Ever since I met Larry Friedman at Wellfleet in 2005, he and I have shared our fascination with visionary thinkers who employ their insights and wisdom in trying to make a better world. One we have discussed at great length and both written about is Henry A. Wallace, a towering presence in the 1930s and 1940s who has been largely erased from history. Wallace was a rare figure who never cared for the emoluments of fame, fortune, or power. His was a different journey. He tried to prevent the Cold War. He almost succeeded. The world would certainly have been different if he had.

Franklin Roosevelt tapped Wallace to be Secretary of Agriculture in his New Deal administration. Wallace, a reserved Iowan whose eccentricities and voracious intellectual appetite made him stand out in the power-conscious world of Washington, turned out to be an extraordinary choice. The collapse of the farm economy had been one of the triggers of the 1930s depression. Farm income in 1932 was barely a third of what it had been in 1929. Restoring agricultural prosperity would prove essential to the broader economic recovery that marked the early New Deal.

Wallace’s solutions may have been unorthodox and controversial, but they worked. With exports having collapsed and the warehouses bursting with excess cotton, he paid farmers to destroy 25% of their 1933 cotton crops to reduce the surplus. He next paid farmers to slaughter six million baby pigs. Such acts were anathema to Wallace, but he did manage to distribute 100 million pounds of pork, lard, and soap to needy Americans. Within a year, the price of cotton doubled. Overall farm income rose by 30%. He acknowledged that destroying crops and livestock amid hunger and need “were not acts of idealism in any sane society” but “emergency acts” driven by necessity (Culver & Hyde, p. 125). Going forward, he would try to reorganize society to make sure such actions were never necessary again. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (March 12, 2000), later wrote that “Wallace was a great secretary of agriculture.”

Wallace was not only a devoted New Dealer, but he was

Page 306

also an outspoken critic of racism. Working closely with American scientists, Wallace used his background in plant genetics to debunk various racist theories that were circulating in the late 1930s as he became one of America’s most ardent anti-fascists. Realizing we were likely heading into a war against German Nazism, Italian fascism, and Japanese imperialism, Roosevelt wanted a true progressive on the ticket as vice president and insisted on Wallace. When the party bosses balked at his choice of an agrarian radical who had only recently become a Democrat, Roosevelt drafted a remarkable letter to the convention declaring that if the Democratic Party did not stand for truly progressive ideals, it had no reason to exist, and he was turning down the presidential nomination. Fortunately, the bosses realized Roosevelt wasn’t bluffing and acceded to his demand to put Wallace on the ticket.

Although Wallace never evolved into a traditional politician, he became an even more decisive moral force as vice president and a needed antidote to the politically savvy though overly pragmatic president. When Time-Life editor Henry Luce wrote in 1941 that the 20th century must be the “American century”—one in which the U.S. would lead the world—Wallace (1973) responded with a speech in which he offered a different and better vision, countering that the 20th century must become “the century of the common man” (p. 636). He called for a “people’s revolution” in the tradition of the American, French, German, Latin American, and Russian Revolutions, each of which, he said, “spoke for the common man,” though some, he acknowledged, went to excess (Wallace, 1973, p. 636). Wallace (1973) laid out a vision of peace—a people’s peace—and prosperity that would end monopolies and cartels, end imperialism and exploitation, and spread the fruits of science and technology around the globe: “No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations…there must be neither military nor economic imperialism…. International cartels that serve American greed…must go (p. 638)…. The people’s revolution is on the march” (p. 640).

Understanding the extraordinary, even heroic, role the Soviets were playing in the defeat of fascism, Wallace envisioned postwar friendship and collaboration with Russia. He garnered headlines for his November 9, 1942, speech before 20,000 at the Congress of American-Soviet friendship in Madison Square Garden. “Greeted by an ear-splitting ovation,” according to the New York Times, Wallace outlined his hopes for the future (n. a., November 9,

Page 307

1942, Text of Wallace’s pledge). He announced that Roosevelt had decided to make the Soviet Union “priority No. 1” since it was doing most of the fighting, most of the killing, and most of the dying. The Soviets had lost 50% more men than the rest of the Allies combined and had killed, wounded, or captured at least 20 times more Germans than the rest of the Allies. He outlined what the new democracy, “the democracy of the common man,” would entail and that was “not only the Bill of Rights, but also economic democracy, ethnic democracy, educational democracy, and democracy in the treatment of the sexes.” He gave Russia credit where credit was due: “From the Russians we can learn much, for unfortunately the Anglo-Saxons have had an attitude toward other races which has made them exceedingly unpopular in many parts of the world,” he declared. “We have not sunk to the lunatic level of the Nazi myth of racial superiority, but we have sinned enough to cost us already the blood of tens of thousands of precious lives. Ethnic democracy built from the heart is perhaps the greatest need of the Anglo-Saxon tradition.” He found the U.S. equally deficient and lagging when it came to the treatment of women.

