Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The 33rd Vice President

‘Hoover is apparently on his way toward becoming a kind of American Himmler.’ This is Henry Agard Wallace, the 33rd Vice President of the United States, who died 50 years ago today. A clever and successful farmer, he played an important political role in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, and was a whisker away from becoming President, but, after the war, he found himself opposing the US’s growing antipathy towards the USSR. Wallace kept a daily diary during the latter years of WW2, and it contains much of interest about his own politics, and about the Roosevelt and Truman administrations.

Wallace was born in 1888 on the family livestock farm near the town of Orient, Iowa. In 1892, the family moved to Ames, where his father, having given up farming, became professor of agriculture at the Iowa State Agricultural College. Soon after, the family took in a student, George Washington Carver, the African-American later to become a well-known botanist and inventor, who took the young Wallace on nature walks. Carver left when Wallace was still only 8, but is said to have left a deep and lasting influence on the boy. While a student at West High School, he attended lectures at Iowa State University given by the vice-dean Perry G. Holden who believed the quality of corn yield could be predicted by how good it looked. Wallace, using five acres of land behind his home, proved there was no relationship between yield and appearance.

Wallace moved on to study at Iowa State Agricultural College, and to write for his family’s successful magazine, Wallaces’ Farmer. He married Llo Brown in 1914, and went to live on a 40 acre farm near Johnson County. They would have three children. He taught himself statistics, and introduced econometrics into the field of agriculture. When his grandfather died, he became joint editor, with his father, of Wallaces’ Farmer, and then, after the end of WWI, he took over as sole editor, offering solutions to the agricultural depression - often at odds with Herbert Hoover, who had been in charge of the Office of Food Administration during the war. In particular, Wallace believed that farm surpluses were the cause of much misery in rural areas, and sought to find ways to limit production.

In 1923, Wallace developed a strain of hybrid corn - disease resistant and with higher yields - so commercially successful that a few years later he was able to launch Hi-Bred Corn Company. Increasingly, Wallace was drawn into politics - not as a Republican like the Wallaces before him - and in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of Agriculture. He soon established and began to administer the Agricultural Adjustment Act, to control production, raise and stabilise farm prices, conserve soil, and store reserves. Widely regarded as a champion of human welfare, detractors saw his approach as too wasteful. In 1940, he was chosen to be Vice President to Roosevelt, a role he expanded beyond its normal remit, travelling to Latin America and the Far East. During WWII, he took on additional duties, especially in national economic affairs, though was stripped of these after publicly feuding with Secretary of Commerce Jesse H. Jones.

In 1944, however, Democratic Party conservatives - especially Southerners - opposed Wallace’s renomination as Vice President, and Harry S. Truman was chosen instead, succeeding to the post in January 1945. So it was Truman that became President less than three months later, when Roosevelt died. A few weeks before then, though, Roosevelt had named Wallace as Secretary of Commerce, a post he was to hold onto for little more than a year - being the last of Roosevelt appointees to be fired by Truman. Subsequently, Wallace became the editor of The New Republic magazine, a platform he used to oppose Truman’s tough cold war foreign policies; and then he set  himself up as a presidential candidate, with a newly-formed Progressive Party, standing in the 1948 presidential election. His stance on closer relations with the USSR, and his soft approach towards communism in the US, were against the political current, and seriously undermined his support.

Wallace resumed his farming interests, and, among things, developed a hugely successful breed of chicken. In 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea, he left the Progressive Party and supported the US effort in the Korean War. In 1952, he published an article Where I Was Wrong trying to explain his once trusting stance toward the Soviet Union, and declaring that he now considered himself an anti-Communist. He died on 18 November 1965. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, US Senate, Spartacus EducationalThe New Yorker, American University, or New Deal Network.

Wallace kept a diary at various times in his life: in 1935 during the controversy within the Department of Agriculture; in 1939-1940, preceding, during and following his nomination for Vice President; and from early 1942 to September 1946. Generally, he dictated his diary daily to a secretary, but also would keep pocket journals when on travels. Some of this diary material was published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1973 in The Price of Vision - The Diary of Henry A. Wallace 1942-1945, as edited by John Morton Blum. Blum notes that ’as his temperament dictated, Wallace was a frank but never an intimate diarist.’ The book does not appear to have been reprinted or reissued since the 1970s, and, indeed, Wallace himself is little remembered these days. One review can be found online in the Annals of Iowa, which concludes: ‘Because he was so often involved in decision-making at the highest levels, Wallace’s diary illuminates one of the most critical periods in American history.’

