Bad Timing Crushed Progressive Wallace

By Nate Pedersen

Henry Wallace missed being President of the United States by 82 days. When President Roosevelt chose Harry Truman to be his third running mate instead of Wallace, we lost a great opportunity for progressives in this country. FDR died a mere 82 days into his fourth term, thrusting Truman into the presidency. If it had been Wallace instead, a number of progressive reforms would likely have been enacted which would still benefit us today.

Wallace, a native Iowan, farmer, and writer, was FDR’s second vice-president, serving from 1941 to 1945. His uncompromising liberal views, however, put him at odds with an increasingly conservative Democratic party machine. FDR came under pressure from party bosses to dump Wallace from the ticket in his bid for re-election in 1944. Privately doubtful of FDR’s ability to survive another term in office, the party machine chose Harry Truman, a staunchly loyal party man, to be FDR’s running mate instead. Wallace was quite simply brushed aside, offered the Secretary of Commerce position as a consolation prize. FDR breezed into an easy re-election in 1944 and the concerns of the party machine proved prophetic, when a scant 82 days into his term, FDR succumbed to a massive cerebral hemorrhage.

Wallace lasted until 1946 as Truman’s Secretary of Commerce, but was fired after repeated disagreements over Truman’s handling of the ensuing Cold War. Understandably embittered, Wallace took over the editorship at The New Republic, where he published scathing critiques of Truman’s blundering foreign policy. Wallace then abandoned the Democrats altogether to run for the presidency under a new incarnation of the Progressive Party in 1948.

The new Progressive Party was established primarily as a vehicle for Wallace’s presidential run. His views on universal health care, desegregation and peace-centered foreign policy became cornerstones of the party’s platform. It was a populist party focused on the needs and desires of the common man. The party’s founding convention in Philadelphia in 1948 included in attendance “hundreds who had hitch-hiked to the convention; scores who lived in tent-towns on the convention hall’s parking lot,” according to one newspaper reporter.

The party launched an enthusiastic and vigorous national campaign. Wallace selected Glen Taylor, a colorful, liberal Idaho senator, as his running mate. The two put on a good show, even touring around the Deep South with African-American candidates they supported, which caused a fair bit of controversy. Indeed, Taylor was actually arrested for attempting to use a door reserved for African-Americans rather than the “Whites Only” door when attending a meeting of the Southern Negro Youth Conference.

Wallace and Taylor, like other Progressives before them, sought to unite the country’s liberals under one banner. Their timing, however, was unfortunate. Anti-Communism hysteria had just reared its ugly head in America and began to divide the Progressive Party between Communist sympathizers and Communist denouncers. Wallace, fearing to lose the support of his left wing, refused to denounce the Communist Party, which subsequently endorsed him for president. Furious, anti-Communist liberals left the party in droves. The media dived into the vacuum and stirred up a dust storm of controversy over the Communist ties of the remaining party members. It was, quite simply, a death blow.

The Progressives limped into the national election, where Wallace and Taylor received only 2.4% of the national vote, failing to carry a single state. The Communist stigma crushed the hopes of progressives across the country and effectively ruined any chance for a party resurrection. A defeated, demoralized Wallace returned to farming, retreating from public life and eventually back-peddling on some of his liberal views. It was a depressing end to one of the most promising progressive political careers of the past 100 years.

Nate Pedersen is a Minnesota native now living in Oregon as a volunteer with the Progressive Democrats of America. See

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2010

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