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The New Deal And The Guru

July 2024
17min read

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

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.


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.


Other interested parties placed considerably less faith in Roerich. The State Department expressed grave reservations about the whole expedition because the explorers would be traveling in a hotbed of international tension and intrigue. They would necessarily make contacts with the government of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, which the United States refused to recognize. Stanley K. Hornbeck, chief of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs, pointed out to Wallace that the Roerichs were not American citizens but White Russians who carried French passports. The Agriculture Secretary, however, expressed confidence that the Roerichs would handle the delicate matter of Manchukuo gracefully. When Ryerson expressed fear for the safety of MacMillan and Stephens, Wallace asked the younger Roerich to “ask the Guru to use his powers to give them confidence and joy” so that they would return home “singing [his] praises.”

Unfortunately, MacMillan and Stephens found it difficult to admire a man who avoided them at every juncture. The guru and his son left the United States well before the two botanists. Roerich saw his journey to Asia as a grand opportunity to establish a separate state in Siberia. MacMillan and Stephens, who were interested only in drought-resistant grasses, were to be abandoned and discredited. Horch, Roerich’s financier, later stated that the goal of establishing a new Siberian state became an “obsession” with the Russian. References to Siberia, code-named Kansas, frequently surfaced in Roerich’s highly cryptic correspondence. He wrote at one point, “I think all the time about Kansas.”

In May 1934 the Roerichs arrived in Tokyo, where they sought to ingratiate themselves with Japanese authorities. After meeting with Minister of War Senjuro Hayashi, Nicholas Roerich publicly hailed him as “a great man” and “a leader of great ability.” Despite the U.S. refusal to recognize the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria, the Roerichs called on the legation of Manchukuo in Tokyo. They stayed in Tokyo long enough to make headlines but scurried out of the city before the arrival of MacMillan and Stephens. On June 1 the two botanists reached Tokyo and were greeted with instructions to pick up their visas at the Manchukuo legation. They wisely chose instead to deal with the American consulate. The consul general, Arthur Garrels, only learned then that the Roerichs were employees of the Agriculture Department, and he complained to Secretary of State Hull that their activities had been “embarrassing to the Embassy, the Consulate General, and the American Government.”

Seemingly oblivious of diplomatic repercussions, the Roerichs journeyed on to Manchuria, where they presented Emperor Pu Yi of Manchukuo with the Banner of Peace, “First Class.” In the city of Harbin, where his brother and thousands of other White Russians had taken refuge, Roerich began a vigorous publicity campaign. MacMillan sent one of Roerich’s self-promoting handbills back home to his superior and compared it to a circular for “a circus or a chain grocery store.”

Wallace proved to be Roerich’s guardian angel. He later admitted that the artist so “hypnotized” him that he felt he was above reproach. Roerich complained repeatedly about late-arriving paychecks and the disrespect of the botanists. He suggested that Wallace should “put them in their place.” Wallace intervened when the General Accounting Office (GAO) questioned Roerich’s reimbursement vouchers: Roerich had asked the GAO to pay for items that included his housecoat, trousers, stockings, and a rolling pin.

Wallace also intervened to protect Roerich from the hostile Japanese press. The presence in politically sensitive Manchukuo of a publicity-seeking Russian never appealed to the Japanese, and soon after the expedition arrived in Harbin, the local newspapers launched a systematic attack against their new visitors. Articles associated Roerich with Freemasonry, Buddhism, anti-Communist and anti-Fascist organizations, and a scheme to establish a separate state in Siberia. Roerich wrote home, “We are battling with the dark forces but as always are moving valiantly forward.”

Frances Grant carried the troubling news to the Secretary of Agriculture, who immediately arranged to see the Japanese ambassador to the United States, bypassing the State Department. Asking for a personal favor, Wallace received assurances that the journalistic assault on Roerich would soon end. Wallace had already avoided diplomatic channels by writing directly to Chinese diplomats and American consular officers in Tokyo and Harbin, introducing Roerich and explaining the expedition. The State Department was becoming very nervous.


Roerich’s influence, however, extended beyond the cabinet and into the Oval Office. President Roosevelt was impressed with an article by the artist entitled “The Deserts Shall Bloom Again” and twice asked Wallace to invite Roerich to spend an evening with the President when the search for drought-resistant grasses ended.

