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Pt.3 Peter Kuznick, co-author with Oliver Stone of the “Untold History of the United States”, discusses the ’44 Democratic Convention coup that dumped VP Henry A. Wallace, the man who as President would have opposed the cold war

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

We’re continuing our series of interviews with Peter Kuznick, coauthor of the movie and the book The Untold History of the United States. And we’re just going to carry on our discussion. Thanks for joining us, Peter.

So I’ll just remind everybody again, Peter’s a professor of history at American University in Washington.

We left off at the last segment of the interview talking about what a different type of America it was, the political culture, how different it was. There’d been a kind of Cold War in the 1920s after the Russian Revolution. There was quite a crackdown and anticommunist hysteria and atmosphere. But by the late ’30s, and then you get to the–what is it?–I guess it’s the third term of Roosevelt, he appoints a man as vice president who is as left on the political spectrum as anyone that ever ran in mainstream politics. How does that happen?

KUZNICK: Henry Wallace had been secretary of agriculture from the beginning of the New Deal.

JAY: Yeah. Maybe we–yeah, start with that, ’cause even that’s surprising.

KUZNICK: And he comes from such an interesting family. His father was secretary of agriculture under the Republican administrations of Harding and Coolidge, and his grandfather was rumored to be secretary of agriculture, and almost was, back from Iowa in the 19th century.

JAY: Now, he made a lot of money later, if I understand.


JAY: He sold his agricultural company for–.

KUZNICK: Well, he did a lot of–yeah. [crosstalk] did a lot of [crosstalk]

JAY: But when he’s first appointed–but is he already wealthy when he’s first appointed?

KUZNICK: Not very wealthy, no. No. They were comfortable, certainly, for an Iowa family, they were very comfortable, but I don’t think very wealthy until much, much later, ’cause eventually his hybrid corn feeds half the world.

And he understood the relationship between dealing with hunger and the possibility of world peace. That was always clear in his mind. And he was a visionary as secretary of agriculture with a–controversial, which we could get into, but it was not–he was the leading antifascist in the New Deal administrations. He was very closely tied to the scientists and working with the scientists in their antifascist and antiracist efforts during that time.


HENRY WALLACE, U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: We cannot fight to crush Nazi brutality abroad and condone race riots at home.


KUZNICK: In the early 1940s he says America’s fascists are those people who think Wall Street comes first and the American people second. Now we call those Democrats and Republicans, but in those days Wallace called them America’s fascists.

JAY: I mean, this would be like Obama appointing Bernie Sanders as vice president, something akin to that.

KUZNICK: Yeah, something akin to that. But Wallace had–was more–in a global sense, even more visionary than Bernie Sanders, who’s great on a lot of issues.

And so it’s 1940. Roosevelt’s going to run for a third term. He wants a real progressive on the ticket, and he turns to Henry Wallace. But the Democratic Party convention meeting in Chicago did not want to give him Henry Wallace. The party bosses ran the conventions in those days in ways that they can’t now, and they refused to put Wallace on the ticket. Roosevelt writes an absolutely extraordinary letter to the convention turning down the nomination.


UNIDENTIFIED (NOT FDR’S VOICE): The Democratic Party has failed when it has fallen to the control of those who think in terms of dollars instead of human values. Until the Democratic Party shakes off all the shackles of control fastened upon it by the forces of conservatism, reaction, and appeasement, it will not continue its march to victory. The party cannot face in both directions at the same time. Therefore I decline the honor of the nomination for the presidency.


KUZNICK: He says, we already have one money-dominated conservative party in the United States; if the Democratic Party has any reason to exist, it has to be a liberal, progressive party committed to social justice, and if it’s not going to be that, I’m not going to run as its candidate.

JAY: Why did he want Wallace so badly? Why is he willing to wage such a fight for Wallace?

KUZNICK: The Roosevelt of this period knew we were going into a war, and he wanted an ally and he wanted somebody who could take–he was aware that–more at that point than later, perhaps, of his own–that he might not live forever, and he wanted somebody who could carry on his message and his theme in terms of building a progressive world after the war.

And so Wallace gets back on the ticket in 1940. But the party bosses are going to exact their revenge later.

And in 1941, Henry Luce writes his editorial saying that the 20th century’s going to be the American century, the United States is going to dominate the world economically, politically, militarily. Wallace as vice president counters that. He gives a remarkable speech. The title is “Century of the Common Man”. He says the 20th century should not be the American century; it’s got to be the century of the common man. And he calls for a worldwide people’s revolution. Those are his words.


WALLACE: The march of freedom of the past 150 years has been a long drawn out people’s revolution. In this great revolution of the people there were the American Revolution of 1775, the French Revolution of 1792, the Latin American revolution of the Bolivarian era, the German Revolution of 1848, the Russian Revolution of 1918. Each spoke for the common man in terms of blood on the battlefield. Some went to excess, but the significant thing is that the people broke their way to the light. The people are on the march toward even fuller freedom than the most fortunate peoples of the earth have hitherto enjoyed.


JAY: It’s the vice president calling for this.

KUZNICK: Yes. And he says we have to end colonialism, we have to end imperialism, we have to end economic exploitation and monopolies and cartels. We need global full employment. We need to raise the standard of living. The science and technology’s got to be spread around the entire globe. This is an extraordinary vision this man had.

JAY: And Roosevelt’s okay with the speech.

KUZNICK: Roosevelt applauded that speech. Yeah. Roosevelt at this period wanted to see–because Roosevelt understood the effects of imperialism and colonialism. Roosevelt was very critical of the British and the French and the Dutch and the Portuguese, and he understood how much they had actually caused a lot of the problems in the world.

JAY: Roosevelt always had his eye on what would be an American empire after the war. Now, I’m not saying American Empire old colonial style. He was against old colonialism.

