Midwest Mystic or Manchurian Candidate?

REVIEW: 'The World That Wasn't: Henry Wallace and the Fate of the American Century' by Benn Steil

Henry A. Wallace (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)
January 21, 2024

Henry Agard Wallace (1888-1965) left his mark on what he memorably proclaimed the Century of the Common Man—as plant geneticist, entrepreneur, spiritualist, author, magazine editor, transformative secretary of agriculture under Franklin Roosevelt, and Roosevelt's second vice president. To his admirers Wallace was a conviction politician who denounced segregation in front of Southern audiences and criticized Cold War profiteers long before Dwight Eisenhower alerted us to the military-industrial complex. Detractors mocked Wallace as a religious crank, bureaucratic bungler, and apologist for Joseph Stalin.

His narrow loss to Harry Truman at the 1944 Democratic National Convention forever stamped Wallace as the Man Who Might Have Been. One doesn't have to be Oliver Stone to imagine a radically different world had party bosses failed in their campaign to keep Wallace off the Democratic ticket that fall, or from succeeding to the presidency on FDR's death in April 1945. It is this counterfactual history that underpins Benn Steil's groundbreaking biography. Steil, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of well-regarded books on the Marshall Plan and the Bretton Woods conference that incubated the post-World War II international monetary system. Here he taps an impressive array of primary sources, including FBI reports and Soviet-era archives not available to earlier Wallace biographers, to give us the fullest picture to date of this self-professed "practical mystic."

Wallace was defined by the Iowa prairie. Yet he drew his loudest cheers in the Bronx (running for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948, Wallace polled over a third of his national vote total in New York City). A humanitarian whose lunchtime tips never exceeded 5 percent, Wallace embraced better living through genetic engineering. Out of his restless imagination came meatier chickens and hens more prolific with their eggs. Unfortunately for his reputation, this same disregard for the obvious betrayed him on a 1944 tour of Siberia, the gulag Wallace insisted was a Utopia in the making.

Self-awareness would never be his strong suit. Born into the Midwest's leading farm family, publisher of the nationally influential Wallace's Farmer, as a boy Henry was introduced to George Washington Carver. The brilliant agricultural scientist inspired in his young admirer a lifelong fascination with plant science. By 1926 this led him to found the Hi-Bred Corn Company (first year profits: $30). In 1997 Pioneer Hi-Bred was sold to DuPont for $9.4 billion.

Wallace taught himself statistical analysis in college. But he also fell under the spell of Emerson and William James. A spiritual nomad who identified with mainstream Protestant creeds (Presbyterian, Episcopal) until he joined a tiny sect calling itself the Liberal Catholic Church, Wallace eventually gravitated toward the occultist hodgepodge of theosophy, with its elite Masters preaching universal brotherhood and "planetary chains" evolving unevenly toward the Absolute. "I am neither a corn breeder nor an editor," he insisted, but "a searcher for methods of bringing the 'inner light' to outward manifestations and raising outward manifestation to the inner light."

Devoid of small talk—conversing with a small group, the introverted Wallace said he felt like "he had a cold snake curled up inside him"—he lived on faddish diets of strawberries and cornmeal. On his wedding day, May 20, 1914, the 25-year-old groom was mesmerized by the gift of a new Ford motor car. Abandoning his bride, Ilo, daughter of a local businessman, Henry jumped in the driver's seat and sped off for a test run. Fully an hour went by before he returned.

"Get in Ilo," he bellowed at the dumbstruck young woman standing on the curb. "I'd forgotten about you."

In 1933 Wallace accepted Franklin Roosevelt's invitation to become the nation's 11th secretary of agriculture, the same job his father had filled, unhappily, under Harding and Coolidge. At the time, one-fourth of all Americans lived or worked on a farm. Long before Wall Street crashed, farmers struggled under debts and low prices brought on by World War I-era overinvestment and their own abundant harvests. Wallace's solution, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, turned laws of supply and demand on their head. The Triple A paid farmers to grow nothing on 10 million acres of the American bread basket. The same legislation authorized Wallace to slaughter six million hogs at taxpayer expense.

Cue the unintended consequences: Since Washington rewarded landowners who kept their fields fallow, no one suffered more than Southern tenant farmers, a third of them descended from African slaves. When Eleanor Roosevelt protested the plight of the sharecropper, Wallace the numbers cruncher alluded to "basic population facts" showing there were simply too many farmers. This was "most interesting," said the first lady. "Should we practice birth control or drown the surplus population?"

It all became moot in January 1936, when the Supreme Court declared the Triple A unconstitutional. Wallace's tenure at the Agriculture Department, which included soil conservation and reciprocal trade agreements to breech high tariff walls, marks him as a game-changing figure. But in Steil's inverted pyramid of a narrative, Wallace's contributions to the New Deal are overshadowed by his devotion to and subsequent break with a Russian mystic, artist, and con man named Nicholas Roerich. Wallace's embarrassing letters to Roerich, with their freakish references to FDR ("The Flaming One") and his federally funded pursuit of the fabled Central Asian Eden of Shambhala, nearly got him booted from the 1940 Democratic ticket.

Only Wallace's willingness to lie about the so-called guru letters (and Roosevelt's threat to go public with the extramarital affair of his Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie) secured Wallace a spot on the inaugural platform in January 1941. The new vice president, a confirmed teetotaler, shut down his predecessor's well-stocked bar and adjacent urinal. He fought a losing battle with Commerce Secretary Jesse "Jesus H" Jones for control of wartime economic policy. Wallace enjoyed greater success on the road, drawing rapturous crowds in Mexico and several Latin American nations where he championed FDR's "Good Neighbor" policies.

