The Shambhalic Henry Wallace

Henry Wallace! I have long thought that Roosevelt’s replacement of Wallace with Truman on the Democratic ticket in 1944 provided irrefutable proof that God looks out for the United States. Wallace was a fool who would have altered the course of history very much for the worse if he had succeeded Roosevelt to the presidency in 1945 instead of Truman.

Among other evidence of Wallace’s foolishness, one thinks of Wallace’s 1948 campaign that led him into an alliance with the Communists who were the backbone of the Progressive Party. Wallace was a fool for the Soviet Union. Suffering through the administration of Joe Biden, however, makes me think that God must be pretty detached from our politics.

Wallace has been the subject of many admiring books “celebrat[ing] his life and record, all in the same mold,” as Ronald Radosh put it in his 2012 Weekly Standard essay “A story told before” (see Radosh’s essay for “the story”). Radosh listed then recent books including leftist journalist Richard J. Walton’s Henry Wallace, Harry Truman and the Cold War, Communist historian Norman D. Markowitz’s The Rise and Fall of the People’s Century: Henry A. Wallace and American Liberalism, 1941-1948, a biography by Edward and Frederick Schapsmeier, Prophet in Politics: Henry A. Wallace and the War Years, Allen Yarnell’s Democrats and Progressives: The 1948 Presidential Election as a Test of Postwar Liberalism, and John C. Culver and John Hyde’s American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace.

Radosh observed: “So enamored of the Soviet Union was the vice president that in May 1944 he traveled to 22 cities in Soviet Siberia. There, the NKVD played Wallace for a fool. He described the slave labor colony of Magadan, which the Soviet secret police had transformed into a Potemkin village staffed by actors and NKVD personnel, as a ‘combination TVA and Hudson’s Bay Company.’”

William O’Neill provides a short course on this aspect of Wallace’s foolishness in Chapter VI of A Better World: The Great Schism: Stalinism and American Intellectuals (1983). Referring to Wallace’s Siberian trip, O’Neill cites Wallace’s book Soviet Asia Mission. Among other items O’Neill mentions, Wallace referred to prisoners of the Gulag’s Kolyma camp as “volunteers.” Drawing on Elinor Lipper’s Eleven Years in Soviet Prison Camps (1951), O’Neill recounts that Wallace was given the Potemkin Village treatment by his hosts. “[T]he starving prisoners were kept out of Wallace’s sight. When he visited a model farm the swineherd girls Wallace saw were office workers assigned to play the part. The stores were laden with goods no one had seen before or would see again.”

Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Benn Steil now seeks to offset the Wallace hagiographies in his doorstop biography The World That Wasn’t: Henry Wallace and the Fate of the American Century (forthcoming on Tuesday). The great Michael Barone reviews it favorably in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal Review section.

Prior to his accession to the vice presidency in 1941, Wallace served as Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture from 1933-1940. Barone writes, “Farm policy is not Mr. Steil’s interest, however.” He notes:

“The World That Wasn’t” devotes 17 pages to Wallace’s record as agricultural secretary but 61 pages (and 281 footnotes) to his 1934-35 entanglement with Russian emigre Nicholas Roerich, his “guru,” a man who sought to create a quasi-Buddhist community called Shambhala somewhere between Manchuria and Tibet. In multiple letters, not fully revealed until 1947, Wallace referred to Roerich as Father, himself as Galahad, and Roosevelt as the Wavering One. Something about Roerich reverberated in Wallace’s reverent and mystical soul. He used his office to send a pair of botanists to accompany Roerich abroad, purportedly to gather seeds for crop experiments, and aroused the wrath of the State Department. In the “guru” episode, Mr. Steil suggests, Wallace showed the weaknesses he would display in foreign policy. He “shrank from face-to-face confrontations,” had “great difficulty in recognizing duplicity” and, when cornered, “muddied and falsified” the record and told outright and often unconvincing lies.

Who knew? It only deepens the meaning of the term “shambolic.”

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