The Trouble With Harry (and Henry)

The Price of Vision: The Diary of Henry A. Wallace 1942-1946

edited by John Morton Blum
Houghton Mifflin, 707 pp., $15.00

Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman

by Merle Miller
Berkley/Putnam’s, 448 pp., $8.95

I put on some Red Russian army song records for Mrs. Roosevelt and also some Russian rural songs. She seemed to like both. Also I put on several Spanish records. Mrs. Roosevelt put in most of her time knitting a sweater, which was nearly completed and which was very well done. Apparently she has rather unusual facility as a knitter.

The Diary of Henry A. Wallace,
November 20, 1943

The night Stalin was host I had some very nice conversations with him. I liked him. I didn’t like what he did, of course, but I liked him…. He was just like me about Chopin. He liked Chopin. Churchill didn’t.

—Harry S. Truman to Merle Miller

The ghost of Franklin Roosevelt rises unexpectedly when we consider Henry Wallace and Harry Truman. For how can we think about these two without Roosevelt’s shadow upon them? Their place in history was appointed by his will, the first discarded, the second raised up and now with the rays of apotheosis around him. Great historical presences are continually intrusive; we read about these two creatures of Roosevelt’s will and we wonder why he disposed of Vice President Wallace and elevated Vice President Truman, and thus, having commanded his own twelve years, set with his dead hand the course of the next eight.

He could not, one suspects, have acted in this situation without making a fundamental choice. Roosevelt seems to have presided over two national tendencies, irreconcilable except under his scepter, the one swampy, the other stony. The commercial triumph of Merle Miller’s version of his conversations with former President Truman is evidence of the continual appeal of the stony to our imaginations; and yet John Morton Blum’s selection from former Vice President Wallace’s diaries might make some of us miss the swampy rather more.

The swampy mind suffers, of course, for seeing a great deal that is not happening, but its very capacity for absorption lets it take in a great deal that is happening. The stony mind, being conditioned for rejection, at once repels fantasies of the vaguer sort and facts of less immediately apparent force. Wallace had a confused consciousness and Truman a decisive one; nature was spongy, the other granitic. Reading the thoughts of each, you come to think of them as representative of the halves—the one called idealistic, the other called practical—that have contended if not for the soul at least for the franchise of historic American progressivism for decades.

Neither Wallace nor Truman was an entirely satisfactory representative of the best of either; still they are valuable exemplars of the contrast. Their difference is nicely demonstrated by the visions the Soviet Union inspired in the mind of each.

For Wallace, to think of Russia was to hear the folk at their singing. Before he went there, he could quote with approval the view of the Mexican ambassador to Moscow that “people do here every day what people in the United …

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