Henry Wallace
Henry Wallace; drawing by David Levine

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.

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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.

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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.

Roosevelt gave him grander titles if not measurably more majestic powers than generally fall to Vice Presidents; he was successively chairman of the Supply Priorities and Allocation Board, the War Production Board, and the Board of Economic Warfare; still Roosevelt was careful to advise him to avoid “the hurly burly of actual administrative details.”

Even so, the war was a consuming enough cause to inflame the not small part of his nature that liked to scold. He saw self-absorption and want of zeal all around him; and there was indeed enough of both to arouse a fancy less susceptible than his. His pacifist habits seem to have given way entirely to a New Model Army bloodymindedness: he pressed the necessity of bombing the Japanese mainland, he found himself “jumping on” Secretary of the Navy Knox for not getting the Japanese out of the Aleutians, he seemed troubled that Attorney General Biddle would not prosecute the publisher of the Chicago Tribune for undermining the national morale. He pressed Roosevelt for an “everlasting” bomb attack on Germany. If his rhetoric was no worse than the sort civilians usually oppress us with in wartime, it seems startlingly at variance with the pleasantly squashy operations of his mind in more normal times.

This conviction of his unique position as total warrior spurred the long struggle his Board of Economic Warfare fought and lost against Secretary of Commerce Jesse Jones for control of the import of strategic materials. It was a fight between the zealot who insists on the priority of the present and the banker who sees himself as guarding the future. Their quarrel became an open scandal in June of 1943 when Wallace told a hostile Senate that his efforts to increase imports of scarce materials were frustrated because Jones’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation insisted on haggling indefinitely over the terms of its loans to foreign producers. The Secretary of Commerce, Wallace said, cared for nothing so much as the RFC’s profit picture, while he, the Vice President, cared for nothing except to win the war and save lives.

The facts, granted some hyperbole in their statement, seem all on Wallace’s side. But his disabling flaw was less in his judgment than in his persistent disrespect for conventions about property. This was enough to get him thought of as a radical. “The State Department, the Army and the Navy are interested in winning the war,” Secretary of State Hull told Elmer Davis. “You and the Vice President are interested in winning the war, but even more than that, you are interested in producing world-wide revolution even at the danger of producing revolution in the United States.”

Wallace had an uneasy enough time keeping himself in domestic employment, and he was early on barred as an article for export. The State Department forbade distribution of his “Century of the Common Man” speech in Cuba because, among other misunderstandings, it “might result in additional unrest among labor factions in [that] country.” When a strike of Bolivian miners threatened wartime tin supplies and Wallace suggested that a portion of the increased prices the United States was then paying for tin might usefully be “allotted to the workers in the form of food,” Jesse Jones replied that “we ought to avoid any action that would make people think we were engaged in social reform of any kind.”

Almost as soon as he and Jones began slanging each other in public, Wallace lost; the Board of Economic Warfare was abolished and he was bereft of even the shadow of authority. His chief employment for the rest of his tenure was as wandering preacher to those elements in Roosevelt’s constituency that we loosely identify with Mrs. Roosevelt, a task he undertook with considerable philosophy and more than common shrewdness about the master, who had now begun to dangle and would soon enough drop him:

The fact that the President himself read my entire speech more carefully than he has ever read any of my speeches and made several minor changes in his own handwriting suggests his usual technique of being very nice to a person he has just got through hitting. However it must also be said that he is really fond of me except when stimulated by the palace guard to move in other directions.

Within a year, he would become that least fortunate of nuisances, the one who can be mistreated with impunity because the risk has passed that he might inherit the property. In their last meeting before he disposed of Wallace, Roosevelt did say that he intended to make his fourth term “a progressive one” and that he proposed to get rid of those subordinates “who were thinking only about their own money.” But it is not easy to find in these expressions any impulse beyond nostalgia for the rhetoric of his first term and some seigneurial care for the sensibilities of a progressive he was about to drop over the side. After all, its poetry once granted, the basic measure of the New Deal revolution is a simple one: When Roosevelt took office in 1933, 1 percent of the population owned 28 percent of the wealth; by the end of his second term, 1 percent of the population owned 30 percent of the wealth.2

As witness, Wallace has the one-eyed man’s claim to testify about the doings of the kingdom of the blind. If he did not see what was happening whole, he at least sensed its shape better than anyone around him. He helps us to judge the process by his occasional notice of such persons as were making their way while he was tottering toward his fall. In 1942, he observed to the President that Louis Johnson, our minister to India, had very quickly made himself “persona non grata” there. Roosevelt answered that Winston Churchill “had personally requested him to see that L. Johnson did not come back.” Louis Johnson returned home to become president of General Dyestuff, a confiscated German enterprise that had become a patronage resource for Leo Crowley, the Alien Property Custodian; he would bob up again as Truman’s Secretary of Defense.