These travels scarcely prepared him for a month in Siberia, during which he was shepherded by NKVD security agents who stole his diary and persuaded him that prisoners playing the part of miners were so many Johnny Appleseeds in a snowy re-creation of America's Western frontier.

In Steil's telling, Siberia becomes a metaphor for Wallace's World That Wasn't, a Potemkin Village blithely accepted by this idealist with illusions. Roosevelt, hoping his controversial vice president might step aside voluntarily, confronted him with the popular view of Wallace as a starry-eyed visionary "who wants to give a quart of milk to every Hottentot."

Wallace refused to take the hint. His reward was public humiliation at the July 1944 convention that removed him from the line of succession. As a consolation prize Wallace received the Commerce Department formerly led by his archenemy Jesse Jones. The gut fighter Jones had his revenge, however, when the Senate, as the price of Wallace's confirmation, removed the pivotal Reconstruction Finance Corporation from his oversight.

Meanwhile there was a new president to contend with. "You never saw such pig-headed people as are the Russians," Harry Truman wrote his mother in July 1945 following the conference at Potsdam that introduced him to "Uncle Joe" Stalin. Soon after, with Soviet troops on Iranian soil, and Stalin demanding joint control of the Turkish Straits and the Dardanelles, Truman dispatched an armada to the Mediterranean and prepared to challenge the Soviets nyet for nyet in the infant United Nations.

Wallace was indignant. Believing Soviet behavior driven by fears of "capitalist encirclement," he thought Washington was obliged, in Steil's words, to "demonstrate its peaceable intentions by offering generous reconstruction aid and financing to cover imports." In the event, the Russians stonewalled a Commerce Department trade mission. Influenced by his deputy Harry Magdoff, one of several Soviet operatives at Commerce under FBI surveillance, Wallace signed a 4,000-word Magdoff-drafted letter to the president in which he blamed the United States, its atomic stranglehold, and robust military budget, for the breakdown in relations with Moscow.

Coming on top of a contentious Wallace speech at Madison Square Garden in September 1946, the letter left Truman little choice but to fire "the most peculiar fellow I ever came in contact with."

"I intend to carry on the fight for peace," said a defiant Wallace.

His 1948 campaign, initially fueled by opposition to the Truman Doctrine pledging American support to anti-Communist elements resisting Soviet expansionism, included denunciations of the Marshall Plan ("naked imperialism") and praise for his Communist supporters as "the closest things to the early Christian martyrs." Wallace rationalized Stalin's brutal intervention in Czechoslovakia, and the suspicious death of that country's foreign minister Jan Masaryk, as a self-defensive response to rumors of a right-wing coup.

Eager to meet with Stalin before the November election, Wallace had four secret meetings with Andrey Gromyko, the Soviet U.N. ambassador, who duly cabled their conversations to Moscow. "I'd sit down with the Russians," Wallace explained in another context, "and ask them what they mean by free elections. They would find out what we mean. … And then we'd simply write down our agreement." Stalin listed six questions he would be willing to discuss with Wallace. These included the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Europe and Asia, an end to the Marshall Plan, and acceptance of a unified "Soviet-friendly" Germany.

There would be no meeting—only Wallace's Open Letter addressed to the Soviet leader and the blandly encouraging reply it elicited from the Kremlin. Credulous as he appeared, Wallace did not lack for courage. His campaign forays into the segregated South unleashed a volley of eggs hurled at the candidate by crowds chanting "nigger lover" and "kill Wallace." Wallace's poll numbers followed him south, even as his candidacy insulated Truman against any soft-on-Communism charges from the Republican opposition.

Nearing the end of his campaign, Wallace appeared increasingly detached from reality. The Progressive Party, he told cheering supporters, had "stopped the cold war in its tracks." On election night, as a weeping Ilo Wallace moaned, "He should never have done it!" her husband was handed a draft telegram of concession to be sent to Truman, the upset victor. When it was pointed out that nowhere in this graceless document did he actually congratulate the winner, an unrepentant Wallace snapped, "Under no circumstances will I congratulate that son of a bitch."

Polling slightly over a million votes, Wallace's Progressives finished fourth behind Strom Thurmond's race-baiting Dixiecrats. The former vice president withdrew from politics, preferring, he said, the company of "gladioli, strawberries and chickens." The Korean War caused the scales to fall from his eyes. Six weeks after Soviet-backed North Korean forces invaded the South in June 1950, Wallace resigned from the Progressive Party. He confessed to having misjudged Stalin's desire for peace, and to being taken in on his ill-fated Siberian tour.

In 1956 Wallace voted for Eisenhower's reelection. Four years later, even as JFK lifted the title of Wallace's 1934 book New Frontiers for his campaign mantra, its author had another secret meeting—with Richard Nixon. The New York Times described Wallace as "the most forgotten of forgotten men." He certainly is no longer. As recently as 2020 John Nichols drew a line from Wallace to such latter-day Progressives as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Clearly the last words have yet to be written on Henry Wallace. But Benn Steil comes closer than anyone before him to unraveling the enigma of this visionary hybrid of feeling and fact, who would always be better with plants than people.

The World That Wasn't: Henry Wallace and the Fate of the American Century
by Benn Steil
Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, 704 pp., $40

Richard Norton Smith is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and author, most recently, of An Ordinary Man: The Surprising Life and Historic Presidency of Gerald R. Ford (Harper).