Politics & Policy

The Henry Wallace Rewrite

Vice President Henry Wallace (left) with President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Stone and Kuznick are wrong, wrong, wrong.

The last thing I would have imagined a week ago, when I wrote my column about the mythologization of Henry Wallace by Oliver Stone, was that I would return to the same subject this week. But Stone and his fig-leaf of ostensibly respectable historical writing, Peter Kuznick (an anti-nuclear-weapons specialist), have popped up like a cobra’s head in the Wall Street Journal, purporting to defend the “heroic stature” (their words) of Henry Wallace from the sensible and thorough debunking historian Ronald Radosh gave them in the same publication on January 11. The Stone-Kuznick effort to raise the fallen soufflé would not merit further attention if it did not demonstrate the distressing tenacity of these formerly rather easily discredited myth-makers. As with virally transmitted sicknesses, immunities to these lies and heresies can be worn down and made more porous by constant combat.

On its face, it is fantastic that even Stone, who as a cinematic presenter of American history has not had both oars in the water for many decades, could po-facedly claim that it would have been a benign development if Wallace had been renominated for the vice presidency in 1944 and succeeded to the presidency on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, instead of Harry S. Truman. In support of their opinion that Wallace would have avoided the Cold War and even a ripple of Great Power discord, they claim that a great majority of Americans preferred Wallace to Truman for the vice presidency in 1944, and that Roosevelt himself thought Wallace an excellent vice president and possible successor. But why, in that case, did Roosevelt dump Wallace from the ticket? Why were the barons of the governing party unanimous in wishing a change? And why did the delegates vote for Truman? (Never mind that, in the authentic poll of the voters in 1948, Truman bested Wallace by 47 points.) The implication is that Roosevelt did not know his own mind or was unable to assert himself over his party, and that the bosses — Chicago mayor Edward Kelly, postmaster general Frank Walker, DNC chairman Robert Hannegan, former chairmen James Farley and Edward Flynn, chief fundraiser George Allen, and others — were desperately anxious to promote a Cold War with the Soviet Union and enjoy decades of acute international tension, and the pugnacious rube Truman was the perfect instrument for their Cold War–mongering.

The Stone-Kuznick endeavor is actually more outrageous than past efforts by left-wing revisionists. Howard Zinn was a relatively amiable fellow who grumbled about the absence of the vote for women until World War I, and about the hypocrisy of a bunch of slave-owners setting up what they represented as “a new order of the ages” in human liberty with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; and he decried the pecuniary motives underlying much of the over-celebratory collective pretensions to disinterested American idealism. There was some truth to much of what he wrote, and it wasn’t too challenging to shrink his allegations to a rigorous perspective that allowed for some alteration of the George-Washington’s-cherry-tree school of history. Noam Chomsky has been harder to endure equably, partly because he is an authentic authority on language, which assists his always predictable cynical-left take on everything. But again, there is often an element of truth in his comments.

Oliver Stone, though, simply makes it up out of whole cloth, and on this occasion found a semi-plausible historian and a television network to help him propagate the lies. His theories of the vast conspiracy of thousands to murder John F. Kennedy, and of the almost equally large conspiracy to suborn the entire American government that Richard Nixon fronted and hid by the cunning distraction of the Watergate affair, were solo film excursions that were so preposterous they did not require much serious refutation. The Wallace story is farther back in the public mind, the personalities less well-known, and this Stonewhopper has been dropped onto the slightly fertile ground seeded already by even such people as Tony Judt, to the effect that the Cold War was not exactly what it seemed and could have been moderated. Stone’s proruption onto this ground is on a new scale of untruth.

The facts are that Roosevelt, once he got a good look at Wallace, thought him an impressionable kook, with commendably altruistic goals, but too naïve and gullible for the highest offices, and he agreed and ordered his removal in favor of Truman, but felt sufficient sympathy for Wallace to retain him in the completely inappropriate position of commerce secretary (though Wallace proved a very able businessman after his political career). It is little wonder that, as Stone and Kuznick pointed out in the Times on January 16, Roosevelt thought there was “no one more of the American soil” than Wallace, since Wallace and his family owned one of the country’s leading agricultural publications, Wallace was a serious agronomist, and he and his father had served three presidents a total of twelve years as secretary of agriculture. But this has nothing to do with the Cold War.

At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Stalin agreed with Churchill and Roosevelt that Eastern Europe would be free and democratically organized, and that government would be by whatever non-fascist elements were freely elected in each country. Stalin violated those agreements, and Roosevelt had agreed with War Secretary Stimson that if atomic weapons (which were not tested until July, under Truman) worked, American monopoly of them would be used as suasion to encourage Soviet compliance with Stalin’s Yalta commitments; and Roosevelt held up payment of any of his promised $6 billion in aid for the USSR because it was in breach of the Yalta undertakings. Only the desire of the American high command to share the horrifying casualties of an amphibious assault on Japan with the Russians prevented Roosevelt from taking stronger measures. (The U.S. took over 70,000 casualties — a 30 percent casualty rate – in clearing Iwo Jima and Okinawa; and more than a million casualties were foreseen on the Japanese mainland if atomic weapons were not effective.)

Stalin violated his October 1944 agreement with Churchill not to support the Communists in the Greek civil war, violated the European Advisory Commission agreement of August 1944 by blockading Berlin, and rejected the offer of nonpolitical Marshall Plan aid for Eastern Europe. When Wallace ran for president in 1948, he advocated unilateral disarmament, an end to Marshall Plan aid, and no aid to European countries resisting Communist subversion or Soviet threats. As I wrote here last week, even H. L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker, and perennial Socialist-party candidate Norman Thomas denounced Wallace as a Communist stooge, and Wallace himself later renounced many of his previous pro-Communist positions. He himself eventually realized that his election would have been a disaster. Dwight D. Eisenhower did propose Atoms for Peace, as Stone and Kuznick wrote in the Times, and the Soviet Union rejected it, as they also rejected Eisenhower’s proposal for Open Skies at the 1955 Geneva summit conference, which Eisenhower opened by demanding that the Soviets honor their Yalta commitments in Eastern Europe. The Stone version of all this is not mistaken — it is a series of deliberate, demonstrable, monstrous lies.

It is of a piece with the Woodward-Bernstein version of Watergate — which in fact entailed a forced entry of which the president (Nixon) was unaware, which resulted in nothing stolen nor damaged nor anyone injured, and in respect of which the president committed no crimes, and could only seriously be suspected, but probably not convicted in a serious proceeding, of approving payments to defendants in exchange for altered testimony. (Nixon claimed the payments were for maintenance of the defendants’ families and payment of their legal bills.) The destruction of the Nixon administration, one of the most successful in the country’s history, led directly to the severance of all aid to South Vietnam and the terrible slaughter of anti-Communists in that country and region. The American liberal media have never ceased to commend themselves as the guardians of national virtue for their role in these matters, and the Woodward-Bernstein interpretative school has prevailed these 40 years, even though it now emerges that their equally celebrated and decorated editor, Ben Bradlee, had reservations about the truthfulness of their account at the time they confected it. Woodward, in furtherance of his proprietary rights as a scandalmonger, invented a conversation with a comatose former CIA director, William Casey, that he represented as a confession of unconstitutional conduct in the Iran-Contra affair.

A ragtag cabal of perverse and disturbed leftist journalists and vulgarizers of events is foisting a fraudulent and self-lacerating popular history on America, a procrustean reformulation of national history which, if successful, will morally destroy the purpose and soul of America. It must be stopped, exposed, and shattered.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of FreedomRichard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.


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