The Democratic Convention of July 1944 must rank as one of the most dramatic in history. The drama did not concern the presidency, since Franklin Roosevelt, with WWII still raging, was sure to be nominated for his fourth term. The question concerned his Vice President, Henry A. Wallace. Wallace had been the center of FDR’s New Deal, the greatest Secretary of Agriculture in history—responsible for initiating food stamps, support for small farmers (he himself farmed in his native Iowa) going bankrupt due to overproduction and plummeting crop prices, the policy of storing grain against lean years, and a host of other far-reaching programs. He was generally considered to be the brightest cabinet officer in a cabinet of giants, a renaissance man whose activities ran the gamut from dirt farming himself to inventing hybrid corn to teaching himself genetics to philosophy and mysticism. In 1940, over the objection of many conservatives, FDR chose him to be his vice president. After a controversial three years serving as possibly the most powerful vice president ever up to that time, and with the worldwide conflict still not decided, the time came to set the stage for the 1944 campaign. The problem was that most pols knew that FDR would probably not last through his fourth term: weakened by 11 years of furious activity due to Depression and War, the President had recently been found to have hypertension and arteriosclerosis, his once-legendary energy reduced to a shadow of its former level. Whoever became Vice President was virtually certain to be President, and the conservatives in the party were terrified that it would be Henry Wallace—the man many considered to be not only a dreamer and a hopelessly naïve idealist, but a virtual Communist (he was, in fact, a quintessentially American democrat and capitalist, though keenly aware of the need for the world to realize its unity and interdependence in the post-World War II era, and its need for the self-determination of all its peoples). For that reason, an actual conspiracy gathered to deny Wallace the nomination and give it to one of the other contenders: presidential assistant Jimmy Byrnes; Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas; Senator Alben Barkley; or, most importantly, an obscure product of the infamous Boss Pendergast machine of St. Louis, Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman. The conspiracy was initiated by Edwin Pauley, the wealthy conservative oilman from California who would later play a role in bringing Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Pauley loathed Wallace and his ideas of “economic democracy,” and was determined to block him from ever ascending to the presidency. He recruited allies like “Pa” Watson, FDR’s appointments secretary who controlled access to the President, along with other bosses from the Democratic Party, and they hatched their plans—first to get to the ailing FDR to see if he would deny Wallace the job, and if not, to try for some sort of commitment from the president to accept one of the replacements, hopefully Truman. They did manage to get a semi-approval from FDR for either Douglas or Truman, if Wallace weren’t nominated, but as usual, FDR was loathe to commit himself. He would leave it up to the convention, he said, and then took off for a secret meeting with General MacArthur and the military in Honolulu.
FDR’s half approval gave the conspirators the opening they needed. They put out a steady drumbeat of anti-Wallace propaganda, most suggesting that the Vice President was a socialist if not an outright Communist (making it perhaps the first campaign targeting a government official for being “soft on Communism.”) They were helped in this by Wallace’s ill-advised trip to Asia just prior to the convention, in which he extolled the accomplishments of the Soviet Union in Siberia, and criticized Chiang-Kai-shek for ignoring the threat building within his country by Mao’s communists. They were also helped by Wallace's genuine interest in what he thought of as the Soviet experiment in bringing about a more equal society, a society that would emphasize economic as well as political democracy. He also knew of the indispensable role the Soviet Union had played in stopping Hitler (the Soviets lost 6,000,000 men in halting Hitler’s eastern thrust, literally saving the Allies and Britain from certain destruction, at enormous cost to their homeland), and the double-crossing British role in delaying the “second front” invasion of France. Churchill and the British, Wallace knew, were working hard to put off the Allied invasion as long as possible so the Soviets and Nazis would continue “killing each other.” Wallace also knew the British were more concerned about maintaining the last elements of their empire than in aiding their Soviet ally, and certainly more interested in reviving their empire after the war than in bringing about the postwar age of cooperation among all nations and peoples that Wallace had spoken about often. In fact, the British sent Roald Dahl (later of Willy Wonka fame) to the U.S. to spy on Wallace and keep them apprised of his “loony” ideas for post-war peace—especially about providing self-determination to the former British colonies such as India. So Wallace had not only a homegrown conspiracy working against his re-election to the vice presidency, he also had an international one featuring Winston Churchill.
