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Peace as a policy choice

BOOKS | The naïve idealist who almost became president

Wallace (right) with Roosevelt in 1940 AP

Peace as a policy choice
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THE WORLD THAT WASN’T: Henry Wallace and the Fate of the American Century (Avid Reader Press 2024) begins with a dramatic scene: the first day of the Democratic convention of 1944. Franklin D. Roosevelt was running unchallenged for an unprecedented fourth term as war leader of a conflict still raging. But the precarious state of his health made the choice of his running mate unusually fraught. Those closest to FDR knew he likely would not survive a fourth term. The man at the bottom of the ticket would be the next president.

Delegates and attendees had chanted “We want Wallace!” for hours. Theirs seemed a logical choice. Henry Agard Wallace was the current vice president, a man Roosevelt liked and would probably (with reservations) accept as a running mate. But party leaders had other ideas. As Wallace’s chief ally in the Senate fought through the crowd to place his name in nomination, the convention chairman brought proceedings to an abrupt close. After a feverish night of politicking, Wallace’s momentum evaporated; Harry S. Truman won on the second ballot.

Left-wing historians and activists ever since have wrung their hands over that usurpation. They say Wallace was ahead of his time as an anti-colonialist and anti-racist, and that his presidency would have meant no Cold War, no weapons buildup, no U.S. imperialist adventures. Writes biographer Benn Steil, “It is, understandably, comforting and inspiring to hear that peace needs only a leader who believes in it”—as Wallace sincerely did.

Wallace’s early years followed a family script set by his grandfather, who left his Presbyterian ministry to pursue farming and journalism in Iowa. His father Henry C. Wallace brought the family newspaper, Wallace’s Farmer, to such national prominence that he was tapped to serve as secretary of agriculture under Presidents Harding and Coolidge.

Henry A. had no interest in politics at first. His passion was agriculture, and he developed a strain of hybrid corn that would become a top seller and a significant source of income throughout his career. Writing for the family journal drew him into political issues, and his enthusiastic support of the New Deal led to an appointment as secretary of agriculture during FDR’s first two terms.

As his political star rose, Wallace’s personal beliefs took a radical turn. Though raised Presbyterian, “he came to mock what he called ‘the wishy-washy goody-goodiness and infantile irrelevancy’ of Christian Orthodoxy.” Instead, he was drawn in his early 40s to the utopianism of Nicholas Roerich, a Russian mystic who envisioned a “New Country” in Central Asia leading the world to peace and unity.

Wallace settled on Soviet-style communism as a path to peace and unity.

Once disenchanted with Roerich, Wallace settled on Soviet-style communism as a path to peace and unity. Though never a Communist himself, he made friends and advisers of party members. Touring Siberia as vice president, Wallace praised the innovative farming and mining techniques of ­dedicated Soviets, never suspecting the vast prison system underneath. For him, his biographer slyly observes, “the arc of Russian history bent toward justice.”

Such naïveté characterized Wallace’s entire career, from his devotion to One World mysticism to his Quixotic run for the presidency in 1948. Though “an exceptionally fine man,” in the opinion of journalist Walter Lippman, “his heart [was] detached from realities.” The “World That Wasn’t” existed inside his own head.

But the world he influenced lives on in the aggressions of China and Russia and the idealism of anti-war protesters—many of whom, like Wallace, understand peace as a “policy choice” rather than a fragile state often secured by arms. The World That Wasn’t is a political biography—and the deal-­making, back-­stabbing details can be overwhelming. But by the final page readers should be grateful for the party bosses who kept Wallace off the 1944 ticket. Naïve idealism can be as dangerous as the cynical kind.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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