CFR Fellows' Book Launch Series: The World That Wasn't: Henry Wallace and the Fate of the American Century by Benn Steil

Tuesday, January 23, 2024
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Senior Fellow and Director of International Economics, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, The World That Wasn’t: Henry Wallace and the Fate of the American Century


President, Council on Foreign Relations

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. 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.

FROMAN: Well, good evening, everybody. Thank you all for joining us, both those here in the room and those on Zoom. I’m Mike Froman, president of the Council.

And it is really a great pleasure and honor to be here with Benn Steil, senior fellow, director at the Council, and author of the new book The World That Wasn’t: Henry Wallace and the Fate of the American Century, which I recommend to you. It’s a heavy read, but it’s—(laughter)—but it’s a good one.

We have about 150 people or so on Zoom in addition to the folks here. As we said, we’ll talk for about a half-hour and then open it up to questions. And it’s all on the record.

The book lays out how close we were to having a president who was truly outside the mainstream of political thought, really one of the most bizarre and colorful characters, I think, in American politics. He was a member of a religious cult who surreptitiously did their bidding; referred to its leaders as father and mother; wrote them, quote, “guru” letters. He was a communist sympathizer who worked at times secretly with Soviet intelligence and sometimes with Stalin directly or indirectly to support its policies vis-à-vis the United States. He was a candidate for president who didn’t do very well, became increasingly at odds with the mainstream of political thought, particularly around the Cold War, the Marshall Plan, the Truman Plan. He crashed and burned spectacularly as a—as a political candidate. But he came within a hair’s breadth of being president when the choice was made to choose Harry Truman over him as FDR’s fourth-term vice presidential running mate. In the meantime, though, he was secretary of agriculture, secretary of commerce, vice president. Benn, how did someone so odd—(laughter)—rise and stay at the top of the government apparatus for so long?

STEIL: He was never elected to any position in his own right. His political career was made entirely by one man, Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt made him agriculture secretary in his first term. And on paper, at least, Wallace was a very logical choice. I mean, he came from agricultural aristocracy in Iowa. His grandfather—all the firstborn sons in the family going back for many generations are Henrys. Founded a very influential farm journal called Wallaces’ Farmer. And this is at a time when over 40 percent of the U.S. population lives on farms, so it’s a very influential publication. Wallace’s farmer, Henry, takes over the farm journal, and then becomes agriculture secretary under Harding and Coolidge. The Wallace of our story takes over the journal, he’s quite an influential writer on agriculture, but most importantly he is in his own right an extremely accomplished self-taught agricultural geneticist. He starts doing experiments on hybridization of corn while he’s in his teens. His first successful experiments are when he’s sixteen. And virtually all the corn that we—today derives from his experiments to improve corn. Chickens, as well, in his retirement, but we’ll leave that for later. But he was a—so he was a logical choice for agriculture secretary, again, at least on paper.

Views are radically split as to whether he was a great agriculture secretary or a terrible one. I’ll leave that for later discussion. But the most important event in his political career is FDR deciding that he should be vice president in 1940 above vociferous objections from within the party, not just on the right but on the left. A lot of prominent liberals like Harold Ickes considered him to be a—you know, a Johnny-come-lately. He had been a Republican, now a Democrat. He’ll later become a progressive. He’ll then become an independent, he’ll endorse Eisenhower, and he has a very volatile political career.

And then the seminal moment in his career comes in 1944. There’s a wild open Democratic convention for vice president because FDR refuses to put his fingerprints on the weapon for what is, in effect, a political murder. It’s already been decided he’s going to be maneuvered off the ticket, but he doesn’t cooperate. And he almost wins. And if he had won, of course, he would have become president when FDR died in April of ’45.

And after that, we have a fascinating counterfactual history. We do know certain things—that there would have been no Marshall Plan, no NATO, no European Union, no policy of containment, no West Germany. It would have been a very different world that we live in today.

FROMAN: Indeed. I mean, take one of the issues that actually has relevance today, which is the issue around how to deal with nuclear technology. And he was in that camp that was advocating for handing over U.S. nuclear knowhow to the Soviet Union as a way of balancing, and assuring them, and discouraging them from pursuing it on their own. Now, he wasn’t the only one. There were others, including Oppenheimer, we now know, from the book and the movie—(laughter)—and others who made similar arguments. But his was really quite unilateral in his—in his approach. Seems rather fanciful, given what we now know about the Soviet Union, including what we know about the U.N. and its effectiveness, because his idea was that the U.N. should control all nuclear power going forward.

Lessons to be learned from that? We now have a discussion about what to do about new technology—artificial intelligence, quantum computing, synthetic biology, all of which have implications for national security, some of which people say, well, we should—we should slow it down, we should hand it over to some international organizations who approve. What lessons do you take from that period of time and Wallace’s position of the pros and the cons about how we should deal with current technological issues?

