New Book Examines the Colorful and Tumultuous Political Career of Henry Wallace 

New Book Examines the Colorful and Tumultuous Political Career of Henry Wallace 

January 9, 2024 1:56 pm (EST)

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In a new book filled with political drama and intrigue, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Senior Fellow Benn Steil offers the richest and deepest biographical study to date of Henry A. Wallace—a “fascinating human being . . . who came within a whisker of becoming FDR’s successor at a critical crossroads in twentieth-century geopolitics.” Unearthing shocking facets of Wallace’s foreign-policy initiatives, most related to Russia and China, Steil shows the agriculturist-turned-politician to be “not just naïve, but at times reckless and lacking in candor.”  

Few Democratic conventions have been as contentious as that of 1944, the one in which vice president Henry Wallace narrowly lost his bid to join an ailing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth-term election ticket. This convention, in which Harry S. Truman won the vice presidential nomination, “has since become the subject of legend,” giving rise to impassioned speculation over how history might have unfolded had Wallace won—and thereby become president upon FDR’s death in 1945.  

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In what the Wall Street Journal has called a “definitive account”, The World That Wasn’t: Henry Wallace and the Fate of the American Century uses striking new Russian archival documents and FBI surveillance transcripts to paint a far less heroic picture of Wallace, and the world that might have been under his presidency, than that offered by previous chroniclers..   

A farm editor and path-breaking geneticist who arrived in Washington as secretary of agriculture, Wallace was “a most unlikely politician”—one who “could almost certainly never have attained elective office other than as FDR’s running mate.” While highly intelligent, Wallace was in politics “credulous and dismissive of facts and evidence,” Steil contends. He had “a messianic streak that blinded him to failings and contradictions in his logic,” and that left him vulnerable “to the manipulation of his aides—many of whom were Soviet agents and assets.”  

At each stage of his career, Wallace undertook remarkable interventions abroad—including his “appointment of a White Russian mystic with a revolutionary agenda to lead an expedition to Central Asia in 1934,” his “rash freelance diplomacy with Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek” in 1944, and his “backchannel collusion with [Joseph] Stalin . . . in the presidential election of 1948.” Each was aimed at remaking the world order according to his ever-evolving spiritual and geopolitical beliefs. 

Steil counters the narrative popularized by filmmaker Oliver Stone that “a Wallace presidency would . . . have meant no Cold War.” Bringing to bear copious new primary-source evidence, Steil argues that Soviet leader Stalin valued not “peace” but “the opportunities that a passive United States afforded him to expand his empire.” A Wallace presidency, Steil writes, “could only have resulted in a delayed Cold War.” Such delay would, however, “have come at great cost to U.S. security and economic interests.”

Steil, who directs the study of international economics at CFR, is an acclaimed economist-historian and the author of several prize-winning books, including The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War, The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order, and Money, Markets, and Sovereignty

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“If the colorful career of Henry Agard Wallace shows anything clearly,” Steil concludes, “it is this: that, as the ancient Stoic philosophers recognized, success in life requires conforming desires to realities. One can neither will corn to higher yields, nor will a dictator to compromise. Wallace accepted the former, and labored within the timeless laws of genetics; he denied the latter, and labored beyond the timeless principles of statesmanship. The results were predictable: success as agriculturist, failure as statesman.” 

Read more about The World That Wasn’t: Henry Wallace and the Fate of the American Century and order your copy at www.cfr.org/book/world-wasnt.   

To interview the author, please contact CFR Communications at 212.434.9888 or [email protected]

Praise for The World That Wasn’t:

“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 

“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

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