Commentary Magazine

The Faith of Henry Wallace:
The Populist Tradition In The Atomic Age

In many quarters, Henry A. Wallace is regarded as the most important political leader and ideologist that American liberals possess, and the possible head of a movement of resurgent progressivism. DAVID T. BARCELONA here attempts perhaps the first serious summary and analysis of Wallace’s ideas, and of the factors of personality, family background, and regional history that may help to explain them.



Henry A. Wallace is the “uncommon man” whom many liberals propose as leader of the well-known Common Man, whose century is supposed to be the present one.

This is the culmination of a development that began in 1940 when Roosevelt forced Wallace on the Democratic nominating convention as vice-presidential candidate, to stand as a symbol of liberalism in his administration. During the war, Wallace relieved the President of much of the task of interpreting the conflict from a progressive viewpoint. In 1944 the left wing of the Democratic party and the Political Action Committee fought to have Wallace retained as their advocate in the government and first in the line of succession. The Democratic progressives lost in a close fight, chiefly for lack of Roosevelt’s support. When, after Roosevelt’s death, Wallace’s time came to break with the Truman administration, he became the symbol of the New Deal exodus from Washington.

Wallace has now become editor of the New Republic, which has embarked on an ambitious program of expansion: “I want it [the New Republic] to be so simple that high school students can understand it and so sound that doctors of philosophy respect it.” Whether or not this miracle materializes, the new New Republic under Wallace is certain to become the center of liberal program-hatching in the post-Roosevelt period, at least for a time. “We need to rethink the whole basis of progressive political action,” says Max Lerner, one of Wallace’s ardent admirers. “If we fail in doing that, the next major depression may lead to a fascist era rather than to another New Deal.”

This being the present importance of Henry Wallace, it is well to ask: What manner of man is he? What are the forces that produced him? What are his ideas?

The special strain of American liberalism that nurtured Wallace is not hard to identify. He is Midwestern; for most of his life he was purely a farm leader; religious ideas play a very large role in his political thinking. Just as Frances Perkins was the most successful social worker in the nation, so Wallace is the blue-ribbon product of the prairie land-grant colleges and of the great American populist tradition.




The Wallace family settled in Pennsylvania in 1823, coming from Scotland and Ulster. They had been mostly farmers as far back as anyone could remember. Henry A.’s grandfather, also named Henry, came out to Iowa and became a very important figure in the state, being known affectionately as “Uncle Henry.” He built up the family’s land-holdings and founded Wallace’s Farmer. The motto on the masthead of this family newspaper has always been “Good Farming . . . Clear Thinking . . . Right Living.”

“Uncle Henry” was for the first part of his life an ordained minister of the Presbyterian faith. In 1877 he left the Church in a huff, railing against “church-made sins.” His reason for de-institutionalizing himself appears to have been a desire to preach more freely and effectively, and to larger audiences. He did just that. “Uncle Henry’s” rhetorical style was original and richly personal. His preaching never consisted of mere hell-fire, but always had a practical, educative emphasis. At the same time, he became a political power in Iowa, taking a leading part in the fight for soil conservation, against freight-rate discriminations, and in other progressive struggles of his day. He served on Teddy Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission, one of the earliest governmental projects for improving the lot of farmers.

Henry Cantwell Wallace (Henry A.’s father) lacked “Uncle Henry’s” vivid personal qualities, but was a very capable and successful continuator of the family tradition. One writer describes him succinctly. “As a citizen his three interests were the Y.M.C.A., the United Presbyterian Church, and the Republican Party.” Henry C. spent a number of years as professor of dairying at Ames College. He later became permanent secretary of the Corn Belt Meat Producers Association. And under his management, Wallace’s Farmer so prospered during the First World War as to earn the nickname, “Wallace’s Gold Mine.”

Henry C. served as Secretary of Agriculture in the cabinets of Harding and Coolidge, dying in office in 1924. The chief incident of his tenure was a long, bitter struggle with Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce. The source of their conflict was the fact that farmers were suffering, despite the industrial boom, from the high tariffs of the period and the loss of wartime markets. Throughout the 20′s, the farm interests conducted a huge propaganda campaign for some form of state aid in solving the farm problem—a campaign that was instrumental in bringing about the present system of parity payments. Hoover, on the side of the industrial and financial interests then supreme, was opposed to any really significant intervention in the farm market.