KUZNICK: Yes, he was against that.

JAY: But it would be American Empire, knowing America had more money than anyone else, more manufacturing capacity than anyone else, and sort of this free-market world would be America’s world.‑

KUZNICK: Yes, he did want a free-market world, and he wanted the constraints of the old kind of world with the spheres of influences ended. He used his leverage over the British repeatedly to do away with the old imperial system.

JAY: But did Roosevelt believe a free-market world could achieve the objectives Wallace talked about?

KUZNICK: I think Roosevelt did believe that. He believed we could have a very much more progressive kind of world if you got rid of colonialism and if the U.S. and the Soviets work together. And his vision was for the U.S.–this alliance between the post–the wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union to last beyond the war.

JAY: So if he believes that, why does he bail on Wallace at the convention where Wallace loses the vice presidency?

KUZNICK: Roosevelt by that point in 1944 had become very sick. He clearly was weak. And the party bosses tried to convince him that Wallace was a detriment, that he could actually lose in 1944 in the election. And they kept on coming to him and saying that we have to get rid of Wallace. They understood that Roosevelt would likely not last another term, and whoever became vice president would be the next president of the United States. And these are very conservative people, the party bosses. These were the hacks who ran the administrations in Chicago and Jersey City and places like that, Alabama. So they wanted to get Wallace off the ticket. And Roosevelt says, I support Henry Wallace; he’s my ally. And Roosevelt’s family was furious. Eleanor Roosevelt was a huge Wallace supporter. They were very disappointed that Franklin didn’t fight harder for Wallace.

July 20, 1944, the day that the Democratic Party convention begins in Chicago, Gallup released a poll asking potential voters who they wanted on the ticket as vice president. Two percent said they wanted Harry Truman. Sixty-five percent said they wanted Henry Wallace. Wallace was the second most popular man in America, second only to Roosevelt. You’ve got to remember the period we’re dealing with and what Wallace represented.

JAY: Well, even more to the argument, then, why doesn’t Roosevelt fight for him? Because, you know, the whole idea, in theory, of getting Wallace is you defend your postwar vision.


JAY: You bail on Wallace and hand it to Truman, you’ve got to know you’re giving up your whole postwar vision to a hack.

KUZNICK: To a hack. To a hack. You know, we have a lot about Truman there, but it was literally–if you look up hack in the dictionary, you have a picture of Harry Truman there when he was part of the Pendergast machine that ran Kansas City. And Pendergast was the one who got him chosen in 1934 to run for the Senate. He was asked by reporters, why of all people did you choose Harry Truman to run for the Senate? And Pendergast says, I wanted to show the world that a well-oiled machine can take an office clerk and get him elected to the Senate. I mean, Truman was not–now he’s a near-great president in some people’s eyes. Condoleeza Rice called and said, tell Time magazine that Truman was her man of the century for the 20th century.

JAY: Well, there is something appropriate in that. But at any rate.

KUZNICK: Yes, there is [crosstalk]

JAY: But do you get more of a sense of Roosevelt’s position? Like, okay, the party bosses come and say, Wallace, we won’t support Wallace; he’ll split the party and–.

KUZNICK: Yeah, Roosevelt did not have the strength to fight like he used to, and he said, I can’t get myself reelected, it’s in your hands, basically.

JAY: Did Eleanor write about this?

KUZNICK: Eleanor commented about it a lot. And, in fact, after Franklin dies, Eleanor goes to Wallace and says, you’re the only hope we have left; you’ve got to stand up against Truman, you’ve got to stand up against these conservative policies. You’re our one hope for–the liberals’ hope for the future. She knew that, as did the other members of the Roosevelt family. They were all publicly on record as Wallace supporters. They were all very disappointed that Franklin didn’t fight more. Franklin issued a statement saying, if I were a delegate to the convention, I would vote for Henry Wallace. But there were a lot of other delegates to the convention who tried to do that.

I mean, so Wallace has 65 percent support, and when the convention begins, Wallace makes a seconding speech for Roosevelt’s nomination and the place goes wild. And the demonstration is led by people like Hubert Humphrey and Adlai Stevenson, who were much more progressive in that period. And it goes on for almost an hour.

And in the midst of that, Senator Claude Pepper from Florida realizes if he could get Wallace’s name and nomination that night, then he’ll defy the party bosses, Wallace will sweep the nomination, he’ll get back on the ticket as vice president. And Pepper fights his way up to the microphone.


NARRATOR: Not knowing what to do, Jackson called the vote for adjournment. A few said aye, but the overwhelming majority boo, nay. And yet Jackson had the gall to announce that the vote to adjourn had passed.

It was outrageous. Confusion filled the fall. Pepper had reached the first step of the stage, only five feet, probably nine seconds from the microphone, before the bosses forced adjournment against the will of the delegates. If he could have nominated Wallace in those moments, there is no doubt Henry Wallace would have been overwhelmingly returned as vice president.

What I understood Pepper wrote was that for better or worse, history was turned topsy-turvy that night in Chicago. Samuel Jackson apologized to Pepper the next day, and Pepper wrote in his autobiography that Jackson said, I had strict instructions from Hannegan not to let the convention nominate the vice president last night.


KUZNICK: Had Pepper gotten five more feet and got Wallace’s name back in nomination, what we’re arguing is not only would there have been no atomic bombing in 1945; there very possibly would have been no Cold War in 1945. Wallace was that much of a visionary and that much of a fighter against these kinds of policies.

JAY: Well, this whole convention’s extraordinarily well told in the film.

Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Peter Kuznick about untold history of the United States on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Peter Kuznick is Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington, DC. He and Oliver Stone co-authored The Untold History of the United States.