The Magazine

The Red Balloon

Henry Wallace is not to be taken seriously, then or now.

Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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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.  

On the stump in Charlotte (1948)

On the stump in Charlotte (1948)

everett collection / newscom

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.