Undoing the New Deal: Truman’s Cold War Buries Wallace and the Left
Historian Peter Kuznick says Truman bought into the Republican’s post-WWII campaign against Russia and used the hysteria to purge the Democratic Party and defeat former VP Henry Wallace in the ’48 Presidential election; with host Paul Jay
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay and we’re continuing our discussion with Peter Kuznick about the history of the Democratic Party and the struggle between what I’m calling the progressive wing, or the wing that is more associated with the workers and unions involved in the Democratic Party, and the oligarchal wing, as I would call it, the elite section of the elite that’s involved in commanding, directing, fighting for the Democratic Party. And we’re talking to Peter Kuznick who now joins us again from Washington. Thanks for joining us again, Peter.
PETER KUZNICK: Hey, Paul.
PAUL JAY: One more time, Peter is a professor of history at the American University. You really should watch part one if you haven’t because we’re going to just pick up the discussion. We’re working our way chronologically. In part one, we talked about Roosevelt and Henry Wallace, who was probably the most progressive politician to ever reach such heights as a vice president.
Before we get to Truman and the purging of the New Dealers, in the election that followed, Wallace runs as a third party candidate. If Wallace is so popular throughout the country, as you said, is second most popular politician in the country after Roosevelt, why isn’t his third party run more successful? Because Truman wins and Wallace doesn’t.
PETER KUZNICK: Well, a lot has changed from 1944 to 1948 in the United States and it’s changed for the worse, not only in the United States but in the world. So you’ve got Truman taking office, getting sworn in the night of August 12th, 1945. The European war ends on May 8th. The Pacific war ends on August 14th. What we have beginning, under Truman, so Truman takes office, his first full day is April 13th. He meets with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov on April 23rd.
Roosevelt’s last cable to Churchill said that “these issues between us and the Soviets crop up every day and they seem to get resolved. We should not make a big deal of them. We should downplay them and go on with our relationship with the Soviets.” Truman does not buy into that. You have to remember that in December of ’41 after Pearl Harbor, Truman gets up on the floor on the Senate and says if the Russians are winning, we should support the Germans, and if the Germans are winning, we should support the Russians, and that way, let them kill as many of each other as possible. Truman never shared Roosevelt’s and Wallace’s sense that the Soviets were our friends and our allies.
PAUL JAY: So, let me just ask you a quick question.
PETER KUZNICK: Yeah.
PAUL JAY: Then, why does Roosevelt agree to have Truman as the vice president? Even if he is going to give in to the pressure from the Southern Democrats and the right-wing Democrats, who don’t want Wallace to become the next president and so on, why Truman? Why someone who’s so not associated with Roosevelt’s beliefs?
PETER KUZNICK: Because the other choices were, the main choice, the other person who really wanted it was Jimmy Burns, and Jimmy Burns was an outright segregationist from South Carolina. And so Jimmy Burns, who had played an important role during the earlier New Deal and been on the Supreme Court and then becomes Truman’s leading foreign policy advisor, Jimmy Burns was too right wing. The reason they chose Truman was not for any qualifications that he had or any background or experience or national reputation. They chose him because he didn’t have any strong enemies.
Truman was not, he was mildly pro-New-Deal, mildly pro-labor and was not himself was personally racist. As his biographer says, Truman, in private, never used any word other than “nigger” to talk about African-Americans. Truman makes comments that we have in Untold History, overtly racist comments that he made earlier to his wife Bess about niggers and Chinamen. But Truman was much less offensive than the other choices at the time. The thing about the choice of Truman was that Roosevelt was very weak at that point. The Party bosses said that we like Truman. You have to remember that Truman was Bob Hannegan’s boy. When Truman ran-
PAUL JAY: Bob Hannegan is who?
PETER KUZNICK: Is the Chair of the Democratic Party. Truman was a product of the Pendergast machine in Kansas City. Pendergast chose Truman in 1934 to run for the Senate. Truman didn’t know that the first four choices have turned Pendergast down. And then they get Truman elected to the Senate, but by 1940 when Truman is running for re-election, Pendergast is in federal prison in Kansas City, and Truman is about to announce that he’s going back, so Truman does not have support. He’s running in third in the election in 1940 and he turns to the Hannegan-Dickman machine that ran St. Louis. And Hannegan throws his support behind Truman. He barely ekes out a victory in the Democratic Party, and then he gets re-elected in 1940. But then he’s closely tied to Hannegan, and he helps Hannegan get elected chairman of the Democratic Party.