Some form of state planning and control has been an absolute necessity for American farmers since the beginning of the 20′s. Only during the war can agriculture now survive in a free market. It was under the influence of this overwhelming fact that Henry A. Wallace’s economic thinking matured. And his father’s bitter fight with Hoover was one of the reasons he threw his support to Roosevelt in 1932, but he had already switched parties four years earlier.



Henry A. Wallace was influenced profoundly by his grandfather. Indeed, never in his career has he abandoned the essential values of his family background and tradition; he has attempted, rather, to adapt them to modern problems and raise them to a world level. And the simple fact is that Wallace has perhaps done as much with this tradition as could be done. His father once said to the family: “Our Henry has the best mind of any Wallace in six generations.”

Even before his graduation from Ames in 1910, he was writing for the family paper about his experiments in corn-breeding, which he began while still an adolescent. From 1910 until he entered Roosevelt’s cabinet in 1933, he filled editorial positions on Wallace’s Farmer. At the same time, he continued his researches in plant genetics— which eventually led him into business. His very active intellectual life and his friendships were centered around “agricultural-college people,” the kind who for the past seventy-five years have had a deep influence on all aspects of farm life in this country and, through that, on our national existence.

Though Wallace’s mentality was formed by his background, his interests have not been provincial. He mentions studying Berg-son’s Creative Evolution with his grandfather, he admires Veblen greatly—many more examples could be adduced. But even more important in his intellectual development has been the persistent devotion to religious beliefs and the curious pattern established by the unresolved conflict of this religious emphasis with his broader culture.

While still young, Wallace tells us, he began to reflect on the sermons he heard in church; he found them somewhat lacking in logic. This naturally caused an inner conflict, which he disposed of by deciding that a critical attitude in church was improper. He stopped attending services and began a study of Darwinism, but the more he read, the stronger became his feeling of the need for a God “immanent as well as transcendent.” (He accepted the theory of evolution, of course.) Wallace calls Veblen “a modern Isaiah,” but he also says: “I think there is far more possibility of good in the American businessman than Veblen cared to admit.” Darwinism is true, Veblen’s thought is true, but— their opposites are also true!

Wallace has told us that the book that influenced him most (after the Bible, presumably) was Revolutions of Civilization (1911) by W. M. Flinders Petrie, the British Egyptologist. A slim volume, it presents a very simple thesis on historical cycles, maintaining that every civilization has developed and decayed in the course of 1500 years. Petrie’s thesis was derived from a study of works of art, especially sculpture, in Egypt and Europe. The abandonment of archaic forms being his only criterion of growth, Petrie demonstrates the existence of cycles rather convincingly. He also describes the typical stages in the development of a civilization: the sequence is, roughly, from the flowering of the fine arts to scientific creativity and, finally, the accumulation of wealth. At the end of a cycle the old, decayed forms remain dormant until revivified by barbaric forces: “the source of every civilization has lain in race mixture. . . .”

The point of Petrie’s book, Wallace believes, “is that democracy by destroying capitalism eventually destroys itself.” This is quite an unexpected pronouncement, coming from a liberal leader whose program presumably espouses democracy at the expense of capitalism. But Wallace apparently sees basic economic democracy as historically unfeasible. Essentially, Petrie holds a racist or national view of history, not seeing class structure as dynamic, and Wallace seems to share this view with him. The Egyptologist’s proposal for overcoming the elemental cycles of history was to create a biologically superior group to serve as rulers and preservers of culture.



In his first two years as Secretary of Agriculture, Wallace wrote speeches, articles, and books at a tremendous rate. After 1934, however, his rate of production dropped considerably, though he has always remained comparatively prolific. He has published about a dozen volumes in all, including collections of speeches. Except for several technical books and one or two dealing chiefly with religion, his writings are largely devoted to detailed economic analysis and suggestions for economic planning. Most of this literary production was occasioned by contemporary issues—such as early New Deal planning, the question of the Constitution and the Supreme Court, the economics of the war, and so forth.

Judging from his record in the Roosevelt-Truman span, some government people consider Wallace a good administrator, while others assert that his departments were poorly run because he lacked good sense in selecting personnel. He is generally thought to have shown ineptitude in choosing his political advisers. And, contrary to common opinion, many Washington liberals criticize Wallace strongly for what they consider his toadying to business groups. In the course of his office-holding career, Wallace made a reputation for himself as a mystic. There are tales about stances and his interest in yoga. (On his trip to China in 1944, he showed less curiosity about politics than about Buddhism.) In Washington one hears the ominous words—”the Republicans are sitting on a pile of stuff about Henry. . . .”