Wallace spoke of his meeting with Foreign Minister Molotov in which they discussed the likely postwar suffering and misery and the need for a vast global program of public works. Wallace outlined an international public works program that would, he said, “stir the imagination of all the peoples of the world” (n. a., November 9, 1942, Text of Wallace’s pledge). Wallace added that the new democracy, the democracy of the common man, “by definition abhors imperialism.” The United Nations, he forecasted, led by the U.S. and Russia, would guarantee postwar peace. His oft-stated condemnation of colonialism would, however, incur the enduring wrath of British and French imperialists, who would make common cause with conservative Democratic Party bosses, Southern segregationists, and anti-union businessmen in pressuring Roosevelt to drop him from the ticket in 1944.

Initially given an enormous portfolio to oversee the wartime economy, Wallace clashed openly with conservative Secretary of Commerce Jesse Jones. Instead of coming to Wallace’s defense, Roosevelt relieved him of some duties. But as the 1944 election approached, Wallace’s popularity was undiminished. Gallup released a poll on the opening day of the Democratic Convention in Chicago in July, asking voters who they wanted as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. Sixty-five percent chose Wallace. Two

Page 308

percent chose Harry Truman. The party bosses’ control of the convention, a power play in which the increasingly frail Roosevelt acquiesced, thwarted the will of the American people and changed the course of history.

Many knew the fix was in, but rank-and-file Democrats spontaneously rallied on the first night of the convention. Fervent Wallace supporter Senator Claude Pepper knew that if he could nominate Wallace that night, Wallace would win the nomination before the bosses could carry out their unpopular plan. Pepper fought his way through the crowd to five feet from the microphone when Samuel Jackson, the chair, announced that the meeting was adjourned. As Oliver Stone and I have argued elsewhere, had Pepper not been thwarted, there would have almost certainly been no atomic bombings in World War II and very likely no Cold War.

Roosevelt, sensing he had made a colossal blunder, for which he had been roundly castigated not only by progressives but by his wife Eleanor and his children, begged Wallace to stay on in the Cabinet. Wallace, like Herbert Hoover two decades earlier, chose to become Secretary of Commerce. But on April 12, 1945, Roosevelt died, and Truman became president. Truman was neither worldly nor wise and Roosevelt had done nothing to prepare him for his awesome responsibilities. They had met only twice in the 82 days that Truman had served as vice president and had discussed nothing of substance about the agreements at Yalta or relations with the Soviet Union and Britain. Stunningly, during that almost three-month period, no one had even bothered to tell the little-regarded vice president that the U.S. was building an atomic bomb. But with the man who had guided the United States through the Depression and the war gone from the scene, Truman would have to make some of the most consequential decisions in the nation’s history—a responsibility for which, as he himself recognized and admitted, he was much less qualified than either Roosevelt or Wallace.

From his Cabinet position, Wallace battled tirelessly against the administration hawks, led by Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, over relations with the Soviet Union and nuclear policy. It was a lonely struggle, but Wallace understood the stakes better than anyone else. Initially, Truman equivocated, agreeing with Wallace whenever they spoke, but gradually he edged closer toward the incipient Cold Warriors, who sought a break with America’s wartime Soviet partners. The Soviets

Page 309

were then still widely credited with playing an equal or greater role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, a realization that has eroded and disappeared over the years in the West. The latest polling shows that in France, only 8% (Jordan, May 1, 2015) believe the Soviets played the decisive role, down from the 57% (n. a., December 9, 2016) who did so in 1945. Europeans, having forgotten that throughout most of the war, the Soviets faced 200 enemy divisions while Britain and the United States faced 10 between them, resulting, in part, in the loss of 27 million Soviet people (Gaddis, 1978, p. 151). No wonder Senator Arthur Vandenberg told Truman in early 1947 that if he wanted to get his anti-communist Truman Doctrine through Congress, he would have to “scare the hell out of the country” (Beisner, 2006, p. 671).

