Henry Wallace was born on October 1888 and would ultimately play an important role in American politics during the destabilizing impact of the Great Depression (1929-1938) and the Second World War (1939-1945) – a global catastrophe that would ultimately claim the lives of 50 million human beings.
In spite of the devastating impact that these events exerted on the individual human psyche, Wallace remained optimistic about the future. He had a vision of a human world at peace that he expressed in the following way, “The day will come when this world will be more secure, when people who ask only to live a good life here and make a living will not be driven to meanness and to littleness, to a calculated denial of the highest capabilities and to hate. We live by these ancient standards of withdrawal and denial in a world bursting with potential abundance. The fears, coupled with the narrowness and hatred of our forefathers, are embodied in our political and educational institutions and bred in our bones. It will only be a little at a time that we can work ourselves free.”
He envisioned a future society that he referred to as a cooperative commonwealth where use and need would drive the economic engine rather than capitalism and its inherent striving for profit. It was societal model that took the intermediate path between capitalism and socialism. In addition, his vision included a predominant role for science and technology in shaping a more humane society. He denounced the excesses of imperialism, yet encouraged the expansion of international trade. Wallace maintained a democratic ideal in that he was convinced that profound social change would necessarily come to fruition when individuals voluntarily changed their thinking. Within this ideological framework, he was convinced that science and technology would play a fundamental role in this transition ultimately leading to the development of what he referred to as a “new man.”
Wallace was the grandson of a Presbyterian minister and grew up in a farm family at a time in the nation’s history when technological changes were having a profound impact on individuals’ lives and livelihoods. He was a descendent of Scottish Protestants who settled in Ireland around 1690. His predecessors immigrated to Western Pennsylvania in 1823; they arrived penniless. His paternal grandfather had an adventurous spirit and became a prosperous farmer. Wallace’s father, Henry Cantwell Wallace, was a teacher, journalist and farmer who married in 1887 and his son, Henry Agard Wallace, was born in 1888. Shortly after his birth, the nation experienced a serious economic depression in 1890 that had a deleterious impact on the family’s income. As a result, his father moved with his family to Des Moines, Iowa. In this new location, he started a farm newspaper entitled, Wallace’s Farmer.
Wallace’s father was a leader of the progressive movement of that era and was vehemently opposed to the Bryant-Populist Alliance of 1896. This so-called alliance represented the narrow views of white and poor cotton farmers in the South – a worldview that was decidedly anti-elitist. At that time, there was a strong farmer-laborer movement that actively protested against what was seen as the New Industrialism. Wallace’s political philosophy was, in effect, greatly influenced by his family that had a long tradition of progressive activism.
Wallace, following his father’s example, became enamored of journalism and the intricacies and implications of national policy. Given this progressive mindset, it is not surprising that he became a “New Dealer” – the New Deal represented that set of public policies that became the political trademark of the presidential administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). Wallace was not without contradiction in terms of finding a balance between the liberal ideal in regards to individual life and the social conformity and the more rigid structures required to accommodate capitalist expansion. In this regard, he embraced the social liberalism in Europe where capitalism was held in check through the active intervention of the State in the national economy for the purpose of protecting the general welfare. He also became an advocate of organized labor as a means to constrain corporate power.
After two devastating world wars that dominated the twentieth century, a means was sought to manage the momentum of capitalism – social liberalism was a means to accomplish this as an alternative to socialism. Within this worldview, the corporate revolution of the nineteenth century had undermined the equality of opportunity and individual freedom as exemplified by the nature of industrial production - especially in regards to factory work where the worker relinquished his freedom during the time of his employ in return for wages.
In response to the impact of expansionist capitalism, Wallace envisioned a society in which the State would become the mediator - finding a middle ground between laissez faire on one hand and socialism on the other. This role of government is paradoxical in nature; for, it attempts to condemn social injustice while embracing capitalism as its economic paradigm. It was Wallace’s hope that the ineluctable advancement of scientific knowledge and its application through technology would necessarily exert a humanizing influence upon the economic system and the general welfare.
In essence, Wallace was an influential advocate for the role of science in society, a devout Christian and was a proponent of a more progressive form of capitalism. He derived much of the inspiration for his thinking from his religious background. He had a deep and abiding passion for the Old Testament and saw in the visionary teachings of Jesus Christ a belief in the destiny of humanity to establish a commonwealth of the common man. A more practical influence for Wallace was the writings of the British economist and thinker John Maynard Keynes – a contemporary of Wallace (1883-1921), who established the principles of modern macroeconomics. It was these two seemingly disparate influences that steered him in the direction of American liberalism.
Wallace attended Iowa State College in 1906 where he studied plant genetics, agricultural economics and quantitative analysis, demonstrating his interest in science, technology and their application in the field of agriculture. Wallace became convinced of the essential role of science and technology within the framework of human progress. In this regard, he was especially interested in the writings of William James who espoused a pragmatic philosophy and view of life. Another important influence on the thinking of the young Wallace was the work of the economist Thorsten Veblen who wrote the highly influential books, entitled, The Theory of the Leisure Class and The Theory of the Business Cycle and emphasized the need for the use of statistics in defining, quantifying and ultimately resolving economic issues.
As Wallace’s thinking evolved he came to believe that economic and social institutions failed to keep pace with the ever-advancing technology and that a highly specialized and elite engineering class was required to help direct the progress of humanity. Within this overarching view he conceived of a unique role for production engineers and statistical economists. Philosophically, his conceptions may be defined as an evolutionary positivism where progressive social change naturally occurs as more information is made available and society is able to make rational judgments regarding communal problems based on this ever-expanding knowledge base. Wallace became convinced that with access to technology and sufficient data, humanity would build a cooperative and productive society that he defined as a “cooperative commonwealth.” He envisioned such a commonwealth as a result of the union of reason and technology.
