Eric Arnesen’s review (Fall 2013) of Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism, Thomas Devine’s book on Henry Wallace, troubled me, less because of what it said than because of what it didn’t. I have no quarrel with the facts presented, and I assume that Arnesen accurately represented Devine’s history. But by accepting the limits of Devine’s book, Arnesen presents so partial a view of Wallace that it distorts Wallace’s overall contributions and makes it harder for readers to understand his career.
Devine’s is apparently a “gotcha” book—in this case, a history aimed at disproving a particular claim by previous historians. That claim is that McCarthyism and its red-baiting doomed Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign; Devine wants to show that Wallace’s commitment to the Communist line doomed the campaign. I think the correct conclusion is, probably, that both factors mattered. But Dissent readers deserve a fuller picture of the complex, quirky, progressive Vice President Wallace. Allow me to make a few points to fill out that picture.
First, Wallace was arguably the best secretary of agriculture the United States has ever had. He took a department that long represented large growers and their large plantations and corporate “farms” and tried to make it respond to the needs of smaller farmers and farmworkers. He supported the Farm Security Administration, the only section of the Department of Agriculture that sought to protect sharecroppers and migrant farmworkers, including blacks and Mexican Americans. Much of his effort was fruitless, given the power of southern and southwestern conservatives in Congress.
Second, Wallace was an indigenous Midwestern rural progressive. An Iowa Republican who believed that only state intervention could properly manage American farming, son of a previous secretary of agriculture, he was an expert in matters of agricultural development, farm technology, and sustainability. He defended the New Deal’s most progressive policies when FDR began backing away from them. Already in the 1930s—that is, well before he was “captured” by Communists—he argued that capitalism alone could not create a viable rural democracy.
Third, Wallace shared with many Midwestern mavericks an attraction to utopian ideas. His interest in several perfectionist blueprints for social reconstruction, combined with his first-hand knowledge of the injustices of American agriculture, attracted him to the Soviet experiment in agricultural collectivization—an attraction shared by many progressive farm experts who imagined the Soviet collective farms as a form of cooperatives. Like many leftists of the time, he was skeptical of the negative press about the USSR. Having developed his own criticisms of American capitalism, he accepted uncritically the policy advice and rhetoric of Communists.
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