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BOOK REVIEW: "Henry Wallace's 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism"

University of North Carolina Press
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BOOK REVIEW: Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism by Thomas W. Devine (UNC Press) 2013

One of 20th Century America’s more fascinating and complex political figures – Henry A. Wallace – is not so much a tragic figure as he is a misunderstood one.

Having served in the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Secretary of Agriculture and later as FDR’s vice president (a Freemason, Wallace missed being the 33rd president of the United States by just 82 days after Harry S. Truman succeeded him as vice president and later president when FDR died in April 1945), Wallace –an ardent New Dealer – would weather many a political storm in the 1930’s and 40’s – but nothing would quite match his role running for president in 1948 under the banner of the Progressive Party.

An Iowa bred “farmer-intellectual,” Wallace would evolve from Republican to Democrat to independent to Progressive over the course of the 1940’s, leading up to his ill-fated presidential campaign, as captured by writer and professor Thomas W. Devine in his new book Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism.

Devine writes: “Wallace’s desire to support ‘great causes’ led him to perceive political campaigns as moral crusades in which ‘good’ battled ‘evil.’”

And in those postwar years, the Communist “threat” was increasingly on the minds of the American people – an issue increasingly highlighted by the Truman administration and growing swaths of the electorate.

Wallace, meanwhile, was trying to stay above it all and accept support from people and groups who claimed to be supportive of his simplistic “peace and abundance” platform. So, if members of the Communist Party were willing to climb aboard Wallace’s peace train, well, as Wallace put it: “Anyone who will work for peace is okay with me.” And since the Communists claimed to be for peace, Wallace replied: “God bless ‘em; let ‘em come along.”

However, it would be the Communists who would ultimately do in Wallace’s campaign, as Devine explains over the course of this – at times – dense book on the’48 campaign.

Support for Wallace was enthusiastic at first. Democrats and liberals were disappointed with mushy centrist Truman and Thomas Dewey, the Republican was no better. In fact, most were thinking there was little difference between the two.

Enter Henry Wallace. Eager to start a third party, he would be successful in launching the Progressive Party and in urban areas of New York and the northeast, along with California, Wallace was well-liked. But he was not as well-embraced by the rest of the country, particularly with his “red” ties to the Communist Party.

But Wallace would dismiss these criticisms as “red-baiting” by fascists and crypto-Nazis. And, well, look at the success of American Labor Party leftist and newly-elected U.S. Congressman from the Bronx – Leo Isacson – considered one of the most liberal members of congress in the 20th century.

Wallace’s read of the tea leaves, as it were, was that America was ripe for a new, peace-oriented direction and that he and the Progressive Party could blaze that trail.

Even a skeptical press was not enough to keep Wallace down. They demanded that he explain the curious “guru letters” sent to Russian mystic and artist Nicholas Roerich. In the 1930’s, when Wallace met Roerich and they went on an expedition to Central Asia to find drought-resistant grasses to help those caught up in the Depression’s Dust Bowl, Wallace purportedly fell under Guru Roerich’s spell, embracing Roerich’s talk of a Himalayan “Shambhala,” or Buddhist land of “pure enlightenment.” Today, Wallace could be categorized as an idealistic New Ager with political aspirations.

And for Wallace’s enemies, his good-hearted gullibility was his political Achilles heel, as Devine explains over the course of this fascinating book. What was his weakness? Perhaps it was his desire to see the good in all. He was essentially a Christian utopian with a goal to befriend the world.

Seeing this, however, were the Communist Party members – this, a few years before the height of the McCarthy-ist “Red Scare” years – who heartily endorsed the Wallace/Taylor ticket.

As Wallace’s campaign rolled on, he was met with some labor union support but not the overwhelming numbers he was needing to really get his campaign over the top. The Democrats had much of that support sewn up.

Wallace’s campaign through Dixie was an abject disaster. In Gadsden, Alabama, Devine writes that when his motorcade rolled into town, he was met with threats of “Kill Wallace!” along with the taunts and jeers he had already experienced in North Carolina and elsewhere where he was regularly pelted with eggs and vegetables and called rude names. Down South, it was South Carolinian Strom Thurmond – a racist Dixiecrat – who would carry much of that corner of the country.

“The enthusiastic endorsement Wallace received from the Communist Party also played a part in the Progressives’ difficulties in the South, though not a large one. The CP’s close association with the Progressives provided white southerners with further ‘proof’ that communism and agitation for civil rights were one and the same.”

Meanwhile, the white protesters in racially-segregated Gadsden, writes Devine, were furious when Wallace refused to get out of his car. Wallace reportedly shook his head as they left Gadsden in the dust and said: “Now I have seen the eyes of fascism.”

Essentially, the white southerners who were not likely to be overtly racist, could now hide behind the banner of “patriotism” when they came out as racist, claiming that Wallace’s outspoken support of desegregation while on the southern leg of campaign was part of an Moscow-directed, anti-American “commie plot.”

But with Wallace, he didn’t see that. Instead, on the campaign trail, Wallace talked about the “common man” being exploited by “Wall Street bankers” who want to keep the races and classes divided. Wallace was under the delusion that the “common man” would recognize he did not have to vote for either “Duman or Trewey” and that the Progressive Party would best represent his interests. Wallace even had trouble convincing African-Americans in the South that he was the candidate most likely to advance their causes. Truman, at that point, was a known quantity and would get their support in the end.

But Devine, a professor of history at the University of California at Northridge, explains that Wallace would make one political blunder after another and by October 1948, it was clear that Wallace’s chances for being elected president were close to nil.

Talking about the political observers in Wallace’s time, Devine writes that “Throughout his career, they noted, he had used language in a cavalier manner, making sweeping statements and provocative charges without offering supporting evidence or pausing to consider the ramifications of his words.”

Election Day would prove to be a dark one for Wallace and his team, where he would pull in a little over two percent of the popular vote.

Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism is a fascinating read, not only because it is a scholarly take on Wallace and his efforts to become president but also because he shows us that to succeed in politics one must be both idealistic and shrewd at the same time. Plenty of politicos in this day and age could learn a lot from Wallace’s experience and from this delightful book.

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