Wallace understood the Soviet sacrifice and need for postwar peace and economic development, but he saw the U.S. war spirit building and tried to head it off. After Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, heightened the likelihood of an open rift between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., with Truman next to him on the dais, James Roosevelt, the former president’s oldest son, publicly announced, “I would like to see the Secretary of Commerce, Henry Wallace, fly to Russia” to ease the tensions that Churchill had exacerbated (Stephenson, March 15, 1946). Roosevelt understood that Wallace, with his reputation “for fairness and integrity,” not Byrnes or any of the other Cabinet members, could approach the Soviets in the spirit of friendship that enabled Roosevelt’s father and Stalin to work together in defeating fascism despite their disagreements over so many matters.

The following month, on the first anniversary of Roosevelt’s death, Wallace (March 15, 1946) publicly repudiated Churchill at an event in New York’s City Hall, condemning his “recrudescence” of atomic bomb-enabled “imperialism.” “The destiny of the English speaking people,” he declared “is to serve the world, not dominate it.” He explained that the “only kind of competition we want with the Soviets is to demonstrate that we can raise our standard of living faster during the next twenty years than Russia. We shall compete with Russia in serving the spiritual and physical needs of the common man…. Let’s make it a clean race, a determined race but above all a peaceful race in the service of humanity.” But, Wallace warned, international relations were being governed by fear, not by peaceful competition. “The source of all our mistakes is fear,” he stated, “Russia fears Anglo-Saxon

Page 310

encirclement. We fear Communist penetration. If these fears continue, the day will come when our sons and grandsons will pay for these fears with rivers of blood…. Out of fear great nations have been acting like cornered beasts, thinking only of survival.”

Wallace continued challenging the emerging Cold War orthodoxy, urging Truman and the hardliners to imagine how U.S. actions around the world looked to Soviet leaders. As long as Wallace, the last of Roosevelt’s New Dealers left in the Cabinet, held on, there remained a glimmer of hope to avoid the Cold War and nuclear arms race. Unfortunately, his days were limited. The open break occurred when Wallace deplored the advent of the Cold War in a widely heralded speech at Madison Square Garden on September 12, 1946. Knowing that the speech would be controversial, he meticulously went over it line by line with Truman, who gave it his stamp of approval. In the packed Garden, sitting alongside Pepper and Paul Robeson before stepping to the podium, Wallace (1973) began, “Tonight I want to talk about peace—and how to get peace. Never have the common people of all lands so longed for peace. Yet, never… have they feared war so much…. We cannot rest in the assurance that we invented the atom bomb…. He who trusts in the atom bomb will sooner or later perish by the atom bomb” (p. 660). He insisted that the U.S. had no interest in saving the British empire and should not let oil rivalries drag the country into war.

Wallace (1973) laid out a spheres-of-influence argument that might resonate with some today: “we have no more business in the political affairs of eastern Europe than Russia has in the political affairs of Latin America, western Europe, and the United States. We may not like what Russia does in eastern Europe” (p. 665). He further explained: “Her type of land reform, industrial expropriation, and suppression of basic liberties offends the great majority of the people of the United States…. But at the same time we have to recognize that the Balkans are closer to Russia than to us—and that Russia cannot permit either England or the United States to dominate the politics of that area” (Wallace, 1973, p. 666).

Wallace called for nuclear disarmament and drastic cuts in defense spending, proposing not only that all nations be prohibited from manufacturing atomic bombs, guided missiles, and fighter aircraft, but that no nation be allowed to spend more than 15% of its budget on its military. He then trained his sights on the warmongers—the growing chorus of hardliners who thought that war with Russia was inevitable and proposed to get it over with as

Page 311

quickly as possible. “We who look on this war-with-Russia talk as criminal foolishness must carry our message direct to the people—even though we may be called communists because we dare to speak out” (Wallace, 1973, p. 668).

The response was electric. The State Department let it be known that the speech was more embarrassing to Secretary Byrnes, who was at a foreign ministers meeting in Paris, than if someone had pulled down Byrnes’s pants in the middle of the conference. Eleanor Roosevelt and others publicly applauded Wallace’s remarks. While the controversy raged on both sides of the Atlantic, someone leaked to the press Wallace’s July 23, 1946 memo to Truman in which he identified the “fatal defect” in the bastardized version of the once-promising Acheson-Lilienthal plan for international nuclear arms control that financier Bernard Baruch presented before the United Nations in June 1946. Choosing the anti-Soviet Baruch as the messenger with the final say over the proposal had doomed the prospects for success as Truman and Byrnes later acknowledged.