Wallace’s diaries echo with the noise of the hammering and the crafting of the America that would arise after the war. At dinner one evening, he outlined to Assistant Secretary of Commerce William A. M. Burden his proposal for an international authority to control postwar air traffic. “I found that Mr. Burden was very much disturbed…. He wants to preserve private initiative.” As early as August of 1942, he was beginning to recognize that the civilians had surrendered control of procurement to the army—“which has the money.” The synthetic rubber program had already sunk into a squabble over the future between the oil and the alcohol companies. Wallace was then grieving over, without being able to resist, Roosevelt’s order to suspend antitrust prosecutions throughout the war.

By November of 1942, he was beginning to visit his reproaches on the President:

Many officials were putting out the story…that men in uniform were going to run the country for the next ten years. Businessmen in Commerce and their kindred souls in State Department were increasingly getting the idea that big corporations were going to run the country…. It was common gossip in Wall Street that the President had gotten over his foolishness now, that he had settled down, and that we were now headed toward the kind of world in which Wall Street felt comfortably at home.

Even when he was at his best, Roosevelt’s replies to such remonstrances were disturbingly vague; and, near the end, he seems to have slipped more and more into the embarrassing tendency that some aging men have to sound like their mothers. After the 1944 Democratic Convention, he assured Wallace that “I could have any job I wanted in the government with one exception. The exception was the State Department. He said Cordell Hull was an old dear and he could not bear to break his heart.” In one of his last visits, Wallace expressed his discontent with the depressing array of Assistant Secretaries of State the President had just nominated, in particular Will Clayton, a Texas cotton broker. “Will Clayton is not so bad,” Roosevelt replied, “and his wife is a dear.”

Wallace could feel confident that he was himself the subject of similar endearments; even so he had to shame Roosevelt into making him Secretary of Commerce; and the loss of this whimsical patron could even seem to him for a while a gain for his prospects. Truman was agreeable; Wallace seems to have spoken out more often at the new President’s cabinet meetings than he had lately felt encouraged to do at the old one’s.

Even so he was damaged goods. It is curious that a man could be dismissed and distrusted as a radical who believed as devoutly as Wallace did that tax incentives were the sharpest spur to increased production, and who was so diffident about the inflationary perils of large-scale public works. But still there was that swampy mind, restored to all its native pacifism, and thus, to stony minds, the symbol of everything that must be repelled.

His first experience with the treatment his rhetoric had earned him came at a September, 1945, cabinet meeting whose subject was the peacetime development of atomic energy. Secretary of War Stimson opened matters by citing the conviction of most scientists that the secret of the bomb could not long be kept and, given this circumstance, the United States might just as well offer to exchange its scientific information with all the other United Nations including the Soviet Union.

“Stimson then,” Wallace says, “entered into a long defense of Russia, saying that throughout our history Russia had been our friend…[that] our relationship with Russia during recent months had been improving. President Truman agreed to this. The President then called on Dean Acheson who indicated that he agreed with Secretary Stimson.”

Secretary of the Navy Forrestal entered the most strenuous objections, and then Wallace responded with an argument that was little more than an elaboration of Stimson’s. Two days later Wallace had the unlovely surprise of reading in the press that he had expressed himself, as Forrestal later put it, “completely, everlastingly and wholeheartedly in favor of giving [the bomb secret] to the Russians.” None of the accounts seems to have suggested that Wallace had been anything but alone in this position; there was no mention either that he had spoken only as echo of a venerated Secretary of War or that he had been joined in his opinion by Acheson, by Secretary of Labor Schwellenbach, and by Postmaster General Hannegan.

We tend to think of the cold war as prodigal with its victims. And yet its unconscious turns out to have prompted a pretty strict economy of sacrifice. Sometimes one victim was enough to instruct persons of his bent that there was no future in his company. The trial and condemnation of Robert Oppenheimer served to remind the scientists of how dangerous private and personal reservations could be; and in the case of Wallace the politicians were similarly reminded. The process of his separation from the flock had commenced by the fourth month of Truman’s tenure; and yet no more than Oppenheimer was he a man who wanted to be alone with his conscience. Two months after Wallace’s punishment for having fellow traveled with Henry Stimson, Secretary of State Byrnes was telling the cabinet how much Roosevelt had cherished Chiang Kai-shek. Contrary recollections were intruding upon Wallace’s memory, and he was repulsing them.

Perhaps I should have spoken up, but I didn’t say a word. It seemed as though the President and Secretary Byrnes had made up their minds as to the course they were going to follow and that any effort to speak about the true situation in China would be misunderstood.

Even when he was impelled to public dissent, he seems to have assumed that a place in government could remain for him, unlike Ickes and Morgenthau, who were long gone. By the spring of 1946, when he was showing Truman the draft of a speech to a Russian War Relief dinner, he could say to the President, “Now, if you get into any trouble or embarrassment as a result of this speech, don’t hesitate to repudiate it in any way you want.”