14 April 1944
‘. . . Major General Leslie Groves [commanding officer of the Manhattan Project, developing the atomic bomb] presented me with a report on a governmental secret project which is the most interesting report I have ever seen. This is a project about which I have talked with Vannevar Bush for the last two years. This is a project which should result in definitely ending the war within another 18 months at the outside . . .’

20 May 1944, Edmonton, Canada
‘Gen. Gaffney, born in Massachusetts, raised in Texas, strong for the North. Prefers it to the tropics. Likes to hunt. Tells of unpreparedness in Alaska. Japs could have taken Seward. We had no cruisers up there. Army high command was convinced Japs would not strike at Alaska. Thinks there are great mineral and agricultural possibilities in northwest territory. Prof. Blackfoot of University of Alberta thinks there are enormous possibilities for dairying and hog possibilities. Soil marvelous, deep, black . . .’

29 August 1944
‘. . . At lunch with the President. The President seemed to be looking quite well, in good spirits and very cordial. He complimented me on the work I had been doing in New England and said they would want me to do a lot of work of this kind during the campaign. He then started to skate over the ice at once as fast as he could, saying that I was four or six years ahead of my time, that what I stood for would inevitably come. I told him I was very happy about what had been demonstrated at the convention and following the convention because I now knew that the people were for me. [. . .] I went on to say that I knew just exactly what happened at the convention but that the reason I had come out for him was because his name was a symbol of liberalism not only in this country but in the whole world. He then hastened to say how much he appreciated that and said if everything went well on November 7 [when President Roosevelt would be elected to a fourth term] I could have anything I wanted in the government with one exception. The exception was the State Department. [. . .]

The President said he thought the election was going to be very close but in case we won, one of the first things we would do would be to sit down with me and make a list of folks we were going to get rid of, said the first on the list would be Jesus H. Jones. I said, “Well, if you are going to get rid of Jesse, why not let me have Secretary of Commerce with RFC and FEA thrown in? There would be poetic justice in that.” The President said, “Yes, that’s right.” ’

19 December 1944
‘I got it on very good authority yesterday that Edgar Hoover continually has Drew Pearson [a journalist and diarist - see Salty and Petulant] shadowed. Hoover specializes on building up a file against the various public figures and especially against the columnists. He has not yet built up much of a file against Walter Winchell. Winchell has so far been too smart for Hoover. Hoover is apparently on his way toward becoming a kind of American Himmler.’

14 January 1945
‘. . . Ernst asked what the President was going to do with Jesse Jones? I said, “Why should he do anything with Jesse Jones?” Ernst replied, “Well if he takes care of Jesse in some way, it will reduce the amount of discord.” I said, “Well, it seems to me it would be better for the President to fight on this issue and get licked than to give Jesse something.” In other words, what I was really saying to Ernst was that I would rather not to be confirmed by the Senate than to have Jesse Jones still in government.’

[This was the last entry Wallace made as Vice President, and he only took up the diary again the following April. In the meantime, his nomination as Secretary of Commerce was almost not confirmed, Blum explains in a footnote, as Jones and others fought to block him in the Senate.]

12 September 1946
‘At the meeting with the President I went over page by page with him my Madison Square Garden speech to be given on September 12. Again and again he said, “That’s right”; “Yes, that is what I believe.” He didn’t have a single change to suggest. He twice said how deeply he appreciated my courtesy in showing him my speech before I gave it.

The President said that Secretary Byrnes’ speech of September 6 had been cleared with him over the telephone and then it had been sent back to Washington for minor checking. He said also that he thought it must be a pretty good speech because neither the British, the French, nor the Russians liked it.

The President apparently saw no inconsistency between my speech and what Byrnes was doing - if he did he didn’t indicate it in any way. He spoke very hopefully about the future, saying that he thought the situation between the United States and Russia was much more peaceful than the newspapers would have us believe. He said the dark cloud on the horizon was the state of Stalin’s heath; that Stalin was now an old man. He said also it was almost impossible to do business with Molotov . . .’

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