The change Wallace underwent in office was profound. Let me quote two disparate observations by Russell Lord (who has edited two collections of Wallace’s speeches and who claims objectivity in his judgment of the liberal leader). First: when Wallace took office in 1933, he “visibly gained each day in poise, assurance and health.” Second: after the first Wallace-Jones dispute, and Roosevelt’s rebuke to both, the conservative papers began to count Wallace as dead politically, while liberals were dubbing him a hero and a martyr. Lord remarks, “He seemed more relaxed and tranquil than he had been for years.” Wallace, apparently, enjoys receiving power and enjoys losing it. The first exhilarates him and the second relieves him. He has never really conquered the complex problem of his relation to power.




Wallace doesn’t drink, smoke, tell off-color stories, swear, or play cards. He is a very early riser and a very hard worker. In Washington he often worked in his garden before going to his office in the morning. He is also an “exercise-bug.” This aspect of his personality is rather well known—through his newsworthy practice with a boomerang in Washington parks. (It is typical of him that he was not content simply with exercising but also made a study of the theory and history of boomerang-throwing, and on the basis of this research had a special boomerang made.) There are anecdotes about Wallace which reveal him as the kind of person who gets mental satisfaction from submitting himself to gratuitous tests of physical endurance, while other stories indicate that he is quite insensible to the point of view of people who enjoy such pleasures as drinking.

About a year ago at a fair-sized outdoor meeting in Washington, which was being broadcast with Wallace acting as master of ceremonies, this writer had a chance to see him at close range. In the course of the meeting, he introduced perhaps seven or eight speakers and made a speech himself. His voice was warm, familiar, very rich in human qualities, emotional yet well modulated—whenever he spoke into the microphone. But his expression remained rigid, held-in, unresponsive. As speakers passed him going to and from the microphone he lowered his eyes. The impression one received was of an individual lacking any direct, spontaneous relation to the human beings around him. The contrast between this and the qualities of his speaking voice was startling.

This fleeting impression of Wallace is borne out by a much closer observer, and one, moreover, who believes him to be the hope of the nation. Frank Kingdon, liberal commentator and preacher, published a loving study in 1945 called An Uncommon Man: Henry Wallace and Sixty Million Jobs. Dr. Kingdon describes Wallace as being incapable of small talk; he habitually and characteristically forces conversations around to intellectual topics. This happens to be true of many intellectuals of a certain type— and one wonders what happens when such an intellectual in government comes up against, say, a “normal” politician.

Dr. Kingdon gives us a striking picture of Wallace facing the Senate Finance Committee at the time of his nomination as Secretary of Commerce. Jesse Jones, fresh from a Roosevelt booting, had to answer questions about his tenure in the Commerce and lending-agency posts. He talked to the Committee members easily and with great rapport. Except for Senator Pepper, they sympathized with Jones; all the world knew they were out to “get” Wallace. Yet all Wallace did in rebuttal was present his progressive planning thesis “straight,” hoping for understanding. He took a pretty bad polemical drubbing, coming out of the conference room with little more than the personal knowledge that he was “right.” And this despite Senator Pepper’s eager leading questions in his behalf.

Dr. Kingdon talks about Wallace’s sincerity and “natural shyness.” “But “shyness” in a public figure of mature age—in a situation of political rough-and-tumble—is a serious incapacity. When, in debate, the flow of Wallace’s analytical thought is interrupted by a sharp jab, illogical or insignificant from his view, but expressing the gulf in understanding that exists between him and his adversary, he becomes confused and helpless and can only laugh embarrassedly. His enemies say he giggles.

When one contrasts Wallace’s clumsiness in personal relations with his vigorous physical regimen, and with the energetic competence he exhibited in carrying out Roosevelt’s policies, one is forced to conclude that he is capable of a creative relation only to his own opinions and power, not to those of other human beings. He seems unable to cope with personal power stemming from others. He often submits to it. More frequently, perhaps, and certainly with more unfortunate consequences, he ignores it.



