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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 484

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This is the grave of Henry Wallace.

Perhaps the single oddest figure in American political history, Wallace was born in 1888 on a farm near Orient, Iowa into a family of farmers and activists. Wallace’s grandfather was a Social Gospel proponent and Republican activist. Wallace’s father, Henry C. Wallace, ran a reformist farmer newspaper in the Populist era and would later be Secretary of Agriculture. Unlike nearly every small newspaper that some reformer starts, Wallace’s Farmer became hugely successful and made the family quite wealthy for the place and time. Young Henry showed remarkable talents at an early age. His father introduced him to George Washington Carver, who became a mentor to Henry. He became obsessed with the study of corn as a teenager, engaging in important experiments on it as early as 1904. He attended Iowa State College (now University) beginning in 1906, where he majored in animal husbandry and continued his experiments on corn, while also organizing a political club to support the pioneering conservationist Gifford Pinchot.

Wallace graduated from Iowa State in 1910 and went to work on his father’s newspaper, becoming the editor soon after and maintaining leadership along with his uncle after his father became Warren Harding’s Secretary of Agriculture in 1921. Wallace was heavily involved in his corn experiments through these years and would remain so no matter where his life took him–which was down a lot of weird paths. His hybrid corn became some of the best on the market and in 1926 he found the Hi-Bred Corn Company to promote it.

Wallace’s Farmer was a voice for agricultural reform long after the Populist movement had subsided. Republicans both, the Wallaces tried working with other Republicans to see this through, though they faced strong opposition from party conservatives. Henry and his father worked with the U.S. Food Administration to develop more hogs during World War I. When Herbert Hoover abandoned the program after the war ended, the Wallaces broke with him and remained enemies. Henry Sr. worked to deny Hoover the 1920 Republican nomination while Henry Jr. published Agricultural Prices, a rebuke to Hoover that demanded the government get involved in regulating farm product prices. Wallace and his father thus backed the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Bill, which required the federal government to promote the export of farm products as a way to relieve the horrifying farm crisis after World War I. Truth be told, the Great Depression started for farmers by 1920. But Coolidge opposed it and it was defeated. Wallace started migrating from the Republican Party at this point, supporting Robert LaFollette’s Progressive Party run in 1924. Wallace, now a leading voice in the American farm community, continued lobbying for McNary-Haugen and it passed Congress in both 1927 and 1928, but Coolidge vetoed it both times. Wallace supported Al Smith against his old enemy Hoover in 1928 and then FDR in 1932.

When Roosevelt became president, he named Wallace Secretary of Agriculture. Wallace was still a Republican at this time, not registering as a Democrat until 1936. Wallace was largely responsible for the Agricultural Adjustment Act, as he and his assistant Rexford Guy Tugwell got Roosevelt’s attention and convinced him that the farm crisis was equal to the banking crisis. It worked, at least for independent farmers, though definitely not for sharecroppers who found themselves thrown off the land. Farm incomes rose significantly in the AAA’s 3 years of operation, before the reactionary Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. Wallace was outraged, but also designed its replacement, the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act, which FDR signed into law in 1936.

Wallace was also becoming a more important part of Roosevelt’s team. No longer just a Secretary of Agriculture, he was there with people such as Harry Hopkins and Tugwell as the most important liberals in the administration, battling with conservatives such as John Nance Garner and Jesse Jones for control of policy. Wallace also held such huge sway with American farmers that he was a key part of Roosevelt’s reelection campaign in 1936, moving traditionally Republican farm states into Roosevelt’s column.

After touring the South, Wallace became more concerned with the plight of tenant farmers. Upon his return, he fought for the passage of the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937, which sought to help tenant farmers buy their own land. This also created the Farm Security Administration. He also helped get passed one of the last liberal pieces of New Deal legislation, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, which implemented many of Wallace’s core ideas about protecting the American farmer. Under his leadership, the Department of Agriculture more than tripled in size during his 8 years in the office. As World War II approached, Wallace was a strong internationalist, which was a break from his farmer base, who were dominated by isolationists. Wallace’s travels and ideas were moving more toward a broad-based international vision of peace and democracy.

In 1940, it was unclear whether Roosevelt would run for an unprecedented third term. Most thought he would not, but there was no liberal successor. Instead, conservatives such as Garner or James Farley were moving toward running. For Wallace, this was totally unacceptable, as either would be a repudiation of all his work. So he publicly announced in 1939 that Roosevelt should run for a third term. Roosevelt finally agreed to this on one stipulation–that Wallace would be the VP. This was a tough pill for the conservatives to swallow. They knew that if Roosevelt ran, Democrats would win. But they hated Wallace. They hated his liberalism, his internationalism, his weird personality, his former Republican affiliation. So Roosevelt gave a flat out ultimatum that he would not run without Wallace. They caved.

As VP, Wallace played a big role in promoting foreign peace. He convinced the Rockefeller Foundation to establish an agricultural extension center in Mexico that helped lay the groundwork for the Green Revolution after the war. Wallace, a man of action, hated the ceremonial duties of the VP, but Roosevelt threw him some bones, making him a leader in military mobilization as chairman of the Board of Economic Warfare and the Supply Priorities and Allocation Board. Soon after the U.S. entered the war, Wallace began laying out his ideas for the postwar world. In a May 1942 speech called “The Century of the Common Man,” he stated, “peace must mean a better standard of living for the common man, not merely in the United States and England, but also in India, Russia, China, and Latin America–not merely in the United Nations, but also in Germany and Italy and Japan.” This outraged American conservatives, who had no interest in any of this. He took a long goodwill trip through Latin America in 1943 and since he could speak Spanish, he was beloved on the whole trip.

