Peanut Butter Knife

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Know Your New Dealers: Henry A. Wallace

Cross posted at Unbossed

This post is the first in what I hope to be an occasional series on the key figures of the New Deal. Much as people today forget the sacrifices that labor gave in order for us to enjoy our current standard of living, there were also good people in government fighting for things that we now take for granted.

Name:Henry Agard Wallace (1888-1965)

Birthplace: Orient, IA

Positions Held:Secretary of Agriculture (1933-41), Vice President (1941-45), Secretary of Commerce (1945-46)

Early Years: Wallace hailed from a prominent Iowa farming family, who's name is still important today, through the publication of Wallace's Farmer magazine. His father, Henry C. Wallace was Agriculture Secretary in the Harding administration. In addition to serving as editor of Wallace's Farmer, Henry A. also experimented a great deal with seed hybrids, leading to the founding of the Pioneer Hy-Bred Corporation. Wallace's innovations in hybrid forms of corn would revolutionize agriculture in the 20th century.

New Deal: Despite being from a Republican family, Henry A. Wallace had become disillusioned with the party and its obsession with free-markets during the Coolidge and Hoover years. He campaigned for Democrat Al Smith in 1928 and served as FDR's advisor on agricultural issues during the 1932 campaign which led to his appointment as Ag. Secretary in 1933. Wallace was a committed New Dealer and saw in the New Deal a way towards accomplishing many of the agricultural reforms he had advocated as editor of Wallace's Farmer throughout the 20s.

Wallace headed up several New Deal administrations, most notably the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), which sought to end surplus production and promote a more collectivist mentality among American farmers. In addition, Wallace also promoted the idea of an "ever-normal granary" which stockpiled agricultural resources to insure against the negative effects of drought or other agricultural disasters. The USDA expanded quickly under Wallace's watch, but despite it's size, was often praised for its efficiency. Wallace broadened the USDA's scope to include several programs which endure today such as food stamps and a school lunch program.

Vice Presidency: Wallace's term as Vice President coincided with WWII and he took an active role in preparing the country for war, overseeing the Economic Defense Board (EDB) and the Supply Priorities and Allocations Board (SPAB), both of which sought to ramp up America's industrial output as the onset of war was looming. Wallace's scientific expertise was valued enough by FDR that he was also appointed to the secretive "Top Policy Group" which oversaw the development of the atomic bomb.

In addition, Wallace also began thinking about his vision of the post-war world, arguing that freedom and justice should be the ultimate goals once the Axis powers were defeated.

These roles were the most active any Vice President had been in history, as Wallace set the stage for the modern role of the Vice Presidency.

Post War: Party politics ousted Wallace from the VP slot at the 1944 convention, but Wallace's key role in FDR's administration was acknowledged in his appointment as Commerce Secretary. Disagreements with the conservatives in Truman's camp over Cold War policy would eventually lead to resignation in 1946. He worked for a time as an editor of The New Republic, championing liberal causes (imagine that!) before launching an ill-fated 3rd party bid for the presidency under the "Progressive" banner, though many sought to tie him (incorrectly) to communists.

With the presidential bid ended, Wallace returned to private life tending mostly to agricultural experiments on a farm in upstate New York. His views on the cold war moderated somewhat, Wallace didn't seem interested in reversing public opinion on him. Both Nixon and Kennedy sought his advice in the 1960 elections, and he was a special guest of JFK at his 1961 inaugural.

Key Quote: "To me a liberal is one who believes in using in a non-violent, tolerant and democratic way the forces of education, publicity, politics, economics, business, law and religion to direct the ever-changing and increasing power of science into channels which will bring peace and the maximum of well-being both spiritual and economic to the greatest number of human beings. A liberal knows that the only certainty in this life is change but believes that the change can be directed toward a constructive end." --from Liberalism Re-Appraised, 1953

Legacy: Though Wallace is probably exhibit A for anyone who wants to show that idealism and American politics are an incompatible relationship, Wallace also showed that idealism, when put to practical aims can have an impact on society. An ardent New Dealer, a believer in the power of collective action; Wallace was also a capitalist and an early advocate for free (but fair) trade. Wallace proved that these two trains of thought need not be antithetical to each other, that when our neighbors succeed, we succeed too.

Further Reading:

Selected Works of Henry A Wallace

The Life Of Henry A Wallace (a web bio)

American Dreamer by Sen. John Culver & John Hyde


  • At 11:03 AM, Blogger derek said…

    Great post!

    An informative look at a guy who flies under history's radar..


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