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Commerce Cabinet Crisis X: Henry Wallace

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Commerce Cabinet Crisis X: Henry Wallace"

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In Henry Wallace, the nation once again found a Commerce Secretary who, though a very noteworthy figure, didn’t do much of note in his capacity as Secretary of Commerce—Henry Wallace.

Wallace was born in Iowa, and his father, also named Henry, was the editor of an agriculture-themed publication called Wallace’s Farmer. The younger Wallace worked on the Farmer and served as editor from 1924 to 1929. The elder Wallace was Secretary of Agriculture from 1921 to 1924. In 1915, he’s credited with having published the first ever corn-hog ration charts, which I think shows the amount of corn you need per hog but honestly I have no idea. More importantly, he worked on the development of higher-yield strains of corn which became important for farmers across the nation. This work was the foundation of his company, Hi-Bred Corn, later Pioneer Hi-Bred which was eventually acquired by Dupont.

The Wallaces were liberal Republicans and the younger Wallace was a New Deal supporter, and thus FDR reached out and appointed him Secretary of Agriculture in 1933. As Secretary, Wallace was in charge of implementing one of the New Deal’s odder and more misguided ideas, namely that the government should try to foster the deliberate destruction of agricultural products in an effort to raise commodity prices and turn deflation around.

Meanwhile, during FDR’s second term, his Texas conservative Vice President moved into a posture of more aggressive opposition to Roosevelt, going so far as to challenge FDR for the nomination at the 1940 convention. Clearly, a new VP was needed, and Roosevelt tapped Wallace, a reliable liberal, in part to ensure loyalty and in part because FDR new full well that he was turning away from the New Deal and toward national security and wanted to keep the New Dealers in the tent. During the campaign, GOP operatives got their hands on a series of letters written from Wallace to Russian new age leader Nicholas Roerich. In the letters, Wallace address Roerich as “dear guru.” Democrats threatened to expose an extramarital affair of Wendell Willkie’s if the Republicans went public with the “dear guru” letters, and both sides wound up agreeing to hold their fire. As Vice President, Wallace ran the Board of Economic Warfare, denounced anti-black riots in Detroit, and earned the enmity of conservatives in the United States and U.K. by portraying the war as part of a broader campaign for racial, social, and economic equality. Wallace’s clashes with the conservatives got him stripped of his authority, and dumped from the ticket in the 1944 election at which point he became Secretary of Commerce.

He didn’t actually do anything important as Secretary of Commerce related to the job’s responsibilities, but he did clash with Harry Truman over policy toward the Soviet Union, arguing for a softer line. Truman eventually sacked him, at which point he became editor of The New Republic. At the time TNR‘s foreign policy involved being too far left rather than too far right, so Wallace denounced the Truman Doctrine and lay the groundwork for his 1948 Presidential Campaign on the Progressive Party ticket. The Wallace agenda was in many ways admirable—he stood foresquare for civil rights, voting rights for African-Americans, and universal health care. The campaign was also shot-through with Communists being controlled by Moscow, and there’s some indication in the Mitrokhin Archive that Wallace himself was considered a KGB asset at the time.

Wallace went back to farming, supported the Korean War in 1950. In 1952 he published Where I Was Wrong, disavowing his earlier soft-on-Stalin views. He backed Eisenhower’s re-election in 1956 and Nixon in 1960, and died in 1965.

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