Good Intentions

September 1, 2000 Topics: Society Tags: BusinessEthnocentrismSlaverySociology

Good Intentions

Mini Teaser: Yes, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.

by Author(s): John Patrick Diggins

John C. Culver and John Hyde, American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 608 pp., $35

It was on the day of July 11, 1944 that FDR finally decided to accept the urging of his advisers and dump his vice president. Henry A. Wallace had turned out to be politically incorrect, caught up in his dreams of a better world for the "common man." Perhaps out of affection and respect, FDR would delay informing him of the decision. At the Democratic convention, held in Chicago less than two weeks later, party leaders were stunned when the stadium thundered with the deafening chant, "We want Wallace!" The convention was veering out of control, and party officials feared that if a vote were taken immediately Wallace would be nominated and the plan to replace him with Senator Harry S Truman frustrated. With much jockeying the following day, Truman picked up winning votes on the third ballot and made a short, humble acceptance speech, while behind the scenes Wallace graciously bowed out of the administration.

A month later Wallace met with the President and was asked not to leave Washington since his services would still be needed. Wallace wrote in his diary that Roosevelt told him that he was "four or six" years ahead of his time and that the causes he advocated would "inevitably come." Four years later, the ideals Wallace embraced did indeed stir the nation's imagination when he ran for president as the leader of the new Progressive Citizens of America. The far-reaching Progressive platform of 1948 reads like a harbinger of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society." It called for

desegregation of public schools, an end to Jim Crow laws, open housing, national health insurance, equal rights for women, public day-care facilities, the minimum wage for workers, free trade, immigration reform, the direct election of presidents, home rule for the District of Columbia, indemnity for Japanese-Americans, collective bargaining for federal employees, new soil conservation programs, the vote for eighteen-year-olds, full taxation of capital gains, creation of a federal education department, and admission of Alaska and Hawaii to the Union.

The list is impressive, and in American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace authors John Culver and John Hyde have good reason to treat their subject as a prophet as well as a dreamer. Wallace knew where he wanted to take America and even the rest of the world; the problem was that he thought he could bring along the Soviet Union, too. During the Second World War, Wallace told Americans that he could think of no reason why the United States and Soviet Russia would have difficulty understanding one another. Did they not share a common history? "Both peoples were molded by the vast sweep of a rich continent. Both peoples know that their future is greater than their past. Both hate sham." Noting that both peoples hated imperialism as well, Wallace then offered his version of a convergence theory, speaking of "the new democracy" that he believed would emerge in the postwar world:

Some in the United States believe that we have over-emphasized what we might call political or bill-of-rights democracy. Carried to its extreme form, it leads to rugged individualism, exploitation, impractical emphasis on states' rights, and even to anarchy.

Russia, perceiving some of the abuses of excessive political democracy, has placed strong emphasis on economic democracy. This, carried to an extreme, demands that all power be centered in one man and his bureaucratic helpers.

Somewhere there is a practical balance between economic and political democracy. Russia and the United States both have been working toward this practical middle ground.

"Somewhere"! One definition of utopia is "nowhere", which is exactly where Wallace's hopes for the future would go, since they had no basis in the past. History blessed America with the presence of the very ideas and institutions that burdened the USSR by their absence. Wallace's mistake was the fallacy of Bolshevism itself: the assumption that socialism could be built and freedom realized in an environment suffering from the long legacy of feudalism, autocracy, peasantry, and, as well, a resistance to Western liberalism and the absence of a Protestant tradition that honored the work ethic. Comparing Russia and America in 1905, Max Weber concluded that the appearance of liberty in the world might never be repeated, since the combination of circumstances that led to its establishment in England and the United States might have occurred for the last time centuries earlier. Mesmerized by his version of "the new democracy", Wallace had no inkling that it would be the older "bill of rights democracy" that succeeded in realizing many of the planks in the Progressive platform. (Where would today's feminism be without our rights-based political culture and the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law?)

Wallace's thinking about the world is a case study of the heart prevailing over the head, desperate sentiment over prudent skepticism. Nevertheless, in our present age of politics, when fund-raising takes precedence over governance and cynicism leaves no room for shame, and in our academic world of postmodernism, where all politics is power and knowledge has no foundation in truth, it is edifying to read about an idealist who believed in the simple force of truth; a humanitarian whose concern for the welfare of the world's poor and forgotten remained a daily passion; a fallible leader who could err in judgment but would not tell a lie to save face. At the time of Wallace's death in 1965, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a critic as well as an admirer, was right when he said in a eulogy: "Above all he was a good man."