For a while Harbin proved a safe sanctuary for Roerich. The friendship of Wallace and Roosevelt protected him from the “dark forces,” and there was time for self-aggrandizement, manuscript revision, and the acquisition of what MacMillan called “servants and Cossack soldiers.” Roerich launched an attack on “evil wishers or ignoramuses,” among them MacMillan, Stephens, and the State Department. An open breach with the State Department’s Division of Far Eastern Affairs finally developed when Roerich courted the Manchukuo authorities, to the scorn of the Japanese-controlled press. One distressed State Department official complained that Roerich had placed the United States in an “embarrassing if not ludicrous position” and said that it was time for Secretary of State Hull to ask Wallace to “recall the two Roerichs or announce their definite disassociation from the expedition.”

On July 18 MacMillan and Stephens finally reached Harbin. They had brought with them much of the expedition’s equipment, including a quantity of ammunition and firearms that troubled the wary Japanese officials, and were well behind schedule. MacMillan could not locate Roerich’s Harbin address. He was able to obtain a department-store phone number, but the clerk who answered said Roerich was unavailable. MacMillan sensed that he and Stephens were “definitely under suspicion and [were] being watched.” As Roerich continued to avoid the two botanists, an utterly frustrated MacMillan wrote: “Papa Roerich rates a Cossack guard at his door at all hours, armed. It makes a great show. What tripe!”

George Roerich became an intermediary between his father and the botanists, and it soon became apparent that there would be two separate expeditions. MacMillan believed Roerich’s “plan of movement would be entirely ruinous to our work.” After an exchange of equipment the grass seed search divided. Back in Washington Ryerson grew increasingly disenchanted with Roerich and, like the State Department, suggested that Wallace recall him.

Throughout the first year of the expedition, Wallace’s faith in Nicholas Roerich never wavered. Roerich’s letters to Wallace told a sad tale of two insubordinate botanists who failed to follow instructions, refused to contact their chief, and then demanded to work separately. Roerich wrote threateningly to friends in New York: “Recently we laughed a great deal about hearing a curious story how a certain person when he began slandering on my account at once got scalded by hot waters.”

Soviet officials thought the artist was leading an armed party to foment revolution.

Wallace accepted Roerich’s account of events. He recalled MacMillan and Stephens “for insubordination and failure to carry out instructions” and then castigated Ryerson for siding with his employees: “The rumors which you mentioned concerning Professor Roerich are not only ridiculous but extremely malicious, and indicate ignorance of his outstanding achievements.” Wallace transferred Ryerson to the Division of Subtropical Horticulture.

Roerich meanwhile neglected the official purpose of his mission. Most of the plant specimens he sent back to Washington were not drought-resistant grasses but “curative herbs.” The scientists at the Department of Agriculture bleakly concluded, “Practically nothing has come out of this plant material which is worth anything.” At the same time, the American consulate general in Harbin reported that Roerich’s difficulties with Manchukuo officials stemmed from his wanting “permission to import arms and ammunition and to pitch tents and establish an armed camp in the interior.” It appeared that the expedition “had for its object other things than mere agricultural work.”

By October 1934 Wallace had relieved MacMillan, Stephens, and Ryerson and appointed Dr. E. N. Bressman, a scientific adviser in the Department of Agriculture, to assist the expedition from Washington. Wallace apologized to Roerich for the behavior of the two botanists and assured him that “you have my complete confidence and approval for all your actions in regard to the expedition.” The Agriculture Secretary expressed his continued conviction that Roerich’s work would “help decidedly in making eventually possible greater human happiness in the western plains area.”

The Roerichs left Harbin in November 1934 for North China. They used government funds to purchase trucks, motorcars, and tents. When they asked the 15th United States Army Infantry unit in Tientsin for rifles, revolvers, and ammunition, the officer in charge balked until Wallace, at George Roerich’s request, intervened. On December 1 Wallace wrote the Secretary of War asking that the Roerichs, as officials of the Department of Agriculture, “promptly” be given the arms because they “are now planning to travel in the Gobi region where, because of unsettled conditions, they will require weapons and ammunition for their personal protection.” The Roerichs continued on, well armed and accompanied by a “guard of White Russian Cossacks,” according to one witness. They were leading a most unusual botanical expedition.

