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The Wallace Corrective

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My discussion of Henry Wallace from the other day received a surprising amount of attention around the intertubes. Andy Seal has a response at the U.S. Intellectual History blog, which is a site that should be on the radar of all of you. Seal seeks to correct the historical narrative around Wallace, which my post definitely reflected as I have not done much primary source research into the man.

So, here are a few of the problems I see with Wallace scholarship:

Intellectual histories of the New Deal—even some that are specifically about agriculture, where Wallace had his greatest impact—don’t really include Wallace in their narratives. He’s the boss of the USDA, sure, and the architect of the AAA, but his role is that of a manager, not a thinker or planner. Jess Gilbert’s recent work is a great correction here, but this sentence by Richard Kirkendall is somewhat indicative of the general trend: “Top administrators, especially Secretary Henry A. Wallace, also liked the service intellectual.” Wallace is counted as an administrator, not with the intellectuals.

Large-scale political histories of the New Deal, on the other hand, tend to marginalize Wallace completely, painting him as kind of an outsider in the FDR administration and in the New Deal as a whole—someone who didn’t really fit in with the Washington crowd. That may be somewhat accurate on an interpersonal, cocktail-party level, but Wallace was a considerable force in the New Deal—at least more so, I feel, than he is given credit for by political historians.

This oddball-ization of Wallace is most extensive in much of the biographical treatment of Wallace. Certainly it yields some colorful anecdotes about Wallace’s idiosyncratic habits, but fixation on Wallace’s very un-DC-like personality has led, I feel, to a kind of preemptive dismissal of Wallace as a political actor or intellectual influence on the other power-brokers and intellectual architects of the New Deal. Perhaps my own understanding of Wallace is colored by the recent treatment of Bernie Sanders—just because he seemed so out of place among the Beltway elite, it was presumed that he must be an ineffectual political actor. That judgment, I think, has a few problems with it.

One of the main exhibits in the dismissal of Wallace has long been his unusual, even rather exotic mysticism—or as Loomis put it, his penchant for “following weird religious charlatans who he let influence American policy.” There’s something to that charge, but it is worth saying that U.S. political figures who have been relatively open about the complexities of their religious thoughts and feelings generally have not been treated well by historians, especially not political historians—apart from those, like Kevin Kruse or Darren Dochuk whose research is directly about the interface of faith and politics. Politicians who confess to having an active spiritual life—one that includes extensive self-reflection and active “seeking” or exploration, rather than just a pro forma membership and attendance at a respectable Protestant church—are often treated with a peremptory suspicion. Political historians struggle with religious earnestness.

The historical Wallace seems condemned to be defined by the 1948 Presidential run, rather than his career as a member of FDR’s cabinet. And certainly, as Loomis shows so well, the 1948 campaign had very significant effects both in the short-tem for the left and in the longer-term for the party system; it’s absolutely not wrong to argue that Wallace’s failure in 1948 helped strengthen the two-party system by largely discrediting the idea of a third party in the U.S. Accusations of Communist infiltration in the Wallace campaign helped ratchet up the fear of Communists all over Washington; obviously that would have pretty significant consequences. But the reason Wallace was even running as a third candidate was because of who and what he was during FDR’s administration. By making 1948 so dominant, everything else in Wallace’s career is both overshadowed and foreshadowed by that year, and we can’t get an accurate understanding of his place in the intellectual and political contexts of, say, 1934 or 1942, by always thinking about 1948.

The whole post is pretty interesting. You should check it out.

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