Wallace's moral rectitude sprang from the nurturing environment of his early upbringing in Iowa. He was born in 1888, son of an educated mother trained in music and art and a high-minded father who believed that man's worship of God expressed itself in his service to mankind. The father, Harry Wallace, became a professor of dairying, befriended George Washington Carver, the black agronomist who would teach at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and published several farm journals that protested railroad rates, tight credit and carried the message of "pitchfork populism." In the 1920s Wallace senior became secretary of agriculture in the Harding and Coolidge administrations. He carried on an ideological war against Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, denouncing the latter's Food Administration as an agency that favored merchants and consumers at the expense of farmers, by allowing prices to be determined by the market and its laws of supply and demand.

In addition to his father, the intellectual presence that shaped Henry Wallace's outlook was Thorstein Veblen, and in particular his influential book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Also a Midwesterner, Veblen indicted the idle rich and called for replacing the price system with the higher wisdom of science and technology. But here the authors Culver and Hyde let pass an awkward affinity between an agrarian idealist and an academic skeptic. While Veblen did chastise business for being more interested in making money than in making goods, he also scorned farmers who would, given the opportunity, curb production for reason of profit. Apparently the Wallaces had not read Veblen's essay on "The Country Town", which depicted farmers as caught up in the hustling ethos of capitalism while masquerading under the banner of patriotism and Rotaryism. Henry Wallace would make the same un-Veblenian mistake when he gazed upon the Soviet Union in the 1930s and saw a producer's paradise, remaining blind to the fate of the kulaks and to the Russian engineering class, the victims of the first party purge of 1931.

Wallace senior had fought the conservative Republican administrations of the 1920s tooth and nail, futilely advocating government-subsidized farm exports. When his father died in the mid-twenties, young Henry said on more than one occasion: "Hoover was the main cause of my father's death." While one can feel the son's anger and sorrow, there is an irony here worth noting: Hoover had been trained as an engineer, the very profession that Veblen had hoped would take over the industrial system and rescue it from the cupidity of farmers as well as financiers.

Theoretical matters aside, the authors of American Dreamer have done prodigious research in various archives, family papers, personal interviews, Wallace's own private letters and diary entries, and recently opened files that had been sealed for half a century in the Soviet Union. John Culver, a former Iowa congressman, currently practices law in Washington, D.C.; John Hyde was once a Washington bureau chief for the Des Moines Register. It is not surprising, then, that their book has the qualities of both the experienced journalist and politician: a talent for keeping the story going at a brisk clip and a feel for a subject who was attracted to causes rather than men, issues instead of personalities. The authors excel in taking us through the maneuvers of backroom party politics and the calculations and miscalculations of its leaders. There are no Churchillian triumphs in this political biography, no finest hour for an America struggling to avoid what it would have to confront-the Depression, Hitler, the Cold War. The authors take us through these chilling episodes with a fine prose at once relaxed and lucid. They deal with a political subject both loved and hated, and with their keen observations about the faith and the foibles of an ardent believer, they enable us to know why.

Sustaining the spirit of his father's agrarian work ethic, Wallace threw all his energy into the science of crop production. He proved to be a pioneer in crossbreeding varieties of corn, and his experiments in hybridization were proudly displayed at farm festivals. Given his father's role in government and his own scientific achievements, Wallace's reputation was well known, but even into his late twenties he expressed little interest in politics. It was his sympathy for the plight of the Midwestern farming community, which had been experiencing its own depression years before the crash of 1929, and the election of Hoover to the presidency, that compelled Wallace to involve himself in national politics. In the early 1930s he organized relief drives on behalf of suffering farmers and he exhorted that America needed a leader of the "Roosevelt type", referring to Teddy Roosevelt, who cursed the "malefactors of wealth", and not to FDR, who seemed to be a child of privilege and a politician of urban intrigue and corruption.

Wallace changed his mind about FDR as he watched him run against Hoover and when it became clear that the Democratic candidate advocated allotment payments to farmers in return for their agreeing to limit production. FDR appointed Wallace secretary of agriculture, and as such he was to wield more power than any other of FDR's cabinet members. Through the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) Wallace tried to raise prices by controlling output, which often meant ploughing under acres of cotton and killing pigs. In trying to restore the economic health of commercial agriculture, the aaa had mixed results before it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1936. But the energetic and personable Wallace continued to shine in fdr's second administration, when he experimented with granary storage systems. By 1940, when it was widely believed that FDR would respect the traditional two-term limit, Wallace was even mentioned as his possible successor in the White House. But, of course, FDR stayed on.

