriculture. The most notable outcome of these discoveries was his series of corn-hog ratio charts. The charts allowed a farmer to determine how much he needed to get for his hogs in order to make a profit. Tracking statistical correlation among corn prices, labor, and shipping rates, Wallace determined a regular seven year cycle in hog prices. This information revealed to Wallace the degree to which the various facets of agricultural production were interrelated and the need for farmers to keep abreast of economic developments in order to make informed decisions. It was a lesson that would guide him through most of his professional life.
Soon afterward, Wallace began a series of lectures on statistics to the faculty at Iowa State, and their work would blossom into the college's prestigious biometric laboratory. It was Wallace, more than any other individual, who introduced econometrics (a form of statistical analysis used by economists) to the field of agriculture.
In 1923, Wallace achieved his most important scientific accomplishment: the development of the first commercially viable strain of hybrid corn. Then, in 1926 Wallace founded the Hi-Bred Corn Company (now Pioneer Hi-Bred Seed Company) to take advantage of his discovery. The impact of this development is difficult to underestimate, and Wallace was cognizant of its importance right from the start. At the time of this discovery, Wallace wrote in Wallace's Farmer, "The revolution has not come yet, but I am certain that it will come within ten or fifteen years" (qtd White & Maze 14). He was almost exactly right, as his biographers White and Maze explain:
In 1933, less than 1 percent of corn planted in the Corn Belt was hybrid. Within ten years the percentage had risen to 78; by 1965 it was nearly 100. Henry Wallace did not discover hybrid corn, but more than any other person he was responsible for extending its use in the United States, with all the resultant increases in yields and in agricultural productivity. (14)
Throughout this time, Wallace was not only conducting scientific experiments, he was also a regular contributor to the family journal, now called Wallaces' Farmer.
With the onset of the Great Depression, Wallace began to gravitate from the scientific realm to the realm of public policy. While many cite October 29, 1929 as the beginning of the Great Depression, American farmers had been mired in depression since the end of World War I. During the war, the government encouraged many farmers to expand, so as to increase yields. When the war ended, however, domestic demand plumetted, and foreign countries were too wracked with debts to purchase the large American agriculture surpluses. American farmers found themselves faced with large debts from the new land and machinery they invested in to meet the war-time demand and shrinking markets on which to sell their large crops. At this time, Wallace's father, Henry Cantwell Wallace, became Secretary of Agriculture in Warren G. Harding's administration. Though agriculture was not a priority of Harding, he got along well with Henry Cantwell Wallace, and might have been able to develop an effective response to the deteriorating situation of farmers, but he died suddenly on August 2, 1923. Harding's successor, the rigid Calvin Coolidge, was mesmerized by the idea of unfettered free markets, and refused to take any action to alleviate the suffering of millions of American farming families. Henry Cantwell Wallace worked in vain to change the president's mind, and exhausted and distressed at the condition of rural America, he died on October 25, 1924, just prior to Coolidge's reelection.
During this time, Henry came to recognize the destructive role that farm surpluses had on the agricultural economy. It was a prime example of the tragedy of the commons. Farm crops are commodities; unlike goods such as automobiles or sewing machines, there is little difference in quality between a bushel of grade A corn grown on one farm, and one grown on a farm three states away. Both farmers will get the same price for their bushels. Because the price of the crop is constant, the only way for the farmer to make more is to grow more. So it is in the best interest of each individual farmer to grow as much as possible. However, the larger the national crop the more that is available the lower the market price. As a result, during the bumper crop years of the mid-1920s, farmers were earning comparatively little money for their efforts. In some cases, because the price was determined by the market, and not by the cost of production, many farmers weren't even breaking even. Wallace's first book, Agricultural Prices (1920), which established him as a leading agricultural economist, argued forcefully that if the nation were to maintain a thriving, middle-class farming population, production costs, and not the free market, should determine agricultual prices.
As early as 1922, Henry A. Wallace recognized that surpluses were the cause of much misery in rural America, and sought to find ways to limit farm production so as to avoid them. His first campaign for voluntary reduction of corn production, managed through Wallaces' Farmer, used the slogan "Less corn, more clover, more money." However, Wallace soon realized that a voluntary program, no matter how well organized, was doomed unless it offered individual farmers some kind of price support system. The very idea of cutting back on production was foreign to the farming ethos, and the economic system still encouraged individual farmers to grow as much as possible. In fact, the farmers who cut back because of Wallace's campaign were only increasing the income of those farmers who didn't cut back.