STEIL: Well, official U.S. atomic policy at that time—so now we’re talking about 1946—is the so-called Baruch Plan. So Bernard Baruch, a financier, comes from the right of the Democratic Party, is appointed head of the U.S. delegation to the new U.N. Atomic Energy Commission. And the Baruch Plan is mainly based on work that had already been done by others, but in particular Dean Acheson and David Lilienthal. And it was a really genuinely serious effort to come to grips with the sort of problems you’re describing. And they laid out a phased plan by which the United States would progressively turn over scientific knowledge in the atomic energy space and disarm, in return for which the Soviets in particular—but of course, others would have to agree to this as well—would submit to international inspection by the U.N.—by the—by the new U.N.

Now, Oppenheimer and other scientists were very skeptical about Baruch, but in the end there wasn’t great difference between Baruch’s plan and what these scientists were endorsing. But Wallace’s views were really quite radical. It’s not just that he endorsed the Soviet proposal, which was that they would never submit to international inspections because they were a violation of Soviet sovereignty; but that the U.S. should begin disarming unilaterally. And the Soviet position was that the—was to mischaracterize the American position; that is, the Americans would keep it entirely at their discretion as to when they would begin to hand over knowledge and put their weapons into escrow. This was completely wrong. It was not the U.S. position, even though Wallace was saying it was in public. And I dug to find out where he got it from, and I found it in an article in Pravda in June of 1946. Now—

FROMAN: Excellent source of information on—(laughter)—U.S. policy.

STEIL: After reading this article, I was gobsmacked. But then I also came across the private notes of the New York Times journalist who interviewed him around that time, and Wallace himself referred to that Pravda article. He probably hadn’t read it himself. He never dealt with details on his own; he left those to his subordinates, who were on the whole—

FROMAN: Most of whom were Soviet agents.

STEIL: They were CPUSA members—in some cases open CPUSA members, in some cases a concealed one. But his main advisor was a man named Harry Magdoff, who was a Soviet agent who had handed over Wallace’s private Cabinet papers on atomic energy to the Soviet(s). He wrote Wallace’s position papers on atomic energy, and they were based on this article in Pravda. And it really did undercut the U.S. negotiating position to have a Cabinet secretary coming out and contradicting the head of the U.N. delegation in terms of what the U.S. policy was.

So the Baruch Plan was a serious attempt, in my view, to internationalize the problem of controlling atomic energy for military use. It failed. It was inevitable that it was going to fail, as we know now, because Stalin was absolutely determined to get his bomb. And he was, I know from the Soviet archival material I’ve read, simply using the U.N. negotiations as a stall tactic.

But you bring up a very good question with regard to today. The world has shrunk so much, and so these types of issues are becoming more and more important. And some form of international control is essential. We saw that in global health recently with the pandemic. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal recently about how a Chinese scientist had mapped the COVID-19 virus two weeks before the Chinese government revealed this information to the World Health Organization. We really have to do better than that at an international level if we’re going to control the most devastating potential aspects of globalization.

FROMAN: You just said something in passing that I want to flesh out for our members here. There are previous biographies of Wallace, but this one is unique because of the sources that you had access to. Tell us about those sources and what different perspective they gave on Henry Wallace.

STEIL: In my last book, as you know, it had been an historical narrative on the Marshall Plan, and that was based overwhelmingly on new Soviet archival material that I had unearthed in Moscow. And in that material, I wasn’t looking for it, but I found some tidbits about Wallace’s role in the Marshall Plan. So I had an inkling that there might be something there. I had no idea it was an absolute goldmine. The two main Russian state political archives, known as ABPRF (ph) and RGASPI—they’re quite well-known among Soviet scholars in the United States—had material that had apparently never been seen before, fascinating material relevant to Wallace. And also, there was archival material that I had not known anything about. For example, there’s Nicholas Roerich museum. Nicholas Roerich was Wallace’s White Russian guru in the 1930s. There is a Roerich museum in Russia, and they have archives on the connection between the two of them, which was—that material was literally just jaw-dropping.

FROMAN: You had some FBI wiretaps, as well, the counterintelligence wiretaps.

STEIL: Yeah. So just one more closing comment about the Russian archives. These are totally inaccessible today, so I could not write the book today. In February of 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the work that the Soviet—Russian archival specialist was doing for me, sending me back these documents, became retroactively criminalized. She’s in her seventies now and had to flee the country. I mean, it’s a really very, very sad—

FROMAN: Serious.

STEIL: Serious story.

With regard to the FBI archives, two books ago I had written an historical narrative on Bretton Woods, and I had made my first Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI for any material they had on Harry Dexter White, who was a major Soviet asset, and they gave me thirteen thousand pages. (Laughter.)

