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Henry Agard Wallace, 33rd Vice President (1941-1945)

Henry A. Wallace

Prefaced by the stormy Democratic nominating convention of 1940, the vice-presidency of Henry A. Wallace concluded with the equally tempestuous 1944 convention. In 1940, when Vice President John Nance Garner broke with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and withdrew to Texas, Roosevelt designated Wallace as his running mate over the considerable objection of many convention delegates. Four years later, in 1944, Roosevelt jettisoned Wallace in favor of Harry S. Truman, who then succeeded to the presidency following Roosevelt's death. During his single term, Henry Wallace became more involved in administrative and foreign policy matters than any of his predecessors. Although widely judged a failure as vice president, Wallace was in many ways a forerunner of the modern vice presidents, who often serve as executive assistant and international emissary for the president.

As Roosevelt planned to run for a third term in 1940, he wanted to revolutionize the role of the vice president and make the office into an "additional set of eyes and ears." He sought someone who could handle administrative questions and large national policies without being a member of the cabinet. As an active secretary of agriculture and a committed New Dealer, Henry Wallace seemed the ideal person for the job. But Wallace's visionary social liberalism, his mysticism, his curiously shy and introspective personal demeanor, and his political insensitivity, all prevented him from gathering the support from congressional leaders that would have enabled him to sustain a successful political career in Washington. Because few senators came to know Wallace personally, they often judged his character on the basis of his poorly delivered speeches and unusual appearance. Journalist Allen Drury, who observed the vice president often from the Senate press gallery, described Wallace as follows: "A shock of silver-graying hair sweeps over to the right of his head in a great shaggy arc. He looks like a hayseed, talks like a prophet, and acts like an embarassed schoolboy." Drury recorded sympathetically in his diary that he found it difficult to "put into exact words the combination of feelings he arouses. The man's integrity and his idealism and his sainted other-worldliness are never in question; it's just the problem of translating them into everyday language and making them jibe with his shy, embarrassed, uncomfortable good-fellowship that is so difficult." Drury considered Henry Wallace doomed by fate. "No matter what he does, it is always going to seem faintly ridiculous, and no matter how he acts, it is always going to seem faintly pathetic—at least to the cold-eyed judgments of the Hill."


Henry A. Wallace was born on October 7, 1888, near the town of Orient, Iowa, an oddly appropriate location for someone who would become so fascinated with oriental philosophy. Wallace was also deeply influenced by Iowa's rural culture. The agrarian lifestyle and communal society of turn-of-the-century Iowa formed his values, especially the idealism for which he is remembered. As a student at Iowa State College he studied plant genetics and crossbreeding. He discovered and patented a successful strain of corn that produced a greater yield while resisting disease better than normal corn. This triumph allowed the young Wallace to found his own business to manufacture and distribute the plants, a venture that gave him valuable experience for his later career in public service.

The future vice president was actually the third Henry Wallace. The first, his grandfather, had been a Presbyterian preacher turned farmer, who became editor of the Iowa Homestead and publisher of Wallace's Farmer. These heavily read agricultural journals spread the Wallace name over the Iowa countryside and throughout the rural Midwest. The vice president's father, Henry Cantwell Wallace, served as secretary of agriculture in the administrations of presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge from 1921 until his death in 1924. Henry Agard Wallace took over as publisher of the family journal when his father went to Washington, continuing in that role until he himself moved to Washington as secretary of agriculture in 1933.

The Wallaces had traditionally been a Republican family, but the shock of the Great Depression and its impact on rural America forced Henry A. Wallace to reevaluate his political affiliations. Disgruntled by the Coolidge and Hoover agricultural policies, Wallace threw his support to the Democrats. In 1932, Wallace supported Franklin Roosevelt, who in turn selected Wallace as his secretary of agriculture.

Secretary of Agriculture

An active secretary of agriculture, Wallace took to heart the needs and fears of his agricultural constituents. In addition to helping American farmers sustain themselves during the economic downturn, his Department of Agriculture oversaw the creation and development of the food stamp and school lunch programs that greatly aided urban America. In 1934, Wallace published a book about the economic turbulence of the depression and its repercussions on farmers, which he titled New Frontiers. In it Wallace outlined the visionary politics that he employed in his subsequent writings and speeches. Later observers would compare both the title and the themes of this book with the ideas espoused by John F. Kennedy.