Pauley, who is the treasurer of the Democratic Party, was a corrupt California oil millionaire. Pauley said, “I entered politics when I realized it was cheaper to elect a new Congress than to buy up the old one.” Pauley also later gets indicted. So, you’ve got these corrupt politicos who are running the Democratic Party, who press upon Roosevelt, along with the other bosses, that they’ve got to put Truman on the ticket.
PAUL JAY: And did Roosevelt know they were going to have a coup at the convention?
PETER KUZNICK: The thing about Truman was that he was pliable. He didn’t have strong views and was going to go along with what the Party bosses wanted.
PAUL JAY: But did Roosevelt, Peter, did Roosevelt know that they were going to yank this away from Wallace at the convention?
PETER KUZNICK: Yes. Sadly, pathetically, Roosevelt knew. Roosevelt said that, “I’m not strong enough to fight like I fought in 1940 for Wallace. I’m not strong enough to win the election, physically, health-wise strong enough, without the Party machine behind it.” Among the people who were most furious with Franklin Roosevelt were his family.
PAUL JAY: I was going to say, what did Eleanor think of all this?
PETER KUZNICK: Eleanor hated this. She never forgave him for becoming a coward when the fight was on. This was the worst defeat in Roosevelt’s life and the most unprincipled decision that he made but his sons and his daughter also were furious. They were all Wallace supporters. And after the election, it’s Eleanor Roosevelt who comes to Henry Wallace and says that, “You’re the only hope we have left. You’re the only progressive voice. You’re the only one that can turn this around.” The thing is, you know Wallace, his nature is not to be an extrovert. It’s not to be a fighter. When Wallace carries out that campaign, he’s going against his own nature and his own instincts but he realized that the choice was between him and his vision and what we had — the Cold War, the arms race. So, Wallace forces himself to assume a kind of leadership that he was not comfortable with.
PAUL JAY: So, he runs as a third party in ’48, and why isn’t he more successful?
PETER KUZNICK: In ’48, the Cold War had taken deep root. So, Truman meets with Molotov on April 23rd, and he reverses Roosevelt’s policy completely. He accuses Molotov and the Russians of having broken all of their agreements at Yalta, especially around Poland but also around Germany and other agreements that they had made. He brags afterwards, he says, “I gave it to him one-two to the jaw.” He told the other people at the meeting, he said, “Well, I don’t know if we’re going to get 100% of what we want, but we’ll at least get 85% of what we want.” So, he accuses the Russians of having betrayed their agreements to Roosevelt at Yalta.
Joseph Davies, the former ambassador to the Soviet Union, sits Truman down twice over the next couple weeks and he explains to him the history that the Russians had not only followed through on their commitments, they’d exceeded their commitments, which was the view of Marshall, it was the view of Stimson. So, they have a meeting of the policy makers before Roosevelt meets with Molotov and Stimson says to him there that the Russians have a better view and understanding of their own national security interests than we do, and we should listen to what they’re saying.
Well, the Russian view was that they had been invaded twice through Eastern Europe by Germany, and what they wanted was a buffer zone in Eastern Europe. They don’t want compliant governments. They don’t want lockstep governments. They don’t want servile governments. What they wanted were friendly governments in Eastern Europe, and Roosevelt understood that and agreed to that at Yalta. But Truman does not understand that, and so Truman reverses Roosevelt’s policies.
What the Soviets suffered, according to Kennedy at his AU commencement address in 1963, what the Soviets suffered in World War II was the equivalent of the entire United States east of Chicago being wiped out. What Americans don’t remember is that throughout most of World War II, the Americans and the British confronted 10 German divisions combined. The Soviets were confronting 200 German divisions. As Churchill says, “The Red Army tore the guts out of the German war machine.”
