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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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.