Between 1924 and 1932, the primary political efforts of the agricultural community centered on enacting the McNary-Haugen Bill, which would establish an export marketing corporation to keep farm surpluses off the American market, and thus keep domestic agricultual prices high enough for farmers to make a decent return on their labor. The bill failed in 1924, despite being championed by Wallace's father, and while it was passed in 1927 and 1928, it was vetoed each time by President Coolidge.
Despite its failure to pass a bill, the McNary-Haugen movement had an important impact on agricultural politics because it made the notion of a fair price for farm produce a part of the political landscape, and it taught farm leaders the value of acting together. The McNary-Haugen Bill can be seen, in some ways, as a precursor to the New Deal.
While Henry A. Wallace supported the McNary-Haugen Bill, he also recognized that the only long-term solution to the boom and bust cycles plaguing the American farmer was to somehow limit farm production. His experience with the "Less corn, more clover, more money" campaign in the early 20s led him to realize the inability of purely voluntary plans. The government, Wallace realized, must step in and support farmers by helping to reduce surpluses. He finally had a chance to put this view into practice when, in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Wallace to be his Secretary of Agriculture.
Henry A. Wallace was to become an important part of Roosevelt's New Deal administration not just because of his expertise in agriculture, but also because of his ability to articulate to goals and philosophies of the New Deal. Not only was Wallace to become perhaps the greatest Secretary of Agriculture that the United States has ever known, he would also become the philosopher of the New Deal, and one of the most influential thinkers of progressive politics in this century.
When Henry A. Wallace became the Secretary of Agriculture in March of 1933, the nation's agrucultural situation was dire. Commodity prices were well below cost of production and farmers were deep in debt. Just as quick action was needed to solve the banking crisis in 1933, so too swift action was needed to save farming communities.
Before he even took office, Wallace convened a conference of agricultural leaders to form some kind of emergency legislation. The outcome of this meeting was an endorsement of the idea of controlling production by limiting acerage. Wallace, together with Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Rexford Tugwell, and others, would transform this agreement into the first major piece of New Deal agricultural legislation: the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act. The goal of this act, as stated in its preamble, was to "relieve the existing national economic emergency by increasing agricultural purchasing power" (qtd Schapsmeier Henry A. Wallace of Iowa 173). Its long-term goal was parity between manufactured goods and farm commodities. But the program, as Wallace saw it, had an additional impact. The AAA functioned not only to reduce surpluses and increase farm income, but also to foster communal habits among farmers steeped in the tradition of rugged individualism. This transformation was accomplished by the prominent role farmers played in determining allotments. Rather than having reduction allotments determined in Washington, local boards, made up of farmers, determined the allotments for their counties. Years later, Wallace would look back on the role local farmers played in directing the AAA as one of his greatest accomplishments.
By the time the AAA had been enacted, however, farmers had already planted their crops. Faced already with damaging surpluses, Wallace made one of the most difficult choices of his life. He ordered the destruction of 6 million hogs, and 10 million acres of cotton. While this decision caused him much anguish, and generated much fodder for his political opponents, it showed his determination to get farm surpluses under control.
The AAA prospered, but in 1936 the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional on the grounds that agriculture was not interstate commerce, and hence was not under the authority of the federal government. Thus the AAA, the court ruled, was an intrusion in the perrogatives of individual states. Wallace, however, was ready for such a setback. Having already seen the NRA (National Industrial Recovery Act) struck down on similar grounds, Wallace organized a team to develop a new version of the AAA one that would pass Supreme Court muster. The result was the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936. The Soil conservation Act of 1935 had already set up soil conservation districts throughout the nation, with the goal of reducing soil erosion. The Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act joined this effort with the acreage reduction component of the AAA. Because acerage reduction was now taking place for conservation purposes, it would pass the Supreme Court. In 1938, these components were packaged together in a new Agricultural Adjustment Act.
But Wallace added a new component to the AAA in 1938. For years he had been inspired by the biblical story of Joseph in Egypt and the Pharoh's dream about famine. Joseph had directed the building of a granary to store food during years of plenty so that it would be available during years of scarcity. Wallace thought such a plan could work in twentieth-century America. But he didn't have the opportunity to enact it until the dust bowl years of the mid-1930s convinced people of the need for some kind of granary. The granary helped to insulate people from the vagaries of weather, and would prove a boon when the country began stockpiling goods for war in the early 1940s. Thirty years later, Wallace would refer to the ever-normal granary as the "action of which I was most proud as Secretary of Agriculture" (qtd Schapsmeier Henry A. Wallace of Iowa 242). As Wallace explained to Roosevelt, the second AAA accomplished three important goals: (1) the conservation of resources, (2) the guarantee of adequate food suplies, and (3) the stabilization of farm prices. Together, these three accomplishments paved the way for a stable, productive agricultural system for years to come.
