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“…to Serve The World-not To Dominate It”
United States policy, Henry Wallace said in his spirited challenge to Truman and Dewey in 1948, should be
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
It was a one-man campaign from the start. Without Henry Agard Wallace there would have been no Progressive Party in 1948. He made it almost a religious revival. With his Calvinistic devotion to duty, his determination to bring the Lord’s work into politics, he gave his platform of planned economy the fervor of a camp-town meeting. He laced his speeches with biblical quotations, calling the wrath of the prophet Isaiah upon President Harry Truman’s get-tough policy with Russia: “Woe to those that trust in chariots.” His “Gideon’s Army” (as he called it after the Old Testament warrior) had to save the nation from its plunge toward war. It had to restore the dreams of the New Deal. And in doing so Wallace was convinced he had to rebuild the wartime “popular front” even though Communist support became the heaviest cross he had to bear.
There was a messianic exhortation to his language. “In Hyde Park they buried our President—and in Washington they buried our dreams,” he told one audience. There was a sense of destiny and showmanship in each appearance—the organized chants booming his name over the loudspeakers, the folk singers crying, “Be a real smarty, join the New Party,” the Crescendos of applause that often lasted ten minutes before the crowd allowed him to speak.
But beneath all the surface revivalism, a Chicago Daily News reporter concluded, “Wallace is an incurably simple soul. His belief in God and Christian doctrine is as real as his devotion to simple fare.” In 1944, after his rejection for a second term as Vice President, he campaigned for President Franklin D. Roosevelt sixteen hours a day through the summer and fall. Once he had to catch a crowded day coach to make his next speech and stood in the aisles from 6 P.M. to 2 A.M. No one offered him a seat or even seemed to recognize him. Associates often tried to argue him out of carrying his heavy suitcase from the station to his distant hotel. Was he trying to save a cab fare? Wallace admitted he liked to save money. But it wasn’t really that. “I need the exercise,” he insisted.
Above all, there was an energetic martyrdom about the 1948 campaign, particularly in his southern tours, where Wallace refused to speak to segregated audiences or stop at hotels or restaurants that turned away black members of his group. There were daily barrages of rotten fruit; there were smashed windshields; and a mob in Gadsden, Alabama, rocked his crowded car for five minutes and almost overturned it. His distraught associates begged him to call off the rest of the tour, but Wallace refused.
It was a campaign driven by the desperation of apparently impending war. At a Chicago dinner in January, 1948, Marshall Field, publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times and New York’s PM , reported to the Progressive Party leadership that Pentagon officials expected war within six months. “We were convinced that if we got 5 million votes, we could stop the rush to war. We could have headed off the Korean war and perhaps the Vietnam debacle,” Albert Fitzgerald, president of the United Electrical Workers and chairman of the new party’s labor committee, concluded years afterward. James A. Parley, who had guided Roosevelt to his first two victories, predicted that Wallace would get those five million votes.
In hindsight the campaign seems flawed by Wallace’s ineptness. He was unable to prevent Truman from pinning the Communist label on his party and convincing the country that a Wallace vote would guarantee the election of Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican candidate. But at the same time Wallace gave the campaign a grandeur, an integrity, and a prophetic accuracy that were uncanny. Almost every speech rings startlingly true twenty-eight years later. His assault on the Truman Doctrine and each provocation in the Cold War pointed unerringly toward a constant line of confrontations, from Greece to the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, and Cyprus. Decades later Wallace’s words seem incredibly prescient, humane, and logical. The tragedy is that his own political flaws, and his party’s, limited the impact of the campaign.
These flaws first damaged Wallace in his 1944 renomination campaign for the Vice-Presidency. Hating the crudities of politics, he failed to organize his liberal and labor support against the big-city bosses who had joined Robert E. Hannegan, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to block renomination. The Hannegan alliance, determined that Wallace’s extreme New Dealism would never control the White House, pushed hard for Truman, a border-state Democrat who had headed the Senate war investigation committee. Roosevelt shilly-shallied on his commitment to Wallace, and supported almost solidly by southern delegates, Truman won on the second ballot. Hannegan supposedly would boast afterward that the only epitaph he wanted on his gravestone was the credit for keeping Wallace out of the White House.
The problem all through Wallace’s career was that his bafflingly complex and introverted personality left him critically split in the fury of politics. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins praised his “nobility of character.” Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes disliked his consuming ambition. “No one could make deals with Henry,” an associate recalled. When politicians closed in on him, he would slump in his chair, a rumpled, baggy figure, his blue-gray eyes half-closed, almost as if he were dropping off to sleep.