Thus were set in motion the machinations at the convention. The conspirators—especially Robert Hannegan, a Truman protégé who was named chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1944; Chicago Mayor and political boss, Edward Kelly; national Democratic secretary George Allen; and two previous national chairmen, Ed Flynn, boss of the Bronx, and Postmaster General Frank Walker—planned every detail to deny Wallace the nomination on the first ballot, and then arrange a favorite-sons floor fight to dilute Wallace’s strength and maneuver a compromise nomination of Truman. Their plan was byzantine, thorough and brilliantly crafty. What they did not count on, however, was Wallace’s genuine popularity with both Democrats and the American public. On the eve of the convention, a Gallup poll revealed that Wallace was running at 65% favorable, with the other putative VP candidates running in single digits and Truman barely registering 2%. Though alarming, such news could be dealt with. What shocked the conspirators was the response to Wallace’s convention speech. Not noted for his oratory or his charisma, the shy, self-effacing Wallace, who had not even wanted to attend the convention, eventually relented and entered the fight in earnest. Most notably, he prepared a barn-burner of a speech. It was distinctly not political; in fact it was called “tactless,” for it did everything a politician usually tries to avoid: give direct voice to his deepest philosophy and the policies he believed in, and throw it in the faces of his enemies. Here’s some of what he said:
“The strength of the Democratic Party has always been the people—plain people like so many of those here in this convention—ordinary folks, farmers, workers, and business men along Main Street….The future belongs to those who go down the line unswervingly for the liberal principles of both political democracy and economic democracy regardless of race, color or religion. In a political, educational and economic sense there must be no inferior races. The poll tax must go. Equal educational opportunities must come. The future must bring equal wages for equal work regardless of sex or race.
Roosevelt stands for all this. That is why certain people hate him so…” (p. 360, American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace, by John Culver and John Hyde. Emphasis added.)
The 40,000 convention goers in Chicago Stadium went crazy, cheering and demonstrating for the man they clearly favored as vice president. Commentators like Thomas Stokes called the speech magnificent, causing him to leap from his feet in tears, but to write “goddam it, it isn’t smart politics.” Time magazine called it “the first speech that riveted the delegates’ attention..blunt, grave, tactless.” And former senator George Norris, too ill to attend but listening in Nebraska, wrote this to Wallace:
“If you had been trying to appease somebody you made a mistake, but you were talking straight into the faces of your enemies who were trying to defeat you, and no matter what they may think or what effect it may have on them, the effect on the country and all those who will read that speech is that it was one of the most courageous exhibitions ever seen at a political convention in this country.” (p. 361, American Dreamer)
In fact, the effect on Wallace’s enemies was panic. They tried to get word to reporters that FDR had privately endorsed not Wallace, but either Truman or Douglas, but few were convinced. Most were anticipating the evening session when the President himself was to deliver a speech radio-broadcast from his wartime location, a Pacific naval base. The speech was vintage Roosevelt, denying that he had any eagerness for the job, but insisting that he was doing so out of his sense of duty, to complete the job he had started: winning the war, winning the peace afterwards, and then building a peacetime economy to employ returning veterans and all Americans. Predictably, the convention crowd cheered loud and long for their heroic president. But then came the unpredictable—at least to the conspirators. The crowd segued from cheering for Roosevelt to cheering and calling for the vice president: “We want Wallace! We want Wallace!” Sam Jackson, in on the conspiracy, tried to gavel the crowd back to order, but to no avail. The chant went on, growing louder by the second. It grew even more raucous when the organist, though a loyalist to Chicago Boss Kelly, got caught up himself, and began playing the “Iowa Corn Song.” The convention turned to pandemonium, and was fast slipping into acclamation for Wallace and well out of conspiratorial control.
There was only one card for the conspirators to play, and they played it: close the convention down. There were fire laws, said Mayor Kelly and he began to throw open doors and direct workers to cut off the organ and cut power cables if necessary. Meantime, Senator Claude Pepper, a staunch New Deal liberal and leader of the Florida delegation, began trying to put Wallace’s name in nomination, knowing the vote would have been overwhelmingly in the vice president’s favor on the first ballot. Pepper began jumping up and down trying to get recognized by the podium, but Chairman Jackson refused to acknowledge him. Nor could the Florida senator address the chair by microphone because the power had been cut. Desperate, Pepper began shoving and elbowing his way to the podium, got to the steps and was five feet from the podium pushing his way up. Chairman Hannegan saw the situation and screamed to Chairman Jackson to call for adjournment, but Jackson was fearful or a riot, saying “This crowd is too hot. I can’t.” Hannegan then shouted louder for adjournment, insisting that “I’m taking orders from the president!” Which, of course, he was not.