Drastic times called for drastic measures. A firm supporter of government economic intervention, Wallace vigorously implemented the controversial measures of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. Never before in peacetime, had the federal government sought to regulate production in American farming, with government planning designed to battle overproduction and low prices. Additionally, Wallace offered hog and cotton farmers a single opportunity to improve their stagnating markets by ploughing under ten million acres of cotton and slaughtering six million pigs. For these losses, the government would issue relief checks totalling millions of dollars. Although it earned him the nickname "The Greatest Butcher in Christendom," the program essentially worked, and the market experienced a 50-percent rise in prices. Wallace scorned those who ridiculed his plans without considering the logic behind them, observing, "Perhaps they think that farmers should run a sort of old-folks home for hogs." Having proved himself an effective, energetic cabinet member, Wallace remained in office through Roosevelt's first two terms. By 1940, with Europe plunged into war, there was talk of an unprecedented third term, and Wallace was among those who endorsed the president's reelection. Because Vice President John Nance Garner, who aspired to the presidency himself, strongly opposed a third term, Roosevelt sought a new running mate for the 1940 election once he made the decision to run. FDR's choice of Wallace marked a turning point in the history of the vice-presidency. Never before had the president so openly made the selection. In the past, the main function of a vice president was usually to balance the ticket, to unite the party, and to pull in voters not normally drawn by the presidential candidate himself, with comparatively little attention paid to the compatibility of the two men. Presidential candidates generally acceded to the wishes of their party conventions in completing the ticket.

The 1940 Election

The Republicans in 1940 had chosen a dynamic darkhorse candidate for president, Wendell Willkie, and to balance the ticket the convention had selected the Republican Senate minority leader, Charles McNary of Oregon. During the 1920s, McNary had chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee and had won national attention, particularly in agricultural areas, for his sponsorship of the McNary-Haugen bills. Vetoed by presidents Coolidge and Hoover, these bills were forerunners of the New Deal's agricultural program. Seeking to neutralize McNary's popularity in the farm belt, FDR decided to make his secretary of agriculture his vice president. Roosevelt also felt confident that, if anything happened to him, Wallace would vigorously pursue the liberal objectives of the New Deal. Democratic convention delegates were furious, however, since they considered the former Republican Wallace as an outsider, lacking any of the qualities of a typical politician. When warned that the delegates might revolt, Roosevelt made it clear that "they will go for Wallace or I won't run, and you can jolly well tell them so." Party leaders reluctantly capitulated to the president's demand and nominated Wallace, but the convention's mood was so sour that Wallace decided not to make an acceptance speech.

Shortly after Wallace became the vice-presidential candidate, stories circulated about his religious beliefs. Having abandoned the Calvinism of his youth, he had studied Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Christian Science, finally settling into the Episcopal Church in Washington. But Wallace had also fallen under the influence of a Russian-born "guru" named Nicholas Roerich. During the 1930s, Wallace had written a series of letters to one of Roerich's associates, detailing his spiritual beliefs and his candid observations about contemporary political leaders. These so-called "guru letters" fell into the hands of Republicans, who considered releasing them to embarrass Wallace during the campaign. Democrats countered with evidence that presidential candidate Willkie had carried on an extramarital affair. Although the two parties eventually agreed to a quid pro quo that suppressed both the "guru letters" and the Willkie affair, the news shook some of Roosevelt's confidence in his running mate. Nonetheless, the Democratic team swept the election.

Wartime Vice President

When he first took office, Wallace found the job of vice president untaxing. During the early months of his tenure, he had more time for tennis than ever before, but as the United States moved closer to war the vice president began to assume unprecedented duties, being assigned executive tasks to allow Roosevelt more freedom to deal with international affairs. One of Wallace's biographers, Richard Walton, has asserted that "never before, nor since, has a Vice President had so much direct executive authority." Others referred to him as the first "working" vice president. Named a member of FDR's secret "war cabinet," Wallace chaired the Economic Defense Board, the Supply Priorities and Allocations Board, and the Board of Economic Warfare. Journalists began to refer to him as "Mr. Assistant President."

