Oliver Stone’s ten part documentary which aired on Showtime, “The Untold History of the United States,” which I have commented on previously, reminds us of a long forgotten missed opportunity to reduce or eliminate the Cold War and perhaps avoid dropping the two atomic bombs on Japan, justified at the time by Truman to save a costly invasion of the Japanese mainland. Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick (history professor, American University) collaborated for the series, which hypothesizes that our postwar history might have played out very differently if Henry Wallace had continued to serve as FDR’s running mate and vice president rather than Harry Truman in FDR’s last Presidential run in 1944. Wallace served as FDR’s vice president from 1940-1944 and he was wildly popular with convention delegates at the time of the 1944 Democratic convention. Indeed he was arguably the most popular politician with the exception of FDR himself, both as secretary of agriculture (1933-1940) and vice president. Furthermore, his popularity spread to the international community, in part because he advocated issues that resonated with poor farmers and workers. But party bosses and Southern political leaders did not like Wallace—he represented a nightmare candidate for them, since he had been speaking out against race and gender inequity and was very much opposed to Henry Luce’s (the publisher of Time and Life) idea that the 20th Century should be an American Century fully decorated with American hegemony—Luce favored the formation of the empire we have today, even though those that run it refuse to call it as such.
Henry Wallace was like no other politician in our history. He was an Iowa farmer who carried out scientific experiments related to crop improvements and became secretary of agriculture under FDR, a department he ran with great energy and efficiency. Wallace was undoubtedly the best secretary of agriculture in the history of our country. I planned on writing a post describing my impressions of Henry Wallace, as I am currently reading “American Dreamer: A life of Henry A. Wallace,” by John C. Culver and John Hyde. However writer Peter Dreier did it for me a few days ago in his excellent summary of Henry Wallace posted in Truthout. In reading about Wallace, you cannot help but think how much better off we would be if we could only attract more people like Wallace into politics. He was a bit naive perhaps, but I think our political landscape would be vastly improved with a few more knowledgeable dreamers to replace the overcrowded DC rooms filled with ideologues, lobbyists and outdated Republicans. Wallace came into politics through the back door at a time when science and farming were just beginning to intertwine into a common set of objectives and practices. He not only facilitated this transformation, but he began a hybrid seed company the”Hi-Bred Corn Company,” which generated more productive hybrid corn seeds, provided financial security for his family, made him rich, revolutionized agronomy and was eventually bought by DuPont in 1999 for $ 9.4 billion. While secretary of agriculture under FDR, he established the school lunch program, food stamps and facilitated better farming practices to avoid wide swings in farm commodity prices. As a farmer, he had been raised to believe that proper farming required cooperative interactions among farmers to succeed. Coming from a traditional Republican family, he broke with this tradition and sided with FDR for the election of 1932. That year the normally Republican state of Iowa went for FDR, who picked Wallace for his secretary of agriculture.
As romantic as we might want to be about Henry Wallace, strongly promoted by Oliver Stone’s documentary, others have been more critical of Stone and Kuznick’s interpretation. Historian Sean Wilentz has accused Stone and Kuznick of “Cherry-Picking our History,” published in the New York Review of Books. Wilentz points out the downside of Wallace as a politician and challenges the interpretation of Stone and Kuznick. As vice president (1940-1944) Wallace was the presiding officer of the Senate and through his aloof character, and his push to end segregation, he managed to offend almost everyone in that body and, according to Wilentz, he became a political liability for Roosevelt who migrated to a position of indifference towards him as a running mate. Furthermore, as a candidate for the Presidency in 1948, Wallace allowed members of the Communist party to become entrenched in his organization and even Eleanor Roosevelt spoke out against his candidacy (she had been strongly supportive of Wallace in the FDR administration). The progressive movement was divided on how it viewed the Soviet Union. More romantically inclined liberals saw Stalin as a savior of his country during WWII and were willing to overlook or minimize the brutality of his dictatorship. Other progressives drew the line and could not tolerate the Soviets, not just because of Stalin’s atrocities to his own people–but because they did not see Communism lying within the spectrum of liberalism as a form of government. Indeed, this view of liberalism drew the line on Communism, whereas the more romantic view allowed democracy and Communism to be a continuum at different ends of the political and socioeconomic spectrum. Wallace had adopted the more romantic view of Communism, which he promoted during his 1948 campaign. Even journalist I.F. Stone wrote in 1948 “the Communists have been the dominant influence in the Progressive Party [referring to Wallace who ran on the Progressive party ticket]…. If it had not been for the Communists, there would have been no Progressive Party.” Henry Wallace eventually separated himself from the Communists, when, in 1952 he wrote “Where I was Wrong” and explained that he had not been properly informed about Stalin’s crimes and concluded “More and more I am convinced that Russian Communism in its total disregard of truth, in its fanaticism, its intolerance and its resolute denial of God and religion is something utterly evil.” Nevertheless, I find Wilentz’s views on Wallace to seriously under represent his contributions to Federal policies, even during and after the 1948 election. Had Wallace been the vice president and ascended to the presidency in 1945, I doubt that we would have had the Cold War and perhaps we would have avoided the use of militaristic prisms that we use to view the world around us today.
