Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign
and the Future of Postwar Liberalism
By Thomas W. Devine
University of North Carolina Press, 424 pages
Recently, there has been an attempt by the left to resurrect the reputation of the long-forgotten Henry A. Wallace, once a central figure in American political life. Wallace was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second vice president and then his secretary of commerce, a post he held until Harry Truman fired him in September 1946. Noted for his book extolling The Century of the Common Man, Wallace was widely identified with the left wing of the organized-labor movement, and he was the favorite of those who sought either socialism or social democracy for America. He ran for president in 1948 on the Progressive Party line.
Just last year, filmmaker Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick made Wallace the hero of their 10-part TV documentary, The Untold History of the United States. According to their view, had Wallace prevailed and become president instead of Truman, the United States would have avoided the Cold War. Peace with the Soviet Union would have reigned, and the United States would have been spared postwar militarization and the creation of a military-industrial complex. They single out Wallace’s 1948 run as a moment of hope when Americans were given an alternative path to a brighter future.
Given this effort to rewrite postwar American history, broadcast on Showtime, the nation’s second-largest pay-cable channel, the publication of Thomas W. Devine’s Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism could not be more timely. Based on extensive archival research, Devine’s well-written and brilliantly argued book reveals the folly of liberals who sought to continue the brief wartime Popular Front—the name given to the alliance of liberals who worked alongside American Communists in behalf of what they thought were common goals.
Devine gives us for first time the complete story of the 1948 presidential campaign. Wallace’s party’s name was chosen to imply that he was carrying on the work of Theodore Roosevelt—who had run against his successor, William Howard Taft, in the 1912 presidential campaign, just as Wallace was running against his former boss.
But there was nothing comparable here. Roosevelt was opposed not only by Taft and the eventual winner, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, but also by Eugene V. Debs, who ran as a Socialist. By contrast, in 1948, the Communist Party USA—the equivalent in size and influence of the old Socialist Party—told its members to unequivocally support Wallace, and even demanded that CIO unions endorse his candidacy. Unlike during World War II, when the Communist Party still ran its own candidates for president, the Communists stood united under Wallace’s Progressive banner.
By seeking a unified front on the left, Wallace and his Progressives set themselves up to be dominated by the American Communist Party. Tough and well-organized, Communists quickly took over the movement. They formulated its program and wrote Wallace’s speeches and statements. Wallace actually favored what he called “progressive capitalism,” but the Communists viewed that as a personal aberration and stood behind him as long as he argued that Stalin and the Soviet Union wanted peace while the leaders of the United States wanted fascism at home and war abroad.
Wallace’s movement did not begin exclusively as a Communist affair. Devine shows that many Americans were exasperated by Harry Truman’s presidency and concerned that another war could break out soon after the end of World War II. They hoped that Wallace could win Stalin’s trust, as they believed FDR had, and if elected, would continue the New Deal and extend its promise. Yet, as time passed, these sincere if foolish Americans experienced the duplicity and aggressive sectarianism of the Communists, who demanded that the entirety of their platform be adopted and quickly condemned those who balked as reactionary red-baiters. These progressives hoped that Wallace would do what he had to do to separate himself from the American Communists, but they waited in vain. When Wallace had opportunities to do so, he insisted that the Communists could not be criticized, since that would harm his fight for peace.
Unbeknownst to Wallace, some of those who initially urged him to leave the Democratic Party and run as an independent candidate were actually concealed Communists. His close friend C.B. Baldwin (who became his campaign manager) and his wife were both party members, as were his top speechwriters and those who were chosen to write the new party’s platform at its national convention. Some, like the New Deal economist Victor Perlo, had even given government material to Soviet intelligence while working in FDR’s administration during the war.
Wallace was himself a naive utopian who believed Stalin would respond to the kind of assurances his administration would give the Soviet Union. But because the Communists shared his view that Wall Street controlled the United States and favored war, Wallace welcomed them into the ranks and refused to say anything against them. The former leader of the Communist party in the United States, the recently purged Earl Browder, visited Wallace and explained to him the tactics Communists deployed to take over a movement like his. Browder urged Wallace to separate himself and publicly oppose some of their positions. Wallace demurred. Browder later told a friend that while he always considered Wallace to be an “innocent”—the derogatory term for those whom the Communists could always count on—he had never actually met someone “so innocent.”
It was in the realm of foreign policy that Wallace and his movement quickly lost followers who had initially thought of him as a mainstream alternative to the Truman Democrats. The Wallace program opposed not only the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, but even the popular Berlin airlift. Those few independents who tried valiantly to get the platform to state unequivocally that the new party did not support the foreign policy of any nation uncritically were fought tooth and nail.
The Communists demanded strict adherence to their perspective that fascism and war were coming to America, and that the “people’s anti-monopoly coalition” could not work in any way with the mainstream liberals who composed the Democratic Party. While they were busy seeing to it that the independent Progressives adopt Communist party positions on every issue, Wallace himself made the preposterous public statement that there was “as much variation in the beliefs of Communists as in the beliefs of Democrats and Republicans.”
As the Progressive Party continued to marginalize itself, original members drifted from its ranks in droves. Even some New Dealers such as Rexford Tugwell and young liberals like the Harvard professor H. Stuart Hughes expressed strong reservations about how the movement had grown completely supportive of the Soviet Union and was becoming irrelevant. As Devine writes, they “found themselves limited to a choice of either suppressing their views or severing their ties with the Progressive Party.”
In the end, the Wallace campaign revealed the complete bankruptcy of Popular Front liberalism. His entire endeavor, Devine concludes, showed “the debilitating effects on an insurgent movement from the left when it had to accommodate itself to the agenda of the Communist Party.” To the Communists, the Popular Front was simply a strategy, a means to gain support for Soviet foreign policy, while avoiding any genuine discussion of domestic policy in which they would have to reveal what they actually believed.
In place of actual policy, the Progressive Party used populist rhetoric meant to gain wide appeal—with calls against “Wall Street,” “Big Business,” “red-baiters,” and “bipartisan warmongers.” It worked for a short time, until most Americans who had been attracted to the hope of a new third party “grew weary of Communist dogmatism and deception.” Unable to fight the Communists, they withdrew from the party’s ranks, voted on Election Day for Harry S. Truman, and watched the Progressive Party die a slow death. Only 1.1 million citizens voted for Wallace; he even came in behind the segregationist Strom Thurmond and his Dixiecrats.
Wallace ended his career with serious second thoughts. A scant two years after the election, he refused to sign a Progressive Party statement that blamed the United States for the Korean War, and resigned from the party he once led. Eight years after his run, he wrote that the Communists “ruined my campaign.” In a private letter to his campaign manager and secret party member Baldwin, Wallace said he had concluded that “it is impossible to have anything in the nature of a common front with the Communist Party.” At a dinner party in 1962, which Wallace and Truman both attended, he told the former president, “You were right to fire me when you did.”
Henry A. Wallace, at least, had learned the hard lessons of his fruitless campaign. With Thomas Devine’s book, those who still believe in the myths perpetrated by leftist and revisionist historians will find themselves hard-pressed to get anyone to take them seriously.