Divided into an Office of Imports, Office of Exports, and Office of War Analysis, the Board of Economic Warfare (BEW) supported the Allied war effort through procurement of strategic resources. As chairman, Wallace freed himself to deal with long-term policy matters by delegating the day-to-day management of the BEW to Milo Perkins, an associate from the Agriculture Department. Like many special boards created by President Roosevelt, the BEW came in for its share of interdepartmental bickering, rivalries, and conflicts of authority. Although Roosevelt expressly forbade federal government agencies to publicly criticize each other during the war, Wallace, after eight years of fighting within the cabinet, failed to recognize that the president was serious about this order. Wallace's diary traces his fight to gain greater autonomy for the BEW and his many clashes with cabinet officers like Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of Commerce Jesse Jones. These established bureaucrats did not relish the thought of an activist vice president assuming responsibilities that their departments normally held. Wallace believed that the wartime emergency required drastic action to deal with problems like rubber shortages, while Jones and Hull believed that existing mechanisms could solve even wartime demands. Wallace's assertion of his authority to purchase materiel vital to the war effort spawned conspicuous political battles.

When Roosevelt signed an executive order in April 1942 allowing the BEW to negotiate contracts with foreign governments, Secretary Hull saw it as an attempt to create a second Department of State. Wallace's goals for social justice ran against the grain of Hull's State Department policies. For instance, Wallace was firmly convinced that the Latin American rubber supply could be increased dramatically if the living standards of that region's rubber workers were raised to reduce the incidence of chronic malnutrition and malaria. He attempted to force negotiated contracts to provide for socially beneficial improvements to the Latin American infrastructure, with the United States funding half the cost of these programs. Wallace's acquisition of executive authority had been unpopular with the rank and file in Congress, and most members supported Hull, a former senator, in his attacks on the BEW and its chairman. A growing consensus that Wallace had pushed a too active program in Latin America caused Roosevelt to issue another executive order, which preserved the State Department's monopoly on negotiations with foreign governments, a blow aimed directly at Wallace's authority.

  The BEW controversy climaxed in February 1943, when Wallace tried to place the purchasing authority of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) under the BEW's jurisdiction. An infuriated Commerce Secretary Jesse Jones roundly denounced what he considered Wallace's arrogant action. When Wallace retaliated by accusing Jones of delaying shipments of quinine to marines dying of malaria, the imbroglio became too hot for Roosevelt to ignore. The embattled vice president wrote to the president, asking for either complete vindication for his actions in the matter or relief of his duties as chairman of the BEW. Roosevelt responded on July 15, 1943, by dissolving the BEW and reconstituting its function under a new Foreign Economic Administration, headed by Leo Crowley, a known supporter of Jones. By revealing the strained relations between the president and vice president, the order substantially weakened Wallace's position in Washington politics. Until then, Wallace had been "the ideal and inspiration of every little world-planner in Washington," wrote the commentator Raymond Moley. "After Roosevelt abolished the BEW . . . it was clear to them that they must forsake their high priest and follow the president."

As Senate President

In spite of his earlier success as agriculture secretary, Wallace demonstrated acute political insensitivity in his failure at BEW. "I did not look on myself as very much of a politician," he said, revealingly. Wallace disliked the formalities and superficialities of the political world, particularly as practiced on Capitol Hill, and he lacked the small-talk abilities critical in a system so dependent on unofficial meetings and social politics. Senate staff member Richard Riedel judged Wallace "the least congressional of all the Vice Presidents" and recorded that he possessed "none of the political talents that enable public figures to mingle with and influence each other."

Wallace never fit into the Senate's club-like atmosphere, in part because he refused to join the club. One of his first acts as president of the Senate was to close down the private bar that "Cactus Jack" Garner had maintained to entertain senators in his office—Wallace himself neither drank nor smoked. Later, when Wallace hit a home run during a congressional baseball game, a senator observed that it clearly "furnished more pleasure [for him] than any political contest." The Spartan, health-conscious Wallace chose to demonstrate his physical prowess over the men who held him at a political arm's length. During a friendly boxing match, he knocked out Louisiana Senator Allen Ellender, who had been less than supportive of Wallace's vice-presidency.