FROMAN: All heavily redacted, or not redacted?

STEIL: Redacted.


STEIL: Absolutely redacted, but there was still plenty of very valuable material in there. I found eighteen Soviet intelligence cables that had been intercepted and decoded by U.S. military intelligence that mentioned White under his various codenames and his activities on their behalf. So I already was familiar with those archives, and I thought they could be useful here, and they were incredibly useful. And the reason is that so many of the people under Wallace at Commerce—so this is from April of ’45 to September of ’46, when Truman fires him—were Soviet agents or assets, and were being carefully monitored by the FBI. So when I would see Wallace taking positions that I didn’t understand—you know, why is he saying this; where does he get his numbers—I would just go to the FBI archives and look around those dates for the people under him like Magdoff. Their phones were being tapped. They were being followed. And the material was very enlightening. It would explain exactly why Wallace was saying what he was saying when he was saying it.

FROMAN: One of the things that actually left me with a question after reading the book is Wallace starts off in his career being quite anti-communist, right, and particularly from sort of a religious perspective called them godless and was very much in that camp.

STEIL: Yeah.

FROMAN: Then he becomes a total communist and Soviet sympathizer, including going on this kind of remarkable journey through Siberia of seeing a number of, literally, Potemkin villages and reporting back that the Soviet Union’s got all the answers now to all of the world’s problems. Then reverting again later on to being a Cold Warrior and sort of buying into the—

STEIL: Yeah.

FROMAN: What does this say about him that he goes from anti-communist to pro-communist? I mean, is it—is it, like, a state of mind, or his mental process? What do you think accounts for the fact that he—

STEIL: His views are very volatile throughout his career, but he also would—even when his views were consistent, he would often make completely contradictory arguments to support them. And it never bothered him when these were pointed out, right? (Laughter.) I say it in the book. For him, you know, arguments supporting a position were like the clothes we change every day. We may change our clothes, but it doesn’t make us any less righteous. And Wallace, to himself, was the ultimate righteous man, and he could change his arguments. It didn’t affect the fact that his positions were righteous, and he believed given to him by a higher authority.

With regard to the Soviets, it’s really quite interesting. Yes, in the 1920s he was very critical of the Soviets, in particular because he thought the Bolsheviks were godless and he was a religious, very spiritual man—in an unconventional way, but nonetheless very much God-fearing. But he was utterly fascinated with Stalin’s experiments with agricultural collectivization. He knew that there were some human rights issues surrounding him.

FROMAN: As I recall, that collectivization didn’t work out so well, right?

STEIL: No. But he argued that, you know, it was worth it because the Soviets are making major advances in agriculture and it’s going to improve the living standards of the country. And he believed these were the sort of reforms we needed in the United States but couldn’t pursue them because of our messy democratic processes. Now, he didn’t want to get rid of democracy, but he was nonetheless fascinated with a country that he was convinced was run fundamentally by technocrats who were pursuing agricultural reforms and other reforms in the public interest.

Now, with regard to 1933, when he opposes vociferously FDR’s recognition of the Soviet Union, that baffled me, too, when I started writing the book. And I discovered exactly where that came from. As you know having read the book, during that period he was in the thrall of his Russian guru, who in ’34 he sends off on an expedition in Central Asia in theory to search for drought-resistant seeds; in reality to recreate the mythical or legendary Shambhala in Central Asia. Nicholas Roerich is going to create a new theocratic state in Central Asia. And Roerich himself is a very volatile character, and at some points in his career he’s anti-Bolshevik; in other times in his career, he’s pro-Bolshevik when he thinks that he can manipulate the Soviets into supporting his endeavors. In this particular period, he’s absolutely anti-Bolshevik and he issues orders from India to Wallace in Washington that he is to oppose American recognition of the Soviet Union with every fiber of his body. And he does. He argues with FDR that this is not in the American interest. First, it will lead to spiritual decay in the United States; and, second, that it’s terrible as a matter of economics to have anything to do with them.

Once he breaks with the Roerichs in ’35, this changes dramatically and he becomes very close to the Soviet(s). When he loses his presidential election race in 1948—he doesn’t just lose; becomes not the third-party candidate, but the fourth-party candidate, getting fewer votes than the Dixiecrat segregationist Strom Thurmond—he turns violently against the American communists and the Soviets, who he believes have, like Nicholas Roerich, let him down. And so he begins evolving his views on the Soviet Union once again.

FROMAN: So let’s talk about that election, 1948. There’s an active effort by the Soviet Union to work with Wallace to shape the outcome of the election. Wallace writes an open letter to Stalin and Stalin replies, sort of suggesting that if—

STEIL: Kabuki play, all kind of scripted.

FROMAN: —yeah, that’s right—that if—that if Wallace is elected perhaps a cold war can be avoided. Is this the first instance of foreign interference in an election? (Laughter.) Any lessons we should learn?

