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Selected Works of Henry A. Wallace

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"Second Only to Roosevelt"
Henry A. Wallace and the New Deal

"To me a liberal is one who believes in using in a non-violent, tolerant and democratic way the forces of education, publicity, politics, economics, business, law and religion to direct the ever-changing and increasing power of science into channels which will bring peace and the maximum of well-being both spiritual and economic to the greatest number of human beings. A liberal knows that the only certainty in this life is change but believes that the change can be directed toward a constructive end."

—Henry A. Wallace, "Liberalism Re-appraised," May 1, 1953

Henry A. Wallace and FDR at Val-Kill Cottage, Hyde Park, August 8, 1940
Henry A. Wallace and FDR at Val-Kill Cottage, Hyde Park,
August 8, 1940.

Secretary of Agriculture from 1933 to 1940, during the difficult years of the Great Depression, and Vice President from 1941 to 1945, at the height of World War II, Henry Agard Wallace was one of FDR's most trusted lieutenants, a man whose faith in the New Deal and determination to fashion a better world out of the ashes of war made him, in the words of John Kenneth Galbraith, "second only to Roosevelt as the most important figure of the New Deal."

Wallace was born on an Iowa farm in 1888. After graduating from Iowa State College in 1910, he went to work for the family paper, Wallaces' Farmer, which was widely read in agricultural circles and brought the Wallace family considerable prestige among the nation's farming community. In the early 1920s, Wallace became the editor of the Farmer after his father, Henry C. Wallace, accepted an offer to serve as Secretary of Agriculture in the Harding and Coolidge administrations. A long standing Republican, the younger Wallace broke with his father's party in 1928 over the issue of farm relief and high tariffs—even going so far as to campaign for the Democrat, Al Smith, in his run for the White House that same year. This brought Wallace to the attention of FDR, who, four years later, asked him to follow his father's footsteps and become his Secretary of Agriculture.

Wallace would hold the agricultural portfolio from 1933 to 1940. An idealist and intellectual who possessed keen administrative skills and a great deal of common sense, Wallace was absolute in his determination to preserve the rural way of life he and his family had exalted for generations. But he also understood that farming was a business, and that the best way to preserve the rural way of life was to ensure that it became a profitable business. To achieve this goal, Wallace championed a whole host of New Deal programs, such as the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Rural Electrification Administration, the Soil Conservation Service, the Farm Credit Administration, the food stamp and school lunch programs, and many others. In the process, he also transformed the Department of Agriculture into one of the largest and most powerful entities in Washington. Under Wallace's tenure, for example,b the Department grew from 40,000 to 140,000 employees, while expenditures rose from $280 million in 1932 to $1.5 billion in 1940. Despite this rapid increase in size, however, Wallace's department became a model of efficiency and was widely regarded as the best run department in Washington during the 1930s. Not surprisingly, given his profound interest in the subject, Wallace also greatly expanded the Department of Agriculture's scientific programs, rendering the department's research center at Beltsville, Maryland the largest and most varied scientific agricultural station in the world.

As time passed, Wallace's concern for the well-being of rural America expanded to include industrial workers and the urban poor. Wallace also developed a deep sense of foreboding about the threat posed to democracy by the rise of fascist dictatorships in Germany, Italy, and Japan. By 1938, he had become outspoken in his criticism of the fascist states and on numerous occasions he took a public stance warning his fellow countrymen that democracy and the rule of law were on trial around the world. Wallace also became quite open about his support for Secretary of State Cordell Hull's free trade policies. Wallace's internationalism made him unique. Most mid-western progressives were isolationist. Furthermore, Wallace's obvious concern for the plight of the less fortunate in urban industrial America marked him as a true Rooseveltian liberal and by the close of the decade there was considerable speculation that Wallace might prove a worthy Presidential candidate.

Henry Wallace in discussion with farmers at the Bremer County Farm Bureau, Waverly, Iowa, in the mid 1930s
Henry Wallace in discussion with farmers at the Bremer County Farm Bureau, Waverly, Iowa, in the mid 1930s.

