The World That Wasn't: Henry Wallace and the Fate of the American Century
“The World That Wasn’t paints a convincing portrait of a gullible, flip-flopping fool that does little to explain Henry Wallace’s importance to FDR’s New Deal or progressives’ enduring admiration for him.”
While former vice president Henry Wallace’s exalted status as a pacifist liberal visionary who defended Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legacy against reactionary Cold Warriors who rushed to betray it has dimmed considerably in the 75 years since his ill-fated third-party run at the presidency, that image still burns brightly among many progressives. John Nichols, National Affairs correspondent for The Nation, placed Wallace at the center of his passionately argued 2020 book, The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace’s Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist Politics. And Nichols was far from the first to describe Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign as a resurrection of Wallace’s progressive vision.
While acknowledging many of Wallace’s personal flaws, perplexing ideological detours, ill-advised choice of advisors, and woefully mismanaged presidential campaign, Nichols relies largely on Wallace’s soaring rhetoric—particularly in the last year of his vice presidency—to make the case for Wallace as a progressive hero and model for an anti-segregation, pro-labor, anti-imperialist post-war Democratic Party that could and should have been. Nichols portrays Wallace’s dedication to winning the peace after World War II in opposition to President Harry S. Truman’s aggressive brinkmanship, and to upholding the ideals of Roosevelt’s Economic Bill of Rights for all Americans as a map to a road regrettably not taken.
At the heart of the Wallace-Truman schism is the knowledge that the presidency Truman inherited upon Roosevelt’s sudden death less than three months into FDR’s fourth term could well have been Wallace’s. Truman’s replacement of Wallace on the ticket midway through the 1944 Democratic Convention poses one of the most consequential “What if” questions in American history.
Henry Wallace served Roosevelt as vice president throughout his unprecedented third term in the pivotal war years of 1940–44, having been promoted from Secretary of Agriculture to Roosevelt’s running mate at the president’s stubborn insistence over the objections of centrist party regulars and conservative Southern segregationists. Roosevelt’s declaration to Wallace in mid-1944 that if the decision were his, “we’d keep the old team together,” is recounted at some point in nearly every book about FDR, Truman, or Wallace. Yet Roosevelt ultimately stepped aside and left the decision to DNC power brokers, all of whom understood on some level that they were choosing the man who would soon take over the presidency from the ailing Roosevelt.
Progressives have long speculated that if the “old team” had survived the 1944 convention, leaving Wallace next in line, a Wallace presidency would have meant no Cold War, no Marshall Plan, no NATO, no Red Scare repression, no H-bomb, no U.S. adventurism in Korea or Vietnam, faster progress on civil rights, and perhaps an entirely different trajectory for the Democratic Party, the country, and United Nations after World War II, given Wallace’s determination to maintain a warm and cooperative alliance with the Soviet Union.
The World That Wasn’t: Henry Wallace and the Fate of the American Century, Benn Steil’s rigorously researched and revelatory new Wallace biography, acknowledges this question and dispenses with it almost immediately: “From what we today know of Soviet ambitions in the early postwar years,” Steil writes, “a Wallace presidency could only have resulted in a delayed Cold War—delayed, that is, until November 1948, at which time he would almost surely have been defeated in an election.”
One reason Steil, author of the brilliant The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War (2018), dismisses the notion that a Henry Wallace presidency would have shaped an enduring world order based on his avowed faith that the Soviet Union was as committed to peace and “economic democracy” was how briefly Wallace himself held that faith. Most historians recognized that Wallace became disillusioned with Stalin and retreated into a fairly conventional Cold War liberalism not long after his failed bid for the presidency.
But what distinguishes Steil’s analysis from that of other Wallace biographers is not just “what we today know of Soviet ambitions” but what Steil knows of the Soviets’ designs on Wallace and their direct involvement with him and some of his closest advisors, thanks to “a remarkable trove of Russian archival material” that remained accessible to the author until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
In his research, Steil learned much about how eventual Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko, Stalin, and others in the politburo worked to leverage their relationship with Wallace, an American statesman and presidential candidate they regarded as a willing and remarkably malleable dupe. Henry Wallace, a radical innovator in farm practices and policy and econometrics pioneer who remained a trusted left-liberal, inner-circle advisor to FDR throughout his long presidency, was much more than a Soviet stooge, of course. But Steil’s staggering accumulation of detail on Wallace’s peculiar interactions with the Soviet Union make it difficult to retain any other image of him after reading the book.
Stranger-than-fiction is Vice President Wallace’s four-week visit to Siberia in 1944, during which police and intelligence operatives staged a lavishly orchestrated fantasy of “Soviet economic, social, and artistic accomplishment” (replete with dolled-up secretaries posing as cheerful factory workers, and a concert by imprisoned dissident musicians) amid “a vast prison-labor complex.”
But even more appalling is the backstory of the “Open Letter to Stalin” that Wallace read aloud to a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden and published during his presidential campaign in 1948. Though Wallace positioned the letter as a statement of the principles of his future presidency’s foreign policy, Steil reveals that the candidate invited Moscow to write it. The speech Wallace delivered included language written by Stalin himself, as evidenced by the full draft message from Stalin that Steil found in the Russian archive. One wonders if Lenin or Stalin ever dreamed they’d discover a “useful idiot” half as useful as Henry Wallace.
Other historians and Wallace biographers, notably Thomas W. Devine in Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism (2013) have discussed the near-ubiquity of Communists in Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign, though Steil may be the first to document the presence of Soviet operatives at the center of Wallace’s organization, writing many of his speeches, recruiting his audiences, and scripting their responses.