STEIL: It’s not the first, even for the Soviets. So I did some digging in this area and found that it started in 1924, when they became fascinated by the Independent Progressive Party campaign of “Fighting Bob” La Follette on a platform of nationalizing key American industries and ending American imperialism abroad. The Soviets become quite fascinated with this movement, and they begin covertly financing the CPUSA in the United States, and issue them instructions to start infiltrating progressive organizations throughout the United States. And the Progressive Party that Wallace comes to lead in 1948 is basically—the whole apparatus of the organization is controlled by the CPUSA under instructions in some cases directly from Moscow. This doesn’t mean that there weren’t progressives within this new party who were genuinely democratic progressives, but they were not influencing the movement.

What’s unique about 1948 is that this collusion, as it were, was initiated entirely by Henry Wallace, not by the Soviet(s). What I discovered in the Soviet archives is that in March of 1948 Wallace, who knows the U.N.—Soviet U.N. ambassador, Andrei Gromyko, doesn’t contact him directly, but uses a secret intermediary, the Czech U.N. ambassador, whose name is Hudak (ph), and starts sending documents to Gromyko through Hudak (ph). Hudak (ph) arranges private meetings with Gromyko, at which Wallace says that he wants to come to this grand agreement with Stalin to end the Cold War. Gromyko says, well, what do you want in this agreement? And this is where the jaw-dropping stuff comes in. Wallace says: I don’t care. Comrade Stalin can lay this out. And so Stalin does an enormous amount of the writing of the conditions that will be in the agreement. He edits some of Wallace’s conditions. I have documentary proof that I put in the book. He’s a little smarter than Wallace politically, and sends—(laughter)—sends back a memo to Gromyko saying, the meeting that Wallace wants is not a good idea, OK?

FROMAN: Who wanted to then go see Stalin.

STEIL: Wallace wanted to go to Moscow to meet Stalin in—

FROMAN: During a political campaign, right?

STEIL: During a presidential campaign. It’s just wild.

FROMAN: That’s not a good look.

STEIL: And Stalin says, not a good idea. (Laughter.) But he says—he says a letter—a statement, he said, would be—would be fine, and with Stalin’s approval; he talks about himself in the third person. So Wallace writes this open letter with Stalin’s assistance. He reads it before a crowd of nineteen thousand at Madison Square Garden on May 11, 1948. And one week later, like clockwork, Stalin issues his official statement endorsing it.

Now, it doesn’t help Wallace’s campaign in the last. (Laughter.) At this point, the American public has turned staunchly against the Soviets. They feel on the whole—I refer to a lot of opinion polls at the time—that Truman is not being nearly tough enough. So this doesn’t, in fact, help Wallace. But there’s never been a clearer case in U.S. history of a violation of the 1799 Logan Act.

FROMAN: Logan Act, right. (Laughter.)

So political scientists often debate the relative importance of the individual leader versus the bureaucracy or the nation-state as determining outcomes in international relations. Had Wallace been elected, do you think he would have been able to, as you say, turn the ship on all of these issues? Or do you think the deep state, the bureaucracy, would have prevented him from driving the U.S. off the ledge?

STEIL: Well, there’s no doubt that there would have been enormous bipartisan resistance to many of his initiatives in Congress. So, for example, Wallace, who had initially endorsed the Marshall Plan, turned violently against it when Stalin did. There would have been no Marshall Plan. But instead of the Marshall Plan, Wallace wanted a $50 billion—this is in current dollars $650 billion—U.S. reconstruction aid package to be entirely controlled by the United Nations, no U.S. control; we just give $650 billion to the U.N., and they’re going to distribute that money, and it’s going to go mainly to the victims of Nazi aggression, who of course are primarily the Soviets. So we would have given, under Wallace’s plan, in current dollars hundreds of billions of dollars to the Soviet Union. Needless to say, this was going nowhere in Congress. So, obviously, there were going to be—

FROMAN: Some checks and balances.

STEIL: —effective checks and balances.

Nonetheless, look, as we learned from the Trump years, the executive in this country is very powerful. And particularly in foreign policy, often the executive can pretty much do as it pleases until the legislature or the judiciary stands up and says, no, no, no, we’re going to try to stop you.

And so I think the problems with a Wallace presidency would have been primarily those of inaction. We know that Stalin coveted Hokkaido, the entire Korean Peninsula, northern Iran where he had troops after the war, Turkey and the Turkish straits at Dardanelles, Greece, and Germany. We can pretty much assume that all of those would have been lost by the end of Wallace’s first term. So there’s no doubt—and Wallace himself says this in his retirement: I would not have been elected in 1948, but by 1948 the world would have really changed beyond recognition. So the Cold War would still have happened, but we would have started fighting it with a new president at a very distinct disadvantage.

