Miles's Reviews > American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace

American Dreamer by John C. Culver
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's review
Jul 10, 2011

it was amazing
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Read in July, 2011

If you've ever sat around wondering about the dismal state of progressive politics in the U.S., the biography of Henry Agard Wallace provides an enlightening walk through 20th century American political history and the New Deal. It does much to explain the patterns of political life in which we seem locked.

It would be tempting to think of a book that tells the American story from the perspective of the Vice President during the third Roosevelt Administration as akin to "the story of the Presidency from the perspective of the White House dog." But it turns out that Henry Agard Wallace, midwestern scientist and Christian mystic, business man, Secretary of Agriculture, Vice President and Presidential candidate, was no joke. He was probably the most progressive, left-wing individual ever to occupy the Vice Presidency. In a certain sense he tells us what has been possible and where the dangers lie when a public figure pushes the boundaries of the possible.

I first noticed Wallace while reading the story of Roald Dahl (The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant), who was tasked with tracking for Churchill the "dangerous" Henry Wallace. "Why on earth were the British conservatives so concerned about the American Vice President?" I wondered. Well for one thing they probably had a sense of Roosevelt's health, and so anything that Wallace said or thought had the potential to become reality, and indeed would have, had Roosevelt not dumped Wallace in 1944 in favor of Truman. And the things that Wallace was saying were highly anti-colonialist, and anti-imperialist and oriented toward reaching an understanding with the Soviet Union. We can well imagine Churchill's alarm.

After Roosevelt dumped Wallace from the '44 ticket in favor of Truman, Wallace went on to run as the Progressive candidate in 1948, and garnered very few votes, as his party was caught up in the beginning of Hoover inspired Red baiting and vicious smears. The Progressives were easy to smear because Wallace was extremely un-involved in the nitty gritty of party building, and as a result there were in fact communists and former fellow travellers involved in the party. Wallace himself was a self identified "progressive capitalist" (and wealthy from his hybrid corn seed company), but he and his party were smeared from every direction - from the South for his opposition to Jim Crow - from the Republicans for alleged communist influences - from the Truman Democrats for alleged willingness to appease Stalin and other disagreements, all related ultimately to the fact that they were attempting to occupy the space to the left of Truman. Truman's defeat of Dewey was close, and a surprise, and it was almost undone by the Progressives, but in the end the Progressives received only a few percent of the total vote, and Truman did win in 1948. With that, Wallace was done, and he retired to his farming and research.

This is a great biography to read to understand the agrarian origins of American progressive politics, and the divisions within the Roosevelt administration over the New Deal and foreign policy. Wallace was right in the center of it all, representing rural America in an era when progressive, populist reality had a distinctly rural tinge to it. It is somewhat ironic that Wallace's hybrid corn and later developments in farm productivity reduced the numbers of farmers needed on the land, and led to the industrialization of agriculture, which hollowed out the very source of Wallace's original progressivism - rural America. By 1948 it was Blacks and Jews who supported Wallace most strongly. What happened to his rural base, the base that he had served as Secretary of Agriculture in the 1930s, is unclear to me. But his aloof attitude toward building a progressive political operation, his preference to leave the dirty work of organizing and vetting to others, and the party's (admirable? foolish?) commitment to internal democracy and amateurism, all made it difficult for the Progressive Citizens of America to survive the vicious attacks that were leveled against the organization. Contemporary progressives have at least internalized the understanding that progressive politics requires much more than a famous champion - it requires organizational strength, maintained over time and across election cycles.

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Manray9 If I had been around in 1948, I would have voted for Wallace. He got 2.4% of the vote.

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