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Cherry-Picking Our History

Wallace, for his own part, came to realize that Roosevelt was being duplicitous, recording in his diary his certainty that, as the convention approached, the president “wanted to ditch me as noiselessly as possible.”6 He was unwilling to go quietly. His supporters, using bogus tickets, packed the convention hall hoping to stampede the convention. Wallace might have been nominated had party leaders not hastily adjourned the proceedings. Wallace was unaware that FDR had forcefully ordered the party bosses to get Truman’s acceptance as his running mate at once—“Have you got that fellow lined up yet?” he asked—while warning Truman of his patriotic duty.7

The day after the failed stampede, Truman’s handlers spread the word that Roosevelt was backing their man, and he was nominated on the second ballot. Wallace had indeed been thwarted—from forcing himself onto a ticket where Roosevelt had decided he did not belong.

Stone and Kuznick’s idolization of Wallace and demonization of Truman similarly inspire their gauzy coverage of the Progressive Party campaign four years later. In the intervening years, Wallace’s opposition to Truman’s policies had broadened to include a defense of the Soviet coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948. “The men in Moscow, from their viewpoint, would be utter morons if they failed to respond with acts of pro-Russian consolidation,” he declared.8 When Wallace finally ran against Truman as leader of the Progressive Party, the president’s supporters noted Wallace’s convergence with the Kremlin’s party line. Stone and Kuznick—echoing Wallace’s supporters at the time—repeat Wallace’s contemporary denials that the Communist Party USA had any involvement with his campaign.

Stone and Kuznick cannot explain why, two years after the 1948 campaign, the radical journalist I.F. Stone—no defender of Harry Truman’s—wrote matter-of-factly:

The Communists have been the dominant influence in the Progressive Party…. If it had not been for the Communists, there would have been no Progressive Party.

Nor does Stone and Kuznick’s analysis adequately account for the views of Wallace’s former supporter Eleanor Roosevelt, who repeatedly denounced Wallace and his movement in 1948, charging that “the American Communists will be the nucleus of Mr. Wallace’s third party,” and proclaiming that “any use of my husband’s name in connection with that party is from my point of view entirely dishonest.”9

Stone and Kuznick’s claim that Wallace’s challenge prompted Truman’s “progressive strategy” on domestic issues cannot explain the bold civil rights initiatives undertaken by Truman that provoked the Dixiecrat candidacy of Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina in 1948. Nor does their book explain why non-Communist leaders of black organizations, including Walter White and Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, attacked Wallace as vigorously as they supported Truman.10 (It goes almost without saying that anti-Communist radicals such as Bayard Rustin make no appearance in these pages.)

There are ample grounds for criticizing and even condemning some of Truman’s actions in the cold war, not least the loyalty oath program he instituted in 1947. But by glorifying the Henry Wallace of the mid- to late 1940s, Stone and Kuznick indulge in a Manichaeanism that inadvertently recalls the long political and intellectual antecedents behind their entire interpretation. That “untold” history began not in the 1960s and the Vietnam era with which Stone—Oliver, not just I.F.—became so closely identified, as anyone who has seen Platoon (1986) and his other Vietnam movies instantly grasps. It began in the 1940s, when the beginning of the cold war divided American liberals and leftists of various stripes.

On one side stood those such as Reinhold Niebuhr, J.K. Galbraith, Walter Reuther, Chester Bowles, and Eleanor Roosevelt, who believed that liberalism and communism were fundamentally opposed, with respect both to social ends and political means. On the other side stood those who believed that liberalism and communism existed on a continuum, with political freedom at one end and economic freedom on the other, and who believed further that, through peaceful coexistence and competition, each side could learn from the other. And there was a third group, of Communists who believed that liberalism was an underdeveloped politics, useful as a cover for their own higher ends.

