The Gathering Storm: If we remember anything from the 1948 election, it is probably the image of Harry Truman holding up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which errantly printed that his Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey, had won the election when in fact Truman was the victor. But, forgotten by most and unknown to many is what the substance of the 1948 election was really all about and how it served as the last opportunity for the American electorate to turn away from the rigid Cold War policies that Truman had initiated after the close of WW II, beginning shortly after the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April 1945. It was not Truman’s Republican opponent however who posed a challenge to his initiation of the Cold War. Indeed, if anything, Dewey and the Republicans wanted an even tougher stand against “Soviet Aggression.” The candidate who challenged Truman and outlined a more sensible strategy for dealing with the Soviets was the long forgotten third party candidate—a true American hero—Henry A. Wallace. Wallace ran on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948 and challenged Truman’s Cold War policies by claiming that the Soviets were more intent on securing their borders and rebuilding their shattered economy than they were in dominating the world through enslavement under Communism. Indeed, Wallace often remarked that we should let each side practice their system of governance and see which one did the better job for its people: a sort of “let the games begin” kind of attitude. Needless to say that did not sit well with the Truman crowd, who wanted a far more reactionary form of blood-letting against evil Communism at home and the Soviet Union abroad as the source of this vile threat to our more natural capitalist instincts.
Who was Henry Wallace? Henry A. Wallace was a pre-eminent figure in the early 1940s. He began his career as a farmer-scientist in Iowa. He had been editor of Wallace’s Farmer, perhaps the most widely read and influential farm journal in the United States that was started by his grandfather. He was the third in a succession of well-known Iowa farmers and showed early, precocious signs of proclivity for plant science. He attended what would become Iowa State University where he came under the influence of George Washington Carver and who helped him focus his passion for developing and testing hybrid corn seed. As a teenager, Wallace proved, through rigorous, carefully controlled experiments, that the appearance of corn as judged by contests in fairs, was unrelated to the genetic strain of the corn. Before his experiments, it was commonly accepted that these two parameters—genetics and corn vigor were inseparably linked—the gold standard view at the time and the basis of judging corn quality. But Wallace experimentally demonstrated that the robust, healthy appearance of corn had more to do with its acquired characteristics (through nutrition and hydration) than its genetic programming. In 1926, he started the Hi-Bred Corn Company, later renamed the Pioneer Hi-Bred company whose purpose was to develop and market new high-yield corn seed he had developed years before he became Secretary of Agriculture. His work in this area helped to change the world towards more science in agricultural techniques. The Hi-Bred company was hugely successful, making Wallace and his heirs rich. The new company revolutionized American agriculture and was eventually bought by DuPont for $9.4 billion in 1999. The Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC) of the United States Department of Agriculture is the largest agricultural research center in the world, located in Beltsville, Maryland, and is named for the most influential Secretary of Agriculture in history.
