U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Henry A. Wallace, Scholarship, and Public Intellectuals

When Barack Obama published an article in JAMA (the journal of the American Medical Association) this past July, numerous outlets covered it as a basically unprecedented occurrence in the history of the Presidency. And it may well be, although the linked article does point to a couple of roughly similar prior instances.

One pertinent case of a high official publishing scholarly articles while in office was, however, left out. While holding various offices in FDR’s cabinet, including that of Vice President, Henry A. Wallace authored about a double handful of scholarly publications, and in a remarkably wide range of journals: Political Science Quarterly, Journal of the American Statistical Association, Science, Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, Journal of Farm Economics, American Political Science Review, and Public Administration Review. After his time in the FDR administration, he published (at least) two more articles—one in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and one in the Journal of General Education. This was in addition to his publication of about a dozen books—some of which, to be fair, were collections of campaign trail speeches. (He also for some of this time was keeping a diary which John Morton Blum later edited and published.) Wallace apparently got bored in 1963, and ended up reviewing two books for Agricultural History.

Now, certainly, it’s reasonable to assume that it’s easier to get something published when you’re a heartbeat away from the Presidency. But on the other hand, it seems clear that—unlike Obama’s paper—the intention behind these papers was to speak directly to specialists in the field, and really only to specialists. These are impressive journals, but one might question the judgment of someone who is trying to get the message out about a federal program by publishing a defense of it in the Journal of Farm Economics. And Wallace—right alongside these articles—also wrote frequently for journals of opinion like the New Republic (which he would later edit, from 1946-1948, when he stepped down to run for President) and for more middlebrow journals as well, so he was clearly astute about how to reach different audiences with different kinds of messages and different kinds of content. Even while serving as Secretary of Agriculture, then Vice President, and then Secretary of Commerce, Wallace also acted as both a scholar and a public intellectual—a remarkable trifecta.

I bring this up for a couple of reasons. First, I read and really enjoyed Erik Loomis’s very intelligent post on Wallace a few days ago at Lawyers, Guns, and Money. Loomis makes some great points about Wallace’s failed third-party campaign for President in 1948 and how historians and leftists—and especially leftist historians—have had great difficulty in putting the campaign in proper perspective and not distorting it by projecting their fantasies or resentments onto it. Wallace and the 1948 campaign reveal both how remarkably diverse and vital the left was even as late as 1947-48 but also how easily fractured that “left” was. It recalled to me Robert Zieger’s phrase for the CIO in its heyday—it was a “fragile juggernaut.” (Jefferson Cowie has picked up this term recently in The Great Exception.) But as we know from Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front, whatever held true for the CIO probably could be extended accurately to the Popular Front as a whole.

But I’m also writing a chapter right now on Wallace, and while Loomis’s post captures a lot of what is interesting and significant about Wallace, it also in my opinion plays into some (very longstanding) trends in the scholarly handling of Wallace that I hope to push back on in my work. (That’s absolutely not Loomis’s fault, and I really am thrilled that he wrote about him.)

The reason I think that pushing back on these trends is important is because I think it is precisely the Wallace-as-intellectual (in both an ivory tower and a public sense) that gets hidden or unremembered. I argue that Wallace is insufficiently appreciated for the sophistication of his thought, but the larger point is that even specialists in the New Deal seem to be oblivious to the fact that he thought, period.

So, here are a few of the problems I see with Wallace scholarship:

  • Intellectual histories of the New Deal—even some that are specifically about agriculture, where Wallace had his greatest impact—don’t really include Wallace in their narratives. He’s the boss of the USDA, sure, and the architect of the AAA, but his role is that of a manager, not a thinker or planner. Jess Gilbert’s recent work is a great correction here, but this sentence by Richard Kirkendall is somewhat indicative of the general trend: “Top administrators, especially Secretary Henry A. Wallace, also liked the service intellectual.” Wallace is counted as an administrator, not with the intellectuals.
  • Large-scale political histories of the New Deal, on the other hand, tend to marginalize Wallace completely, painting him as kind of an outsider in the FDR administration and in the New Deal as a whole—someone who didn’t really fit in with the Washington crowd. That may be somewhat accurate on an interpersonal, cocktail-party level, but Wallace was a considerable force in the New Deal—at least more so, I feel, than he is given credit for by political historians.
  • This oddball-ization of Wallace is most extensive in much of the biographical treatment of Wallace. Certainly it yields some colorful anecdotes about Wallace’s idiosyncratic habits, but fixation on Wallace’s very un-DC-like personality has led, I feel, to a kind of preemptive dismissal of Wallace as a political actor or intellectual influence on the other power-brokers and intellectual architects of the New Deal. Perhaps my own understanding of Wallace is colored by the recent treatment of Bernie Sanders—just because he seemed so out of place among the Beltway elite, it was presumed that he must be an ineffectual political actor. That judgment, I think, has a few problems with it.
  • One of the main exhibits in the dismissal of Wallace has long been his unusual, even rather exotic mysticism—or as Loomis put it, his penchant for “following weird religious charlatans who he let influence American policy.” There’s something to that charge, but it is worth saying that U.S. political figures who have been relatively open about the complexities of their religious thoughts and feelings generally have not been treated well by historians, especially not political historians—apart from those, like Kevin Kruse or Darren Dochuk whose research is directly about the interface of faith and politics. Politicians who confess to having an active spiritual life—one that includes extensive self-reflection and active “seeking” or exploration, rather than just a pro forma membership and attendance at a respectable Protestant church—are often treated with a peremptory suspicion. Political historians struggle with religious earnestness.
  • The historical Wallace seems condemned to be defined by the 1948 Presidential run, rather than his career as a member of FDR’s cabinet. And certainly, as Loomis shows so well, the 1948 campaign had very significant effects both in the short-tem for the left and in the longer-term for the party system; it’s absolutely not wrong to argue that Wallace’s failure in 1948 helped strengthen the two-party system by largely discrediting the idea of a third party in the U.S. Accusations of Communist infiltration in the Wallace campaign helped ratchet up the fear of Communists all over Washington; obviously that would have pretty significant consequences. But the reason Wallace was even running as a third candidate was because of who and what he was during FDR’s administration. By making 1948 so dominant, everything else in Wallace’s career is both overshadowed and foreshadowed by that year, and we can’t get an accurate understanding of his place in the intellectual and political contexts of, say, 1934 or 1942, by always thinking about 1948.

That’s quite a collection of pitfalls, and perhaps some will judge me as overcorrecting. But in some senses what I’m doing is not trying to add complications to what historians already see as a quite layered (though not often nuanced) portrait of a confusing and unique personality. What I am trying to do is find the Wallace who could be so remarkably productive, so deliberate and focused—not, as the title of the most recent bio has it, an “American Dreamer,” but an effective politician whose efficacy derived from his very real intellectual impact on his colleagues and even his opponents. Wallace the luftmensch ought to go.