Wallace is better with tools and with things. He is an excellent technician. When he came to Washington he was a very poor speaker. He became expert at speaking, just as he had at throwing the boomerang. He learns foreign languages well. When he was only seventeen years old he began a series of corn-breeding experiments, based on the theoretical work of some Harvard geneticists, that resulted in the creation of a whole new corn-seed industry. He even published a book, Corn and Corn Growing. Writing as market analyst for Wallace’s Farmer, he became a statistician of ability: on the basis of his analyses he predicted, as early as 1919, a postwar economic collapse. Two books resulted from this technical interest of his: Agricultural Prices and Correlation and Machine Calculation. Now that we are “entering the air age” he has learned to fly a plane. In terms of technique he adapts himself very well to the world.

But he is aware that such adaptation cannot satisfy the whole man. Where technique does not suffice, Wallace fills in with religion. Nothing is more deeply characteristic of the man than this dual pattern. Yet the very terms in which this duality is posed seem to preclude its resolution. Wallace’s self-reliance, his sense of power, proceeds from his technical capacity; his moral nature—the hope he has of fulfillment for the whole man —derives from religious feeling. He has been unable to bring these two points of view together in any rational framework (in truth, his experience has forced them farther and farther apart). He is unable to unite power with right. For that he looks to a Superior Power. This attitude happens to be typical of the whole strain of American mentality that Wallace represents. There is a huge intellectual area in this country that is amoral —characteristically, more by default than by specific intention.




Henry Wallace is, I have suggested, the supreme political expression of populism in contemporary American life. This tradition was certainly one of the most important indigenous strains in the life of this country, and one of the best. Culturally, it is not equal to what Poe or Emerson represents, but neither does it lean so heavily on European sources.

Populism was the progressive culture of the small proprietor, the independent farmer. It can almost be said that the United States has had three histories—that of the South’s plantation economy, that of Northern commerce and industry, and that of the populism of the West, the ever-receding West. The Western farmers in the Republican coalition, the Homestead Act, trust-busting, Bryan— these are some of the populist peaks in American history. Until Debs and the I.W.W., and apart from the North-South conflict, populism was the class struggle in the United States.

The great American frontier had two voices—a raucous, lusty, land-hungry shriek, and the sharp, hell-fire preaching of industrious Protestants. Populism must be explained in terms of the frontier. But when the land was finally settled, only religion remained to populism.

For Wallace, populism is not primarily a social movement: it is a family heritage. The Wallaces, as newspaper-owners, have always been important intellectual leaders in the Midwest fanning community. And the career of populism, in the struggles with other power groups in America, is mirrored in the careers and personalities of all three Henry Wallaces. “Uncle Henry” represents the early enthusiasm and force of the movement, before the closing of the frontier made itself felt. Henry C. Wallace stands for the consolidation of ground already won, and the awareness of the impasse reached by the farmers in their alliance with Eastern industrial forces inside the Republican party.

Henry A. Wallace came on the scene to uphold the populist tradition in its period of crisis and decline. His thought, personality, and program mirror the contradictions resulting from the attempt to adapt the populist tradition to the necessities of modern leadership. Like labor’s, the political strength of the small proprietor was split and weakened by the irrationalities of the two-party system in America. In his change of party allegiance during the 20′s, Wallace reflected this conflict. The farm interests in this country achieved their objective when, under Roosevelt, the system of parity payments was established. But by this very fact they became incapable from then on of offering progressive leadership to our time. They had been fulfilled, made equal; the need that drives toward leadership was gone. During the Roosevelt period it was made quite clear that it was labor that stood at the head of modern progressivism.

The mentality of populism has always been religious. Religious on the one hand —and yet very practical on the other. Wallace’s own grandfather is an excellent example of this combination. Bryan’s rhetoric is another: the great populist leader clothed the debtor’s cry for cheap money in phrases of ringing religiosity. In the largest terms, the difference between scientific and religious definitions lies in the nature of their explicitness and exactness. The effect of scientific exactness is, obviously, to expand human power over events. Wallace is scientific as to the techniques of manipulating things, but he is religious and abstract in relation to human beings. This may in part be a reflection of the fact that the farmer deals with tools rather than with persons (he has no serious labor problem) and there-fore comes to consider his most important practical problems to be technological rather than social. He tends to underestimate the difficulties of social relations and to see the source of human troubles in nature—thus, ultimately, in God, since the farmer accepts nature as given.

Wallace’s technological outlook is expressed by what is almost an obsession with the possibilities of material abundance. The largest part of his writings is devoted to analysis of these possibilities.