You have to realize what that 27 million Soviets who died during the war means. After 9/11, as I point out to my students, we lost less than 3,000 people on 9/11. How many countries did we invade? How much of the world did we upend after 9/11 to get revenge for that or to stop the effects of that? The Soviet losses in World War II numerically are the equivalent of one 9/11 a day every day for 24 years. Roosevelt understood that. Wallace understood that. They bent over backwards to try to give support and help to the Soviets in rebuilding.
Truman took the opposite view, that we had to stop the Soviets, that their security interests were antithetical to America’s interest, and so Truman reverses that policy. He backs off, he wavers, oscillates to some extent for the next year. And Wallace stays on in the Cabinet as Secretary of Commerce. Roosevelt gave him his choice of any position, much like Hoover in 1920, given the choice of any position he wanted, he chose Secretary of Commerce because he wanted to rebuild the economy.
But from that position inside the Cabinet, he wages single-handedly the fight against the nuclear arms race and against the Cold War. And he’s often the only voice fighting against Truman’s reactionary policy. A lot of the time, he did have allies. And in September of 1946, it just becomes too clear that Wallace’s policies of friendship toward the Soviet Union were so opposed by not only Truman but Burns, who’s become Secretary of State and is Truman’s main advisor, and the rest of the New Dealers are all gone by then. And so Wallace’s position is solitary but he gets Truman to sign off on every word that Wallace says in his famous September 1946 speech at Madison Square Garden. And then Truman tells the press that, “I approved every thing Wallace was going to say there.” And then Wallace…
PAUL JAY: And the speech was?
PETER KUZNICK: A speech about the need for the United States and the Soviets to work together to create peace. Saying that the Americans are no more in the Soviet camp than they are in the British imperialist camp, and that the United States has gotten to be an honest broker and work with the Soviets and other progressive forces to bring peace to prevent the onset of the Cold War, prevent the onset of the nuclear arms race.
We came very close under the Acheson-Lilienthal Plan to giving up nuclear arms and to preventing a nuclear arms race but Truman and Burns stupidly appointed Bernard Baruch to represent the US at the United Nations, which Oppenheimer and Acheson and the others and Lilienthal knew was a death knell to any kind of attempt to get rid of nuclear weapons and put it under UN auspices and then getting rid of them in 1946.
The United States by 1947, when Truman is going to announce the Truman Doctrine and take over the British commitments in Greece and in Iran and elsewhere, Truman, he meets with Arthur Vandenberg. And Senator Vandenberg tells Truman, “If you want to get this policy through Congress, you have to scare hell out of the American people.” And that’s what Truman was doing there at that time. And we’ve seen over and over again how manipulable the American people become when they’re scared and they were terrified that the Soviets posed a threat that it was trying to conquer the world.
The Soviets never had a plan for world conquest during this time. What the Soviets wanted was ongoing friendship with the US. They wanted economic aid from the US, which Roosevelt had promised. They wanted help in rebuilding the Soviet economy, which had been destroyed. But Truman makes it seem as if they’re out on this aggressive campaign to take over the world and the American people fell for that.
PAUL JAY: Peter-
PETER KUZNICK: By the time Wallace ran in ’48 on a progressive vision of world peace and friendship, the media have turned against him. The Democratic Party had turned against him. The Republicans, of course, were against him and they attacked him during the campaign. They red-baited him viscously. He made a lot of mistakes during that campaign, opened himself up to that kind of criticism and ended up doing very, very poorly, although early on it looked like it was going to be a viable campaign.
PAUL JAY: So, Truman helps initiate the Cold War, which in the end, helps to bury Wallace. He uses nuclear weapons in Japan. And again, you’ll be able to see this interview I did with Peter about the whole issue of the use of the nuclear bombing of Japan and how it was in fact a shot across the bow against the Soviet Union and, in many historians’ view, including Peter, not necessary to end the war with Japan. So, I’m saying, in great depth, you’ll see these other stories but talk about the purge of the New Dealers by Truman because that really is part of the story thread we’re trying to follow that leads us to the fight with Sanders.
PETER KUZNICK: The most principled ones who were still remaining, when Roosevelt died, a lot of them left. Some of them had already been replaced by 1945. But Roosevelt and Harold Ickes were there with Morgenthau leading the fight. And first, Truman is really vulgar when it comes toward Harold Ickes. He refers to him as “old shitass Icks.” He refers to him to the media as “shitass Icks.” This is while he’s still Secretary of the Interior. And then he gets rid of Ickes, and then is really, Wallace has allies because Wallace is so smart and so persuasive but it was clear which way the country was moving by 1945 and 1946 and it was clear which direction Truman wanted to take the country by the time he fires Wallace in September of 1946.