As the 1940 election approached, Roosevelt was searching for a new Vice President. John Garner, Vice President during Roosevelt's first two terms, was a strong opponent of the New Deal, and Roosevelt was searching for someone who would be an aid, rather than a hinderance. But there were other things on the president's mind as well. War was breaking out in Europe and Asia, and Roosevelt needed someone not only with administrative ability to handle the pressures that a new world war would bring, but, perhaps most of all, he wanted a Vice President who could ably guide the country through the tumultuous times ahead, should something happen to himself. Despite the fact that there were a host of capable candidates for the Vice Presidency, each with significant support, Roosevelt was adament about his choice of Henry A. Wallace as his running mate. Wallace's loyalty to Roosevelt during his eight years as Secretary of Agriculture, his exceptional administrative ability, and his political philosophy all made him Roosevelt's first and only choice. But most of all, Roosevelt felt that Wallace, if called upon, would be an excellent president. So strongly did Roosevelt want Wallace for Vice President, that he drafted a letter refusing the nomination, should the party reject Wallace. Fortunately, Wallace was accepted, and on January 20th, 1941, Henry A. Wallace became the Vice President of the United States of America.
As Franklin Delano Roosevelt's second vice president, Henry A. Wallace became the first vice president in American history to be actively involved in the work of the executive branch, and consequently he became the prototype of the modern vice president. In some measure, this was due to difficulties he had with the traditional role of the vice president. Wallace's relations with the Senate were always rocky. He was more interested in the action of the executive branch than the debate of the legislative (and knocking out Louisiana Senator Allen J. Ellender during a friendly boxing match in the Senate gym didn't help matters). As a result, he never had a major impact in his role as President of the Senate. And future conflicts with conservative legislators would limit his role even further.
However, Roosevelt had tapped Wallace for his administrative abilities, and in July of 1941, Roosevelt established the Economic Defense Board (EDB), to coordinate economic preparation for defense if and when war came, and named Wallace its Chairman. Then in August of 1941, Roosevelt created the SPAB (Supply Priorities and Allocations Board) to oversee the various agencies coordinating defense mobilization and named Wallace head of this board as well. These positions gave Wallace wide-ranging powers to prepare the country for the emergency ahead, and he exercised those powers with his usual energy and organizational expertise.
In the fall of 1941, Roosevelt convened the "Top Policy Group" to review the possibility of constructing an atomic bomb. Along with Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, Vannevar Bush (who would develop the concept of hypertext in 1945), and NDRC Chairman James B. Connant, Roosevelt appointed Wallace. In this capacity, he valued both Wallace's political and scientific experience.
Though, like Roosevelt, Wallace saw the need for the United States to take an active role in defeating Germany, Italy, and Japan, he hoped that the U.S. could affect the outcome though economic support of the Allies and avoid outright combat. However, Wallace's pacifism was swept away by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
With the added emergency of full-blown war, Roosevelt expanded the powers of the SPAB. Almost immediately, however, Wallace became involved in turf wars with the departments of State and Commerce. Partly this was due to Roosevelt's penchant for creating agencies with overlapping jurisdictions, and partly due to Wallace's own impatience with bureaucratic delays. He was soon able to work out an arrangement with Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State, but the Secretary of Commerce, Jesse Jones, proved harder for Wallace to come to terms with. Jones, a conservative Democrat opposed to much of the New Deal, approached his duties with a businessman's desire for profit maximization. Wallace, however, was more concerned with maximizing stockpiles of supplies. As the two continued to struggle, Roosevelt once more solved an interagency squabble by creating a higher power, in this case the War Production Board (WPB), which superceded the SPAB, and he named Donald Nelson as its head. As a result, Wallace was free to devote his energies to the Board of Economic Warfare (the EDB's wartime name), although his conflict with Jones and other conservative Democrats had only momentarily subsided.
In the early 1940s, Wallace's memory of the rural depression that followed the end of World War I caused him to look forward to the end of this war right from its start. In fact, Wallace came to see the war as an opportunity to bring about a just and equitable world. A united nations organization to insure peace and stability throughout the world, and government economic intervention on the homefront to insure a smooth transition from a war economy to a peacetime economy were the cornerstones of Wallace's plan for a just and lasting post-war peace.
