Once upon a time, Henry Wallace was a liberal hero. At the dawn of the New Deal, the brilliant agronomist transformed the stodgy Agriculture Department (which his father, a Republican, headed a decade before) into the savior of the farm economy and a well-funded crusader for the scientific raising of crops and animals. In the late 1930s, he also vigorously espoused "collective security" against fascism abroad and more relief spending at home. Elected Franklin Roosevelt's vice president in 1940, Wallace toured the world at war, proclaiming that an "age of the common man" was at hand, if only the alliance with the Soviet Union could endure after the Axis powers were defeated.
In the spring of 1944, the tennis-playing visionary from Iowa seemed poised to succeed the ailing FDR and, perhaps, to lead the nation into a future of full employment, racial equality, and stable peace based on free markets and goodwill.
Of course, the story has an unhappy ending. Leery of Wallace's leftist sympathies and unorthodox spirituality, conservative Democrats conspired to replace him with Harry Truman on the 1944 ticket. After FDR's death the following year, Wallace, by then the secretary of commerce, refused to stop protesting against the growing rift with the Soviet Union. In 1946 President Truman angrily demanded his resignation. A year later, Wallace launched his own run for the White House under the aegis of a new third party committed to ending the Cold War and enacting a far-reaching program similar to that of labor and socialist parties in Europe. But his 1948 Progressive Party candidacy was plagued by red-baiting and disorganization, and Wallace gained only 2 percent of the vote. Disgusted with politics, he spent his final years seeking to realize a more practical ambition: to develop "the perfect chicken, which would lay the perfect egg." No other liberal icon in American history had so rapid and complete a fall.
It's a moral tale, no matter how you interpret it. You can praise Wallace as a brilliant and honorable "dreamer" bested by foes playing a dirty game he was unable and often unwilling to contest. Or you can condemn him as an arrogant naïf, too proud to fight for his vice presidency and blind to the hideous nature of the Stalinist regime. In our domestic Cold War, Wallace's fate, whether judged as tragedy or just desserts, has always been easy prey for those with barricaded minds.
John Culver and John Hyde lean toward the sunnier perspective. As boosters of Iowa studies (Culver represented the state in the House and Senate; Hyde was a longtime correspondent for The Des Moines Register), they clearly want to establish Wallace's stature as both agricultural pioneer and liberal prophet. In rich detail, they describe how he took over the editorship of the family's excellent magazine for farmers, developed and promoted hybrid corn, wrote the first statistical study of farm prices, and persuasively made the case for crop subsidies as the best way to cure the rural crisis during the Great Depression. They are equally fluent, if less original, in retelling the story of Wallace's political career as that of a man convinced that an abundance of food and democracy would solve nearly all the troubles of the world.
Culver and Hyde don't ignore their subject's myopia about the Soviet Union; they duly quote Wallace calling a Siberian prison camp he visited in 1944 a "combination TVA and Hudson's Bay Company." But they imply that such statements were flaws of the heart, the mistakes of a man who yearned to build a worldwide popular front and regarded any stalwart foe of fascism as his ally. After all, even many of Wallace's anticommunist opponents agreed that, as Hubert Humphrey eulogized, he was "a good man ... devoted and dedicated to peace."
Unfortunately, the authors are bet-ter at describing the good man's thoughts and deeds than at explaining them. Well-crafted, usually sympathetic Wallace stories--personal, scientific, political--tumble through the text in the leave-nothing-out mode that seems de rigueur among contemporary biographers. But the facts don't really speak for themselves, and Culver and Hyde fail to resolve big questions that shaped their subject's fate: Why were Wallace and his Republican father and grandfather all dedicated foes of corporate wealth? How did a zeal for scientific farming mesh with a missionary's quest for egalitarian community? Why did Wallace's rise to prominence enrage so many loyal Democrats, even before he had begun to speak kindly about the Soviet Union? Did bitterness as much as political principle lead him to take on Harry Truman in 1948, a choice he acknowledged would boost the presidential fortunes of the GOP? At the raucous 1940 Democratic Convention that eventually nominated Wallace for vice president, his wife Ilo asked, painfully, "Why are they booing my Henry?" Readers may share her bewilderment.
