The Butterfly’s Wings: FDR, Truman, and Henry Wallace

Bust of Henry A. Wallace, by Jo Davidson. U.S. Senate Collection.

If you don’t like people, you hadn’t ought to be in politics at all, and Henry talked about the common people but I don’t think he liked them… —Harry S. Truman to Merle Miller, in Plain Speaking.

by Michael Liss at 3Quarks Daily: Truman wasn’t the most diplomatic of men, particularly when he’d had a couple of bourbons, but as harsh as the above might sound, it was probably a pretty accurate evaluation of the man who was his immediate predecessor as Vice President and wanted to be his replacement as President. Henry Wallace wasn’t a cold-blooded stuffed shirt, like Truman’s 1948 opponent, Thomas E. Dewey. Instead, his warmth was limited to his passions, and people, at least individuals, generally weren’t among those.  

This strange man—and he was strange—part visionary, part brilliant scientist, part fantasist, part organizer and administrator, part orator, alternatively inspiring and exasperating, competent and a little crazy, came very close to being President. The question of “what if he had” may be the biggest “what if” since Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson succeeded him. Had a Wallace butterfly been given enough time to flap his wings, we would probably be living in a very different world. 

How different? At home, one that reflected his passions: a re-invigoration of the New Deal after the loss of velocity during World War II, and an entirely different approach toward domestic “security” with a scaled-back role for those agencies doing the “domestic securing.” Abroad, no NATO, no Marshall Plan, no Berlin Airlift, no support for a continuation of colonialism, including America’s. An altered alignment with Mao and the Chinese Communists, and, perhaps most fatefully, an entirely different approach to the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons. Finally, the Bear in the Room—a different, less confrontational way of engaging Joe Stalin and Russia.

Henry Wallace is a footnote right now—the butterfly never got to flap his wings—but, for much of the 1930s and 40s, he one of the most impactful men in America. It was because of his gifts that he rose to a level of prominence where a Presidency was even a possibility. FDR had chosen him to be Agriculture Secretary in 1933, when the farm sector was on its knees. Even before the stock market crashed, crop prices fell, land values fell, farms that had been in families for generations fell…

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