On May 8, 1942, Wallace delivered his "Price of Free World Victory" speech to the Free World Association in New York City, in which he laid out his vision of the post war world. The conquest of the Axis powers was the immediate goal, but the establishment of freedom and justice was the ultimate goal. The end of the war was to see, in Wallace's words, not the Thousand Year Reich, but the "Century of the Common Man."
While Wallace was hardly the first to see Nazi Germany as a moral opponent, his words transformed American war aims from negative to positive terms. That is, in his vision, the Allies were not simply fighting against the fascists; they were fighting for a just peace. Absent from his words are denigrations of the German and Japanese people, which were standard fare in wartime propaganda. Absent are calls for death and destruction. Wallace's words must stand as one of the most peaceful calls to arms ever made. This is because he saw the war not just as an effort to return to the status quo, but as a chance to make the world a better place. Horrified by the suffering and violence of war, Wallace saw that only a just peace could hope to make the immense sacrifices worthwhile. Nor was his vision a narrowly national one. Explicitly, he rejected the notion of an "American century" as a war aim, declaring that "the century on which we are entering The century which will come out of this war can be and must be the century of the common man" (See "The Century of the Common Man").
The high point of Wallace's popularity and stature came in 1943, with his goodwill trip to Latin America. In 1940, just after his election to the Vice Presidency, Roosevelt had sent Wallace to Mexico to support the embattled president-elect, General Manuel Avila Camacho. Wallace's ability to speak Spanish and his respect for the Mexican people helped to cement the friendship between the two nations, which was particularly important in the face of the coming war. After Camacho's inauguration, Wallace spent a month traveling around Mexico with Secretary of Agriculture-elect Marte Gomes. Wallace was dismayed by the conditions of Mexican agriculture. Outdated, labor intensive practices produced a startlingly low yield per acre, and so he took steps to introduce hybrid corn seed and other modern practices in order to increase food production. This was just the start of a lifelong interest in Latin American agriculture.
The 1943 Latin American goodwill tour was vital to the war aims of the United States. With much of the world embroiled in warfare, Latin America had become an indispensable source of material. But Wallace's approach was the opposite of the gunboat diplomacy U.S. involvement in the region had traditionally taken. Rather than attempting to impress Latin America with U.S. power and prestige, Wallace listened to his hosts, spoke with them in Spanish, and went out of his way to meet the man and woman in the street. Travelling with only two assistants, rather than the customary large American entourage, Wallace's trip was a dramatic success. In the aftermath of his visit, twelve Latin American nations declared war on Germany. In all, twenty nations severed diplomatic ties with Axis governments.
But Wallace's concern for Latin America extended far beyond the usual American politician's concerns for good relationships with the power brokers of the region. Wallace was also very concerned about the welfare of the people of Latin America. As a result, he instructed the BEW (Board of Economic Warfare) to institute "Labor Clauses" in all contracts with producers from Latin America. In short, these clauses required producers to pay an equitable rate and insure a safe work environment. Further, the clauses declared that if a seller were to pay for half of the needed improvements, the U.S. government would pay for the other half. Wallace soon ran into trouble with Jesse Jones, the Secretary of Commerce and Chairman of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), over the labor clauses. Jones saw them as an attempt to set up "an international W. P. A."
In fact, Wallace was never liked by the conservative factions of the Democratic Party, and, in truth, the dislike was mutual. A major part of Wallace's history of conflict with Jones concerned the RFC's bumbling of attempts to buy rubber in the years before the war. Jones insisted that the rubber be bought at market price, and set upper limits RFC agents could pay for it. As a result, Jones adherence to what in normal times would be called good business practices allowed the Japanese to consistently outbid the U.S. for rubber supplies. Wallace, as head of the BEW, and Jones, as director of the RFC, became involved in a heated debate over which agency would control the purse strings of war-time purchasing. Though on the surface the disagreement was a turf war between Wallace and Jones, at a more substantial level it was over the fiscal role of government. For Jones, the war-time emergency did not signal an end to sound fiscal practices, hence he demanded that the RFC have the power to review purchases made by the BEW. For Wallace, the future of the nation and the world was at stake, and speed was of essence, hence he saw Jones' insistence on review as at best a nuisance, and at worse a real hindrance of the war effort.
