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The New Deal And The Guru
How Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture sent an eccentric Russian mystic on a sensitive mission to Asia and thereby created diplomatic havoc, personal humiliation, and embarrassment for the administration
March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
Early in 1934 Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace appointed Nicholas Roerich, a renowned painter and a self-proclaimed guardian of world peace and culture, to lead a scientific expedition to North China and Manchuria, to search for drought-resistant grasses that might revive the Dust Bowl. By the time the project ended, in 1935, the eccentric artist had compromised America’s diplomatic position in Asia, embarrassed the Roosevelt administration, humiliated Wallace, and damaged the careers of several botanists. And he had not advanced the cause of combating the drought in the United States.
The episode—one of the most bizarre in the history of the New Deal—began with Henry Wallace’s infatuation with Roerich’s mystical philosophy. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1874, Roerich had studied painting, drawing, and archeology in various academies, and had become president of the Society for Encouragement of Fine Arts in Russia and a noted theater designer—he created the sets and costumes for the epochal 1913 Nijinsky premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. He emigrated from Russia a short time after the Bolshevik Revolution, apparently by his own choice, and after a brief stay in England moved to the United States, arriving in New York City in 1920.
At first Roerich had a hard time here, living modestly while selling paintings and designing stage sets. But then Louis L. Horch, a wealthy New York broker, and his wife, Nettie, became greatly impressed by Roerich and spent large sums settling Roerich’s debts and financing his activities. Roerich claimed he had the ability to communicate with the spiritual sphere through “automatic writings.” With his eyes covered, the artist could record thoughts and instructions from another world—on one occasion he received specific directions on how to raise funds to build a museum in New York to display Roerich’s work.
In 1925 Roerich went off to India and Tibet to paint a “great panoramic series of works” and to translate “original manuscripts, folk lore, and artistic material of these countries.” At Horch’s expense he traveled widely in Asia for four years. While there, he generated so much turmoil that the British Foreign Office labeled him an “unbalanced individual.” He claimed to have discovered a manuscript in a Tibetan monastery proving that Christ had lived and preached in India as a young man. He also made a mysterious trip to the Soviet Union, where he apparently conferred with government officials. Subsequently he wrote books praising the Soviet system and describing both Christ and Buddha as communists, but the United States State Department found no convincing evidence that linked him “in any way with communist movements.” At any rate, he eventually severed his ties with Russia in favor of a fantastic scheme to create an autonomous state under his leadership in Siberia.
While Roerich was traveling in Asia, a writer named Frances Grant who admired him wrote adulatory articles and pamphlets. Her efforts, along with his genuine artistic ability, helped win him an enviable international reputation as a painter. Horch, meanwhile, worked at building a museum for Roerich’s work. Between 1923 and 1929 Horch erected at 103rd Street and Riverside Drive in New York a twenty-nine story apartment house whose bottom floors constituted the Roerich Museum, with exhibit space for more than a thousand of the artist’s paintings. Horch served as president of the museum and Grant as vice-president. Roerich returned to the United States to speak at the museum’s dedication but neglected to thank the architects, builders, or contributors, or even Horch, for their efforts on his behalf. He also insisted on the addition of stained-glass windows and an expensive change in the wallpaper, which Horch carried out.
With his museum established and his fame growing, Roerich turned to a new project. He called for an international agreement to protect cultural monuments and artistic treasures, particularly during wartime. In 1929 he and several associates formally drafted a treaty that they hoped would gain worldwide acceptance. It became known as the Roerich Pact. They also adopted a “Banner of Peace”—a red circle surrounding three spheres on a field of white, representing the common bonds of culture, spirit, and humanity that transcended the divisions among people. Delegates from more than twenty countries attended conferences to discuss the pact in Bruges, Belgium, in 1931 and 1932, but they failed to take any action on it. The U.S. Department of State found the pact “futile, weak, and unenforceable,” but after Roosevelt took office, his endorsement of the treaty and Henry Wallace’s aggressive advocacy of it eventually prevailed over the State Department’s opposition.
Wallace was himself somewhat mystically inclined. He was a brilliant plant geneticist, who had developed the first hybrid corn for commercial use, and a respected economist, whose writings on farm problems had made him a leading agricultural spokesman—Roosevelt once referred to him as “Old Man Common Sense”—but he also exhibited a prominent strain of fervent idealism. He was an intensely religious man who disdained “the wishy-washy goodygoodness and the infantile irrelevancy” of conventional Christianity. He viewed the Depression as an opportunity for a spiritual reformation; the “fundamental cure” for it, Wallace believed, entailed “changing the human heart,” a renunciation of selfishness and greed.