As the Senate's presiding officer, Wallace found his duties monotonous and boring. He disdained the senators' right of unlimited debate and slumped down "unceremoniously" in the presiding officer's chair during the proceedings. When he tried to intervene in debate, the senators slapped him down. Wallace once suffered an embarrassing browbeating from Tennessee's crusty Kenneth McKellar, who had been arguing over the rules of the Senate for several hours. When Wallace, from the chair, declared this tirade a "parliamentary trick," McKellar launched into an attack on the presiding officer and ultimately forced Wallace to apologize for his impetuous insult. Left only with his constitutional role of breaking tie votes, Wallace was able to cast only four votes—the most satisfying being to prevent the Senate from terminating the Civilian Conservation Corps.

A Roving Vice President

It soon became clear that Wallace's aspirations lay beyond the Senate chamber. More interested in the issues of the world, he became the first vice president to take an active role in foreign policy, serving as the president's personal ambassador. Wallace made his first trip in late 1940, when Roosevelt sent him to the inauguration of Mexican President Camacho, whose disputed election threatened Mexican political stability and U.S. access to Mexican trade. Having studied the language, Wallace eagerly delivered a speech in Spanish to the crowd gathered at the Mexican capital—an effort that won him thunderous applause. In 1943 Wallace made an official tour of Costa Rica, Panama, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. At every stop he took pains to meet the common people and converse with them in their native tongue. He traveled without a large entourage and refused to accept costly ceremonial gifts. The images of bitter suffering and poverty that he encountered in these underdeveloped countries convinced Wallace of the need for U.S. humanitarian aid and strengthened his resolve to struggle for a lasting postwar peace.

In 1944 the president asked Wallace to make an even more ambitious and dangerous trip to China and the Soviet Union. Historians continue to speculate on whether Roosevelt expected Wallace to accomplish anything diplomatically or simply wanted the vice president out of the country while preparing to dump him from the Democratic ticket. Whatever was at stake, Wallace felt exuberant and optimistic about the possibilities of his venture. FDR asked him to foster greater cooperation between Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist forces in China and to prod the Nationalists into stepping up their campaign against the Japanese.

Arriving in Siberia, Wallace tried again to meet the indigenous population as he had in Latin America. Even though he spoke little Russian and had to use an interpreter, he insisted on delivering an address in Russian at Irkutsk. He visited the collective farms in several Siberian villages and seemed most impressed with their productivity. These observations planted the seeds of Wallace's respectful impression of the Soviet Union. Later analysis revealed that his visit had been considerably more orchestrated by the Soviets than Wallace or the rest of his party had realized. Wallace saw the famous Soviet Academy of Science but not the advanced atomic experiments being conducted there. Similarly, he was never taken to visit the nearby forced-labor camps and consequently gained a distorted view of Soviet life.

After touring Russia, Wallace's modest entourage of diplomats arrived in Chungking to begin their most difficult and least successful task—trying to solve China's major wartime problems. Unprepared for the sad state of Chiang Kai-shek's regime, Wallace concluded that cooperation between the Nationalists and Communists would be nearly impossible. Nevertheless, he managed to negotiate an agreement by which U.S. forces were to enter northern China to set up weather stations to aid in bombing raids against the Japanese. Although the publicity from Wallace's first two goodwill tours had been highly positive and had helped him to redefine the vice president's role in foreign relations, his final journey gravely damaged his political career.

Wallace's favorable view of the Soviet Union became increasingly pronounced and more widely discussed. Shortly before his marathon tour of Russia and China, Wallace wrote an article for the New York Times, called "The Dangers of American Fascism," in which he condemned the rising tide of anti-Soviet propaganda. Seeking to break down the wall of ignorance between the Russian and American cultures, he anticipated that the two peoples would eventually find they shared the same hopes and fears and could live together in friendship. His visit to Russia, and the warm welcome he received there, further softened his views. Wallace compared the Soviet citizens he visited in Siberia with the farm families of the Midwest whom he had known as a boy. His warm regard for the Soviet Union earned him a liberal identity during the war and a heretical image during the cold war that followed.