Yet, Wallace was slowly falling out of favor with Roosevelt, as the VP’s big ideas were taking precedent over running the war and with Roosevelt realizing the the party was moving to the right while Wallace was moving far to the left. Wallace lost a long battle to Jesse Jones in 1943 and the Board of Economic Warfare was abolished. Wallace was still out there calling for new liberal programs at a time when that was becoming less popular. Yet, Wallace was still a very important figure. He toured the USSR and China in 1944. He had a good time in the Soviet Union, where he was completely fooled by a Potemkin village where the Soviets claimed they had no forced labor. China was less successful, as Chiang Kai-Shek wouldn’t take any advice.

When Roosevelt decided to run for his 4th term in 1944, conservative Democrats could not stomach the idea of more Wallace. That’s because they knew Roosevelt was likely to not survive the entire term and they would not allow Wallace to become president. Given that Wallace was increasingly and quite vocally attacking segregation, that battle was all the more important. So they chose a fairly innocuous conservative named Harry Truman to run instead. While Wallace had huge levels of support in parts of the party, the Democratic establishment saw Truman through, especially as Roosevelt notably did not present the same ultimatum as in 1940. But Wallace was too important to shunt aside entirely and Roosevelt asked him to pick any Cabinet position except for State. He chose to become Secretary of Commerce because he figured he could play a leading role in developing the postwar economy. He faced a bruising fight in the Senate, with conservatives determined to not even allow him this, but he made it through.

When Roosevelt died in April 1945, Wallace quickly found himself in the political wilderness. Now working toward world peace, Wallace called for the international control of atomic energy at the same time that Truman was allying with the right to create a national nuclear arsenal to threaten the Soviets. He did manage to help create the Atomic Energy Commission. But he also was forced out of office when he gave a speech claiming “we should recognize that we have no more business in the political affairs of Eastern Europe than Russia has in the political affairs of Latin America, Western Europe and the United States.” Now, this speech was largely before a communist front organization and it was booed there because it said the Soviets shouldn’t get involved in the U.S. sphere of influence, but it was totally unacceptable to Truman and Acheson and other policy leaders, not to mention right-wing cranks like Robert Taft. Truman forced Wallace to resign in September.

By this time, Wallace believed that he had to save the Democratic Party by defeating Truman. Primaries were not an option. So Wallace decided to run as a third-party candidate in 1948. He took a job as editor of The New Republic and used that magazine to promote a liberal alternative to Truman. He became more open in his criticism of the foreign policy of the early Cold War, criticizing both the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. For the latter, he liked the general idea, but thought it should be run by the United Nations, not serve American foreign policy interests. He was supported in his run by the Communist Party, whose endorsement he was glad to get. Lots of liberals were very interested too. Wallace scared Truman. The president moved significantly to the left in his social programs to stave off Wallace. But while Wallace was a highly respected figure in the country, the growing Cold War with the suppression of communists that entailed domestically doomed Wallace’s chances to get off the ground. The CIO expelling its communist unions basically ended any chance for that federation to come into his camp, plus Truman had vetoed Taft-Hartley. Wallace deserves a lot of credit–he basically took his life into his own hands when he went to the South to campaign on an explicitly anti-racist program. He had eggs and tomatoes thrown at him during his southern campaign speeches. And he was totally crushed in the election.

Wallace was never a communist, although he was often duped by them and genuinely believed Stalin was ready and willing to work with the U.S. toward international cooperation and peace. What he was was an independent oddball thinker, if also totally brilliant. He was basically a mystic who wrote to all sorts of philosophers and thinkers around the world. In the early 1930s, Wallace began corresponding with a Russian Theosophist named Nicholas Roerich. A peace activist, he put Wallace under his spell. Early in Wallace’s time at Agriculture, Wallace hired Roerich to go to the Gobi Desert and lead a federal expedition to collect desert grasses, which was basically a scam by Roerich. Wallace eventually figured this out and they broke, but the letters they wrote to each other were leaked to a reporter in 1940. Republicans sought to blackmail Wallace off the ticket by going public. But Democrats had an ace in the hole–Wendell Willkie’s affair with the well-known writer Irita Van Doren. So a truce was called. But the odious right-wing extremist hack Westbrook Pegler published them in 1947 to destroy Wallace. And it did look bad, severely damaging Wallace’s credibility.

In his late life, Wallace mostly went back to his farm experiments. He was involved in international peace movements into the 1950s. And yet, this formerly red-baited candidate endorsed Eisenhower in 1956 and had a friendly correspondence with Richard Nixon, which kept him from endorsing anyone in 1960. Yet, Kennedy brought him back into the fold, inviting Wallace to the White House in 1961. Wallace’s end was very sad. He was starting to grow critical of the Vietnam War and might have gone public with that, but was diagnosed with ALS in 1964. This horrifying disease killed him in 1965.

Remember Wallace’s Pioneer Hi-Bred corn. Through all of this, he continued to work on it. In 1999, Wallace’s children sold it to Dupont for over $1 billion.

Henry Wallace is buried in Glendale Cemetery, Des Moines, Iowa.

If you would like this series to visit some of the other people mentioned in this very long post, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Westbrook Pegler is in Hawthorne, New York and Harry Hopkins is in Grinnell, Iowa. I actually tried to find Hopkins the same day as I found Wallace, but I couldn’t locate the grave, so I need more time in Iowa, I guess…. Previous posts in this series are archived here.


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