Wallace himself dismissed such talk, but his growing stature as a broad-based liberal caught the eye of FDR, and in the summer of 1940, after making the decision to run for an unprecedented third term, Roosevelt selected Wallace for the vice-presidency. From FDR's point of view Wallace was a logical choice: he was a man of deep integrity and intelligence, he shared FDR's views on domestic and foreign policy and was an outspoken supporter of the New Deal, he had built up a following among liberals and labor in urban America that complemented his support in rural America, and he seemed a logical successor should fate remove FDR from office. [1]

Wallace was not popular, however, among the leadership of the Democratic party, who argued that he was too idealistic to be a good politician, that he did not have a wide following, and that he was in essence too much like Roosevelt to balance the ticket. Many Democrats also found Wallace's Republican roots distasteful, particularly as he had only become an official member of the Democratic party a few years before. Roosevelt would have none of this, however, and when it appeared that Wallace might fail to receive the party's nomination at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, FDR threatened to drop out of the race, preparing a statement that argued that he could not run for a party that was not overwhelming in its support for "social progress and liberalism," and had refused to shake off "all shackles of control fastened upon it by the forces of conservatism, reaction, and appeasement." FDR's threat, coupled with an eloquent plea for party unity at the convention issued by Eleanor Roosevelt, ultimately carried the day and on January 20, 1941, Henry A. Wallace became Vice President of the United States.

As Vice President, Wallace became the leading spokesman for American liberalism and developed a large following among New Dealers. He also became increasingly interested in international affairs and insisted that the war should lead to a new world order that would champion the "Century of the Common Man" and bring independence and self rule to all peoples, a better standard of living for the world's poor, freer trade, and an international organization to keep the peace and govern relations among nations.

Wallace's eloquent and steadfast commitment to FDR's progressive vision for a better world led many to conclude that he was indeed the logical successor to Roosevelt. But the bitter wounds opened by the fight for Wallace's nomination in the summer of 1940 had not entirely healed, and when it came time for FDR to choose a running mate in 1944 he discovered that opposition to Wallace among the democratic party leadership remained strong. Exhausted by the war effort, and unwilling to risk division in the party and hence its chances for electoral victory at this critical juncture in history, FDR offered Wallace only a limited endorsement by stating simply to the convention that "if he were one of the delegates, he would vote for Wallace." But FDR also made it clear that unlike 1940 he "did not wish to be dictating to the convention" and would be glad to run with Senator Harry S. Truman or Justice William O. Douglas should they be selected. Ironically, and in sharp contrast to what transpired in 1940, Wallace received considerable support among the party rank and file in the summer of 1944, but it was not enough, and the nomination went to Truman.

There is no question that Wallace was deeply disappointed by what had transpired at the convention, but he refused to let his disappointment give way to bitterness or anger, and after a meeting with FDR at the end of August, Wallace accepted the President's offer to make him Secretary of Commerce in his final administration. The chance to serve Roosevelt in this capacity was short lived, however, for within three months of his fourth inaugural, FDR was dead. Washington and the world would never be the same.

Following FDR's death, and after resigning as Secretary of Commerce in 1946, Wallace became a leading advocate for post-war cooperation with the Soviet Union and one of the most prominent critics of the Truman Doctrine and containment policies that became part and parcel of the Cold War. He also ran an unsuccessful third party campaign for the presidency in 1948 that was tainted by reports that Wallace was a tool of Moscow, a charge which Wallace vehemently denied, but which cost him dearly in the election and left him with only 2.8% of the votes nationwide.

Roosevelt once said that "no man was more of the American soil than Wallace," and in the wake of his 1948 defeat, Wallace decided to return to his roots and retire to his beloved New York farm. For the next seventeen years he devoted himself to his first loves, scientific farming, genetics, and gardening. He died on November 18, 1965.

—David B. Woolner

The author would like to thank Senator John C. Culver, co-author with John Hyde of the book American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace, for his assistance in the preparation of this article.

  1. There is evidence that suggests that FDR was concerned about the question of a successor in 1940. In discussing Wallace, for example, FDR intimated to James Farley that "the man running with me must be in good health because there is no telling how long I can hold out...a man with paralysis can have a breakup at any time."

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Selected Works of Henry A. Wallace

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