If only industrial technology is allowed to expand, all other problems will automatically and mechanically solve themselves— this seems to be the key to Wallace’s political faith. But on the contrary, it is quite probable that without the prior solution of certain socio-political problems, technology will destroy rather than fulfill us. Wallace, however, faces these problems, which are the human ones, with primitive intellectual tools (a position, incidentally, that he tries to justify in emotional terms: in 1934 he said “we need a ‘heart trust’ even more than we need a ‘brain trust’“).



The complexity of modern existence demands, above all else, exactness in the description of human relations. It is precisely here that Wallace’s populist-religious tradition proves itself lacking. And as a political consequence, in part, of his belief in an inscrutable God, Wallace’s relation to the power of others must always be uncreative and passive. See him delivering that famous Madison Square Garden speech which led to Truman’s request for his resignation from the Cabinet. A Communist audience, dominated by pro-Russian sentiments, began to hiss and boo at the very first of his loving rebukes to the Soviet Union. Wallace proceeded to execute some on-the-spot editorial deletions, which included eliminating such remarks as: “The Russians should stop conniving against us in certain areas of the world.” He had instinctively surrendered to the others. And at the close of the unedifying Baruch episode, in which Wallace agreed to retract his criticism of the Baruch atom plan and then reneged on this agreement, he is quoted as saying: “My friends would not let me eat crow.” Here again, he had surrendered to the others. Wallace’s political strength, we must remember, is grounded in his role as hero of the Stalinist-influenced liberal.



Being irrevocably committed to the declining populist tradition and knowing that the efficacy of populism depended on the existence of the frontier, he now talks of “moral frontiers.” But this implies that the old frontier movement was not “moral”—an obvious falsehood. Every social movement has its own object, and its own morality. Actually, Wallace is trying to salvage the morality of populism for historical tasks of which populism never dreamed and to which it is woefully inadequate.

Wallace’s free-trade policy in economics is a clear example of his devious way with the essential meaning of populism. Like most liberals during the 30′s, he began, more or less consciously, to advocate the Keynesian program for a controlled economy. A controlled capitalist economy in a democratic country must answer two major questions: how to insure capital investment, and how to maintain wage levels and not conscript labor. High wages cut into profits, and without a high profit return the capitalist simply will not make risky investments. Without going into the economic details, it can be said that, fundamentally, there is only one capitalist resolution of this primary conflict: imperialism—exploitation of foreign markets through overlordship of other peoples. Imperialism is called “free trade” by liberals. In actual fact it is not, and cannot be, any more “free” than the conditions of labor in the colonies and dominated countries with which trade is being carried on.

Wallace is a free-trader of old. But he came to it by another path than did the usual sophisticated liberal. And therein lies our tale. The Iowan began his espousal of free trade as part of a farm program. The farmer is forced to sell in a free market and buy in one protected by tariffs—Wallace tells us he realized this “quite early in life.” But it should be easy to see that free trade for the farmer is something very different from free trade as imperialism. This first is in the genuine interest of the small proprietor and is the stuff of the traditional populist program in the United States. The second is a dangerous diversion of the progressive aims and program of farmers and labor, leading to the ever-increasing power of international cartels —and to war.

Though he advocates free trade in moral terms, Wallace’s morality actually justifies imperialism at the same time—which is typical of what happens when an old morality is applied to a new and inappropriate situation. The contradiction here results from Wallace’s inability either to abandon the populist tradition or to ignore—or to solve progressively—distinctly modern problems. Clinging to a particular morality and yet unaware of the immoral consequences of the application of that morality in the contemporary world, Wallace has become a nonfunctioning moral symbol for the progressive struggle of this day. Actually, as a personality, he is in no sense a fighter for human betterment in a world of realities. Rather he represents the final reduction of the religious man. (If one asks what I mean by the reduction of the religious man, let him remember with what indulgence the more self-conscious neo-Catholics and neo-Anglicans of Europe looked upon fascism in its earlier stages.)




The illusions imbedded in Wallace’s thought divide neatly under the same two headings of technological and religious.

To illustrate the former, there is his recent book on Russia, Soviet Asia Mission, a report of his fifty-day air journey through Siberia in 1944.

One doubts whether Wallace’s credulity and lack of perception have ever been equaled by another foreign observer in Russia. One could go on endlessly citing the details of his gross distortion of the Soviet picture. I will merely outline his perspective of the Siberian frontier.