Thankfully, his biographers supply more than enough evidence to establish that Wallace was that rarity in modern American politics--a genuine true believer. For him, every interest became a cause. At the age of 15, he set out to debunk a traveling "corn professor" named Perry G. Holden, who had persuaded throngs of midwestern farmers to raise perfectly shaped ears. "What's looks to a hog?" asked young Henry. The teenaged scientist then devoted half a year to growing seed taken from Holden's most lovely samples and comparing the ears with their uglier counterparts. The hogs were right; there was no relationship between the shape of an ear and its yield. Wallace had begun the experiment on a friendly dare from the "professor." But after completing it, write Culver and Hyde, "he would become the most outspoken opponent of corn shows in the Midwest, relentlessly mocking the pseudo-science on which they were based." As an apostle of ignorance, the affable "professor" had to be ruined, not merely exposed.
Much the same spirit animated Wallace's attitude toward his political opponents--whether they wanted to put brakes on the New Deal or to take an aggressive stance toward Stalin. At one point, Wallace labeled the latter "neo-fascists," even though many early Cold Warriors were Democrats like Humphrey whose domestic priorities were similar to his. It's hardly surprising that such Manichaean rigor upset the city bosses and other veteran pols who prevented Wallace from succeeding the beloved FDR.
Every true believer draws from a sacred source. Wallace, a complex man, had several. From his paternal grandfather, a onetime Presbyterian minister who started the family magazine, he imbibed a fondness for Bible lessons that stressed service and brotherhood. As Wallace became politically prominent, he updated this social gospel into a justification for a more sweeping New Deal than Roosevelt ever imagined. "We must invent, build and put to work new social machinery," wrote Wallace in 1934. "The machinery will carry out the Sermon on the Mount as well as the present social machinery carries out and intensifies the law of the jungle."
At the same time, the energetic utopian had embarked on a long and frustrating search for a more personal kind of enlightenment. Wallace corresponded with astrologers, dabbled in psychic healing methods, took part in a symbolic "fire sacrifice" with elders of the Onondaga tribe, and helped finance the career of a peripatetic, Russian-born "seer" and artist named Nicholas Roerich, who claimed to hold the key to global harmony. Many Americans of Wallace's generation grazed from the smorgasbord of non-Christian spiritualism--from theosophy to Zen to Indian mysticism to Native-American reverence for the natural world. This walk on the religious wild side didn't become a mass phenomenon in the United States until the 1960s. Yet, the experience may have been more profound in the days before gurus began marketing themselves like rock stars.
Wallace usually kept his spiritual longings to himself. But in the mid-1930s, he used his administration post to promote Roerich's idea of raising a "banner of peace" over cultural landmarks during wartime (and even nominated him for a Nobel Prize). And the holy man was allowed to take a long and costly junket to Central Asia at public expense, under the guise of collecting plants that would withstand drought. None of this did Wallace much political damage, and he soon broke with the unpredictable "guide" from St. Petersburg. Years later, however, enemies pounced on letters he'd sent to Roerich in the early 1930s, addressed "Dear Guru." One spoke mysteriously of a "New Century going forth to meet the seven stars under the reign of the three stars." The partial release of this correspondence during the 1948 campaign undoubtedly made secular liberals less inclined to vote for a man who had entertained such arcane visions.
It was unfair to smear Wallace for an escapade of the soul. But he made himself vulnerable by casting politics as a clash between good and evil, the enlightened and the blind. "Henry would cut off his right hand for the sake of an idea--and yours too, for that matter," commented a friend when the Iowan arrived in Washington at the start of the New Deal. Wallace often expressed his political self-righteousness in religious terms. He could be gloriously hopeful, as in a 1944 speech when he predicted, "The day about which the prophets and seers of many nations have dreamed for 3,000 years is rapidly approaching." Or he could seek refuge, as during the 1948 debacle, in biblical verses about moral men standing alone against a wicked society.
What remained consistent was a contempt for politics in the grubby, unspiritual, but obligatory definition of the beast. Wallace was not above compromising on legislation or fighting to protect his bureaucratic turf. But he made no effort to get along with opponents and was unwilling to defend his right to the second-highest office in the land until it was too late. In 1944, when a Chicago politician gave him sound suggestions on how to win the vice presidential nomination, Wallace turned him down flat. "Practical politics of this kind simply did not appeal to me," he later told an interviewer.
While it's easy to admire this stance from a historical distance, it was and remains destructive to the task of understanding social problems and to resolving them. Henry Wallace was indeed a prophet of sorts: His practical science helped feed millions at a reduced cost, he courageously insisted in 1948 on speaking only before integrated audiences, and he warned against the meteoric growth of what would later be dubbed the military-industrial complex. Yet in the end, the man from Iowa had a more sophisticated understanding of corn and chickens than of the humanist art of political persuasion. Only figures who master that skill can, to paraphrase John Lennon, make a liberal hero something to be.