In the winter of 1934 and the spring of 1935, Roerich spent most of his time promoting projects like the Roerich Pact and writing of his longings for “Kansas.” He made so many speeches in North China that in January he complained of a sore throat. Newspapers in Tientsin and Peking renewed their “malice, nightmare, and slander,” but Roerich maintained, according to a report from the American legation in Peking, “a very proud attitude” and “quite a fierce appearance” as he traveled with “four White Russian guards, and some Burial guards.”

On June 24, 1935, the Chicago Tribune published a front-page article headlined JAPANESE EXPEL EXPLORERS SENT BY SEC. WALLACE. The State Department may have leaked news of Roerich’s activities in the hope of pressuring Wallace to recall him. At any rate the newspaper told of a Russian painter traveling with “armed White Russian Cossack guards” who made a conspicuous “show of American diplomatic protection,” causing “embarrassment to American diplomatic and military officials.”

Roerich wrote to Wallace that the journalistic assault was “entirely without foundation,” a product of the “whispering campaign” of the two dismissed botanists, prejudiced consular officials, and the local Japanese-controlled press, which aimed “to check the spread of American influence among the Russian population in North Manchuria.” He predicted that the months ahead would produce valuable seed collections, and he denied “any political activity on my part, or on the part of the other members of the Expedition.”

Wallace was not convinced. As he later commented, “For the first time I began to see that perhaps Roerich was getting me into a false position and through me also embarrassing the Government of the United States.” He cabled Roerich with instructions “to transfer your expedition to a safe region rich in drought resistant grasses in Suiyuan.” He also asked Horch to convey “tactfully and effectively” to the artist that the government was “exceedingly anxious” and that the expedition must devote its full attention, “both actually and apparently,” to the collection of grass seed.

The Soviet Union was also worried about Roerich. The American military attaché in Moscow reported that a reliable Russian source was referring to the Roerichs as an “armed party” that was “making its way toward the Soviet Union, ostensibly as a scientific expedition, but actually to rally former White elements and discontented Mongols.” The State Department forwarded these rumors to Wallace, and he replied that the grass-seed expedition had no intention of violating Soviet territory. Then Undersecretary of State William Phillips, who handled the correspondence from Moscow, cornered Wallace at a reception and informed him of the seriousness of the State Department’s concern. Wallace admitted that he had begun “to doubt that the Professor was such a great man after all.” That conversation, as Wallace put it later, “ended Roerich so far as I was concerned. All I wanted to do was to get him back to Nagar, India, get his credentials, and wash my hands of him completely.”


On September 16 Wallace sent Roerich orders to pack for Nagar, prepare a final report, spend no additional money, and surrender his credentials. On September 21 the Agriculture Department formally terminated the field activities of the expedition and asked the Roerichs to pay for the firearms they had borrowed. Wallace wanted no further friction between the United States and the Soviet Union. He had earlier warned the Roerichs that “Department employees must not make statements reflecting on political situations in other nations.”

The Roerich expedition failed to find plants to help the American Dust Bowl. During the first season of the expedition, the Agriculture Department received mainly herbarium and medicinal plants. During the second, shortened season the Roerichs assured the Agriculture Department that their “field work [was] progressing highly satisfactorily” and that they were doing their “utmost to secure a sufficient collection of seeds from a large number of forage grasses.” Ominously, however, their letters boasted of more than eight hundred herbariums. A comedy of errors ensued as the Roerichs attempted to send their seeds by diplomatic pouch, only to receive a strong rebuff from the State Department, which informed them that it was not in the seed-transport business. Wallace later admitted, when the Italian embassy asked for the results of the seed experiments, that “almost certainly most of the items concerned will have little or no value.”

By now Wallace’s disillusion with Roerich was complete. In September 1935 he advised Mrs. Roerich: “I desire that there be no communication, direct or indirect, by letter or otherwise between the Roerichs (father, mother, and son) on the one side and myself on the other.” In other correspondence he called his former friend a “megalomaniac” whose followers “were determined to stop at nothing in helping him to work out some extraordinary phantasy of Asiatic power.”

The Secretary of Agriculture tried to repair the damage his guru had caused. He apologized to MacMillan and Stephens and told the botanists’ former superior, Knowles Ryerson, “that your motives were of the highest.” He even tried to persuade the State Department to change the name of the Roerich Pact, and he personally wrote to the United States ambassadors from fifty-seven countries warning them about “those who continue fanatically in their policy of aggrandizing a name rather than an ideal.”

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.

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