When they had their last long conversation, “I said [to Mr. Truman] that the people didn’t believe him to be as progressive as I knew him to be at heart.” When their talk was over, Wallace agreed to make no more speeches on foreign policy until Secretary of State Byrnes could get peacefully through the belligerencies of the Paris Peace Conference, and he seems to have been almost resigned to the prospect that he might have to keep silent for the indefinite future. After all those hints of restored complaisance, Truman fired him as Secretary of Commerce two days later. It cannot be an insignificant fact in the history of the left in America that Henry Wallace, its most notorious symbol, did not secede from government but was expelled.

Some prevision of the loneliness and the humiliation that attended his final divorcement reduced Wallace, we must finally suppose, to telling himself over and over again that Truman was not as bad as he sounded. The Truman recorded by Merle Miller demands, in charity and common sense, some of the same discipline from the sensitive. Wallace’s Wallace comes to us as a reproach; but Miller’s Truman is simply an embarrassment.

Yet the balance between them was by no means as uneven as we might think if we had no evidence beyond these two books. It is not fair that Wallace should be judged by his best and Truman by his worst, even if it is a worst which the editor of Plain Speaking and hordes of its readers seem to insist on thinking attractive. That we are ashamed of ten years of toughness that failed is a very poor excuse for rendering ourselves so suddenly homesick for a toughness that we can imagine as having triumphed.

Plain Speaking is as powerful an argument for measured and restrained discourse as Deep Throat must be for long underwear. It is a catalogue raisonné of the vulgar and the trashy. Its tone is a monotonous litany of scurrilities. The speaker forgives no one and regrets nothing; his enemies are dragged past us as images of the most threadbare invective: he remembers how MacArthur kissed his ass at Wake Island; he unearths all the gossip about Eisenhower’s wartime romance as a prelude to the assertion that he saved the reputation he now labors to destroy by shredding the evidence in the Pentagon files; he calls former Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark the dumbest son of a bitch he has ever known; he says that like just sat on his ass like if (sic) he didn’t know what was going on; and he calls Nixon a shifty-eyed goddamn liar and, of course, a son of a bitch.3

Even the Truman whom Wallace remembers turns out to be much more appetizing than the Truman his old age wanted us to remember. Here is Miller on Truman:

If there was one subject on which Mr. Truman was not going to have any second thoughts, it was the Bomb…. The Bomb had ended the war…. That was all there was to it, and Mr. Truman never lost any sleep over that decision.

Here is Wallace on Truman:

[At the cabinet meeting of August 10, 1945], Truman said he had given orders to stop atomic bombing. He said the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, “all those kids.”

[At the cabinet meeting of July 25, 1946], the President spoke very vigorously in one part of the meeting about the necessity of cutting down on the askings of the Army and Navy…. But within half an hour he was saying that after the last war we had cut our Navy too much; that we had to be careful not to cut our Army and Navy; that if we had not cut our Army and Navy after the last war there would not have been World War II. I was utterly amazed that he could go two different directions within the hour. It reminded me of Tuesday when within the hour he spoke about being patient with Russia to me and then at the cabinet luncheon agreed completely with Jimmie Byrnes in a number of cracks he took against Russia. I suspect there never has been a President who could move two different directions with less time intervening than Truman. He feels completely sincere and earnest at all times and is not disturbed in the slightest by the different directions in which his mind can go almost simultaneously. I say this realizing that he has always agreed with me on everything.

There had been, then, a divided mind before it turned to the stone that was Truman’s final pride. We cannot say, of course, that Wallace’s mind might not have turned to stone too. But then it is a waste of time to wonder what sort of President he might have been. He could not have been. At the end, tired as he was, Roosevelt had too keen a vision of what our future would be.

This Issue

April 4, 1974

  1. 1

    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.” 

  2. 2

    See Robert J. Lampman, The Share of Top Wealth Holders in National Wealth, 1922-1956 (Princeton, 1962). 

  3. 3

    What Truman gives us of his notions of the dignity of history and the complexity of man is hardly improved by an editor who has suspended his normal detachment and sensitivity to swallow them whole. Miller’s historical footnotes are slavishly accepting. He reminds us, for example, that Eisenhower yielded to the pressure of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s incense bearers and excised from a 1952 Wisconsin campaign a complimentary reference to General George C. Marshall. “So much,” Miller comments, “for [Eisenhower’s] respect for freedom.” Not quite so much; the balance is not that simply on Truman’s side. Real history would not leap so blithely over their Supreme Court appointments: Truman, Chief Justice Vinson. Eisenhower, Chief Justice Warren. Truman, Justices Minton, Burton, and Clark. Eisenhower, Justices Brennan, Harlan, and Stewart.