What seemed daunting to Truman, however, must have seemed inauspicious to Henry Wallace, FDR’s vice president from the previous term. While Wallace’s passions were agriculture and economics, his run with the Progressive Party in the following election reveals a man who sought the opportunity he narrowly lost. Just who was this progressive leader, the second of FDR’s three vice presidents? What made FDR go through vice presidents so rapidly (hint: party bosses largely controlled delegates at national conventions)? And what might a Wallace presidency have entailed?
Long before Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a household name, =Wallace befriended another American legend. George Washington Carver boarded at the Wallace home while studying at Iowa State University; racial discrimination barred him from living on campus in a dorm. Six-year-old Wallace, who was born on October 7, 1888 in Orient, Iowa, to Henry Cantwell Wallace and May Brodhead Wallace, took an instant liking to the new boarder. Carver, who popularized peanuts and promoted systematic crop rotation, taught Wallace about farming and botany. The future vice president developed a strong interest in corn, eventually developing successful hybrids. By the time Wallace was 15, he had disproved the popular theory of the day that an ear’s aesthetic quality could predict its yield.
Wallace graduated from the Iowa State College in 1910, a statistician with a degree in animal husbandry. He is often credited with introducing econometrics to farming. In 1914, Wallace married Ilo Browne. Profits from his family-owned magazine, Wallace’s Farmer, paired with his wife’s inheritance enabled Wallace to launch Hi-Bred Corn Company. The company prospered for nearly a century and, through a 1999 $10 billion dollar acquisition, became part of the DuPont Corporation. Newfound wealth allowed Wallace to explore religion and politics.
By the time the Great Depression descended on the nation, Wallace seemed the perfect choice to serve as Secretary of Agriculture. Familial legacy aside (his father had served as the Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Harding and Coolidge), Wallace’s economic acumen and agricultural prowess made him particularly well suited for the challenging times.
However, his ties to Eastern religion and the Republican Party made him a punching bag for critics. Democrats feared he was too conservative. In reality, he had supported Al Smith in 1928 and championed Progressive causes. Republicans, on the other hand, sought to expose his religious explorations. Though raised Presbyterian, Wallace had befriended Russian mystic Nicholas Roerich and studied Agni Yoga. Republicans threatened to publish the infamous “guru letters” which revealed Wallace’s interest in Roerich, only to be blackmailed in return with the secret of their 1940 presidential candidate Wendell Willkie’s affair with Irita Van Doren. Ultimately, both sides kept quiet, although the “guru letters” were made public in 1947.
In the end, Wallace became a capable and talented Secretary of Agriculture. Even Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who was famously critical of Wallace, sang his praise. “Wallace was a great secretary of agriculture,” he wrote, “For the urban poor, he provided food stamps and school lunches. He instituted programs for land-use planning, soil conservation and erosion control. And always he promoted research to combat plant and animal diseases, to locate drought-resistant crops and to develop hybrid seeds in order to increase productivity.”
But Wallace’s methods were constitutionally suspect. To raise prices of agriculture products, Wallace called for the storing of surplus grain and slaughtering of farm animals. In particular, his providing farmers stipends not to plant on large portions of their land and his calling for a tax on manufactured farm products to be paid back to farmers were brought before the Supreme Court.
Like many New Deal initiatives brought before the Court, the justices were split. The conservative “four horsemen” (Butler, McReynolds, Sutherland and Van Devanter) undermined much of the legislation advocated by Roosevelt and supported by the liberal “three musketeers” (Brandeis, Cardozo and Stone). The decisions made by the more centrist Chief Justice Hughes and Justice Roberts, respectively, largely determined the outcome of cases.United States v. Butler deemed the 1933 Agriculture Adjustment Act unconstitutional under the 10th Amendment. Though the ruling was largely unenforced and Wallace’s policies continued to relieve farmers, anti-New Deal decisions such as these inspired Roosevelt’s unsuccessful court-packing scheme of 1937.
Three years later, Wallace found himself on the 1940 ticket as vice president. Roosevelt and Wallace won a landslide victory. Soon after, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II.
Just months after Roosevelt famously dubbed December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy,” Wallace gave his most famous speech. In the darkest days of the war, Wallace declared, “the people's revolution is on the march, and the devil and all his angels cannot prevail against it. They cannot prevail, for on the side of the people is the Lord.” He spoke of “the century of the common man” and explained the “four freedoms” which he described as “the duty to produce the limit, to transport as rapidly as possible to the field of battle, to fight with all that is in us and to build a peace [that is] just, charitable and enduring.”
Unfortunately for the talented Wallace, a trip to the Soviet Union and an unapologetically progressive agenda would leave him with a lasting reputation for being “soft on communism.”
Two years after delivering his famous address, Wallace and Owen Lattimore, then the leader of the Office of War Information for the Pacific theater, traveled from Alaska to Magadan at Roosevelt’s request. The Soviets staged a Potemkin village at slave labor camps, convincing the men that workers were well-fed, well adjusted “volunteers.” Lattimore wrote about the experience in National Geographic, but Wallace went as far as to publish a book in 1946 entitled Soviet Asia Mission, full with musings of “grandeur” and recollections of workers “not unlike our farming people in the United States.” Ignorant of the Gulag’s cruel agenda, Wallace eventually published a 1952 apology of sorts entitled Where I Was Wrong. “As I look back on my trip across Soviet Asia to China, I can see after reading accounts by former slave laborers who escaped from Siberia that I was altogether too much impressed by the show put on by high Russian officials,” he admitted.
Before he penned either book, however, Wallace was voted off the ticket at the Democratic National Convention of 1944 in favor of Harry Truman. For a short time after, he served as the Secretary of Commerce. An outspoken opponent of the Truman Doctrine and European imperialism, he ran a third-party campaign for president in 1948 with the Progressive Party. Though he was easily duped in terms of the Soviet Union, to his credit, he was an early advocate of improved race relations in the United States.
Whether he would have been “soft on communism” or employed the atomic bomb as commander-in-chief is impossible to know. Perhaps the intelligence a president receives would have earlier informed the opinions Wallace did not embrace until 1952. Then again, perhaps the war in the Pacific would have raged on for years more. Perhaps the Cold War would never have begun at all.
In the end, the vice president who publicly admitted wrongs was often right, too. Where he failed in evaluating communism, he achieved in revolutionizing agriculture. For every critic he faced, there were farmers, civil rights advocates and progressives to provide his defense. An advocate of the common man, Henry Wallace lived an extraordinary life.Olivia Fitzpatrick is an intern at the National Constitution Center. She is also a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in English and minoring in Legal Studies.
Recent Historical Stories on Constitution DailyHappy 58th Birthday, NASA!Women, the White House and presidential campaignsPodcast: A constitutional history of the Democratic Party