This view of the influence of the Communist party in the 1948 election is somewhat narrowly focused by Wilentz’s critique. There were many reasons why the Communist party had followers and one prominent reason related to the Spanish Civil war in the 1930s. The elected government in Spain was besieged by Franco who wanted to establish a fascist state. Mussolini and Hitler supported Franco with men and material and Hitler’s Luftwaffe honed their skills by bombing Spanish cities, including Guernica, which led to Picasso’s famous painting under the same name (displayed at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris). Russia on the other hand supported the government (Republicans), while Roosevelt refused to support them in part because of their alignment with Russia. This led many sympathizers in the U.S. to either join the Communist party and fight with the Republicans in the “Lincoln Brigade” or make donations to the party in support of the Republican cause. Many who joined the Communist party or gave donations would later be black-balled through the machinations of McCarthyism and/or the actions of the House UN-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Thus their support of the democratically elected government of Spain led to their personal ruination once McCarthyism took hold of our national psyche.
The debate about who started the Cold War is as old as the Cold War itself. Could Wallace, as the alternative vice president, elevated to the Presidency by FDR’s untimely death, have changed the course of history and created a different world, one which did not allow the retention of the old colonial systems of Britain and France? Would that have eliminated our future engagement in Vietnam? When we started the war in Vietnam were we merely defending French colonialism? Was Ho Chi Minh a nationalist and not a communist? FDR spoke often of his distaste for colonial rule and Wallace shared in this attitude and no doubt influenced Roosevelt’s opinion on the matter. Wallace was the principle architect of the new deal and continuously emphasized the creation of jobs as a much needed mechanism to avoid militarism after the war. He published a book in 1945, illustrating how the country could create 60 million jobs to transition between a wartime economy and a peace-economy.
I do not believe that Truman really had much choice but to go along with dropping the atomic bomb on Japan. Everything I have read points to people like General Leslie Groves, who said they would use the bomb, not to end the war against Japan, but as a warning to the Russians, who had clearly established themselves as a contending superpower in the post-war era. Within the Truman administration you had different opinions as to why we dropped the atom bomb on Japan, but because Truman had control of the bully pulpit, we inherited his interpretation—it was done to avoid shedding more blood by an invasion of the mainland. But, if we hadn’t dropped the bomb, and did as the scientists suggested—share atomic “secrets” with the Russians, then relationships between the two systems would surely have taken a different course, perhaps a vastly different one. I also believe that our adoption of Cold War tactics prolonged the demise of the Soviet Union dictatorship because our confrontational posture fostered the continuation of hardline leadership in the Soviet Union. And we must never forget that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, we came within a whisker of a nuclear war, perhaps followed by a nuclear winter and then surely followed by a long decline in the human condition, if humans even survived such a calamitous event. I do not believe it would have taken much to unwind the militarists who wanted empire over a more peaceful planet. Those that promoted the turn towards militarism after the war were mostly unelected officials, including James Forrestal (a rabid anti-communist who because secretary of defense under Truman and later committed suicide), James Byrnes (a hardliner who became secretary of state under Truman). The militarists got their way and we continue to have alternative attitudes towards other countries such as China, which is either a military threat and must be contained, or is one of our largest trading partners who happens to own a significant part of our national debt.
I side with Stone and Kuznick: if Wallace had been picked as vice president in 1944, the election of 1948 would likely have been between Thomas Dewey and Henry Wallace and it would have been that election which determined whether the hardline attitude towards the Soviets would win out over the more conciliatory posture that Wallace preferred. The Russians were not a military threat at the end of WW II. Their country had been shattered during the war and they were in the process of demilitarizing to rebuild their country—they lost 27 million people in WW II. Just imagine what we would have done after such a disastrous loss—we surely would have been more focused on repairing our country than conquering new ones. But we would also demand security on our borders, especially since we won the war. Suppose Mexico has been one of the attacking forces aligned against us. After winning the war against them wouldn’t we demand that Mexico become more pacified and neutralized such that they could never again mount an attack against us? That is how Stalin viewed Poland. Russia’s demand for border security is precisely what we would have demanded after such a horrific conflict. In addition, FDR had established a good relationship with Stalin and referred to him as “Uncle Joe.” The documentary films we made during the Second World War, Why We Fight, directed by Frank Capra, eulogized the Russian contribution to the war and helped to establish Russia as an important ally in the struggle against fascism and in the minds of American citizens. If we had more clearly articulated recognition that it was the Russian army that won the war, the Russian army that saved American lives from a more devastating loss of life, we could have helped persuade the American electorate that there was no point in establishing a confrontational policy against the Soviets. We had promised to give $ 6 billion in aid to Russia, which Truman denied them at a point where such aid could have gone a long way to help the Russian people restore their badly torn country.
Truman was far more naive than Wallace about the ingredients needed to successfully steer the nation after the close of the war. Indeed it was Truman’s naivete that led to the Cold War and started us on a pathway to the state of militarism we find ourselves in today. It was Truman who naively got us into the Korean War as he slowly learned that America could never win a land war in Asia. For a more complete description of how Truman’s naivete helped create the Cold War, see here and here. The election of 1948, in which momentum had started to swing towards the attitudes that would cement us into the Cold War, Wallace’s challenge to Truman was the last stage in which we had an open discussion of the Cold War policies generated by the Truman administration before the door slammed on the alternative pathway to avoid the state of militarism that we have inherited from their Cold War policies. Truman stamped the American electorate with his own naive view of the world and sealed forever our reactionary impulses to foreign policy challenges. Although Truman started the process, it was unfortunate to see how easily Americans incorporated “anti-communism” into our national DNA. As one might predict for a country that chooses military might over more peaceful strategies, the slaying of the Communist dragon did not bring us a significant peace dividend. We still insist on American hegemony as our most prominent reflex when confronted with foreign policy challenges.With the invention of cyber warfare perhaps our future battles will take place with software rather than human lives and expensive hardware.
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