Wallace’s overall worldview helped determine his political affiliations. He was contemptuous of President Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) and concluded that agriculture fared poorly in the administrations of Presidents Warren G. Harding (1921-1923) and Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929). These conclusions came in direct conflict with his family’s Republican Party affiliation. In fact, his father had served as Secretary of Agriculture under both the Harding and Coolidge administrations.
He supported, with some reservations, the candidacy of Al Smith for President, who ran in the 1928 general election. Wallace enthusiastically embraced the ideas of John Dewey who spoke of the “new individualism” and professed the idea that economic security was a necessary component of true freedom.
With the onslaught of the Great Depression (1929-1938) Wallace characterized the 30’s as representing, “days of great despair.” As a consequence, he sought implementation of public policies within the political context of social liberalism and advocated for programs calling for public works legislation and currency and credit inflation.
Wallace had a strong desire to seek national office; for, he had confidence that his political ideology had resonance with national aspirations and he felt his message was compelling. He became a registered Democrat. Due to his close association with and support of FDR during the general election of 1932, he secured the cabinet post of Secretary of Agriculture and held that post from 1933 through 1940. In this position, he called for the solidarity of the agricultural and labor interests. This abiding support of agriculture is not surprising given his upbringing.
In his book entitled, New Frontiers (1934), he portrayed Roosevelt’s New Deal as a populist movement striving for economic democracy. Wallace saw his role in the New Deal as mediating between the extremes of total security and total freedom.
Wallace threw his support to the nomination of FDR to a controversial third term as President – at that time there were no legal limitations upon the number of consecutive terms an individual could serve as President. The current limitation of two consecutive terms in office for the presidency was set by the 22nd amendment to the Constitution that was ratified in 1947. FDR threatened to withdraw his candidacy if Wallace was not chosen as his Vice-Presidential running mate and within his formal letter he wrote, “Until the Democratic party made clear its overwhelming stand in support of liberalism and shakes off all the shackles of conservatism and reaction, it will not continue it march to victory.”
Ultimately, it was America’s entry into World War II that ended the Great Depression. Due to the extraordinary nature of the political and economic climate during that time, Wallace was given unusual authority and responsibility as Vice-President. He became Chairman of the Board of Economic Welfare (BEW) and a member of the Supply Priorities and Allocations Board (SPAB). Both of these posts were especially important for a country soon to be on a wartime footing. He also served as national emissary to Latin America and China.
It is not surprising that Wallace would be vociferously opposed to Hitler’s fascistic vision of the future given his political perspective. He also took exception to Henry Luce’s conception of the so-called “American Century.” This term characterized the 20th century as being wholly dominated by America in the spheres of politics, economics and culture. This conception was first enunciated by Henry Luce, publisher of Time magazine. Luce was the son of a missionary and was steeped in conservative religious values. In an editorial that appeared in the Feb. 17, 1941 edition of Life magazine, in which he first referred to the American Century, he wrote that America’s role in international affairs was, “to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit."
Wallace had a contrary notion – he envisioned the 20th century being the century of the Common Man. He outlined this idea in a speech – and later in a book with same title - he made on May 8, 1942 to the Free World Association. He foresaw a post-war world embracing prosperity devoid of colonialism and economic exploitation. It was an idealistic vision that was not well-received amongst the economic and political elite.
Wallace inevitably found himself at odds with some of his peers in government. This situation became so adversarial that FDR reduced some of Wallace’s official responsibilities, and Wallace ultimately lost the nomination for Vice President to Harry S. Truman during the 1944 general election. During FDR’s final administration, he offered Wallace the cabinet post of Secretary of Commerce and on April 12, 1945 FDR died leaving Truman as the president. In September of the following year, Wallace was “relieved” of his cabinet position due in large part to his ongoing disagreement with Truman regarding the new president’s policies directed against the Soviet Union.
In civilian life, Wallace became editor of the New Republic magazine. In this capacity, he took the opportunity to openly criticize Truman’s handling of foreign policy especially the Truman Doctrine – a doctrine that represented the beginnings of what would be eventually referred to as the Cold War. Unable to stay away from possibility of reentering public life and countering what he saw as the disastrous policies of Truman, Wallace became the presidential nominee for the Progressive Party during the general election of 1948. The salient aspects of his party’s platform included friendly relations with the Soviet Union; an end to what Wallace considered to be the politics of fear, an end to segregation, full voting rights for Blacks, and universal government health insurance. As an expression of his convictions, he adamantly refused to campaign in front of segregated audiences or frequent segregated businesses. Furthermore, he did not object to the endorsement of the Communist Party for his candidacy. Taking such positions was deleterious to his chances and he ultimately received a paltry 2.4% of the popular vote.
This last defeat represented his final exit from the public arena. He subsequently devoted his efforts to farming and made some significant contributions to agricultural science including a new breed of chicken. In fact, the Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland bears his name. In looking back at his political career he honestly assessed where he made some errors in judgment especially regarding his naive trust in the nature of Joseph Stalin’s leadership and of his initial views regarding Communism.
Finally, in 1964 he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He died on November 18, 1965. In the final analysis, Wallace had made considerable and lasting contributions to the progressive movement in the United States especially in regard to economic democracy at a time when the nation was in the midst of a severe and debilitating series of grave national issues.