The conflict soon became an open political feud fought out in the headlines of the daily papers. Roosevelt was dismayed at this lack of unity within his own cabinet, even though it was, in part, the inevitable result of his penchant for including conservatives and liberals in his administration, and for creating agencies with overlapping responsibilities and vaguely defined powers. Nonetheless, Roosevelt insisted that the two antagonists cease the public feud. But just as it began to subside, Milo Perkins, the BEW's executive director, issued a scathing critique of Jones and the RFC. As a result, the conflict flared up anew in the press. Consequently, Roosevelt removed Wallace from his chairmanship of the BEW and rescinded Jones' power over war-time procurement. Leo T. Crowley was appointed to head the OEW (Office of Economic Warfare), which replaced the BEW. Roosevelt's actions gave Crowley the power that Wallace had sought all along. In the end, then, Wallace's stand was vindicated, but the cost was high. The divisive, public nature of the dispute severely damaged Wallace's political clout, and more than any other single event, cost Wallace the vice-presidency in 1944.
However, Wallace was by no means gone from the political scene. Freed of his administrative burden, he began to focus even more on his philosophical vision of both the war aims and the post-war world. In July of 1943, within weeks of being removed from the BEW, he spoke in Detroit, the scene of a recent race riot in which over 50 blacks were killed. Here, Wallace spoke out against the inconsistency of fighting fascism abroad while segregation ruled over large swaths of American culture. Once again he advocated the formation of a united nations organization and an active role of the United States in world affairs to insure economic stability for all. Over and over Wallace insisted that "economic democracy must be combined with political democracy" (Schapsmeier Prophet 77).
Though Wallace had long fought against protective tarriffs, he was far from a knee-jerk advocate of free trade. His insistence on the labor clauses in contracts with Latin American producers was evidence of this. Rather, Wallace envisioned a program of international regional planning. The first step on this road was to guarantee adequate food supplies for all the peoples of the world. The lynch pin to this vision was the development of a sustainable yield. That is, adequate food supplies and effective economic planning could not be accomplished in the absence of stable, sustainable food production. And as Wallace noted, this went far beyond the realm of politics or agriculture: "The problem is of a deeply religious nature. The appreciation of 'sustained yield' was woven into the Indian religion. For my part, I can't understand why the white man's religion can't be as good as the Indian's. I see nothing in the Bible to stand against our looking on Mother Nature in a deeply religious way" (qtd Schapsmeier Prophet 79).
In 1944, just prior to the Democratic National Convention, Roosevelt sent Wallace on a trip to China and the Soviet Union. The purpose of the trip was to assess conditions on the ground in these two allies, particularly China, where Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist government seemed to be more interested in combating the Communists than the Japanese. Wallace was eager to tour the Soviet Union. He had been learning Russian, and delivered speeches in Russian, though had to rely on translators for conversation. As in Latin America, Wallace went out of his way to meet with the Russian people, and was especially interested in anything pertaining to agriculture. During his visit, Wallace also took note of Soviet scientists' knowledge of solar radiation, atmospheric ionization, and atomic fission and he knew the implications these fields had for atomic power and weaponry. Thus, Wallace knew that Soviet scientists would, in time, be capable of producing an atomic bomb.
Historians have noted that some of Wallace's comments during his trip, particularly regarding the Kolyma gold mines, were overly rosy, considering that the mines were later revealed to be forced labor camps. But as his biographers, Graham White and John Maze point out, reports of forced labor in these camps did not appear until 1947, and, as a high government official visiting a wartime ally, and as someone who saw the importance of drawing the Soviet Union into the family of nations, Wallace most likely felt pressure to cast his observations in positive terms (White & Maze 197). Also, at that point the western world was aware of the forced collectivization of the 1930s, but the scale of Stalin's terror was not widely known, and Wallace was not unreasonable to compare these "growing pains" in the Soviet Union to America's nineteenth-century growing pains of chattel slavery and the warfare and genocide practiced against Native Americans.
However, the tour of the Kolyma mine was only one part of Wallace's trip. Much more time was spent talking to people in the cities along his route, investigating the agriculture of Siberia. In his diary, Wallace wrote "I am sure that no farm-raised person in the United States could become as well acquainted with the ordinary people of Russia as we did without having a deep admiration for them" (qtd Schapsmeier Prophet 87). This personal knowledge of the Russian people and the Soviet Union would underlie the urgency with which he sought to stave off the Cold War in the late 1940s. For Wallace, the Russians would always be people, and while the Soviet Union might be a flawed government, he would not dehumanize it as an evil empire. Unfortunately, in the bizarre logic of the Cold War, first-hand knowledge of the Soviet Union was too often seen as a hindrance to understanding.
