Henry Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt’s second vice president and the Progressive party candidate for president in 1948, was once again in the news earlier this year. Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick produced a multipart Showtime series and large book blaming the Cold War on his removal from the Democratic ticket in 1944. If only Wallace, and not Harry Truman, had succeeded FDR, the world would have been a better and more peaceful place. Conservative (Ronald Radosh) and liberal (Sean Wilentz) historians have skewered Stone and Kuznick’s tenuous grasp of history.
In his meticulously researched, clearly written, and devastating account of Wallace’s 1948 campaign, Thomas Devine exposes Wallace as a willing tool of the American Communist party (CPUSA). More than that, however, Devine has provided a blistering examination of the mindset of the Stone-Kuznick Popular Front liberalism that believed in an alliance with Communists and persisted in blaming the Cold War on the United States in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary. What Stone and Kuznick and their acolytes fail to comprehend is that the only alliance the CPUSA would tolerate was one that it would dominate; and in the context of American politics, that meant rejection by more than 95 percent of the population. That conservatives would refuse to countenance cooperation with Communists is hardly surprising; what Devine demonstrates is that no principled or practical liberal could do so, either.
A substantial number of Democrats and independents were unhappy with Truman’s leadership as the 1948 presidential election season neared. The end of World War II had quickly been followed by tension with our recent ally, the Soviet Union, and some liberals were concerned that the president had squandered opportunities for reconciliation. Republican attacks on New Deal policies had escalated, and Truman seemed unable to summon the idealism and energy to defend or expand them. Even less ideological Democrats worried that the president would lose, and were casting about for an alternative. Many liberals urged Wallace to challenge Truman in the Democratic primaries. Even after he rejected that idea, though, the stunning triumph of Leo Isaacson, a Progressive candidate in a special congressional election in New York, and a successful petition drive that garnered 460,000 signatures to get Wallace on the California ballot convinced many observers that Wallace could win millions of votes and deny Truman the election, thus demonstrating the power of the left wing of the Democratic party.
The fly in the ointment was the Communist party. Although it was not ordered by the Soviet Union to push for a third-party candidacy—or to support Wallace—the party carefully read tea leaves from Moscow that seemed to suggest it should do so. The denunciation of Earl Browder on Moscow’s orders in 1945 taught American Communists not to hide their light and to take the lead in any “anti-monopoly” coalition. The creation of the Cominform in 1947 was interpreted as a signal of the need for increased ideological militancy. Lacking secure means of communication with Moscow, Communist party leaders concluded that the time was ripe for them to help create and dominate a new third party.
Many of those who pushed Wallace the hardest to forgo a Democratic party challenge to Truman and to instead form a third party were concealed Communists, most notably Wallace’s close aide Beanie Baldwin and his wife Lillian Traugott. Wallace’s chief speechwriters included such Communists as Victor Perlo, David Ramsey, and Millard Lampell. John Abt and Lee Pressman wrote the party platform. The head of the Young Progressives was another Communist. Traugott, Perlo, Abt, and Pressman had even worked for Soviet intelligence, as had other prominent Progressives, such as Harry Dexter White, Larry Duggan, and Mary Price.
Under attack from the Justice Department and congressional committees, the Communist party saw Henry Wallace and the Progressives as a shield and ordered its cadres to do everything possible to promote it. Leo Isaacson’s victory and the California petition drive had been due, in no small part, to the mobilization of thousands of New York and California Communists, respectively. The CPUSA ordered its forces in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to support Wallace in the face of warnings that such defiance of Philip Murray, the CIO leader, would irretrievably damage the party. “Red Mike” Quill, head of the Transport Workers, broke with the party over the issue, and other Communist unions wound up getting expelled from the labor federation, destroying the significant Communist base in the union movement.
The CPUSA was so aggressive that it offended even pro-Soviet liberals. Since it insisted that only unilateral American concessions could ensure peace, it refused to countenance even the mildest criticisms of the Soviet Union. A proposal to add a sentence to the platform noting that it was not the intention of the Progressive party to endorse any nation’s foreign policy—the platform was replete with denunciations of American foreign policy, ranging from the Marshall Plan to the Berlin Airlift—was denounced as a smear and “red-baiting,” and was voted down. While defending civil liberties for Communists, it included support for criminalizing fascists and anti-Semites. It promoted self-determination for colonies, but, in line with party principles, demanded independence for Puerto Rico without regard for the wishes of the islanders.