By now Claude Pepper was one step away from changing the course of history, but Jackson finally called for yeas and nays to adjourn, and though the crowd screamed “No, no, no, no!” Jackson doggedly insisted that the ayes had it, and gaveled the session to a close. The organ was stopped, the lights were cut, and police began to clear the aisles. Culver and Hyde conclude with this comparison to another valiant but failed American charge:
“It was over. Pepper had led the Pickett’s Charge of the Wallace movement.”
Sadly, that was the case. By next morning, the bosses had reasserted control, kept anyone they thought might be a Wallace supporter out of the convention hall, promised bribes to most of the leaders of state delegations, and went through the motions of pretending to have a first ballot—which Wallace came within 100 votes or so of winning. Then they proceeded to orchestrate subsequent ballots, calling in their favors, and managed a landslide on the third ballot for the until-then obscure senator from Missouri, Harry S. Truman.
Though for politicians the result meant only that a new, more conservative bosses’ pick had become vice president, within less than a year and throughout the rest of the twentieth century, the 1944 convention theft had monumental effects. On April 12, 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage, and the New Deal he had crafted so carefully and in the face of so much opposition, died with him. So did FDR’s ability to deal with Joseph Stalin, the Russian leader, in a partly even-handed way. President Truman immediately came under the influence of conservatives like Jimmy Byrnes of South Carolina, the military, Wall Streeters, and the southern senators who controlled much of the Senate. When he learned that the United States had successfully exploded an atomic device, the diffident son who had always been bullied at school became a cock of the walk. He dominated and threatened Stalin at the Potsdam conference, and he heartily approved the bombing of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, even though the Japanese had already signaled they were defeated, and even in the face of contrary advice from some on his general staff. And thereafter, he bought completely into the concept of the Cold War with the Soviet Union that dominated world affairs for the second half of the twentieth century.
No one knows, of course, what might have happened if Henry Wallace had been allowed the victory he clearly deserved at that 1944 convention. Or if he had been successful in his independent run for the presidency as a Progressive in 1948 (he lost badly, viciously tarred as a Communist, and finishing behind even the Dixiecrat, Strom Thurmond). But given his record as a man who wanted peace instead of conflict, who understood that cooperation rather than competition was the only way forward for a world weary of war and selfishness, we can speculate. As early as 1933, in one of his first speeches as Agriculture Secretary, he said to the Federal Council of Churches that “the world is one world.” In the Fall of that same year, he said in a radio broadcast, “Selfishness has ceased to be the mainspring of progress…there is something more…There is a new social machinery in the making.” In 1941, in answer to Time/Life publisher Henry Luce’s claim that the twentieth century was poised to become the ‘American Century,’ a time of unparalleled power and domination for the United States, Wallace countered with his most famous utterance, the Century-of-the-Common-Man speech:
Some have spoken of the “American Century.” I say that the century on which we are entering—the century which will come out of this war—can be and must be the century of the common man. Everywhere the common man must learn to build his own industries with his own hands in a practical fashion…No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations. Older nations will have the privilege to help younger nations get started on the push to industrialization, but there must be neither military nor economic imperialism…the people’s revolution is on the march, and the devil and all his angels cannot prevent it.
Finally, and on a similar theme, he said in a 1957 interview with Rexford Tugwell that what all people need is a “Declaration of Interdependence, a recognition of our essential unity and our absolute reliance upon one another.”
This is not to say that Henry A. Wallace never made a mistake, or would have been an effective president. One never knows about that. But given what has happened to others who ascended to that high office (Harry Truman comes immediately to mind, whom Wallace described in his diary as “a small, opportunistic man, a man of good instincts, but therefore probably all the more dangerous”), we might expect that something similar would have happened to Wallace. We might also expect that much of the suffering and wastage of American treasure that has been sunk into wars and preparation for wars and propaganda about the alleged strength of our enemies necessitating wars might have been avoided. We might also expect—especially from his behavior on the campaign trail in 1948, when he refused to abide by segregationist laws in the South and openly drove alongside his Negro secretary—that the endlessly delayed road to full civil rights for African Americans and full economic rights for them and all Americans might have taken a front, rather than a back seat in our national affairs. How refreshing, how salutary, how even salvational that might have been.