FROMAN: Yeah. Last question before I open it up, so everyone get ready with your questions. You’re a political economist. This is not a book about political economy. What drove you to spend four years of your life writing this book?

STEIL: Well, actually, I’m a financial economist.

FROMAN: Financial. Excuse me, financial.

STEIL: Yeah. I actually wrote my Ph.D. thesis on optimal hedging strategies. So you can see a nice linear path—

FROMAN: I’m waiting for—I’m waiting for the movie here.

STEIL: (Laughs.) So it was John Lewis Gaddis at Yale, the Cold War historian, who convinced me while I was writing the Marshall Plan book that this should be next on my agenda. Initially, I thought that was—that was kind of nuts and probably not up my alley. But by the time I finished that book, I was really excited about doing something again with a biographical element, as I had with the Bretton Woods book.

Let me just push back a little on the notion that this is not a book about political economy. Fundamentally I was interested, fascinated with this period in the 1940s when the United States is at the apex of its political, economic, and military power in the world, and all the different visions that it could have pursued for a world order. And so I really considered this book to be the third in a trilogy on the political economy of this period.

If I think about my favorite political biographers—Robert Caro, who wrote, of course, Lyndon Johnson’s biography, and Robert Moses’; Steve Kotkin, who has written Stalin’s biography. These two men were driven fundamentally by an interest in the concept of power—where it came from, how it was developed, how it was used—and I think that’s why their books are so compelling because there is an underlying passion that is separate from the individuals.

Now I’ll leave it to readers to judge, but I wanted to tell a story about the political economy of the 1940s through this absolutely fascinating human being, and I think if you put together a compelling story about, you know, why are we where we are today, if you put it together with a fascinating historical figure like Henry Wallace, you’ve really got an interesting, interesting book.

FROMAN: And a compelling one.

All right, let’s open it up for questions here. Right here in the front row.

Mic is coming to you; please identify yourself.

Q: Benn, Ricardo Tavares from Google. Thank you so much for your writing because it’s—you write well, and you write about things that are very important which makes it really interesting and easy to read because you attract us like a novel.

And my question is in your book about Bretton Woods, you described how the top Treasury negotiator on behalf of the United States in that conference was a Soviet agent. Now you come up with a book that shows how strong Soviet influence was over a vice president of the United States.

What do you think made Soviet spying so effective in that period? Is it because the U.S. and the Soviet Union were allies against Nazi Germany? Or the focus—the fact that they had—when they organized their spy agents, were we organizing ours? So what—I would love to get your thoughts on this.

STEIL: A few things I would say. First of all, a fascinating thing I discovered in writing the book—that Wallace, if he had become president—either on FDR’s death or if he had been elected in his own right—would almost certainly have made Lawrence Duggan, from the State Department, secretary of state, and Harry Dexter White secretary of the treasury. Both of these men, if not agents, were major Soviet assets; in particular, Harry Dexter White, so this was really—they would have penetrated at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

Why were they successful? Well, figures like Harry Dexter White were quite typical in the U.S. government at that time. They were either first or second generation; in many cases, immigrants from the old Russian empire, and they were not mainly pro-Bolshevik or pro-communist so much as anti-czarist because of the conditions under which their families had left Europe. So they wanted to believe—desperately to believe that the Soviet Union was—with all the mistakes they were making in certain areas—were moving towards a model of what Wallace called economic democracy that was superior to ours. So they were romantics in this regard. And the Soviets worked through people like that.

Now Harry Dexter White would never have acknowledged that he did anything wrong because he really didn’t believe he did anything wrong. Did he know that he’d done things that were illegal? Almost certainly yes. But he felt that he was defending true American national interest against the Republican isolationists, the reactionary Catholic hierarchy, people who were keeping the country back. They really did believe this.

The Soviets themselves were not great spies in the United States. They depended on people like this. Their network really began collapsing in late 1945 when Elizabeth Bentley, who was an American spy for the Soviets, walked into an FBI office and said, I’ve been spying. Initially she gave them a cockamamie story about Soviet spying going on that the FBI thought, you know, we’ve got bigger fish to fry. But then when she said, I’m a spy, they started paying attention, and then she started naming names—dozens and dozens and dozens of names. And that’s when I discovered, when I wrote the Bretton Woods book, that the only reason that Harry Dexter White did not become the first U.S. IMF managing director was because Hoover threatened to expose the fact that White was an agent. So we gave it to the Europeans, and the Europeans still run the IMF to this day—(laughter)—because of the spy scandal.

FROMAN: Unintended consequences.

STEIL: After that, the Soviet spy network in the United States literally collapsed almost overnight, so that by the time we get to ’48 and the presidential campaign, they are really flying blind. And you see people in Moscow, like Molotov, who really start entertaining romantic visions that maybe this—maybe this Wallace guy could actually win. And that’s because they are not getting back good information from the United States anymore.