The first group, the liberal anti-Communists, included the great majority of New Deal liberals, and gravitated to groups such as Americans for Democratic Action, which sought to expand the reforms of the New Deal while isolating Communists at home and supporting the containment of Soviet influence abroad. The second group, the anti-anti-Communists, included liberals who found their voice in the Progressive Party, who saw the West and especially the United States as the aggressor in the cold war, and who regarded liberal anticommunism as virtually indistinguishable from—indeed, as complicit with—the anticommunism of the right.

Defeated in 1948, the Progressive Party carried no states and received fewer votes than the Dixiecrats, who carried four states. The Progressive Party’s outlook made something of a comeback during the late 1960s, though under drastically different circumstances, when cold war liberalism as well as the administration of Lyndon Johnson became tainted, both fairly and unfairly, by the Vietnam catastrophe.

Liberal anti-Communists indeed waged and supported the war, but a variety of other liberal anti-Communists—George Ball, Clark Clifford, Eugene McCarthy, and Stanley Hoffman, to name only a few—became cogent critics and opponents of the Vietnam War both inside and outside the government—a division Stone and Kuznick note but do not fully discuss or explain. The Vietnam experience led historians to undertake long-overdue critical evaluations of America’s part in the cold war. But it also revived a “progressive” frame of mind that, with some superficial modifications—chiefly ritualistic denunciations of the Stalinist terror while still clinging to the myth of Stalin’s benign postwar motives—has treated the cold war as the driving force of American empire and sometimes indicted the whole of liberal politics for cravenness in the face of global social injustice.

With a few twists, above all its defense of the liberal anti-Communist (and Stone’s longtime personal hero) John F. Kennedy, The Untold History of the United States, both the book and the televised series, is a quirky summa of the old Progressive rhetoric, as proclaimed by Stone and Kuznick’s other hero, Henry Wallace, but presented as brand new. They fail to say that in 1952 Wallace published his article “Where I Was Wrong,” writing that he had been inadequately informed about Stalin’s crimes and

did not see…the Soviet determination to enslave the common man morally, mentally and physically for its own imperial purposes….
More and more I am convinced that Russian Communism in its total disregard of truth, in its fanaticism, its intolerance and its resolute denial of God and religion is something utterly evil.11

He supported Dwight Eisenhower and, in 1960, Richard Nixon for president.

Although the book by Stone and Kuznick is heavily footnoted, the sourcing, as the example of Wallace’s 1952 article suggests, recalls nothing so much as Dick Cheney’s cherry-picking of intelligence, particularly about the origins and early years of the cold war. The authors also devote many thousands of words to criticism of such destructive American policies as Ronald Reagan’s in Central America and George W. Bush’s in Iraq, but much of this will be familiar to readers of these pages, as will their objections to Barack Obama’s use of predator drones. This book is less a work of history than a skewed political document, restating and updating a view of the world that the independent radical Dwight Macdonald once likened to a fog, “caused by the warm winds of the liberal Gulf Stream coming in contact with the Soviet glacier”—but now more than twenty years after the dissolution of the Soviet empire.12

Letters

Untold History’: An Exchange March 21, 2013

  1. 6

    The Price of Vision: The Diary of Henry A. Wallace, 1942–1946, edited by John Morton Blum (Houghton Mifflin, 1973), p. 371. 

  2. 7

    Burns, Roosevelt, p. 506. 

  3. 8

    “Wallace Blames US in Prague Coup,” The New York Times, February 28, 1948. 

  4. 9

    I.F. Stone and Eleanor Roosevelt quoted in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917–1950 (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), pp. 456–457; see also Schlesinger’s article “Who Was Henry Wallace?” Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2000. 

  5. 10

    Manfred Berg, “Black Civil Rights and Liberal Anticommunism: The NAACP in the Early Cold War,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 94, No. 1 (June 2007), p. 86. 

  6. 11

    Henry Wallace, “Where I Was Wrong,” This Week Magazine, September 7, 1952. This was not an obscure journal but was published as part of the widely respected New York Herald Tribune and other newspapers. Wallace’s article is cited in the entry on him in Wikipedia. 

  7. 12

    Dwight Macdonald, Henry Wallace: The Man and the Myth (Vanguard, 1948), p. 24. 

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