Undoing New Deal: The 1944 Coup Against VP Henry Wallace

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. On the Real News, we’ve been doing a lot of coverage, stories, about the battle within the Democratic party between the Sanders wing and what I would call the oligarchic ring, otherwise sometimes referred to as the Clinton wing or the Clinton/Obama wing, sometimes called the Corporate Democratic wing.

Well, we want to go back a bit in history and talk about the origins of this fight. At least, one of the critical turning points. We’re not going to go way back to the beginning of the Democratic party. Kind of go back to Roosevelt and the New Deal and Henry Wallace, who became Roosevelt’s vice president from ’41 to ’45, what happens in 1944 when Wallace gets dumped as Roosevelt’s vice president, and Wallace represents perhaps the most progressive politics that a vice president certainly ever had. Maybe the most progressive politics that someone ever made it to that kind of power ever had in the United States.

We’re going to go through over the course of a few segments how this battle unfolded and put the Sanders fight and Sanders wing of the party’s fight with the Corporate Democratic wing in some historical context. Now joining us to discuss all of that is historian Peter Kuznick, who now joins us from his home in Washington. Peter is a professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute in American University. He’s the co-writer with Oliver Stone, The Untold History of the United States. Thanks for joining us again, Peter.

PETER KUZNICK: Glad to be here, Paul.

PAUL JAY: I guess let’s start to give some context to people that haven’t, certainly younger people that don’t know this history. Number one, let me say we did do a multi-part series with Peter about the whole Oliver Stone series that he did together with Peter. I really urge you to watch this because it goes in a lot of depth covering a lot of the history.

We’re going to pick upon this particular angle of how this unfolds in the Democratic party over the next few decades after the war. To set the context, let’s go over some of the basic groundwork. First of all, give us a bit of context. Roosevelt does not get elected as a super liberal, progressive New Dealer but given in the Depression becomes that and Wallace has a role to play in all of that. Maybe you can get us started on this, Peter.

PETER KUZNICK: Well Paul, let me frame it a little bit differently to start. If we look at the Democratic party in the 1930s and first half of the 1940s we see it as a progressive party. If we take it back a little further, even to the Wilson administration then you’ve got a liberal internationalist kind of party.

It becomes under Wilson’s policies are very, very counter-revolutionary across the globe. Wilsonian progressivism while it had certain high ideals that we see in his post-war program, the reality of Wilson’s policies was much more conservative and counter-revolutionary, as we see manifested in the Versailles Treaty and what would have been the League of Nations had the United States embraced it. It would have been, as critics argued at the time, a defense of European colonialism.

Let’s take it to the 1920s instead because in the 1920s the Democratic party was very conservative. In fact, at the 1924 convention it was dominated by the Klu Klux Klan. You’ve always had a split in the Democratic party. There were certain progressive elements. The Bryan Wing was in some ways internationally, globally progressive. Although, culturally, like I say, much more conservative.

In the 1920s you’ve got strong right wing in the Democratic party. Even Al Smith, the Democratic nominee in 1928, turns sharply to the right in the 1930s, is an opponent of the New Deal, sides with the DuPonts and the Morgans and the other right wingers in the 1930s in opposing the New Deal and might have been involved in this Smedley Butler coup that we’ve talked about before.

The Democratic party has always had a mixed legacy. There were moments, there have been a lot of moments, of real progressive promise but the overall history has not been a consistently progressive one. Things do change in the 1930s as you were getting at. They change, Roosevelt gets elected in 1932, not as a flaming progressive by any means. In fact, he attacks Hoover and the Republicans from the right in many senses during the campaign. He attacks Hoover for unbalancing the budget, for being too big a spender during the 1932 campaign.

There were glimpses of the New Deal in some of his speeches and statements but you would not have expected, or could not have foreseen seen Roosevelt turning into the kind of progressive visionary leader that to some extent he comes during the 1930s, especially during his second term and then during the war period.

I think we need to understand that largely in the context of the shift overall in American politics in the 1930s. The most important force of course was the Labor movement. You’ve got the AFL moving to the left and you’ve got the rise of the CIO, which was now organizing industrial America. That undergirds, that’s the backbone of the Democratic party in the 1930s.

We see that influence of the Labor movement, especially in the 1936 election in which the Democrats sweep the election across the country. The New York Times declares that the Republican right is dead and they never rise again. Unfortunately, they were wrong in that one. It was a clear victory for liberal, left, progressive forces.

We see that same kind of change occurring with the African-American movement, with American intellectuals. I wrote a book, for example, about the shift in American scientists in the 1930s, how the scientists begin the decade as perhaps the most conservative force in American politics and they end up the decade as the most left wing force in American politics.

In the December 1938 election for president of the triple AS, the largest scientific body in the United States, all five leading vote getters were proponents of the Science and Society movement and the president of the triple AS, Walter Cannon was not only a socialist but he was very pro-Soviet in the 1930, Harvard physiologist. That kind of shift is taking place across the country in the 1930s. Roosevelt rode that wave and Henry Wallace was his secretary of agriculture in the first two terms of the New Deal.

