from Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies

The World That Wasn’t

Henry Wallace and the Fate of the American Century

A dramatic and powerful new perspective on the political career of Henry Wallace—a perspective that will forever change how we view the making of U.S. and Soviet foreign policy at the dawn of the Cold War.

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

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Henry Wallace is the most important, and certainly the most fascinating, almost-president in American history. As FDR’s third-term vice president, and a hero to many progressives, he lost his place on the 1944 Democratic ticket in a wild open convention, as a result of which Harry Truman became president on FDR’s death. Books, films, and even plays have since portrayed the circumstances surrounding Wallace’s defeat as corrupt, and the results catastrophic. Filmmaker Oliver Stone, among others, has claimed that Wallace’s loss ushered in four decades of devastating and unnecessary Cold War.

Now, based on striking new finds from Russian, FBI, and other archives, Benn Steil’s The World That Wasn’t paints a decidedly less heroic portrait of the man, of the events surrounding his fall, and of the world that might have been under his presidency. Though a brilliant geneticist, Henry Wallace was a self-obsessed political figure, blind to the manipulations of aides—many of whom were Soviet agents and assets.

From 1933 to 1949, Wallace undertook a series of remarkable interventions abroad, each aimed at remaking the world order according to his evolving spiritual blueprint. As agriculture secretary, he fell under the spell of Russian mystics, and used the cover of a plant-gathering mission to aid their doomed effort to forge a new theocratic state in Central Asia. As vice president, he toured a Potemkin Siberian continent, guided by undercover Soviet security and intelligence officials who hid labor camps and concealed prisoners. He then wrote a book, together with an American NKGB journalist source, hailing the region’s renaissance under Bolshevik leadership. In China, the Soviets uncovered his private efforts to coax concessions to Moscow from Chiang Kai-shek, fueling their ambitions to dominate Manchuria. Running for president in 1948, he colluded with Joseph Stalin to undermine his government’s foreign policy, allowing the dictator to edit his most important election speech. It was not until 1950 that he began to acknowledge his misapprehensions regarding the Kremlin’s aims and conduct.

Meticulously researched and deftly written, The World That Wasn’t is a spellbinding work of political biography and narrative history that will upend how we see the making of the early Cold War.

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Political History and Theory

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Reviews and Endorsements

[A] timely, riveting biography . . . which should be read right now.

George Will, Washington Post

 [A] groundbreaking biography. . . . Benn Steil comes closer than anyone before him to unraveling the enigma of this visionary hybrid of feeling and fact.

  • Richard Norton Smith, Washington Free Beacon

Benn Steil’s engrossing account of Wallace’s life and career is a timely cautionary tale and a masterpiece of 20th-century American history. It is the definitive biography of Henry A. Wallace, and all the previous hagiographies can finally be consigned to the irrelevance they so richly deserve.

Ronald Radosh, Quillette

For a certain kind of radical social critic, there is an irresistible urge to look abroad for proof that your vision of a better world is possible. This was the story of Henry Wallace, . . . the subject of Benn Steil’s new biography, The World That Wasn’t. . . . Wallace’s attacks on Truman’s emerging Cold War policy eerily anticipate the arguments made today by Russia defenders like [Tucker] Carlson.

  • Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine

Steil deftly sorts through [the layers of legend] to distinguish truth from fiction. . . . A welcome reconsideration of a much-misunderstood but important figure in American politics.

Kirkus Reviews

American history—and world history—could have turned out very differently if just a few things had gone the other way. Most notably, the U.S. after World War II might have pursued a pro-Soviet foreign policy, consigning Europe to Communist control, if President Franklin Roosevelt had died in the middle of his third term or if the 1944 Democratic National Convention had not dumped Vice President Henry Wallace for Harry Truman. How this counterfactual history came close to happening, and how it was prevented, is the subject of Benn Steil’s definitive account, The World That Wasn’t.

Wall Street Journal

A meticulous biography of Henry Wallace . . . Drawing on new materials from FBI and Soviet Union archives, Steil paints a vivid picture. . . . This is a rewarding dive into the inner workings of mid-century American government.

Publishers Weekly

 [A] rigorously researched and revelatory new Wallace biography.

  • New York Journal of Books

A very impressive new biography of Wallace by Benn Steil. . . . A long-dead Vice President has much to teach us.


How very close the American Century came to being the Catastrophe Century becomes clear in Benn Steil’s new biography [of] Henry Agard Wallace.

National Review 

Benn Steil’s new book, The World That Wasn’t, demonstrates that Wallace would not have saved the United States from a rivalry with the Soviet Union. . . . But Steil highlights a larger lesson: It takes two to make peace. Through diplomacy, states can resolve conflicts, but if one actor will not relent, the options are appeasement or confrontation, not real peace.

  • Washington Examiner

One of the strangest characteristics of Cold War historiography is the frequency with which Henry Wallace and hagiography have accompanied one another. ‘If only Wallace, and not Truman, had succeeded FDR,’ the argument runs, ‘the Cold War would never have happened.’ No Wallace biographer, until now, has made a serious effort to assess that claim, not only on the basis of the Wallace papers but also documents from ‘the other side’ that the end of the Cold War made available. With The World That Wasn’t, Benn Steil has risen triumphantly to that challenge: his book is equally important for what it tells us about our past, and for what it may imply about our future.

John Lewis Gaddis, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of George F. Kennan: An American Life

No one could be better qualified to write this definitive life of Henry Wallace than Benn Steil, who is steeped in the period and a very considerable scholar. Steil has done a tremendous job stripping away the myths surrounding the New Deal, the Soviet Union, and The Century of the Common Man. Uncovering much brand new evidence, he presents Wallace in a startling new light, and with it the history of America at a crucial moment in world affairs.

Andrew Roberts, author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny

 A brilliant and fascinating story of a charismatic and well meaning leader undone by Soviet propaganda. The nation was lucky to have Harry Truman in position as VP when FDR died — but it was a near run thing. Exceptional history, engrossing story telling.

  • Admiral James Stavridis

[A] brilliant new book . . . If you’ve ever expressed skepticism about the use of counterfactuals in historical analysis, then you’d better read it. 

Niall Ferguson

This book is Fire BEYOND BELIEF. Highly recommended 10/10.

Marc Andreessen

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