Throughout his book, Wallace constantly draws irrelevant parallels between Soviet Asia and America’s West. This rhetorical device softens the reader up for a very important and quite unfounded generalization: “There exist no other two countries more alike than the Soviet Union and the United States of America.” The reason: both America and Russia have had frontiers. From this it follows that “Men born in wide, free spaces will not brook injustice and slavery. They will not even temporarily live in slavery.” These words were uttered in a speech at Irkutsk.

David J. Dallin, a liberal anti-Stalin expert on Russia, comments: “It so happens that the recently emerged industry of this region [Irkutsk] has been built and is being operated largely by the manpower of the labor-camps of Eastern Siberia.” In other words, the great Siberian “frontier” rests on forced labor and penal sentences—quite unlike the old American one. Thus, in his view of the Siberian frontier, Wallace either ignores or terribly distorts the significant human, political factors. However, he reports on the machines, and especially the vegetation, in great detail.

Toward the end of Soviet Asia Mission, Wallace remarks that America is now in the position that England occupied at the close of the Napoleonic era. And he justifies England’s 19th-century imperialism by the fact that it raised standards of living. This kind of reasoning is totally consonant with a justification of the Soviet police state—if it raises standards of living, which it is likely to do after starving its subjects for a few generations. In other words, technological progress equals progress. (A corollary of this is the notion that nationalization of means of production and wealth is per se socialism.) By this criterion any imperialism, any exploitation, can be whitewashed morally.

All this gives us a hint of the real meaning of many liberals’ present policy of rapprochement with Russia (workable, however, only if Soviet expansionism were voluntarily abandoned). The Soviets are to be allowed to exploit most of Asia and Eastern Europe in peace, while the Anglo-American powers retain the security of capital markets in the rest of the world—with the sole purpose of raising standards of living, of course. Wallace, the ideologist supreme of Soviet-American rapprochement, sees great possibilities of creating mutual understanding between the two power-blocs by trade. He reports that the Russian masses are very fond of American consumer-goods. The formula: Anglo-American imperialism plus Russian exploitation equals Progress.



Wallace’s religious illusions, on the other hand, are illustrated in Statesmanship and Religion (1934), where he devotes most of his attention to religion. Here he discusses the Catholic theocracy of the 12th and 13th centuries and its effort to realize God’s will on earth by subordinating economics to religion—by fixing just prices, fair wages, etc. Wallace says he wants to do this today “on a more vast and more just scale.” But—”Perhaps the times will have to be even more difficult than they have been during the past two years before the hearts of our people will have been moved sufficiently so they will be willing to join together in a modern adaptation of the theocracy of old.”

In another connection, Wallace quoted with approval a Papal encyclical about cooperation between classes, “reasonable” wages and profits, society as an organism, and so on. Most intelligent people today understand that behind such innocent-sounding phrases lies an extremely dangerous concept of clerical fascism. But Wallace, because of the very vagueness of his religiosity and his almost calculated failure to discern the real factors of power, overlooks the elements of authoritarianism, not only in papal theocracy, but in his own program as well.

But it is in his notion of “unity” that he becomes consistently, if unconsciously, totalitarian in his thinking. “Unity” is absolutely required, he believes—but it can only be maintained by “an effective social discipline.” This could easily mean that capitalists must be capitalists even at 3 per cent per annum and that workers must be satisfied with “jobs” and not demand wage raises. Yet Wallace believes “unity” to be possible in a real and lasting way precisely in a class society. He defines economic democracy—in one place—as equal bargaining power for business, agriculture, and labor.

Notice, first, that such equality would satisfy only agriculture: for equal bargaining power is as much as the small-farm proprietor can ever hope to attain. On the other hand, equal bargaining power for all classes in our present industrial society could only mean a stalemate, out of which the state would arise transcendently powerful and independent, as under totalitarian regimes.

Implicit in Wallace’s thinking is the belief that equilibrium signifies the absence of conflict. But conflict is not an unfortunate interlude or interruption in human history—it is the very stuff of it. Only repression can give Mr. Wallace the equilibrium of his “democratic unity.”

Connected with this pernicious “unity” is Wallace’s concept of the “common man.” It directly follows from Wallace’s terms that men must become “common,” if they are not already so, before they can, be united. That is, if in themselves or their conditions of life they happen to have distinguishing characteristics, these must be ignored for political purposes (and, with the mechanization of culture, eventually for all purposes—including the vision of self). As far as one can determine, Wallace’s common man is simply homo sapiens, to be given a bottle of milk, and already “on the march” in a kind of revolutionary way. The “common man,” moreover, is to be considered only as a consumer in industrial society—not even as producer, which role is infinitely more significant.