It was during the war years that Wallace set out, as he saw it, to try to redeem America as the first step in saving the world. Time magazine's Henry Luce had declared the postwar era to be the "American Century", wherein the world would feel the influence of its reigning "unparalleled power." Wallace challenged Luce's seeming power worship when he gave his speech on "The Century of the Common Man", calling for an end to the domination of the powerful over the powerless and to the exploitation by the rich of the poor. Wallace would spread the New Deal to the four corners of the earth. His pious utterances were not that far from fdr's famous "Four Freedoms" speech, which claimed that the war was a crusade to rid the world of fear of want and fear of tyranny. But Wallace began to suspect certain figures in the administration of delaying military production, and he publicly denounced manufacturers for being greedy during a time that demanded patriotic sacrifice. His failure to continue on as vice president scarcely helped matters. With fdr's death in April 1945, Wallace at first believed that Truman would continue in the spirit of his predecessor by making efforts at fulfilling the early goals of the New Deal and by maintaining good relations with the Soviet Union.

It is an axiom of Cold War revisionist scholarship that Truman represented a significant break with fdr's more patient and benign outlook toward Stalin's Russia. This view overlooks the fact that fdr's outlook was shaped by the Allied Alliance and the necessity of keeping Russia a trusting partner in it, and that the President never lived to see the rise of the Iron Curtain and the fall of Czechoslova-kia. For his part, Wallace remained unfazed by such ominous developments. He charged that the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima was meant as a "direct lever" to produce changes in Stalin's totalitarian system before there could be any sharing of atomic secrets or sending of food supplies to a prostrate Russia. Increasingly, Wallace convinced himself that Truman's toughening attitude toward the Soviets would only lead them to respond in kind. In light of new weaponry, Wallace exhorted, "we must move with speed, determination and faith. The stakes are the human race." Wallace might have mentioned fright as well as faith. The basis of political order, wrote Thomas Hobbes, is the fear of death that drives humankind's desire for the preservation of life. "Atomic power means", Wallace warned, "one world or no world."

Although Wallace hailed the coming dawn of oneness and unity, his running for the presidency as head of the Progressive Citizens of America left the country seething with bitter rancor and division. The election of 1948 saw a rare four-party race that pitted Truman and the Democrats against Thomas Dewey and the Republicans, Strom Thurmond and the Southern Dixiecrats, and Henry Wallace and the Progressive Citizens. By the fall, the Progressives had petered out and Wallace received only one million popular votes and no electoral votes, while Truman eked out a victory over Dewey.

Much that has been written about the Wallace campaign focuses on the communists who jumped on his bandwagon as well as many of America's leading cultural celebrities. On the other side, liberals forged the Americans for Democratic Action in opposition to the Progressives, and the New York intellectuals-long animated with the Trotskyist conviction that Stalin had betrayed the fruits of the October Revolution-were merciless in their attacks on Wallace. Eleanor Roosevelt and many others believed that within the Progressive movement lay a "nucleus" of communist partisans. Wallace has been criticized for allowing himself to be used by the communists and for not distancing himself from them and renouncing their support. Although Wallace did prevent the Progressive platform committee from even mildly criticizing Soviet foreign policy, there is no evidence that Wallace took orders from Moscow or that he answered to anybody but himself. Yet Wallace did allow himself to believe that deep down what both Soviet Russia and American communists wanted was, above all else, "peace." As a wry poster-maker put it at the time, "A Piece of What?"

If Wallace was "four to six" years ahead of his time on domestic issues, as FDR remarked, in foreign affairs it could hardly be said that he was a half century ahead of his time now that the Cold War has ended. For Wallace saw his dream of a "new democracy" evolving from the bowels of Stalinist totalitarianism, when, in fact, that brutal system had to crash from top to bottom before democracy of any kind had a chance to sprout its rare roots. Nevertheless, one puts down this fine, discerning and balanced book with admiration for Henry Wallace. While he may have spoken for the common man everywhere in the world, he himself remained an uncommon man of good hope and unswerving integrity.

Essay Types: Book Review