PAUL JAY: Peter, before we continue with the story, let me suggest the framing at least the way I look at this. I don’t know if you agree. The Democratic party and the Republican party as well, but the Democratic party more so, it’s an alliance of different classes. It’s not just a dispute or fight over ideology, that some people believe in progressive values and some people believe in conservative values.

There’s a class alliance here between sections of the elites, which include sections of the oligarchy at the time in the ’20s or ’30s and going forward, sections of the working class, especially starting in the ’30s, represented by the trade unions. There’s a convergence of interest and also a battle that takes place within the party between these class forces that gets represented through progressive ideas or conservative ideas.

The elites have always, with perhaps a few exceptional moments, really been dominant even if there’s been some breakthroughs. Even during Roosevelt’s time while he proposes a progressive policies he clearly does it to save capitalism. I’m not suggesting that it would have been better to have some other kind of onerous policy. The New Deal was better for people. He wasn’t a left winger looking to be anti-capitalist. Still represented the section of the elites.

PETER KUZNICK: Yes, I agree with you. Roosevelt was a pragmatic politician. The Democratic party was a coalition of progressive forces and reactionary forces. You have to remember that the Democratic party’s strength during that time was in the south. The southern Democrats had the most seniority and they controlled the key positions in the legislature. Roosevelt was always walking this tightrope w here he had to placate and try to slowly bring along the southern Democrats, by ’68, they move to become Republicans but between ’32 and ’68 they’re very much part of the Democratic coalition.

PAUL JAY: And they’re thoroughly racist, yes?

PETER KUZNICK: Strongly racist. Support aspects of the New Deal but they even tweak the New Deal in ways to make sure that Blacks are not going to get equal benefits with whites in the south. It’s always a struggle for the soul of the Democratic party.

Roosevelt was more pragmatic than he was ideological and progressive. His wife, Eleanor was much more progressive and always pushing him to the left on these policies, much more sympathetic to the civil rights movement and was a big supporter of course of Henry Wallace’s. Wallace, as representing a wing of the party that was the opposite of the southern reactionary Democrats.

We also have during this time the rise of fascism. Roosevelt supported the neutrality during the late 1930s, which stopped the United States from supporting the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. Roosevelt later said it was a terrible mistake but if we had intervened to support the progressives in the Spanish Civil War against Franco and Mussolini and backed by Hitler, we could have perhaps preempted a lot of the terrible things that are going to happen in the 1930s and 1940s. The Soviets would not have been the only force supporting the left in Spain perhaps in the 1930s. You had Churchill, for example, supporting Franco and the fascists. Roosevelt had maintained this neutrality.

When he was looking to run again in 1940 he knew the United States was inching toward war with Nazi Germany and perhaps Japan. He wanted a leading progressive on the ticket. The most outspoken anti-fascist in the New Deal coalition in the ’30s was Henry Wallace. Wallace was a real internationalist. He caused a rebound in the agricultural economy. Farmers were quite progressive during the 1930s to go along with labor.

Wallace had a strong constituency but the party bosses who had enormous influence in the party during this period, the party bosses opposed Wallace. Why did they oppose him? Partly because he was much too progressive for the party bosses who came out of the big urban machines in large part and partly because he had never been a Democrat. His father had been Secretary of Agriculture under Harding and Coolidge.

PAUL JAY: Wallace himself was a Republican to begin with, wasn’t he?

PETER KUZNICK: He didn’t change his party affiliation until the mid ’30s. The party bosses didn’t trust him for that but they also thought he was potentially much too radical, much too outspoken and the party bosses, the Walkers and the Haigs and Kelly and these people, were much more conservative.

PAUL JAY: How much in terms of the design of the New Deal, these direct national work programs where millions of people were hired and an enormous amount of stimulus to the economy and various regulations both in terms of Wall Street and commodities, how much was that Wallace? What kind of role did he play in that?

PETER KUZNICK: I would give more of the credit to Roosevelt himself on a lot of that. Wallace had some influence, especially on the foreign programs and the overall tenor of the administration. You also had people like Francis Perkins, Harold Ickes, you had a lot of progressives. That’s part of the tragedy of what happens under Truman. Wallace is going to be the last of the New Deal progressives to survive until 1946. Truman is going to purge the party. Just as we see the Democratic leadership under Perez now trying to purge the Bernie Sanders supporters from the Democratic National Committee, we saw Truman purge the New Dealers from the Democratic party and the cabinet in the mid-1940s.

PAUL JAY: Let’s tell them a little bit of the story of what happens to Wallace in ’44. Now again you’ll see linked over to the side if you’re on the RealNews.com watching this, and you should be because there’s a lot more on our website than on our YouTube site or on other places but over on the side you’ll see the whole history series. In great detail, you’ll see what happened at the convention in ’44 where Wallace is dumped by the right wing of the party. Recap it a bit for us, Peter.

PETER KUZNICK: Wallace was the leading progressive force in the party. Roosevelt fought to get him on the ticket in 1940. Roosevelt wrote a letter to the Democratic convention when it looked like they weren’t going to put Wallace on the ticket. Roosevelt wrote a remarkable letter saying that we already have one conservative Wall Street-dominated party in the United States, the Republicans, and if the Democrats aren’t going to be a liberal, progressive, social justice party they have no reason to exist and he turned down the nomination.