FROMAN: Interesting. This gentleman on the fourth row.

Q: Stephen Blank.

Benn, one more task from you is enough already—(laughs)—you’re killing me.

You had mentioned, talked about the power of the executive, but Wallace wasn’t really a chief executive in the sense of being elected. When Truman became president after Roosevelt died, he knew very little about what was going on, but he had his own bunch of friends he played cards with in the Senate. He knew how that worked.

Did anyone—did Wallace have any support—political support in the Senate, in the administration if he had become president?

STEIL: The short answer is no. When he was vice president from ’41 to ’44, he alienated everyone in the Senate—both parties. He couldn’t stand the Senate. So his predecessor, John Nance Garner, was a real creature of the Senate. He spent his day having boozy meals with senators in his office, and to make sure that the convivialities wouldn’t get interrupted, he installed a urinal in a corner of his office. As you can imagine, there was only one sex involved in these particular wet meals.

Now as soon as Wallace comes into office, he destocks the bar—there’s going to be no drinking in his office—and he gets rid of the urinals. And senators like the junior senator from Missouri, Harry Truman, don’t like coming to visit the vice president anymore. Nobody wants to deal with this guy.

Wallace hated the Senate. He hated presiding there. He spent as little time there as possible. He used to send surrogates to preside. So by the time we get to ’44 and the wild, open convention, Wallace has really burned all his political capital in Washington. He really has very few supporters left.

FROMAN: Let’s go to an online question, and then we’ll come back to the room.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Avis Bohlen. Ms. Bohlen, please accept the “unmute now” prompt.

Q: Yes. Thank you. Thank you so much. This is fascinating.

I wonder how much—FDR was obviously aware of what Wallace was doing, from FBI reports, and how much of a factor was that in his decision not to carry Wallace forward as vice president?

STEIL: FDR would have known very little from the FBI. Of course, Hoover had thrown out charges from time to time that Wallace was too close to the Soviets, but FDR didn’t take that particularly seriously. However, the DNC leadership was absolutely united against Wallace going into 1944, and they could see from Roosevelt’s gaunt, graying face that there was no way he was going to survive a fourth term, so whoever was vice president was going to become president. And they launched a full-court press to convince him to take somebody else.

Truman was their preferred candidate, along many dimensions, but they would have accepted others. Roosevelt, for example, was very fond of Jimmy Byrnes from South Carolina. Wallace was neither his first nor second choice in 1940; he wanted Cordell Hall first, Jimmy Byrnes second. He was happy—FDR was happy to run with Byrnes in 1944.

But the DNC leadership was absolutely convinced that, whoever it was, it couldn’t be Henry Wallace. FDR accepted this argument, but he was not able, as you know from the book, to look Wallace in the face and say, you’re out.

FROMAN: He had a really interesting leadership style—FDR—of basically not making any decisions—

STEIL: Right.

FROMAN: —or telling people any bad news.


FROMAN: No, I’m trying to apply that here at the Council. (Laughter.)

STEIL: FDR actually endorsed—FDR endorsed four separate people in four separate ways for vice president in 1944, and this produced complete chaos—

FROMAN: At the convention.

STEIL: —at the convention.

FROMAN: Yeah, the opening scene of the book is this chaotic moment of people rushing to the podium at the convention—including Claude Pepper who I remember. He was a senator—

STEIL: Yeah, Red Pepper as they called him.

FROMAN: —in the ’70s, yeah, exactly.

Let me just—this gentleman on the aisle.

Q: Well, thank you—look forward to reading the book.

I have a question. My name is Albert Knapp. I’m professor of medicine at NYU Langone.

My question is in regard to Henry Wallace the geneticist. What was his opinion on Lysenko, favorite geneticist?

STEIL: What’s my opinion on—

Q: His opinion on Lysenko.

STEIL: What is Lysenko? Oh, oh! What was his views?

Q: Stalin’s corn geneticist.

FROMAN: Ah, corn geneticist.

STEIL: I don’t know the answer to that question.

Q: OK.

STEIL: I really don’t.

FROMAN: Gentleman right next to you. Here we are—here.

Q: Hi. Phillip Ellison.

Mr. Steil, given that Harry Truman knew virtually nothing about the Manhattan Project until he became president, do you think that Wallace knew something about it through his intermediaries, and then would he have made a different decision about using the bomb in Japan and accepting the alternative of an invasion?

STEIL: Well, Wallace was part of Roosevelt’s so-called Top Policy Group, in 1941, so these were five individuals who really had primary advisory responsibilities with regard to what became the Manhattan Project. And Wallace was completely supportive of developing atomic weapons.