As much as Wallace was impressed by conditions in the Soviet Union, he was disheartened by conditions in China. Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalist government were in disarray. Wallace saw much need for reform, especially agrarian. Chinese farmers were still working primarily with hand tools, and a feudal system of land ownership insured widespread poverty. What's more, Chiang Kai-shek seemed unconvinced of the need for reform, and was obsessed with a military defeat of Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese Communists.
Wallace came home from his trip to the Far East to discover that, despite the support of 65 percent of registered Democrats, his re-nomination for vice president was in danger. A group of conservatives in the Democratic Party, led by Democratic National Committee treasurer Edwin W. Pauley, orchestrated Wallace's ouster, first by quietly lobbying Roosevelt, and later by making their complaints public. In the end, Roosevelt endorsed Harry S. Truman, and Wallace's candidacy was doomed. In his speech before the convention, however, Wallace refused to tone down his message in the hope of retaining office. Instead he boldly asserted his liberal principles, declaring:
"The future belongs to those who go down the line unswervingly for the liberal principles of both political and economic democracy regardless of race, color, or religion. In a political, educational, and economic sense there must be no inferior races.... The future must bring equal wages for equal work regardless of sex or race."
Wallace won the first ballot with 429.5 votes to Truman's 319.5, but it wasn't enough to secure the nomination, and in the third ballot, Truman was swept into the vice presidency.
In the end, Wallace's unabashed liberalism and his refusal to set aside principle for political gain cost him the support needed to retain the vice presidency. Southern, conservative Democrats disliked his liberalism, particularly his outspokenness on race, and the big city machine bosses distrusted his idealism.
Though Henry A. Wallace may have lost his position as Vice President in 1944, his work in Washington wasn't over. After a short break in Des Moines, he campaigned hard for the Roosevelt-Truman ticket, though in his own fashion, emphasizing civil rights, full employment, growth, and peace. In a speech at Madison Square Garden he defined liberalism; saying "A liberal is a person who in all his actions is continuously asking, 'What is best for all the people not merely what is best for me personally?'"
After the Democrat's victory, Roosevelt offered Wallace his choice of positions within the cabinet. Wallace chose Secretary of Commerce, thus squeezing out his old rival Jesse Jones, and placing himself in a position to have an enormous impact on the shape of the post-war world economy.
Wallace immediately set out to reorganize the Department of Commerce. His book Sixty Million Jobs laid out his vision of what post-war economic programs should look like. His goal was to avoid economic hardship caused by a sudden reduction in federal spending. Memories of the post-World War I rural depression were still strong in Henry Wallace's mind.
Then on April 12, 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, and Harry S. Truman assumed the Presidency. Initially, Wallace found Truman to be supportive of his initiatives. The Department of Commerce flourished under Wallace's direction. However, as Truman's term progressed, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union began to deteriorate. Truman's get-tough policy toward the Soviets served to ratchet up tensions. Wallace, however, believed that a confrontational course with the Soviet Union would only ensure a third world war. Instead, Wallace wanted the United States to take an approach which would minimize the areas of conflict between the two super powers and not give the Soviets grounds to fear the U.S.; essentially, he sought a course of constructive engagement. But increasingly, in Truman's cabinet, Wallace found himself alone in such views.
Wallace's disagreement with Truman and the rest of the cabinet reached a turning point in September of 1945, when Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, in his final meeting before retirement, proposed offering information about atomic energy to Soviets, in the interest of peace. Wallace endorsed this, explaining that the Soviets would soon figure it out anyway given what he had seen in his 1944 trip to the Soviet Union, and the fact that the Soviets, too, had acquired a number of German scientists after the war. Wallace, as the only member of the cabinet with a scientific background, knew the folly of pretending that such information was a secret. In his view, and in Stimson's, the goodwill gained by sharing the knowledge would far outweigh any benefit gained from being, for a few years, the only one to hold the information.
Like his trip earlier to China and the Siberia, this cabinet meeting was to cause political headaches for Wallace for years to come. The entire discussion was about atomic energy. At no point did anyone propose releasing information about atomic weaponry. However, when information about the meeting was leaked to the press, it came out that Wallace was offering the Bomb to the Russians.
Wallace was also becoming concerned that the US military build-up, continued atomic bomb tests, and the construction of air bases around the world would be seen by the Soviet Union as signs of hostile intent, as indeed they were. At the same time, American liberals were becoming frustrated with the conservatism and lack of vision of Truman. Many began to talk about the possibility of a third party, one grounded in the ideals of the New Deal. Wallace, however, discouraged such talk. He still saw the Democratic Party as the only possibility for a truly national progressive party.