Eleanor went to the floor of the convention and warned them that he was going to do so and not run for a third term in 1940. They begrudgingly put Wallace on the ticket. Wallace was the progressive vision. When Henry Luce says that the 20th century must be the American century and the United States should dominate the world, Henry Wallace counters with that wonderful speech saying the 20th century must be the century of the common man. He calls for a worldwide people’s revolution.

It was Wallace who says that America’s fascists are those people who think that Wall Street comes first and the American people come second. Wallace was the enemy of Wall Street. Wallace opposed British and French colonialism and the British and the French hated Wallace for being the leading spokesperson in opposition to colonialism. He was the leading spokesperson for Black civil rights, for women’s rights. Across the board, Wallace represented everything that we see as good in American progressivism. There were a lot of people out to get him.

PAUL JAY: In today’s terms Wallace would be quite to the left of Bernie Sanders.

PETER KUZNICK: Far to the left of Bernie Sanders.

PAUL JAY: Why does Roosevelt pick someone so on the left?

PETER KUZNICK: Because Wallace was also tremendously popular. As the Democratic party convention launches July 20, 1944, Gallup asked potential voters who they wanted on the ticket as vice president. 65% of potential voters said they wanted Wallace back as vice president, 2% said they wanted Harry Truman.

Wallace was the second most popular man in America behind Roosevelt. When the magazines in the late ’30s asked who should replace Roosevelt the number one choice was Henry Wallace. Wallace was a safe choice in 1940 and despite what the bosses told him he would have been a safe choice in 1944. The American people, we were fighting a war against fascism in the 1940s. We were a different country. There was a war against fascism, a war against racism. We had our own racism of course but the United States was a much more progressive country devoted to more progressive values.

Wallace had the popular support, he had the union support, he had every Black delegate at the Democratic convention in 1944. He was the choice of the people. Roosevelt knew that in ’40 and he wanted a leading outspoken, anti-fascist on the ticket given what he knew we were up against in the 1940s.

PAUL JAY: The party dumps him anyway in ’44, which is a little bit similar, as you said, to what’s happening now with Sanders clearly being the most popular Democratic party politician and the party machine bosses and corporate Democrats doing whatever they can behind the scenes to try to prevent him from getting the nomination. Tell us about what happened in ’44.

PETER KUZNICK: In ’44 the support was for Wallace but Edwin Pauley, the party treasurer, ran what Pauley called Pauley’s Coup, he proudly referred to it as, in conjunction with Bob Hannegan, the Democratic party chair. They run an operation. Roosevelt by ’44 is very, very weak. It’s clear to everybody that he’s not going to last another term. He was the only one who was in denial really about that.

They went around saying, for the nomination for vice president they were saying, “We’re not just nominating a vice president. We’re nominating the next President of the United States.” They made all the deals. They tried to keep the progressives, the Wallace supporters from ever getting access to Roosevelt. They cooked the convention basically. They stacked the convention with anti-Wallace delegates.

The problem was that Wallace was so popular. The night the convention starts, July 20th, Wallace makes the seconding speech for Roosevelt. Even though the party bosses had the convention already stacked and fixed in 1944, like they did in 2016. After Wallace’s speech there’s a spontaneous demonstration on the floor. It lasts for about an hour. Among the leaders are people like Hubert Humphrey and Adlai Stevenson.

In the midst of that, Senator Claude Pepper from Florida, nicknamed Red Pepper because of his progressive views, realized that if he could get to the microphone and get Wallace’s name and nomination that night, Wallace will sweep the convention, get the nomination for vice president, defy the bosses, and be back on the ticket.

Pepper fights his way to the microphone. The party bosses see what’s going on. You’ve got Mayor Kelly of Chicago, it was in Chicago, screaming, “It’s my convention. This is a fire hazard. Adjourn immediately.” Sam Jackson is chairing it. He said he had orders to not let Wallace get the nomination and he says, “I’ve got a motion to adjourn. All in favor, aye.” Maybe 5% say aye. “All opposed, nay.” The rest of the convention booms out nay. Jackson says, “Motion carried. Meeting adjourned.”

Pepper was literally five feet from the microphone when that happened. Oliver Stone and I argue in the Untold History is that had Pepper gotten five more feet to the microphone and got Wallace’s name in nomination, Wallace would be back on the ticket of vice president. He would become president on April 12th, 1945 when Roosevelt died, instead of Truman.

History would have been different. There definitely would have been no atomic bombings in World War Two. Wallace becomes the leading opponent of the atomic bomb. There almost certainly would have been no Cold War or if there was some contention it would never have taken the virulent form that it took between the United States and the Soviets starting in 1945, ’46, ’47. That’s how close we came to a dramatically different history. Five feet. Five feet and a few seconds.

PAUL JAY: Okay. In the next segment of our interview we’re going to pick up the story with the Truman presidency and as Peter said, the purging of the New Dealers and such from the Democratic party. Please join us with Peter Kuznick on The Real News Network for part two.