Monday, December 9, 2013

Henry Wallace and The Last Progressive Party

Henry Wallace Quoteby Nomad

(image courtesy of MoveOn.org)

The quote on the right comes from Henry A. Wallace's book, “Democracy Reborn.”  Today the book is not so easy to find and Wallace's name means very little to most Americans.
Nevertheless I think the man deserves a little attention because, when you look over his words and ideals, Wallace seems- in some ways- ahead of his time.
For example, he also wrote:
“Still another danger is represented by those who, paying lip service to democracy and the common welfare, in their insatiable greed for money and the power which money gives, do not hesitate surreptitiously to evade the laws designed to safeguard the public from monopolistic extortion."
That sounds achingly-familiar to the speeches made during the Occupy movement.
Henry Wallace was the 33rd Vice President of the United States under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was the closest he ever got to the White House. Before that, Wallace had served as Secretary of Agriculture during the dust bowl days which saw Americans desperately fighting for survival.

The interesting book, Henry A. Wallace: Quixotic Crusade 1948 relates the little-known side of the Wallace story:
During the period of the New Deal .. Wallace had become much more than just another Cabinet politician. He had become a symbol for those Americans conscious that in the midst of the plenty, the means of production and the know-how- in the midst of all these riches- one third of their nation was still ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-housed.
Roosevelt's love for his vice-president, which had once been a sure thing, seemed to fade in favor of practical concerns. Many White House advisers felt that the vice president was too far to the Left, given the nature of two-party politics. A potential winner would have to be all-inclusive and centrist. In short, to win, a politician had to be all things to all people, but especially to the power-holders.

For that reason, Harry Truman was nominated as Roosevelt's running mate in his short-lived third term. Wallace became Secretary of Commerce in March 1945.

However, that situation was about to take an abrupt turn.  

With Roosevelt's sudden death only months after the 1944 election, vice president Truman stepped into the position to fill out the rest of the term. (Historians point out that, had Roosevelt died less than 3 months earlier, Wallace would have been the 33rd president of the United States, not Truman.)

Relations with the new president soured, mainly because of Wallace's objections to the administration's handling of the Cold War. Insiders - correctly perhaps- found Wallace to be a little too accommodating to the Soviets. And it wasn't long before Wallace was shown the door.
But he would go on to predict in an editorial that the Truman doctrine, especially with regards to the Soviet Union, would mark the beginning of "a century of fear."
Not such a bad prediction, when you think about it.

The Rebirth of the Progressive Party
Progressive Party 1948 Henry WallaceIn July 1948, Wallace was not ready to quit. Instead he brought together liberals unhappy with Truman's policies in order to form a third party called the Progressive Party to run in the upcoming elections. 

Actually there had already been a Progressive Party as early as 1900 and had re-formed again in 1924 by Wisconsin's Robert Marion "Fighting Bob" La Follette, Sr. The Progressive Party of that era, in fact, had only recently been dissolved-  in 1946, only two years prior to Wallace's own third party efforts.

Wallace, as a man of the people who was clearly bucking the status quo politically, understood that he would have to rely on popular support for his bid for the White House. 
In campaign rallies, William Gailmor, a former radio newscaster, would address the crowds of Wallace supporters:
The Progressive Parry lacks, and is proud that it lacks, the wealth of Wall Street and the gold of the industrialists. This party is not backed by the power of the militarists, the vested interests of both old parties. This people's party depends upon each and every one of you.
Financial support would have to come in nickles and dimes, Wallace quickly realized, from the working class, from the poor, from trade unions and from minorities. 
In announcing his candidacy, the former Vice President had indicated his expectation that the common man workers, housewives, and professional people all across America would bear the financial burden. He had remarked wryly, "I certainly don't know any other way. I don't think the corporations will finance it."
It was an understatement. Corporations would do all they could to bury his campaign and they were more than up to that task. 

Before Its Time: Progressive Party in the South
According to Mark J. Epstein's book, "The Progressive Party of 1948," 
Among the policies the Progressive Party hoped to implement were the end of all Jim Crow laws/segregation in the South, the advancement of women's rights, the continuation of many New Deal policies including national health insurance and unemployment benefits, the expansion of the welfare system, and the nationalization of the energy industry among others.
Glen Taylor Vice Presidential Candidate Progressive Party
Wallace's running mate,  Glen H. Taylor, was also quite a colorful character, having once been a singing cowboy and actor. (After all, who could take a politician with a background like that seriously, right?)

The Progressive Party was the first American political party to make much  of an attempt to embrace the minority vote, particularly the black vote. Wallace's commitment against inequality was based on more than liberal platitudes and morality. It had much more to do with his belief in democracy and liberty. He wrote:
It is no coincidence that the growth of modern tyrants has in every case been heralded by the growth of prejudice.
But such views came at a cost.
According to Diane McWhorter 's book, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution
Taylor was arrested on May 1, 1948, in Birmingham, Alabama by police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor, for attempting to use a door reserved for African Americans, rather than the whites-only door, while attempting to attend a meeting of the Southern Negro Youth Congress. He was subsequently convicted of disorderly conduct.
Police Commissioner Connor also took action to insure that Candidate Wallace, if he spoke in Alabama, would address a segregated gathering. In response Wallace told reporters that he would not participate in an unconstitutional meeting because "we believe in free speech and free assembly without police restriction or police intimidation." 
He chose to reach the black voters by radio.