At no point, however, does Steil contend that Wallace espoused Marxist ideology, operated under Communist discipline, or engaged in espionage or subversion. He was simply too willing to presume the best intentions of anyone willing to join his “Gideon’s Army” in their crusade against incipient American fascism, and too impractical to see how his willingness to let known Communists define his platform and image could hurt him.
“The problem was not merely one of ‘impracticality,’ though,” Steil writes, “but an unwillingness, at least prior to 1949, to entertain facts at odds with his faith that Communists were serving his interests—rather than the reverse.” Even Popular Front leftists free of Soviet entanglements like playwright Lillian Hellman found Wallace’s failure to see the machinations happening under his nose utterly baffling.
Steil also argues that blind idealism alone doesn’t explain Wallace’s tendency to accept any support thrown his way; baser motivations also drove his determination to run a doomed third-party campaign. Wallace’s hatred for Truman as the man who stole his presidency and then fired him as Secretary of Commerce convinced him that defeating “that son of a bitch” at any cost was worth it. Furthermore, he believed that after suffering the ravages of four years of reactionary Republican government under Thomas Dewey, the country would realize it needed Henry Wallace in 1952. Even finishing fourth behind not only Truman and Dewey but also arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond didn’t entirely dissuade Wallace of his future presidential prospects.
“The world that wasn’t,” Steil’s term for the grand illusions that Wallace nurtured, takes several forms in the book. One of the first and most mind-boggling concerns the story behind the “Guru letters” that Wallace wrote to Russian artist and mystic Nicholas Roerich in the mid-1930s. These letters resurfaced in the hands of Wallace’s enemies numerous times, most notably in a series of merciless hit-pieces by right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler during the 1948 presidential campaign. Wallace’s fawning, nutball letters, addressed to “guru” Roerich, reveal a besotted disciple ascribing divinity to the Russian mystic.
But the full drama of Wallace’s time as a Roerich devotee recounted in The World That Wasn’t finds the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture appropriating departmental resources and staff to a failed campaign to help Roerich establish a White Russian (anti-Bolshevik) colony for his followers in Manchuria under the guise of seed research. Perhaps even stranger is the fact that FDR, with the prodding of his mystically inclined mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, became somewhat entwined with Roerich as well, meeting with one of the guru’s minions in the White House on multiple occasions.
However, most of what Steil reports about those encounters and FDR’s sphinx-like handling of the Roerich contingent tells us what we already knew about Roosevelt from James MacGregor Burns and others: that he could usher virtually anyone out of his office with the warm and fuzzy feeling that the president agreed with them wholeheartedly without ever revealing what he believed or surrendering even an inch of ground.
Though FDR put considerable faith and trust in Henry Wallace, he played his cards as close to the vest with Wallace as he did with anyone. That Roosevelt’s caginess extended even to those with whom he shared a genuine closeness as he did with Wallace goes a long way to explain why Wallace never knew for sure whether Roosevelt willingly and pragmatically pushed him off the ticket in 1944, as Steil contends, or did so under extreme pressure or due to frailty or distraction, as John Nichols believes.
Whether Steil gives short shrift to Wallace’s revolutionary agricultural innovations, the power of his progressive ideas, or to his heroic and risky insistence on speaking only to integrated audiences in the Jim Crow South in 1948—or whether the revelations of Wallace’s susceptibility to Soviet subterfuge simply overwhelm any other impressions the book might convey—The World That Wasn’t paints a convincing portrait of a gullible, flip-flopping fool that does little to explain Henry Wallace’s importance to FDR’s New Deal or progressives’ enduring admiration for him. While that is arguably not Steil’s intention, it is in large measure the book’s effect.
One could convincingly argue that the image of Wallace presented in Nichols’ The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party (like John Culver and John Hyde’s largely laudatory 2001 biography American Dreamer) lacks balance as well. Given his personal failings and political failures, it’s hard to believe that Wallace himself was the man to lead the post-war world into a lasting and rewarding peace and keep the Democratic Party off the self-destructive path to Clintonian neoliberalism. But Nichols’ contention that party bosses and segregationists joined forces to remove Wallace from the ticket in 1944 and quash his insurgency in 1948 is difficult to dispute. The likelihood that Wallace would have lost anyway is a separate issue.
And though there’s no question the Wallace of 1946–48 was flat-out wrong about Stalin (as the Wallace of 1949 and after would readily concede), he wasn’t entirely wrong about Truman or his compromised, dispiriting stewardship of Roosevelt’s legacy and the unfulfilled promise of the New Deal.
Both takes on Henry Wallace contribute substantially to our understanding of the faded progressive icon and the countervailing forces at work in the United States and the world at large as World War II ended and the tumultuous post-war years began. But if The World That Wasn’t fills in significant gaps in our understanding of why much of Wallace’s idealism seemed to evaporate so quickly after his failed presidential bid, and how mythologized his understanding of the political world could be, it neither fully dispels as myth Wallace’s enduring power as a progressive exemplar or explains why he remains relevant.
Was Henry Wallace personally equipped to fight off proponents of an imperialist “American Century” and bring about in its place the “Century of the Common Man?” Almost certainly not. But he did envision it, and he spoke up for a future that belonged “those who go down the line unswervingly for the liberal principles of both political democracy and economic democracy regardless of race, color, or religion.” That Henry Wallace is well worth remembering, too.