Henry Wallace: A Divided Mind

A native of Colorado who entered Amherst with the Class of 1918, GARDNER JACKSON started what he calls his checkered career, after getting out of the Army in the First World War, as a bond salesman. Then came newspaper work in Denver, Boston, and Washington and his passionate defense of Sacco and Vanzetti. Mr. Jackson was Assistant Consumers' Counsel for the AAA (1933-1935); Washington representative for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (1935-1936); legislative representative for John L. Lewis (1936-1940); special assistant to the Secretary and the Under Secretary of Agriculture (1941-1942); co-organizer of Food for Freedom, Inc. (1943-1944); assistant to the president and board of the National Farmers Union (1945-1947).

The next significant stage in Wallace's evolution into his present crusade was his acceptance of the consolation prize Roosevelt offered him, the Secretaryship of Commerce. When rumbles began in the Senate against his confirmation, particularly if the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (renamed the Federal Loan Agency) remained in his domain as Secretary, he let it be known in high moral terms, friend and foe, that he would not take the job unless it included the RFC. That multi-billion dollar agency, first established by Herbert Hoover in a vain attempt to prevent the debacle of the speculative-banking economy during the last years of his Administration, was in Wallace's mind a potential instrument of major social amelioration and change. In the end, confronted with an adamant Senate, he accepted confirmation to the Commerce post stripped of control over the RFC. He had once again made a moral declaration and abandoned it in the pinch.

Wallace's endorsement of the unbelievable Johannes Steel, radio commentator, for Congress in 1946, plus his praise of Vito Marcantonio as having "the best voting record in the House," caused some of us finally to stop giving Wallace the benefit of the doubt. Steel entered the primaries in the 19th District, New York City, against the Democratic incumbent, Arthur G. Mein, whose voting record, from a liberal point of view, was well above average.

Nothing that happened after he took Steel to his bosom surprised us. His letter to President Truman on the Baruch atomic energy program for the United Nations and his Madison Square Garden speech in September, 1946, might have been anticipated. It was almost inevitable that his atomic energy letter would distort the facts, and that, when confronted by Mr. Baruch and his associates with demonstrable errors, he would agree to revise what he had said and then never do so. And it is significant that he omitted some sentences adverse to Soviet policies and tactics in his Madison Square Garden speech when the booing grew.

Even before the Steel endorsement, there had been a clear tipoff on Wallace's changing frame of mind. In a speech before the Congress of American Soviet Friendship at Madison Square Garden on November 8, 1942, while he was still Vice-President, he voiced his loss of faith in "political or bill-of-rights democracy." He agreed with those in the United States who believe that we have overemphasized that type of democracy. "Carried to its extreme form," he declared, "it leads to rugged individualism, exploitation, impractical emphasis on states' rights and even to anarchy." Then he added, "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."

Despite the qualifications with which he sought to surround this abnegation of faith in "political or bill-of-rights" democracy, it can fairly be interpreted as an announcement by him that in our present stage of evolution the peoples of the world cannot be trusted to carry on their struggle as free men for a better life—that at least a moderate application of the methods and procedures of authoritarianism or dictatorship is required for their own good. The key to his whole New Party campaign is to be found here.

In many of his campaign speeches he has tried to deny this. One of these speeches—at Evansville, Indiana, April 6, a month after the Czech crisis—reworded his state of mind with special clarity. "Though I detest the whole idea of dictatorships," he declared, "there is a great difference between the fascist dictatorship, which tries to perpetuate itself for its own profit, power, and glory, and the dictatorship in the Soviet Union which has as its goal an economy of abundance for all its people and the eventual dissolution of the dictatorship. The fascist dictatorship must expand its working area. It must seek new sources of raw materials, new markets for its goods, and new people to exploit. This necessity is not inherent in the dictatorship in Russia. The Russians have no necessity to expand their borders, nor will they for many decades to come, except as external threats and pressures compel them to seek military security."

In that rationalization he closed his eyes to the facts of Russian imperialism. Of more significance, he turned his back on the sameness of the methods and processes of dictatorships—the brutal destruction of individuals, singly and en masse. He rejected the findings of the best minds of the ages, from Plato to John Dewey, that the means to an end inexorably shape the end, and he slammed the door against those who believe that bloody dictatorship is more evil when clothed in moral protestations than when it asserts itself as naked might.

A number of liberal Senators, both Democratic and Republican, after trying to get behind the veil of Wallace's destiny-yearning while he was presiding over the Senate, reached substantially this opinion about him: that he had made up his mind that governmental collectivism is inevitable throughout the world, including this country and the Western Hemisphere; that the Soviet brand of this "wave of the future" is preferable to other brands; and that he himself is specially designated to ride that wave and channel its course when it rolls across our land. Their opinion is supported, it seems to me, by steadily mounting evidence.


For some of us who worked with him in years past, the most shocking experience comes in comparing the positions he is taking in this campaign (including those set forth in his campaign book, Towards World Peace) with the positions he took in action while in government. A typical example is his fervent and self-righteous outcry, on every campaign occasion, over discrimination against the Negroes and over exploitation of the lowly and downtrodden as exemplified by the sharecroppers. But his record as Secretary of Agriculture on that score was bad enough to invite the present opposition of Walter White, Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and of other Negro leaders.