By 1942, the military had basically taken over the project, and Wallace is, for the most part, in the dark about it. He himself, looking back on his career, likes to highlight his role, but it was really very minimal after 1942.

However, it’s important to note that Wallace never, in any way, expressed any reservations about developing the bomb or dropping the bomb. And it’s actually quite disturbing reading his diaries. In August of 1945 when we dropped two bombs, there’s almost nothing about it. He says almost nothing in cabinet about it, and when he is asked in his oral history in the early 1950s what his views were, he said, ah, I can’t really recall how I felt at the time—which was really quite typical of Wallace.

I explain early on in the book, I think if he were alive today, he would be diagnosed with Asperger’s. He really has great difficulty empathizing with human beings, though he is often presented by his supporters as being a great pacifist. He’s not. He was all in favor of killing as many Japanese and Germans as possible in the service of winning the war as early as possible, and never expressed any reservations whatsoever about using the bomb.

He gets passionately interested in the issue of atomic energy control once this becomes a live issue between Stalin and the Truman administration, beginning in late 1945. And then, as you know, he starts advocating for the Soviet position, and starts attacking what he calls fascist elements in the U.S. military and the State Department.

FROMAN: The gentleman in the back.

Q: My name is Dan Altman.

What you just said actually reminded me of one of the first times I was exposed to Henry Wallace, which was this Netflix documentary from Oliver Stone, “The Untold History of the United States.” And I know—I know Oliver Stone has, you know, his own complexities about his perspective, but in that documentary, Henry Wallace is presented as this great protagonist that could have taken the course of history in a different, more pacifist direction.

And I’m curious to hear maybe what you thought of that overall perspective. It seems like maybe, based on what you just said, that’s kind of fantastical or fanciful.

STEIL: So I talk about Oliver Stone and his documentary—(laughter)—in the first chapter of my book.

FROMAN: Do you use air quotes or—

STEIL: (Laughs.) If I could have illustrated my air quotes, I would have. But he was definitely one of the—one of the main reasons I wound up writing this book. John Lewis Gaddis, at Yale, who was trying to persuade me that this was an important project, said, you would not believe how influential Oliver Stone has been with his very intelligent, thoughtful undergraduate students who really believe that if Henry Wallace had kept his rightful place on the ticket in 1944 and hadn’t been pushed off through bribes by this corrupt coterie of Catholic politicians at the Democratic convention, there would have been no Cold War.

So this counterfactual question really animated me. Is it true that there would have been no Cold War? My answer, as you know, is there would certainly have been a Cold War. It would have been one that we would have basically fought at a great disadvantage.

But there is one area in which I have strong agreement with Oliver Stone, and that is that individuals do matter. We are not just impersonal flotsam, you know, floating on the forces of history. The convention in ’44 could easily have gone the other way, and we would have had a very different president and a very, very different post-war history if Henry Wallace had been president.

So in that regard I thank Oliver Stone, you know. I would not have written this book if he had not made his documentary. (Laughter.)

FROMAN: Let’s go to another online question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Jeffrey Laurenti.

Q: Benn, was the 1948 Wallace campaign argued by the candidate and by his campaign strictly in foreign policy terms; that is, was that the face he presented which would fly in the face of usual American conventional wisdom that American voters vote on domestic policy had his issues on domestic policy—racial desegregation and gender and racial equality and all that—already been preempted by Truman? Did he ever connect with the unions and the other kind of Democratic organizing base? And how, after Truman’s unexpected election, did his views—if they changed at all—change in the years following?

STEIL: Well, Wallace gave himself enormous credit for having—by his account—moved Truman to the left during the campaign. I talk about that in the book. There really isn’t much evidence in that regard. Truman really repaired all the damage that had been done to his relations with the unions in 1946 when he vetoed Taft-Hartley.

FROMAN: Taft-Hartley.

STEIL: So that really undercut Wallace’s efforts to connect with unions on the basis of domestic policy. But the unions at the time, in 1948, were staunchly anti-communist, and so Wallace really alienated blue-collar workers around the country with his pro-Soviet position.

The most creditable aspect of Wallace’s campaign in ’48 was his week-long tour of the South in August of 1948 where, in town after town, he condemned racial segregation, and this took great courage at the time. He was being physically attacked with bats, with eggs. His car was being beaten. He could easily have been killed over the course of that week in the South. And I give him enormous credit for his willingness to stand up like that at a time when it wasn’t going to do him any electoral good whatsoever.

Having said that, his actual explanation for racial discrimination in the South were utterly insane. He claimed that White Southerners were in fact among the most progressive-minded people in the United States, and they were just being corrupted by venal Northern corporations. And this really infuriated White supremacists in the South—(laughter). They thought, this man is patronizing us. This is a time in American history when the phrase “White supremacy” was actually a badge of honor for many people. And they were furious that Wallace was saying, you know, these people, they’re just underfed. (Laughter.) They were ready and out to beat him up. They didn’t need any food whatsoever. They were absolutely furious.