How Wallace became Secretary of Agriculture under FDR: Although Wallace came from a family of Republicans, he switched his party affiliation when Al Smith ran for the Presidency in 1928 and when FDR ran in 1932, his popularity in Iowa helped FDR win that state. FDR’s gratitude came in the form of Wallace’s appointment as the Secretary of Agriculture, a position his father had previously under Harding and Coolidge. Henry A. Wallace is generally acknowledged as the finest Secretary of Agriculture in the history of the department and his management was characterized by high efficiency and innovation. Many luminaries worked for Wallace in those days, such as John Kenneth Galbraith. Unlike the other secretaries under FDR, Wallace did not take a chauffeur-driven limousine to work each day, but favored walking the six mile round trip. He was a physical condition devotee, a good tennis player, boxer and loved hiking. He didn’t drink or smoke and was thus denied the opportunity to close deals and rub shoulders with politicians during the two martini lunches. Wallace served two terms as Secretary of Agriculture under FDR and then served as his vice-president from 1940-1944. It was anticipated that he would also be the vice-presidential choice in the campaign of 1944, which was Roosevelt’s last, but his statements against segregation in the South, and his support for equity of pay, regardless of race or gender and his continued promotion for the 20th century as the “century of the common man” made many Democrats, including many Southern Democrats uneasy and a conspiracy to unseat him in favor of Truman succeeded; FDR, who did not attend the Democratic convention in 1944, agreed to run with Truman instead of Wallace. Needless to say, Wallace was disappointed because he thought he was a shoe-in for the nomination and he was probably a bit shocked to see FDR’s seeming indifference to the selection process. At the time, Truman was a minor Senator from Missouri who had done nothing to distinguish himself and had failed as a small businessman in the private sector. As vice president, Truman was never taken into FDR’s confidence and no one explained to him what his policies should be if he was to continue with the New Deal after the war. Not that it would have made any difference. Although the research program to produce the atom bomb was winding down with the fabrication of a new weapon, Truman was so far out of touch with the FDR administration that when he became President in April, 1945, he didn’t even know about the Manhattan Project to build the bomb. Yet as the new President, he would soon be confronted with the decision whether or not to use the bomb against Japan. But, in fairness to Truman, in the absence of any consultation with FDR, where he might have acquired better judgment about dealing with Stalin and the Russians after the war, left him to formulate his own inner circle of hawks and resolute anticommunists. As a result and quite predictably, Truman would move to the right and surround himself with men who would facilitate his hard-line attitude towards the Soviet Union.
FDR gave Commerce to Wallace: To help patch things up with the liberal democrats, who were disappointed that Wallace had not been named as FDR’s Vice-President in 1944, he told Wallace that he could have any cabinet position he wanted and Wallace chose the Department of Commerce, displacing one of his old nemeses, Jesse Jones, a conservative member of FDR’s cabinet who had objected to Wallace’s idea that workers in South America that were being employed for the war effort by American support, should be paid a liveable wage for their efforts. Jesse Jones objected by calling Wallace a “reckless spendthrift,” so by replacing Jones, Wallace had one less oppositional cabinet official to deal with. But in the Truman administration Wallace became increasingly alienated by Truman’s hard-line attitude towards the Soviet Union. He resigned as Secretary of Commerce in 1946.
Wallace was not afraid of Communism: Unlike Truman, Wallace did not fear Communism; he had resonated with the Russian people when he visited that country in 1944. Indeed, Wallace’s travels during the Second World War (ten days after Pearl Harbor, FDR formed the Board of Economic Warfare and named Wallace to head it; never before or since has a Vice President had so much executive authority) had taken him to many countries, where he assimilated a far more international sense of the global condition than Truman would ever have. His focus was much more on the people being governed rather than the form of government imposed on them. He always took a keen interest on farm productivity and how it might be improved in each country to feed more people. This is an issue today that has come full circle as we face food shortage problems created by global climate change. The Arab Spring revolt had a lot to do with food price escalation created by food scarcity emanating from a poor wheat crop in Russia. Food production was a constant theme when Wallace visited other countries. In contrast, Truman’s policies, in part stimulated by America’s development and use of the atomic bomb, began the process that we are only coming to grips with as a nation—to establish American hegemony over Russia: Truman’s rigid, hard-line attitude, allowed him to succeed in dividing the world in two—the Communists and the Capitalists, with the United States as the flag-bearer intent on stamping out the evils of Communism which, according to the Truman doctrine, was a system designed to rule the world, while robbing us of our capitalist pleasures. In the post-war anticommunist fever, it increasingly became a minority opinion that Russia was a country who had lost 27 million of its citizens during the war, with an economy in shambles, destroyed by Hitler’s invading Army. Russia finally won out through a war of attrition against the invading army and improvements in the production of Russian armaments. Though Russia was a World War II victor, the cost was devastatingly high. It also seemed to occur to few in America that Russia was demobilizing rather than preparing for a global conflict. It was America that rattled her sword and talked of war.
To be continued……
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