Henry Wallace -- complex and decent

April 09, 2000|By Jules Witcover | By Jules Witcover,Sun Staff

"American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace," by John C. Culver and John Hyde. W.W. Norton and Co. 608 pages. $35.

History on the whole has not been kind to Henry A. Wallace, the Iowa agricultural pioneer who became Franklin D. Roosevelt's second vice president, was unceremoniously passed over for Harry Truman in FDR's fourth-term bid and wound up a failed and much-maligned third-party presidential candidate in 1948.

He has been called a mystic and a crackpot, removed from the line of presidential succession just in time to save the country from disastrous consequences at the end of World War II and in the Cold War that followed. He was pilloried as a dupe of Russian communism who staunchly advocated friendship and accommodation with the Soviet Union even as the Kremlin was dropping the Iron Curtain over Eastern Europe.

This biography by a pair of Iowans, former U.S. Sen. John Culver and former Des Moines Register reporter John Hyde, provides a much more balanced examination of a man who made immense contributions to U.S. and global farming and also strove mightily to put the United States on a conciliatory rather than a confrontational course in the post-Nazism years.

Wallace was indeed a "dreamer," a man who contemplated an idealistic America of material bounty and a basic trust in human goodness. It was an outlook that scared many of his contemporaries after World War II when Stalin left off being "Uncle Joe" and became the embodiment of communist butchery and expansionism.

But Culver and Hyde go a long way toward dispelling the reputation of Wallace as a naive country cousin who somehow wandered onto the national political stage, in over his head. The expansion of the Department of Agriculture under him and his epic fights with conservative bureaucrat Jesse Jones to bring efficiency to wartime American production showed him to be a fierce and imaginative Washington in-fighter.

For all of Wallace's altruism, he was a man of burning personal ambition who in his service under FDR, and later as a member of the Truman cabinet, was determined to play a leadership role, particularly in foreign policy.

The story of how Wallace was shoved aside for Truman on the 1944 Democratic ticket has been told often before, but not with the detail and focus on Wallace as presented here. He is described as a man so deceived by FDR that he concluded the president was suffering from "a sick mind." Yet he stuck with him loyally in his quest for a fourth term.

The advent of the Cold War produced Wallace's clear world vision in some respects and his abysmally faulty foresight in others. He warned correctly of the folly of trying to maintain a monopoly on nuclear technology but seemed blind to the geopolitical aggrandizement of Soviet communism and of the influence of communists in his own last-gasp bid for the presidency.

In the end, Henry Wallace was widely seen as one who, out of his own good intentions and naivete, had lost his way. This biography provides evidence of a much more complex and determined man of aspirations and achievement who warrants a higher place in the nation's history than his shortcomings have so far dictated.

Jules Witcover writes a syndicated column with Jack Germond from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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