In the end, if men actually come to see themselves as common, society will contain not men at all, but just so many parts of the total supply of refrigerators, potatoes, newspapers, and movie seats. Men will not consume in order to live, but rather their lives will consist solely of what they consume. (Perhaps the common man is no more than the imperialist market atomized into units of consumption.) Now, to be a mere consumer demands nothing of the person—he is given things, his role is passive. If you are without fault, if you are common—you will be given what you need to exist, including a “job.” The notion of the common man can be summed up: become like everybody else, become nothing. This is a long way from the Western concept of the citizen. One wonders what grandfather “Uncle Henry” would have made of Henry Ill’s creature.

To finish, if this dearly loved phrase of Wallace’s is a figure of speech rather than a concept, then it is merely a dangerous substitute for analysis. And in our time, mystical political formulations tend to lead to totalitarianism.




To Arrive at a full understanding of the historical meaning of Henry Wallace’s psychological pattern, it may be useful to relate it explicitly to the pervasive modern problem of alienation. Especially since his religiosity, which has spread through his mind like ink on cloth, is above all else a means of wishing the problem of alienation out of existence.

When Wallace switched from the Republican to the Democratic party, he also changed his denomination, becoming an Episcopalian. He made both moves, he says, because he was “against barriers”—against Republican protectionism, and against the anti-Catholic slander directed at Al Smith in 1928. “The world is a neighborhood,” Wallace insists repeatedly. Russell Lord, biographer of the Wallaces, once asserted that all of Henry A.’s career could be explained as an attempt to overcome barriers.1

Good enough—but the whole point, of course, is how barriers are to be overcome. Wallace does quite well at knocking down the barriers between himself and things, but, to reiterate, he is classically unsuccessful in accomplishing this with persons. The reasons, as I have suggested, are to be found partly in his farm background. “When I was a boy working in the garden I studied plants as individuals and had a definite affection for them,” he tells us. The psychological value of investing non-human objects with affection is that the individual thus achieves a sense of unity with the outside world and, at one and the same time, a feeling of his own power—and alienation is overcome.

“We shall never have again a religion of the whole man until there is opportunity for the great bulk of mankind once more to come into a loving relationship with things.” This is perhaps the most revealing statement Wallace ever made. The question it naturally provokes in one’s mind is: Why “a loving relationship with things”? The really imperative achievement is for man to gain control over things, especially the objects of his own creation, from which commodity-production has alienated him. If anything, men should reestablish a loving relation to other human beings. What is the advantage in confusing love and power as Wallace does? Only this, that if by loving things we could gain power over them, we would never be insecure. Anxiety would be banished. But life holds no greater illusion.




What can be said about the future of Henry Wallace? What is the political meaning of his present ascendancy among liberals?

There can be no doubt that he is the chief inheritor of the New Deal-Roosevelt halo. Nor is there any question of the fact that all liberal groups today are crowding around the Roosevelt tradition, to keep themselves warm in its afterglow. As long as this situation continues, even Wallace’s enemies cannot dispense with him.

But it should be remembered that the New Deal was composed less of an ideology than of a master politician. We must also keep in mind that if it had not been for the coming of war, even Roosevelt’s great talents would have been insufficient to hold his broad and exceedingly heterogeneous coalition together. Nor is it likely that the approaching economic crisis will be a simple repetition of the last one, especially in its political effects. Apart from its freshness and enthusiasm, the essence of the New Deal, after all, was simply public spending. The Republicans would be mad indeed to allow Hoover’s gross blunders to be repeated in case the coming deflation catches them in office. One can presume they have learned a lesson; this time, they will certainly accommodate themselves to the popular demand for “pump-priming.”

If this much of the New Deal thunder can be stolen, and if the growing progressive wing of the Republican party has any significance, then the post-New Dealers will be forced, in self-defense, to deepen and expand the definitions of their program. But this will take them farther away from the Roosevelt precedent and, therefore, from the place where Wallace now stands. Is he capable of riding along?