And so, you know, Wallace, on the one hand, had absolutely noble convictions; on the other hand, his understanding for the social dynamics in the country at the time were just off the wall.

FROMAN: Footnote: Please see prior Council book of this month by Jacob Ware and Bruce Hoffman, God, Guns, and Sedition, a history of right-wing extremism in the United States that talks about the rise of White supremacy in the South from the reconstruction on.

This gentleman here on the aisle, and then back there on the second level.

Q: Adrian Karatnycky with the Atlantic Council.

So I want to go back to the—like, the Venona Papers. I don’t know if you had a chance—

STEIL: Sure.

Q: —to think through the chronology of this, but by ’43 Signal Intelligence has broken the Russian ciphers, and there’s a lot of data coming—’43, ’44—that isn’t—apparently that isn’t shared with the president, and I know that it’s not even shared with the president through like 1950.

What happened—

STEIL: Hoover didn’t know a lot of it.

Q: Sorry?

STEIL: Hoover himself didn’t know a lot of it.

Q: Yeah, but who made that—is it the Army that made this decision? I mean, they were sitting on it. Were they analyzing this? Do you—

STEIL: Yeah, U.S. military intelligence was very afraid that if they told the president, it would get out. So they were anxious to learn as much as they possibly could by continuing to decode these cables before they started letting others in the administration know that this information was there.

So the president was really flying blind. When Hoover made his allegations against Harry Dexter White, for example, he had no idea about the Venona Decrypts. These decrypts actually continued on until I believe the early 1980s. We didn’t crack the first codes I believe until 1946, after the war. So this was very tightly held within the U.S. government.

FROMAN: The gentleman there.

Q: Hi. Thomas Gargiulo.

So you mentioned Wallace as a man who changed his views significantly over time, and if you think about, you know, politicians today, if they change their views it can be seen as like a political ploy, right—trying to win favor with the electorate or whatnot. But it also seems like everything you’ve said—everything he has said has been pretty unpopular. So is everything he’s doing—is anything he’s doing really a political move, or was he just a man of conviction who just changed his views and was maybe volatile in his views—or was that anything political?

STEIL: There’s no doubt that he didn’t have great political sense, but he definitely believed that the positions that he took at various points in time were in his political interest. So, for example, in 1948, he’s trying desperately to distinguish himself from Truman, and he’s out to convince the country that there would be no Cold War except for Harry Truman; this is all the fault of Harry Truman. So when Stalin initially vacillates on how to react to the Marshall Plan, Wallace does, too. He does this sort of dance with Stalin from across the Atlantic—which way will Stalin go. Once Stalin comes out and says this is American imperialism, Wallace stands up and mimics it.

Now you could—you could say, well, was this politics or was this his conviction. For him there was no distinction. He was—he was taking his orders essentially from Moscow, but because he believed that this would help him convince the American public that if he were elected president there would be no Cold War.

Of course, after he gets crushed in the election—he gets barely 1 percent of the vote—in fact, 37 percent of his total vote came from New York City alone—(laughter)—really remarkable, this city.

FROMAN: All from the Upper West Side, is that—(laughter)—

STEIL: And the communists in The Bronx.

After he loses, he then tries to recreate himself as a mediator between the U.S. administration and the Soviets. The Soviets don’t take him seriously at this point, and Stalin issues orders we’re not dealing with this guy anymore.

He sends back a cable saying, let Wallace screw around as he likes. At that point, Wallace is deeply offended that these people have let him down. He personalizes everything. The American communists have let him down, the Soviets have let him down, and he is just looking for a pretext to cut links with these people. And he finds it in 1950 with the North Korean invasion of the South. Suddenly he turns completely against the Soviet Union, he resigns his leadership of the Progressive Party. He says—actually presciently, he didn’t have any of the documents that I have access to today that the invasion was initiated by Stalin to get the United States and China into war with each other. This was absolutely true.

Once he abandons what I call Jamesian belief in the book—he is a devotee of William James, who argued that it is sometimes rational to believe without any evidence. (Laughter.) Once he abandons this—again, because he feels that he has been personally offended—he starts thinking quite rationally about the world and shows himself to be a very perspicacious observer of things going on in the world. For example, you know, he was a great agricultural geneticist. He starts arguing that China is going soon enough to become the dominant force in the world, and he predicts their population today almost perfectly. He is really a quite remarkably intelligent human being who just suffers from certain psychological battles. (Laughter.)

FROMAN: That’s a great note to end on. (Laughter.)

Benn, thank you. It’s a great read. (Applause.) Thank you for sharing with us. (Applause.)

And for those—for those in the room, there’s a cocktail reception in the back. We hope you join us for it. Thank you.


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