But the increasingly hostile relations between the United States and the Soviet Union continued to alarm Wallace, and in September of 1946, he gave a speech on foreign relations at a labor rally in New York's Madison Square Garden that would ultimately propel him into the 1948 presidential contest at the head of the Progressive Party ticket.
The official position at the time was that Soviet forces in Eastern Europe were "occupation forces," whereas those of the western allies were "security forces," present in the interest of "peace and justice," not economics (White & Maze 229). Wallace's speech highlighted the hypocrisy of U.S. policy, which declared for peace while building bases around the Soviet Union that the Soviets could only see as staging points for invasion. At the same time, though, he spoke out against similar actions by the Soviets. But Wallace's speech didn't simply challenge the official policies of the Truman administration, it did so at a time when Secretary of States James Byrnes was in Paris negotiating with the Soviets over the military occupation of Europe.
Already these circumstances were enough to provoke a major flap, but Truman himself added oil to the fire with his initial public support of Wallace's speech, support which outraged Byrnes, who threatened to resign if it was not revoked.
The circumstances surrounding Truman's approval of the speech are unclear. According to Wallace, he and Truman went over the speech in detail the day before it was given, with Truman giving his support to specific points: "Again and again [Truman] said, 'That's right'; 'Yes, that is what I believe.' He didn't have a single change to suggest. He twice said how deeply he appreciated my courtesy in showing him my speech before I gave it," Wallace wrote in his diary on September 10, 1946 (White & Maze 225-26). Truman maintained that he only glanced at the speech, "supposing always that Henry was cooperating in all phases of the administration" (226).
As to what really happened, there are a number of possibilities. (See White & Maze 224-40 for a thorough account of this episode.) However, it was standard procedure for the White House staff to review speeches, so by taking the speech directly to Truman, Wallace was possibly preying on Truman's habit of being all things to all people. That is, he knew Truman, with thoughts of the large bank of liberal voters that Wallace represented, would approve of the speech even if it might conflict with what Byrnes was trying to accomplish in Paris.
After his initial support, Truman quickly distanced himself from the speech. Wallace, however, refused to go along with Truman's revision of the events leading up to the speech. Events had come to a crisis, but Truman, knowing the value of the liberal vote he represented, wanted to keep Wallace in the cabinet. So he offered him a deal. If Wallace would keep silent about foreign relations, he could keep his job. Wallace agreed. But over the next few days, Truman decided that Wallace had to go anyway, and on September 20th, 1946, Truman asked for Wallace's resignation. In a radio address explaining his actions leading up to his firing, Wallace explained, "Winning the peace is more important than high office.... I intend to carry on the fight for peace."
In retrospect, Wallace's firing seems to have been carefully orchestrated by Wallace himself. The Truman administration was unpopular with many liberals and leftists, and some had already encouraged Wallace to challenge Truman for the nomination in 1948. In preparing the speech, Wallace most likely knew that it could have one of two consequences. Either Truman would be forced to tack to the left in order to preserve the appearance of a united front in his administration, or he would have to disavow Wallace and publicly align himself with the hardliners. In effect, Wallace made Truman choose, and in doing so, helped to momentarily infuse some measure of breadth into American discussion of foreign affairs. However, within a few years, the rising Red Scare and McCarthyism would drown out Wallace and anyone else who dared to suggest an alternative to the hardline approach to the Soviets.
After leaving the Department of Commerce, Wallace moved to New York and began writing for The New Republic. Here he continued his campaign to keep U.S.-Soviet relations from heating up further. Most Americans, including President Truman, never took Soviet concerns about the U.S. threat to their national security seriously, and interpreted any aggressive act of the Soviet Union as evidence of its desire for world conquest. Wallace, who had actually been to the Soviet Union, recognized the legitimacy of Soviet fears about American aggression. Over 21 million Soviets had died in World War II. As a result, Wallace saw that unless the United States took some concrete steps to assure the Soviets of America's peaceful intentions, relationships between the two powers would soon harden into a global standoff.
Initially, after his firing by Truman, Wallace still rejected the notion of a third party. He still saw the Democratic Party as the only hope for a national liberal party. However, in December of 1947, he announced his candidacy for the President of the United States, under the banner of the Progressive Party, which Wallace hoped would either become a national force for progressive politics, or compel the Democrats to return to the politics of the New Deal, peace, and justice.