It may be helpful in answering this question to glance at Wallace’s pronouncements as editor of the New Republic. In his first editorial—”Jobs, Peace, Freedom” (December 16)—he surveyed the general situation and called for “two 20-year plans” on a global scale to eradicate illiteracy, starvation, transmissable disease, and low standards of living. This sounded technological, appeared in a political context, and was actually the ultimate in irrelevant moralism. The political problem he ran up against, as always, was Russia—and there again he failed to say anything that was even accurate, much less revealing. (“We cannot hide the weaknesses in our democracy. If we take steps to overcome these weaknesses, then I believe the Russians, believing in the genuineness of our democracy, will move toward greater political freedom.” And in a later editorial: “Wherever we meet Russia in Europe, it is not Russia that is the enemy, but the devastation itself.”) In this keynote piece, and in those that followed, one witnesses the emergence of a pattern: purely rhetorical resolutions of problems occur more and more frequently and centrally—a certain sign of political helplessness. To be sure, now that Wallace no longer wields official power, he feels the need for a kind of action that was not so necessary in the halcyon days of the New Deal. He therefore talks more now of “progressives” doing than of the “common man” being given. But the new shibboleth is no better defined than the old one, and equally unhelpful.



In The December 30 issue of the New Republic, Wallace spoke out on labor. “My object at all times will be to find a legitimate basis for a sound and enduring industrial peace,” he said. When, later, he subtly threatened labor with a fascist reaction to continued strikes in “essential” industries, we began to get an inkling of something more precise behind the vague phrase “industrial peace.” Then, hearing Wallace baldly accept the proposition that workers in government-operated industries ought not to strike, while at the same time advancing a scheme for settling disputes that provided for government seizure as the final act, we become alarmed, quite properly, at his notion of a “legitimate” peace— since the right to strike against the state is the one truly basic issue of freedom confronting the American public today. That the present leader of the liberals should have exhibited such depthless misunderstanding of the modern state is significant beyond measure.

Wallace has given great emphasis to the fact that he is “neither an officer nor a member” of the Progressive Citizens of America or of Americans for Democratic Action. He calls the conflict of the two groups over the issue of Stalinism “a comedy.” However, it was he who delivered the principal address (December 29) at the founding conference of the Stalinist influenced PCA. In this speech he spoke of the existence of a struggle between “Russia-haters and Russophiles”— which muddied everything up by putting the issue in black and white—while raising himself to the Olympian somewhere-above-and-beyond.

Later, when it appeared that the liberal split might have a serious potential, Wallace further stretched his long legs to maintain his straddled balance. In an editorial called “The Enemy Is Not Each Other” (January 27), he rededicated himself to the “liberal cause” rather than to any particular group, and made the misinformed statement that Mrs. Roosevelt was not a member of ADA. She was and is, and an officer of that group quickly and loudly said so in print. This blunder only spotlighted Wallace’s own reason for hedging on the conflict: political ambition. Mrs. Roosevelt is a widely respected humanitarian, patently uninterested in political power for herself.

It should not be too difficult to predict Wallace’s role in a future progressive upsurge. As long as it is more Stalinist than socialist, and more religious than militant, he might well be at the head of it. But he would serve as the speechifying symbol of such a movement, rather than its actual leader. So far he has shown no talent as a practical politician. The actual leaders are no doubt already engaged in jockeying for position inside the trade-union movement.

In the first issue of the new Wallace New Republic, publisher Michael Straight introduced the liberal leader with these words: “The New Republic was founded to express the promise of American life. No American can express that promise as well and truly as Henry Wallace.”

Yes—as promise.




1 But not in his recently published study of the three Henry Wall aces (The Wall aces of Iowa. Boston, Houghton, Mifflin, 1947. 615 PP. $5.00). This thick, heavily factual volume contains anything and everything concerning the Wall aces—except genuine analysis. However, what it lacks in historical understanding it more than makes up for in pure love. In a deceptively mild way, it justifies Henry A. Wallace’s every act on earth, from the way he ties his shoes to his ultimate place in our history.

The wealth of misinterpreted and un interpreted facts in this first full-length study of Wallace became available to this writer only after the present article was completed. A slight note may therefore be in order: “Uncle Henry” became quite a well-to-do farmer and his politics, consequently, consisted more of an effort to dignify farming than to advance the purposes of radical populism. As a matter of fact, he began to attack soft-money advocates as early as 1878; and opposed Bryan in 1896. The Wallace relation to populism never included an allegiance to the Populist or Greenback parties. It was, rather, an involvement in populism as a general movement and as the culture of canners growing out of certain historical conditions, especially the rise of capitalism. In other words, the Wall aces, were, to some extent, aristocrats of the farming community. This factor requires an emphasis I was not able to give it.


About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.