In his memo, Wallace said that Russia’s rejection of the American overture made perfect sense. Russia, he explained, had two cards to play in the negotiations: U.S. ignorance regarding Russia’s progress in developing its own atomic weapons as well as of Russia’s uranium and thorium resources. These cards, he noted, were almost nothing compared to the U.S.’s “stockpile of bombs, manufacturing plants in actual production, B-29s and B-36s, and our bases covering half the globe” (Wallace, 1973, p. 593). But despite this overwhelming advantage, he continued, “we are in effect asking her to reveal her only two cards immediately—telling her that after we have seen her cards we will decide whether we want to continue to play the game” (p. 593).

Byrnes cabled Truman complaining that Wallace’s speech and memo had thrown the Council of Foreign Ministers meeting into complete disarray. He threatened to resign, as did Baruch. Fearing that Forrestal and Secretary of War Robert Patterson would do likewise, Truman demanded Wallace’s resignation. The Cold War, with all the ugliness and destructiveness that portended, was now a fait accompli. The world would be lucky to survive the coming decades.

That night, September 20, 1946, Wallace spoke to a national radio audience, laying out clearly what was at stake as the world

Page 312

lurched toward darkness in the emerging nuclear age. “Winning the peace, is more important than high office. It is more important than any consideration of party politics. The success or failure of our foreign policy will mean the difference between life and death for our children and our grandchildren,” he insisted. “It will mean the difference between the life and death of our civilization. It may mean the difference between the existence and the extinction of man and of the world” (Wallace, 1973, p. 630).

Wallace would continue the fight against the Cold War and the nuclear arms race as the New Republic editor and as an unsuccessful Progressive Party presidential candidate in 1948. But his moment had passed, and with it vanished humanity’s last hope for a sane and peaceful future. His voice and wisdom are needed today as the world again descends into war, both hot and cold, and threats of nuclear Armageddon. The stakes Wallace laid out on September 20, 1946, are just as true today as they were 76 years ago. But had Claude Pepper gotten that five feet to the microphone and nominated Wallace that night, it might have all been quite different.

Page 313


  • Beisner, Robert L. (2006). Dean Acheson: A life in the Cold War. Oxford University Press.
  • Culver, John C., & Hyde, John (2000). American dreamer: The life and times of Henry A. Wallace. W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Gaddis, John Lewis (1978). Russia, the Soviet Union, and the United States: An interpretive history. Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Jordan, William (May 1, 2015). People in the U.S. and Britain disagree on who did more to beat the Nazis. YouGov. https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2015/05/01/Britain-America-disagree-who-did-more-beat-nazis
  • n. a. (November 9, 1942). Text of Wallace’s pledge of our friendship to Russia in and after the war. New York Times.
  • n. a. (December 9, 2016). Europeans underestimate Soviet Army’s role in WWII victory over Nazism. Sputnik International. https://sputniknews.com/20150428/1021462315.html
  • Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur (March 12, 2000). Who Was Henry A. Wallace? The Story of a Perplexing and Indomitably Naive Public Servant. Los Angeles Times.
  • Stephenson, Francis M. (March 15, 1946). Churchill’s “attack on peace” denounced by James Roosevelt. New York Herald Tribune.
  • Wallace, Henry (April 12, 1946). RG 40 (Department of Commerce); Entry 1, General Records of the Department of Commerce, Office of the Secretary, General Correspondence; Box 1074, File “104251/6” (2 of 7). National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  • Wallace, Henry A. (1973). In John Morton Blum (Ed.), The price of vision: The diary of Henry A. Wallace 1942-1946. Houghton Mifflin.


Peter Kuznick

Peter Kuznick, PhD, is Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington, DC. He writes about the history of science, nuclear history, and Cold War culture. He’s written and edited several books in the U.S. and Japan, including Beyond the Laboratory: Scientists as Political Activists in 1930 America (1987) and the New York Times best-selling 2012 book The Untold History of the United States (a companion to the 12-part documentary film series co-authored with Oliver Stone). Most recently, he co-authored The Untold Postwar History of the U.S. and Japan with Oliver Stone and former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. He can be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Kuznick, P. (2023). Henry Wallace: A peacemongering visionary erased from the historical record. In M. I. West, P. H. Elovitz, & N. D’Andria (Eds.), Lawrence Jacob Friedman Festschrift. Clio’s Psyche, 29(3), 305-314

PDF downloads:

Download this Article PDF
Download full Issue PDF