Almost immediately, however, Wallace's candidacy was beset by the rising anti-Communist hysteria. Increasingly, Wallace's position was seen by many as being pro-Communist, or at least anti-American. On Labor Day of 1947, the same day an editorial of his condemning political name-calling appeared in The New Republic, the school board of Rochester, New York confiscated the social studies book Twenty Famous Americans because of its chapter on Wallace. Had Wallace publicly denounced Communism and Communist support, he might have garnered more support. Organized labor, which had previously seen Wallace as an ally, was solidly opposed to working with any coalition that included Communists, Socialists, or anyone they suspected of having too much sympathy with those groups. But Wallace, as always, put principle ahead of political expediency and refused to contribute to the growing Red Scare.
Truman rode this anti-Communist fear to victory in the election. Prior to Wallace's announcement, Truman made a number of domestic policy changes designed to draw off liberals from Wallace's base. And the charges of Communism caused some to leave Wallace's side, and made it more difficult for those who stuck with him to do so. Many liberals feared that an association with a "red" organization might make it difficult for them to find work in the future. As the campaign progressed, the liberal flight from Wallace's campaign snowballed. As prominent liberals like Rexford G. Tugwell and Harold Ickes left the effort, the campaign veered more to the left, alienating more of the same voters that Wallace needed to attract. Had Wallace begun his campaign earlier, he might have solidified a broader base and the results of the election might have been different. He may have ensured Dewey's victory and forced the conservative factions from power in the Democratic Party, but in the end, Wallace garnered only 1,157,140 votes. Just 2.37 percent (White & Maze 283).
After his defeat, Wallace remained the leader of the Progressive Party until 1950. A number of factors contributed to his break with the party, including Wallace's growing distrust of the Soviet Union, based on first-hand reports of Soviet imperialism in Eastern Europe. But the final break came when the North Koreans invaded the South. Wallace alone of the Progressive Party leadership condemned the attack and supported the United States' military response. In August of 1950, Wallace resigned from the Progressive Party.
Wallace soon returned to his original love, farming. On his farm in South Salem, New York, he began experimenting with chickens, strawberries, and gladioli, a long-time favorite of his. Though he kept up on politics, his own direct involvement in it was mostly limited to correspondence. He became an Eisenhower supporter during the former general's presidency, occasionally sending him notes and advice. And though he was not enamored of Kennedy, Wallace was very enthusiastic about Lyndon B. Johnson, and the two corresponded regularly.
These years of Cold War paranoia saw Wallace return to his original passions: farming and science. He recognized that wild strains of plants were the raw material for engineered hybrids, and was an early voice urging the preservation of native species. Moreover, Wallace was ahead of most American geneticists in his recognition of the importance of environmental conditions. Having developed a line of Leghorn chicken that produced more eggs and had a lower body weight, Wallace concluded "that care and feeding, especially feeding, of the inbreds...has a great deal to do with the outcome.... My belief is that we have been inclined a little too much to slide along in the belief that the various inbreds are fixed entities" (qtd Schapsmeier Prophet 230). But Wallace took this idea beyond chickens and corn and applied it to human beings, developing the concept of "genetic democracy," which, anticipating the work of Stephen Jay Gould and R. C. Lewontin, argued that genetic differences between groups of human beings were relatively minor, and environment was still the overriding determinant in human success.
Wallace continued his interest in Latin America, making numerous trips there up through 1964, working hard to improve agricultural practices and raise living standards there. It was on his last trip, to Guatemala, that Wallace, age seventy-six, noticed that his legs were feeling slightly numb. This was the first symptom of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Despite his worsening condition over the next year, Wallace kept as active a schedule as possible, working on notes and correspondence even in the hospital. A scientist to the last, Wallace kept a detailed record of his deteriorating condition, in the hopes that it would aid scientists' understanding of the disease. On November 18, 1965, Henry A. Wallace died.
In his life, Wallace was a man of immense accomplishment. World renowned plant geneticist, ground breaking agricultural economist, influential editor and author, tireless campaigner for peace, he helped push the Democratic Party to embrace civil rights, thus paving the way for that party's role in the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s; he changed the face of American agriculture, and with it, American society and the American economy. It is difficult to overestimate his impact on the world and the nation. But perhaps the best epigraph for Henry A. Wallace are those words of Jonathan Swift that Wallace himself chose as the epigraph for his 1956 history Corn and Its Early Fathers:
"And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together."
Schapsmeier, Edward L. and Frederick H., Henry A. Wallace of Iowa: The Agrarian Years, 1910-1940. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1968.
-----. Prophet in Politics: Henry A. Wallace and the War Years, 1940-1965. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1970.
White, Graham, and John Maze. Henry A. Wallace: His Search for a New World Order. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
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