Such positions were the bone and marrow of the CPUSA; but why did Wallace and other non-Communists in the Progressive party accept them? Many didn’t, and withdrew or resigned as the extent of Communist domination became clear. Such people included those who were willing to accept Communist participation in the Progressive party, but were unwilling to swallow CPUSA’s domination of meetings, its personal attacks on dissenters, and the treatment of any criticism of the Soviet Union as red-baiting. Even Earl Browder, expelled from the Communist party but still a Marxist, privately warned Wallace to distance himself from the Communists.
Wallace, however, was in a bind: The Communists were his most fervent supporters and provided much of the Progressive party’s organizational muscle and enthusiasm. He once suggested that, if the CPUSA had its own candidate, he might lose a few hundred thousand votes but would gain far more, and he found a variety of excuses to avoid the issue, at one point even explaining that “there is as much variation in the beliefs of Communists as in the beliefs of Democrats and Republicans.”
Devine compellingly documents that Wallace shared many of the Communists’ beliefs about American foreign and domestic policies. He genuinely believed that the Marshall Plan was a Wall Street plot to control world markets, that domestic fascism was a greater menace than the Soviet Union, and that the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, far from being a demonstration that alliances with Communists ended badly for non-Communists, was actually the fault of the United States. In fact, the Cold War, to Henry Wallace, was simply a nefarious American scheme to weaken civil liberties. Since there was no private property in the Soviet Union, Stalin was, naturally, a progressive concerned with his nation’s common good.
When such positions drew fire and scorn from a broad spectrum of Americans, Wallace clung to the illusion that there was an untapped reservoir of unionists, minorities, and people of good will who would respond to his idealism. As it became more apparent that he was very, very wrong, Wallace became more and more strident. He accused the CIO leaders supporting Truman of behaving like the German labor leaders who had backed Hitler. He labeled both Truman and the Republican nominee Thomas Dewey “Nazis.” Revelations of Soviet espionage elicited his claim that the United States was becoming just like Nazi Germany. Even the mildest criticism of communism was “red-baiting” and out of bounds. After the election, Wallace offered a graceless concession and told his aides that he couldn’t bring himself to congratulate that “son of a bitch” Truman.
Associated with a group and handicapped by a message that were rejected by most Americans—and having insulted most Americans as akin to fascists—Wallace lost support the more he campaigned. Despite hopes that the Progressive party would get several million votes, it received only 1.1 million, or 2.37 percent—more than a third of which were from New York City. And though some claimed that Wallace had forced Truman to move to the left, Devine notes that the election destroyed the influence of the Popular Front liberals, led to the elimination of Communists from the CIO, and actually helped Truman by reassuring conservative Catholics and ethnic Eastern Europeans that the president was not soft on communism. The election solidified an American consensus on the Cold War that lasted until it was shattered by Vietnam.
Within one year of his crushing defeat, Wallace began to distance himself from the Progressive party, breaking with it over its criticism of America’s role in the Korean War. In 1953, he blamed Beanie Baldwin for the Communist domination of the Progressive party, and in 1962, told Truman that he had been justified in firing him from the cabinet when Wallace had criticized American foreign policy.
That Wallace himself repudiated his crusade as mistaken and misguided is, of course, only a minor irritant to those historians and cultural warriors for whom American resistance to communism is an original sin of the modern era. That anticommunism was sometimes used to prop up disreputable regimes, or was employed by disreputable politicians, does not alter the simple fact that had domestic communism not been rejected after World War II, and had America not resisted Communist aggression and influence, many more people around the globe would have suffered to a far greater degree.
How much more do we need to learn about communism to know that, whatever its stated aspirations, it left in its wake mass murder, the destruction of civil rights and liberties, and ruined societies? As the historical memories of communism fade, it is imperative that mythmakers and conspiracy theorists like Oliver Stone not be allowed to peddle their fantasies about American history unanswered.
Harvey Klehr, the Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory, is the coauthor, most recently, of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.