Wallace's Idealism

Wallace envisioned a postwar era governed by an international peacekeeping force and an international court, rather than through balance-of-power politics. His plan also called for an end to European imperialism in Asia and Africa. In an address to the Free World Association on May 8, 1942, Wallace outlined his "Century of the Common Man," in which he endorsed federal support for education and collective health care for workers. These proposals would have required continuing the initiatives of the New Deal era that Wallace so admired, but the administration lacked sufficient political capital to promote an expanded program of domestic social welfare, because of the enhanced executive war powers adopted by the president. More than the New Deal inspired Henry Wallace. Christian morality and the social gospel formed the fundamental inspiration behind his speeches. As a product of Protestant liberalism, he adhered to the principles of the Sermon on the Mount and saw himself as bound to accomplish the work of the Lord.

President Roosevelt admired and sought to harness his vice president's idealistic liberalism, while at the same time trying to teach him how the political machinery of Washington really operated. Roosevelt thought that Wallace was a few years ahead of his time and expected that his ideas would eventually be realized. Yet Wallace's inability to grasp Washington politics led to a marked decline in the vice president's stature on Capitol Hill in the final year of his tenure. Growing hostility between the executive branch and the conservatively oriented Congress finally convinced FDR that Wallace had become an expensive political liability.

The 1944 Election

As the 1944 elections approached, four influential Democrats decided to ensure that Wallace was not nominated in the next Democratic convention. Terming themselves the "Conspiracy of the Pure in Heart," the four consisted of Democratic party chairman Robert Hannegan, Postmaster General Frank Walker, New York Democratic party chief Ed Flynn, and Democratic party treasurer Edwin Pauley. The Democratic leadership had unsuccessfully opposed Wallace in the 1940 nomination convention, but this time they had the advantage of Roosevelt's declining health and his increasing preoccupation with wartime diplomacy.

Roosevelt himself appears to have grown dissatisfied with the vice president's record. Wallace had not proved himself to be the political partner Roosevelt had hoped he would become. The president's motivation in sending Wallace overseas at a critical political time at home may therefore have been devious. The Asian journey allowed Wallace no time to campaign and made him vulnerable to political attack. When Wallace returned to Washington's National Airport, he faced reporters who asked if he planned to withdraw from the race. The vice president replied, "I am seeing the president at 4:30. I have a report to make on a mission to China. I do not want to talk politics."

But Wallace did try to make a compelling case that he should continue as FDR's running mate, indicating that he had the support of labor leaders and rank and file Democrats. In that conversation on July 11, Roosevelt appeared sympathetic to keeping Wallace on the team. Wallace asked the president to communicate his support in writing to the Democratic leadership, assuming that the endorsement of the terribly popular chief executive would resolve the matter as it had four years earlier. Roosevelt's letter, however, emphasized that he had no desire to dictate to the convention. This approach left the door open to the "Conspiracy of the Pure in Heart" to find a replacement for Wallace. These party leaders first considered the director of the Office of War Mobilization, James F. Byrnes of South Carolina, a former senator and Supreme Court justice, before finally settling on Senator Harry Truman of Missouri. In effect, FDR had astutely removed his hand from the process, knowing full well what would happen to Wallace without his active support.

Nonetheless, at the 1944 Democratic convention in Chicago, Wallace showed surprising popularity among the delegates, threatening to ruin the Democratic leadership's carefully orchestrated plan to dump him. After his rousing speech, cheering delegates began to shout for "Wallace in '44." The convention chairman, Indiana Senator Samuel D. Jackson, noted the crowd's enthusiasm and feared that Wallace might win on the first ballot. He therefore called for an adjournment until the next day, blaming fire code infractions due to the more than capacity crowd at the convention center. Although the nays drowned out the ayes on the motion, the chairman declared the session adjourned. During the night, Roosevelt's ambiguous letter of support circulated among the delegates and undermined Wallace's position. The next day, the delegates selected Senator Truman for vice president. Jubilant Democratic leaders later boasted of their role in the affair. Party chairman Hannegan told friends that his epitaph should read, "Here lies the man who kept Henry Wallace from being President of the United States."

