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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 States only talk about on Sunday”; and, in Siberia, an Eden which must force a considerable draft on the most abounding utopian imagination, he drew back from a gentle theological dispute with his Soviet guide with the ecumenical blessing that “I am willing to grant that your religion is doing good.”

Mr. Truman’s mind had no room in it for such collective abstractions, being so focused on the personal that it saw Russia only as Stalin, and the issues that separated them as matters for bargaining power-to-power, politician-to-politician. Wallace’s was the sort of innocence that is apparent immediately, while Truman’s was of the kind that takes a little longer to recognize. Still you cannot long avoid noticing how large a part credulity plays in minds that dedicate themselves to purely practical calculations. Mr. Truman began his presidency by asking Harry Hopkins if you could talk to Stalin and was assured you could; in Potsdam they had “some very nice conversations.” Even in 1948 he could still emit the casual campaign comment that “Old Joe is not such a bad guy”; and, near the end, he could tell Merle Miller, “I liked him. I didn’t like what he did, but I liked him.”

This is a singular current of accommodation to run through a nature whose tolerance of different ways and different men does not very often rise above designating President Eisenhower as a son of a bitch. There are different sorts of foolishness, but we can be fairly certain that on the whole we have been damaged less by politicians like Wallace who vaporize human events into some “millennial and revolutionary march toward manifesting here on earth the dignity that is in every human soul,” and who dream of peoples singing to peoples, than by politicians like Truman who concretize all problems into formulas like “Dean, we got to stop the sons of bitches no matter what,” and who dream of dealing as Number One to Number One. Perhaps this is because it has always been our national habit to cede the ultimate opportunities to politicians with Truman’s cast of mind.

But whatever their differences in merit as instruments of public policy, Wallace in these diaries is an altogether more useful resource for historians than Truman in his talks with Merle Miller. He has, to be sure, the advantage that belongs to the chronicler of immediate experience. When Truman talked to Miller he was seventy-seven years old, and his vanities and his resentments had hardened into caricature.1 Wallace’s diaries begin in February, 1942, when he was Vice President of the United States and they end when he was cast out as Mr. Truman’s Secretary of Commerce in September, 1946. They cover a span between the time when he had genuine administrative authority as Secretary of Agriculture and the time when he too was driven into caricature as the 1948 Progressive party candidate for President. We see him then at what must have been his best, since on the one hand he had no real power to make policies and thus could spare us the excuses that men with power have a compulsion to inflict upon us, and, on the other, he still retained enough access to the way policies were made to provide us with most intimate and valuable observations. To take a case, here is Wallace on Truman just after Roosevelt’s death:

Truman was exceedingly eager to agree with everything I said. He also seemed eager to make decisions of every kind with the greatest promptness. Everything he said was decisive. It almost seemed as though he was eager to decide in advance of thinking.

And here is Truman’s assessment of Wallace:

You take a fella that carries on too much about the pee-pul—it’s like what I told you about folks that pray too loud. You better get home and lock the smokehouse, and that’s the way I always felt about Henry Wallace. I didn’t trust him.

It is difficult, on these two styles of portraiture alone, not to decide that Wallace’s eye was the keener, although as things turned out not the shrewder, and that he is the witness better able to stand cross-examination. Falsities in the commerce of public men generally have long histories. Still, the priority of betrayal in the Truman-Wallace relationship seems to belong all to the survivor. On January 22, 1944, Vice President Wallace made this entry in his diary with what seems unlikely to have been forethought:

Senator Truman came in to say…that he was eager to support me for Vice President again, that he and I had seen things just alike, etc., etc.

There is no evidence that this pledge was ever implemented even during its fleeting tenure. In July, Senator Truman came to the Democratic Convention openly campaigning for Director of the Office of War Mobilization James F. Byrnes and he departed with Wallace’s job.

But Mr. Truman’s image was bound to become more tender in the national memory because it fits two fundamental articles of the American faith: an unremitting profanity of speech is proof of the honesty of the speaker; and the mere word of the machine politician is worth more than the signed and notarized contract of the ideologue. Truman’s account of the history of his times, being straightforward only in its vulgarity, thoroughly disproves the first tenet of folk wisdom. Wallace’s experience with professional politicians effectively disposes of the second. All the archons of orthodox Democracy treated him with every courtesy and even professions of fraternity when he was Vice President whom fate might make President. Then they united when the chance came to snatch him out of the line of succession, and having assisted at the deed, most of them—including Kelly of Chicago and Hague of Jersey City, two of his assailants who had nothing to lose by being recognized as his enemies—automatically dispatched to him their denials of complicity in his fall.

In most transactions Wallace seems to have been clearly more honorable than either President Roosevelt or President Truman. This judgment, of course, does not acquit him of personal guile—any more than the fascination of his diaries denies the certainty that their author must often have been a tiresome and now and again a nagging companion. Yet he seems to have been much shrewder than the vagaries of his manner suggested. Just as he was rather more sportsmanlike about his disappointments than the bitterness that afflicted his ultimate disillusionment led us to think. He turns out to have been unexpectedly sensitive to the problems of the men who betrayed him.

Even in 1946, when he had pushed himself into open dissent from Truman’s policy toward the Soviets, he remained flexible enough to suggest that the President allow him to remain as Secretary of Commerce. To present the voters with the spectacle of a Democratic administration openly quarrelsome but still a family could be, he thought, the only hope of getting through the congressional elections.

I told Truman that he was looking at the whole situation in too much of a negative light—that the emotions and interest aroused would help get out the vote…. I said the practical thing for Truman was to work with the progressive element during the election months, remembering that he would have to live with the reactionary Southerners after the election was over. I said he could not hope to win the election unless he went way over to the left not merely with the words but with the tune. [Italics added.]

We could not easily find a more compact statement of the prescription that rescued Truman from what appeared to be his terminal political illness in 1948. Wallace deserves a more generous assessment of his political senses than his taking leave of them for his aberrant voyage with the 1948 Progressive party had led us to assume. It is true that he lacked social gifts; we cannot credit much talent for personal accommodation to any man who presided over the Senate for four years and made so few friends there that he could be confirmed as Secretary of Commerce only by the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Truman. But bemused as he occasionally was into taking Soviet rhetoric as descriptive of Soviet reality, he was generally clearheaded about the ground on which he stood. After fourteen years of consequential government positions, he was a veteran and unexpectedly pliable practitioner of the compromises government makes between what it says and what it does. He was accustomed to seeing the left start most of the arguments and lose them all—the left had lost a clamorous argument with him over payments to sharecroppers when he was Secretary of Agriculture. Losing was an experience that did not often surprise or ever quite offend him.

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    He was well on his way to becoming the embarrassment he could often be to the pure in heart. Three years or so after his conversations with Miller, Truman was taking his morning walk in New York with his accustomed train of reporters. One of them asked him what he thought about the prospects for an increase in racial intermarriages. The Times man came back to the office to report that Truman had replied: “Would you want your daughter to marry a Negro?… You’ll edit the man she goes out with. I did. And mine married the right man.” The right man, of course, was the managing editor of The New York Times, which was by no means reluctant to publish the compliment but was confused that Truman should have spoken of “editing” his son-in-law when he might more precisely have said that he had checked him out. It seemed sensible to call the old man and ask him if his remarks had been accurately transcribed. “Sure,” Truman answered, “I asked this fellow whether he’d want his daughter to marry a nigger, etc., and etc.”

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