So, it was a lonely struggle. Wallace waged it heroically for more than a year. Even Eleanor Roosevelt is starting to waver after 1946, when the people who support Wallace when he comes out condemning Truman’s policies are people like Albert Einstein and a lot of other real progressives at the time. But the country was moving sharply to the right. And we also during this time have McCarthyism on the rise. It’s the chair of the Republican Party who says during the 1946 election that this is a choice between Republicanism and Communism. So, part of what’s going on is the Republican effort to damn the New Deal and they’re running a neo-McCarthyite campaign in 1946. McCarthy is a latecomer to McCarthyism. McCarthy doesn’t make his famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia until February 9th, 1950. But the Republican Party had become McCarthyite much, much earlier in 1946.
And Truman made another one of his colossal blunders and that’s that he thinks he can preempt this right wing McCarthyite attack on the Democrats by going along with it. So, Truman is the one who initiates the loyalty-security hearings, the God bless America pledges around the country. Truman starts purging the Party of the progressives and the left wingers in 1946. He can bide time and prevent the Republican attack, but he legitimizes it. The same stupid thing we see the Democrats doing over and over again legitimizing the attacks from the right, thinking that they can get a softer version of them and that the right wingers are going to lay off. Instead, the right wing uses the Democratic legitimization of these policies and doubles down and takes it to a further extreme position. We see that with McCarthyism. We see that with the Cold War. We see that with the nuclear arms race. We’re going to see it over and over again.
PAUL JAY: Yeah, we see it from the transition from Obama to Trump but I’m jumping ahead. Just quickly before this segment ends, a lot of our younger viewers are probably, because of how terribly history is taught in the American school system, probably don’t even know what the New Deal is and the context. Let me just quickly try to frame it, and then if you can help develop it. In the midst of the Great Depression and great crisis of global capitalism in the 1930s, Roosevelt saw as the method of dealing with the crisis, unlike in Europe where fascism and the use of brute force to try to destroy the workers’ movement, in the United States, there was concessions made to the workers, to the working class, to ordinary people. Jobs, there was various kinds of stimulus, and so on. That New Deal, by the end of the war, I think in terms of the elites, they said, “Well, we don’t need this New Deal anymore. We gave working people way too much. Now, let’s get it back.” Does that jibe with the way you see it?
PETER KUZNICK: I think the attack on the New Deal actually starts earlier. You’ve got the rise of a new right wing in the United States which doesn’t gain any footing really, but at least they’re there in the ’35 to ’36 period. You’ve got Roosevelt announcing in ’38, ’39 that the New Deal reform phase is over, which is tragic because in 1939, you had the Wagner Act, which was to create a national healthcare system in the United States. It had tremendous support across the board to create a real national healthcare program, not the silly stuff or the limited stuff we see under Obamacare but a real national healthcare program. And Roosevelt actually stabs that in the back in 1939, pulls his support from that, even though many people assumed that was going to be the leading edge of America’s reform program going forward.
Then, during the early 1940s, you’ve got a battle between Jesse Jones and Henry Wallace. Wallace initially had tremendous power and influence but there’s a conservative backlash against that, and Roosevelt does not stand up strongly and support Wallace. So, in some ways, he undercut Wallace even earlier than 1944.
But clearly, you’ve got the corporate interest who, as you suggest, are waging a counterattack against the New Deal. The New Deal was a very Democratic, very progressive and very pro-working-class policies of social reform. The opposite of what we saw in much of Europe at that time where we see the Hitlers and the Mussolinis and the right wingers taking over. The United States had moved sharply to the left during that period. But there were blunders and missteps, packing the Supreme Court in 1937, a lot of things that weakened the New Deal reform program, even before the right wingers were able to stage their coup in 1944 and even more so in 1948.
PAUL JAY: Okay. In the next segment, we’re going to pick up this history of the struggle within the Democratic Party with historian Peter Kuznick. Please join us for that on The Real News Network.