Commerce Secretary

Although defeated for renomination, Wallace did not retire from politics. His active campaigning for FDR's fourth term led the president to reward his loyalty with appointment as secretary of commerce. Some have suggested that Roosevelt believed the Senate would never confirm Wallace. In his letter firing Jesse Jones as commerce secretary, FDR admitted that Wallace's appointment was a repayment for his "utmost devotion to our cause." This letter caused a storm of debate in Congress and the press. Members of Congress expressed serious doubt about Wallace's abilities and were particularly disturbed at the prospect that he would take charge of the billions of dollars of loans made by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC). As a compromise, senators who wished to let the president have his appointment yet shuddered at giving their former presiding officer power, voted to transfer the money-lending responsibilities of the RFC out of the Commerce Department's jurisdiction. Stripped of his economic influence, Wallace was confirmed.

Wallace's short career directing the Commerce Department was racked with controversy. Eighty-two days after Wallace left office as vice president, Franklin Roosevelt died, making Harry Truman president. Truman's administration took a decidedly hard-line turn against the Soviet Union, a policy that, coupled with the increasing influence of conservatives in Truman's cabinet, confounded and alienated Wallace. Expressing his disapproval of Truman's foreign policy, Wallace wrote a twelve-page letter urging the United States to exercise caution in abandoning its powerful wartime ally. Wallace firmly believed that the only way to end the spread of communism was to raise the world's standards of living. In a speech at Madison Square Garden in September 1946, Wallace warned that American foreign policy towards Russia could lead to a third world war. Although Wallace had previously cleared his remarks with Truman, his speech occurred at the very time Secretary of State James Byrnes was negotiating with Soviet authorities in Paris. Byrnes charged that Wallace's speech had undermined U.S. policy and suggested damaging disunity within the administration. Shortly thereafter, Truman fired Wallace as secretary of commerce.

Later Years

Wallace's final public action was a failed bid for the presidency in 1948. Still commanding a modest following from left-wing groups, he ran on the Progressive ticket, campaigning against Truman, the Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, and the Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond. Support from the Communist party damaged Wallace's campaign by alienating many liberals and other voters. The aggressive actions of the Soviets in Berlin and Czechoslovakia also turned voters against Wallace. The former vice president had little impact on the election, except by capturing enough votes in New York to throw that state to Dewey. Rather than present himself as the liberal, internationalist alternative to the cold warriors, Wallace had bolted to a third party. This action, combined with the walkout of conservative southern Democrats over the issue of civil rights, made Truman appear to be the centrist candidate carrying on the traditions of Roosevelt and the New Deal, thus enabling him to win the upset victory of the century.

Following his defeat in 1948, Henry Wallace retired from official political life. He still believed in his concept of world peace and worked for social justice in Latin America, travelling there on numerous occasions and persuading foundations to support the region's developing nations. In retirement, Wallace continued his genetic experimentation on various strains of corn and other crops, a scientific inquiry that provided him with the satisfaction his political career had lacked. At the end of his life, as he suffered from Lou Gehrig's Disease, Wallace continued to reflect on international issues and worried about the United States' deepening involvement in Vietnam. He traced the origins of that war back to the beginning of the cold war, "when I was getting the hell kicked out of me for suggesting that we were taking on more than we could chew." Wallace died on November 18, 1965, in Danbury, Connecticut.

Henry Wallace will be remembered as an unusual vice president because of the circumstances of his rise and fall from power and because of his unprecedented executive responsibilities. His foreign travels also forged new political paths that later vice presidents would follow. Clearly Wallace's personal eccentricities contributed to his political failure in Washington politics. Yet, viewed in retrospect from after the end of the cold war, his visionary social liberalism—so radically different from the politics of Harry Truman—raises the question of how world events might have been different had the vote for vice president at the 1944 Democratic convention not been delayed overnight.