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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
The Agriculture Secretary admitted he had been “‘taken in completely” and promised, “But that’s over now and I think perhaps it may have been a good lesson for me.” Still, his association with Nicholas Roerich remained a source of embarrassment, and the “guru letters” haunted Wallace for the rest of his political career. He later Iamented the “idiotic things” he had written to Roerich and worried that the press would use them “to make me appear very foolish.”
In 1940, in the midst of a tight political campaign, the “guru letters” surfaced. Roosevelt had not known of them when he asked Wallace to be his vice-presidential running mate. Harry Hopkins, the Secretary of Commerce, broke the news on a quiet morning while Roosevelt was enjoying breakfast in his bedroom. As Hopkins spoke, Roosevelt’s face clouded over. Hopkins had learned that the Republican party had copies of some of the correspondence. Not only could the letters embarrass Wallace and the Democratic ticket, but they could also reveal that Roosevelt himself had taken an interest in Roerich’s activities. Both Hopkins and Samuel Rosenman, the President’s speech writer, had spent the night before trying to think of a way the Democrats might gracefully remove Wallace from the ticket. But the President thought it unwise to change running mates. In addition, he believed that his opponent, Wendell WiIlkie, was involved in an extramarital affair. If the Republicans published the “guru letters,” the 1940 presidential campaign might end in a wild exchange of accusations.
After considerable discussion and disagreement the GOP indeed decided not to publish the “guru letters.” Joseph W. Martin, the Republican national chairman, felt the electorate would view the revelation as a smear. Willkie agreed. But Franklin Roosevelt nonetheless ordered Wallace’s aide Paul Appleby to accompany the vice-presidential candidate during the remainder of the campaign. Appleby recalled that he was to make certain that Wallace did not issue “some ill-considered statements about the letters.”
Roerich claimed he could converse with spirits; they told him how to fund a Roerich museum.
In 1944 party conservatives opposed Wallace’s renomination for Vice-President, and he was passed over in favor of Harry Truman. In 1948 he bolted the Democratic party to run for President on an independent ticket. Once again the guru loomed in the background. The syndicated newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler printed several of Wallace’s letters to Roerich. Their publication was embarrassing but had little effect on the campaign. Wallace had already been ostracized from the political mainstream for his outspoken opposition to President Harry S. Truman’s cold-war policies. His dismal showing in the 1948 election resulted from his foreign-policy views, not from the “guru letters.”
Just a year before Henry Wallace’s third-party campaign, Nicholas Roerich died on his estate in India. He had returned to the United States only once after his ill-fated expedition. His reluctance to visit his dwindling number of American friends may have been based in part on the Treasury Department’s claim that he owed $48,758.50 in back taxes, and on a suit by a disenchanted Horch for repayment of $200,000 in old loans. It was a very modest end to the career of a man who claimed to have great spiritual powers and the ability to smite all who opposed him. Roerich had victimized those who befriended and helped him. His most visible remaining legacy is the Nicholas Roerich Museum. The original building survives—now as an apartment house—and so does the museum itself, moved to a brownstone at 319 West 107th Street and still visited by admirers of Roerich’s art and ideas.
Wallace and Roosevelt were unfortunate in their connection to the guru but very fortunate that their opponents never took full advantage of the episode. Had they investigated the incident more thoroughly and exposed the roles of Wallace and Roosevelt, not only the Secretary of Agriculture but the President too might have had cause to seriously lament his involvement with Nicholas Roerich.