Jun 13, 2013

A Biography of Henry A. Wallace

Last night more than a dozen members met to discuss American Dreamer: The Life of Henry A. Wallace by John C. Culver and John Hyde.

We began the meeting by questioning some of the rules which we had made for ourselves. We have in the past limited the books we read to some 300 pages in length, but American Dreamer was more than 500 pages and we felt it worth reading at that length. It was suggested that many good books that greatly exceeded our limit could be divided into two roughly equal sections to be read and discussed over two months.

We have also limited our readings to paperback books, but there are good books available only in hardback (and ebook format) that are as affordable as paperback books. Perhaps hardback and longer books might be brought up for consideration, with the final decision based on the individual book and taken by the people present.

The discussion of Henry Wallace began with a brief summary of his career for those who had not read the book:

  • As Secretary of Agriculture for the first two terms of the FDR administration he oversaw the transformation of the government's role in American agriculture. During the Depression the government played a key role in saving American farmers from the worst aspects of the Depression. Many of the programs have continued until today.
  • He served as Vice President in FDR's third term, making an important contribution to war mobilization.
  • He served as Secretary of Commerce in FDR's forth term, until fired by President Truman.
  • He was the point man for FDR's cabinet on the development of the atom bomb, coordinating with the scientists who led the program.
  • He ran for President in 1948 as candidate for the Progressive Party, in a campaign that failed badly/
  • He was a founder of Pioneer hi-bred, and his family eventually sold their interest in the firm for more than a billion dollars.
  • He deserves substantial credit of the introduction of hybrid corn which greatly increased corn production and came to dominate corn production in American farms. He also deserves credit for the development of improved varieties of chickens that eventually came to dominate world egg production.
  • He was a college graduate at a time when that was rare. he was one of the first people to receive a masters degree in agricultural economics, and his work in agricultural economics was influential nationally and internationally.
  • He was an influential editor of farming publications.
  • He was the scion of an important Mid Western family. His father before him had been Secretary of Agriculture. The family owned an influential agricultural periodical.
As the list above shows, he was an exceptionally talented man in many ways. He had great strength as an expert on agriculture and agricultural economics. He apparently was a strong manager, able to bring order to the USDA as it grew from 40,000 to more than 140,000 staff members. 

On the other hand, he seemed less talented in foreign affairs, and appeared to be taken in by Russian propaganda; he was perhaps too supportive of communists and leftists on the staff of the government agencies he led. 

A Republican from a Republican family, he came to oppose the Hoover administration and their farm policies, and was an important supporter of FDR in 1932 and 1936 in the Mid Western farm states. While that service to FDR earned him a cabinet appointment, he seemed to lack many of the skills needed for a successful politician. He was later elected Vice President due to the Roosevelt support. One of our members who had actually seen a Wallace stump speech had been unimpressed by the performance; we supposed he was not good at "working a room". Certainly by the time he ran for president he was hurt by his support for racial equality, his international views which were widely perceived as too liberal, his religious views which many saw as flaky, and his campaign that was poorly conducted. In light of these weaknesses, we wondered that he was allowed such freedom to deliver major speeches without White House clearance. 

Last month we discussed The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945 by Michael Beschloss. Again, this month we commented on the petty backbiting within FDR's cabinet. We noted that Roosevelt was quite sick in 1944 and until he died in 1944; diarists noted his physical and mental deterioration. We wondered in that context about his choice of Truman rather than Wallace for Vice President. Was Wallace too liberal? Were there skeletons in his closet that might emerge? Was FDR influenced by conservatives in his circle to choose more conservative Truman. (We concluded Truman came to be a better president than might have seemed likely to his contemporaries in 1944.) Perhaps it was simply that FDR had a better chance of winning the election with Truman than with Wallace as his running mate.

We speculated on Wallace's personality. One of our members disliked him for his treatment of his wife. He seldom consulted her opinion, making decisions alone that greatly affected her. (Some thought that was not untypical of the time.) One of our members who had lived for years in Iowa thought that he shared many of the characteristics of people she had known there. He was also seen as analytically inclined, deeply involved in a life of the mind, and perhaps less people oriented as a result. He was deeply attached to actual farming, and indeed farmed a victory garden as Vice President, buying and actually running a farm after he retired from government. Perhaps some of these characteristics as much as his outspoken liberalism made him unattractive as a candidate to the professional polls.

Henry Wallace knew a lot, but perhaps he didn't know what he didn't know. Perhaps he ventured too far into areas in which he was not expert.

It was commented that it is difficult now to fully identify with the thinking of the time. The people who had lived through two world wars, the Spanish flu epidemic, and the Great Depression --people who had been deeply shocked by the Holocaust, bombing of civilian populations, and the atom bomb -- were deeply concerned to avoid World War III. Europe was in ruins, threatened by famine. People lived in a world in which the great empires (British, French, Dutch, Belgian) had been deeply wounded and were dying, but were not yet dead. The USSR had taken over a broad swath of Europe, leftest movements were on the rise in Western Europe, and the Communists were soon to win the Civil War in China.

Today, more than half a century after the decisions made during and immediately after World War II, we know how things turned out. We tend to assume that the ways not chosen were not only not worthy of choice but not worthy of consideration. The people of the time did not have those advantages, and were dealing with decisions critical for the future of the world in a time of great uncertainty. Their's was a dilemma we can hardly fathom.

All who had read the book thought it was very good. The authors combined deep insight into their subject with considerable ability to tell the story well. This ranks as one of our best reads!

Here are a couple of posts written by one of our members on the book. (May 8. June 13)