He didn't really start to redress the gross administration inequities under the AAA Act suffered by the sharecroppers in the South until many months after he had dismissed our group. And that purge was in part because we tried to do something about that distressing situation. Nor did his elevation to the Vice-Presidency seem to encourage him to take a more forthright stand on this issue which is now part of his stock in trade. He literally ran away—physically, down the Senate Office Building corridors—according to members of a delegation who waited three hours for him beyond their appointment time to tell him why they felt that a Negro sharecropper from Virginia, Odell Waller, had been unjustly sentenced to execution for murder. Wallace, as members of the delegation describe the incident, slipped out of his inner office door just as the delegation was leaving the outer office. One of the delegation, Mary McLeod Bethune, noted Negro woman leader, gave chase calling, "Mr. Wallace, this is a great tragedy. We must talk to you." To which the Vice-President, according to members of the delegation, replied over his shoulder, "There's nothing I can do," as he disappeared around the corner. Harassed by the widespread publication of this episode in the Negro press, Wallace has said it didn't happen. But, despite their joint efforts in a personal interview, he and his manager have been unable to persuade Mrs. Bethune to give them a letter denying the occurrence. Nor have any other members of the delegation been found to deny it.

Even more recently—during his Secretaryship of Commerce—Wallace's attitudes and actions on this problem of discrimination aroused the outspoken hostility of Negro organizations and their leaders. He insisted that segregation policies in the National Airport restaurant, under his jurisdiction, could not be changed because it is located across the District of Columbia line in Virginia and is operated by a private concessionaire who sets the policies. Secretary of War Stimson, confronted with the same circumstances as to location and operation, by concession, of the cafeterias in the War Department's Pentagon Building, found no difficulty in establishing a non-segregation policy.

The deep resentment of non-Communist Negroes towards Wallace is shown in the following paragraph from an editorial in the February, 1948, issue of the Crisis, monthly publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: --

"Under his secretaryship, the Department of Commerce was more than ordinarily ridden with humiliating separation of workers because of color, and limitation of promotion for the same reason.

While in the latter months of 1947, just before the announcement of his candidacy, Mr. Wallace was railing against segregation and refusing to speak to separated audiences, for five or six years prior to that time he had dodged speaking before conventions of the NAACP, the organization which has had 'no segregation' as its war cry since it was formed. While turning aside NAACP invitations, Mr. Wallace found time to speak several times at Tuskegee, an institution where white and colored guest speakers are sent to separate guest houses."

Admittedly this is a difficult issue but Wallace's glorification of his running mate, Democratic Senator Glen H. Taylor of Idaho, for inviting rough handling and arrest by the Birmingham police, when the Senator tried in May to enter a Negro entrance to an auditorium there, is in contrast with his own performance. Wallace's inadequacy on this issue is not likely to be wiped out by the between the lines confession in his California speaking tour, in May, that he hadn't done all he should have done on the problem when he was in government.

A similarly sharp reversal of position is found in his stand on the Equal Rights Amendment advocated by the Woman's Party. For several years prior to his New Party campaign he championed that proposal. I was with him on an inspection of the White Motor Company war plant in Cleveland in the winter of 1943 when he experienced a reaction from the women workers which greatly impressed him and threw him more strongly on the Equal Rights Amendment side.

He was addressing several thousand workers in the plant yard, a large proportion of them women. With gestures from the truck serving as his rostrum, he was describing the outpouring of improved kitchen and household appliances which would come after the war from many of the factories then turning out war materials. He was picturing a new life of leisure for the housewife. "So," he declared, "when you go back into your homes ... " At that point the women hissed and booed resoundingly. His arm was upraised in gesture when this happened. He kept it there for an instant or two as he shifted his face away from the microphone to look with a stunned expression at the crowd. Then he added, "If you want to," at which the women clapped and cheered. "That means something!" he said with feeling as we rode back in a taxi to the hotel. It was not surprising to note him among the Woman's Party supporters soon after that.

But in his May 8 campaign speech at the Commodore Hotel, New York City, to the founding conference of the New York State Women for Wallace, he again about-faced. After analyzing the economic and legal disabilities of women, and proposing remedial legislation, he declared, "I oppose the so-called Equal Rights Amendment which would destroy all existing legislation for the protection of women."

In several of his speeches he has played upon the evil of the Franco dictatorship in Spain and what he says is this country's encouragement of it through trade and diplomatic relations. During the Spanish civil War, as I came to know well while trying to help Loyalist Ambassador de los Rios, Wallace was the least responsive of the cabinet members who were approached to exercise influence on specific problems in behalf of the Loyalist government, such as arranging the servicing of that government's funds in New York City and the campaign to have the arms embargo lifted. His attitude was in sharp contrast to that of Secretary Morgenthau and Secretary Ickes. Wallace apparently did not then see Franco as the menace he now considers him.

These and numerous other about-faces might be discounted as the ordinary inconsistencies of an ambitious politician. It might be said that when, for example, he bemoaned in one of his Middle West campaign speeches the difficulty of getting the U.S. Agricultural Extension Service to give attention to the needs of the small farmers, he was merely having a to-be-expected politician's blackout of memory regarding his own responsibility for the condition out of which he now seeks to make political capital. In the framework of political exigencies, according to this mode of interpretation, he should not now be held to account for having failed to make a single significant move, as Secretary of Agriculture, to put into effect his early promise that he would divorce the tax-supported Extension Service from actual control, in several major agricultural states, by the American Farm Bureau Federation, a private farm organization representing in those states the big, corporate, absentee-ownership type of farming, the so-called master farmers. Wallace flies back and forth across the country, however, as no ordinary politician but as a candidate fired solely by deep humanitarianism and the desire to spread ideas designed to bring about universal peace and prosperity.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In