On September 13, 1948, Wallace spoke on NBC radio and called for the end of both discrimination and segregation in the South and the rest of the nation:
It is a strange experience to stand on the main street of an American town and to ask only for the right to speak—and to be denied that right. It is a strange experience to look into faces blinded by unreasoning hate, to see people who will not let you speak, when the words concern the improvement of the lives of the very people before you.
And he continued:
And what was it, I tried to say? What was it that so inflamed people that they forgot the mandates of the Constitution and the injunctions of God? I said that the situation in the South imperils the North as much as the South, indeed it imperils the very life of our nation. I said that hate is a dangerous thing because it can be controlled and used against the people.
It was time, Wallace suggested that American politicians supported policies that represent the best of American democracy, instead of mere lip service.
And the eyes of the world are upon us: the colonial peoples of the world are watching us, assessing us by our treatment of Negroes and other minorities. And they ask: “What do Americans really mean by democracy?”
Those words would be echoed by a young charismatic president fifteen years later. In June 1963. President Kennedy said
We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home; but are we to say to the world, and, much more importantly, to each other, that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race, except with respect to Negroes?
However from 1948 to 1963 very little progress by either party had been made by the intermediate administrations. Ironically, the man who arrested Wallace's running man in Alabama, Police Commissioner Eugene Conner,  was still on hand when President Kennedy took office, still using water cannons and police dogs to scatter black protesters. (He had in fact, ordered the arrest of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just as he had arrested Taylor years before.)

Back in the election of 1948 the Freedom Train was already out of the station but neither party had bothered to buy a ticket to ride. 

A Conspiracy of Silence
Rally Progressive Party Wallace
In addition to various political dirty tricks by the two parties to shut out all competition, many objective observers at the time felt that major newspapers were working in collusion, by playing up the charges of communists inside the Progressive Party. Other papers continually reported about the new party's unpopularity.
Many news organizations, it was claimed, simply gave the party the silent treatment or deliberately ran unflattering images of the candidates. 
Even those people who didn't particularly support Wallace, like anti-Wallace commentator W.B. Hesseltine, noted the biased reporting:
The conspiracy of silence among newspapers to suppress news of the party and its activities reveals a dangerous drift towards an un-American totalitarian.
According to newspaper reports before the election, the Progressive Party was on the verge of collapse. 

In the end, perhaps not surprisingly,the party garnered no electoral votes and only 2.4 percent of the popular vote. Hardly an endorsement for any third party. When grinning president-elect Truman displayed the infamously incorrect newspaper declaring Dewey the winner of the 1948 election, Wallace's campaign was little more than a footnote in the history books.

The Aftermath
Despite that, the Progressive Party survived the defeat. But its demise was soon to follow. 
With the commencement of the notorious Red Scare of the 1950s, both parties claimed that Communists had infiltrated the new-found Progressive Party. In fact, in what was probably more of a liability rather than an asset, the Communist Party USA had endorsed Wallace-Taylor 1948 ticket, practically sealing its defeat. How much influence the communists might have had inside the campaign is still a matter of much debate among historians. 

Although considered to be soft on the Communists while a politician, in 1952 Wallace himself would go on to denounce the Soviet Union under Stalin, for example for its use of slave-labor camps at Magadan. He also blamed himself for not denouncing Red coup in Czechoslovakia of 1948. He considered underestimating the ruthlessness of the Soviet regime to be "my greatest mistake." 
He also pointed out that in the Soviet Union  
No one.. could amount to anything who was not an outspoken critic of the U.S. and capitalism. Only Moscow-trained Communists were allowed in positions of authority.
However, there is a bit of irony in this accurate examination.

Because of suspected of having Communist leanings, Wallace's former vice-presidential nominee, Glen Taylor - who had become the president of a Coryell Construction Company from 1950 to 1952- was officially shut out of all government contracts and forced to resign.
And it did not stop there for the former senator. According to Taylor's obituary,
During the fifties, he was grateful for any job he could find, even the occasional manual labor work as a construction worker. He was eventually forced to return to his former show business career of singing and acting to earn a living. As Sen. Taylor later recalled, "We actually went hungry at times."
(Too bad the same isn't true for other former vice-presidential nominees of our generation.)

Following the poor results of the 1948 elections, it was clear that for the Progressive Party it was only a matter of time. Indeed, the Progressive Party was disbanded in 1955.
But that's not quite the end of the story.
Many of the policies later being picked up by John F. Kennedy in his own Democratic presidential platform in 1960 and eventually survived to be passed into legislation. 
*   *   *
In one of his last appearances in the 1948 campaign, a few days before the vote Wallace spoke at at Vito Marcantonio's traditional "lucky corner" 116th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York's Eighteenth District. Wallace, who was destined to vanish from the political stage, told the his crowd:
Already we have accomplished much and we have just begun. This campaign is but a single battle in a long war. Until the great issues facing us- peace before war, abundance instead of scarcity, health before wealth, men before profit are solved in favor of the American people, the Progressive Party will remain the great triumphant fact of American life.


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