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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
During the 1920s and early 1930s Wallace’s quest for spiritual satisfaction led him to take a correspondence course in occultism that promised the “opportunity of entering and placing your feet on the Path that leads to Eternal Light and Life.” He exchanged letters and visits with a Minnesota artist who used allegorical jargon and referred to Wallace as “Cornplanter” and “Chief Standing Corn.” Wallace also dabbled in astrology, confiding to one practitioner that he was “fundamentally … a searcher for methods of bringing the Inner Light to outward manifestation.” It was that search that led him to Nicholas Roerich.
Wallace had first heard of Roerich in 1928 from a visiting Soviet plant scientist. The next time he went to New York he called on Frances Grant, who intrigued him with her descriptions of Roerich’s achievements. Wallace visited the museum and was “thrilled beyond measure” to receive a brief audience with Roerich. He found the artist’s appearance, demeanor, and plans to promote culture and peace extremely impressive. He admired Roerich’s paintings because, he said, they gave him a “smooth feeling inside.” He also esteemed Roerich’s philosophy, for, like Wallace, the artist professed a belief in the fundamental unity of all religions, the brotherhood of man, and the need for a transformation of the human heart to achieve cooperation among nations. Roerich seemed to offer illumination to Wallace’s enduring search for eternal truth.
Wallace met with Roerich only that one time, but he avidly read the painter’s writings and frequently communicated with the officials of the Roerich Museum. In a series of letters written in 1933 and 1934, in which he sometimes called Roerich the “guru,” Wallace described his spiritual yearnings and commented on contemporary events and personalities. He told Roerich: “Long have I been aware of the occasional fragrance from the other world which is the real world. But now I must live in the outer world and at the same time make over my mind and body to serve as fit instruments for the Lord of Justice.” While complaining of the constant tension in his life, he expressed his belief that it marked the “first crude beginnings of a new age.”
Wallace often referred in the “guru letters” to “Dark Ones,” “Steadfast Ones,” and “vermin.” He beseeched the blessings of the “Great Ones.” He labeled Secretary of State Cordell Hull the “Sour One” and Roosevelt the “Flaming One” or the “Wavering One,” depending on whether or not he approved of the President’s actions.
Wallace lobbied aggressively to secure the Roosevelt administration’s support for the Roerich Pact. The President’s mother was an admirer of Roerich, and Roosevelt himself had once met and been favorably impressed by the artist. The President certainly did not take Roerich as seriously as did Wallace, but in late 1934 he received and apparently replied to a series of allegorical letters in which Roerich’s wife, Elena, advised him of “cosmic conditions” and described the President as a man of destiny. At Roosevelt’s urging the State Department assumed a more sympathetic attitude toward the proposed pact. Secretary of State Hull appointed Wallace his representative to the Third International Roerich Peace Banner Convention in Washington in November 1933. Delegates from twenty-seven nations attended the meeting, Sen. Robert F. Wagner acted as its honorary chairman, and fourteen U.S. senators were honorary members. In April 1935 the United States and representatives from twenty-one Latin American countries signed the pact in a White House ceremony. The following day Wallace sent out a series of letters proposing Roerich’s name for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The State Department grew very nervous about Roerich, but he had influence in the Oval Office.
Roerich did not witness the signing of the treaty; he had left the United States in May 1934 to search for grasses in Asia. The Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry was sponsoring the expedition in the hope of finding plants useful for erosion control in the United States. Climatic and geographic conditions in Central Asia resembled those in the Midwest, where the drought had hit hardest. Knowles A. Ryerson, chief of the Bureau of Plant Industry, had proposed a number of qualified scientists to lead the mission, but Wallace, with Roosevelt’s approval, asked Roerich to head it. The Agriculture Secretary felt the artist’s experience in Asia, along with the fact that he was “revered in Japan, China and Russia,” made him an appropriate choice. He named Roerich’s son George as assistant chief of the expedition. Wallace conceded that the two government botanists chosen for the trip, Howard MacMillan and James Stephens, would do most of the scientific work, but he believed the artist’s presence would ensure the success of the project. The expedition offered Roerich a good salary and a chance to further his own ambitions, and he gladly accented the offer.