In a recent documentary that is a sterling example of “blame America first,” Oliver Stone, who found few heroes in Cold War America, did list Henry Wallace alongside JFK as one of the era’s “unsung heroes.” Wallace, who died 50 years ago, has indeed been the hero of the unrepentant Old Left and New. They cherish bittersweet thoughts of what might have been: Had FDR kept Wallace on the ticket as vice president in 1944, rather than replacing him with the belligerent anti-Communist Harry Truman, then the Cold War that began with Roosevelt’s death could have been averted. Wallace, in Stone’s words, had “empathy with Stalin,” and peaceful co-existence would have been the result. Hence, no arms race; no Berlin Wall; and, most important for Stone and his ilk, no Vietnam.
But consider the actual evidence and extrapolate from that. The world would not have been better off under a President Wallace. What Stone celebrates as Wallace’s “empathy” with Stalin was in reality sympathy with the dictator’s actions. Even at his most murderous, as with the purge trials of the 1930s, Stalin was defended by Wallace, who swallowed the party line that the dictator’s execution of hundreds of people was a necessary anti-fascist action against a Hitler-backed fifth column. Wallace parroted Stalin’s postwar assertion that America was fascist, controlled by a powerful war-loving gang of big businessmen. He defended Stalin’s aggressive moves: in Iran and Turkey, when Stalin placed troops on their borders to obtain control of their oil fields; in Greece and Italy, when he financed and controlled fifth-column activities bent on overthrowing the government; in Berlin, when he cut off Allied access to one-quarter of the internationally controlled city and attempted to block the Allies from reaching the city at all; and, most disturbing, his coup in Czechoslovakia, which resulted in the murder of the foreign minister, Jan Masaryk, and the replacement of the democratically elected government with a police state friendly to Stalin. Had Henry Wallace been president of the United States, we could well have been facing a Soviet Iran and Turkey and Greece and Italy; instead, all four countries remained independent, thanks to Truman’s efforts to contain Soviet imperialism.
Not factored into the left-wing fantasy was Stalin’s probable response to efforts at appeasement. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who, along with Eleanor Roosevelt and other Cold War liberals, rescued the Democratic party from Wallace, has made the excellent point that appeasement would not have lessened Stalin’s notorious paranoia. Nikita Khrushchev, who was a participant in the purge trials, noted that Stalin was at his most suspicious when he was supported. He might well have regarded Wallace’s actions as part of some Wall Street plot. In 1946 — a year before the Truman Doctrine was formulated, and a time when the American government was not hostile to Stalin — the dictator proclaimed that there was a permanent war between Communism and capitalism.
Wallace was the ultimate sap even before the late Forties. In the 1930s, he was mentored by a Russian mystic named Nicholas Roerich. On a wartime tour of a Soviet kulak-killing slave-labor camp, Wallace was fooled by the disguised KGB agents posing as workers, while the regime hid the actual tortured and malnourished prisoners. He accepted that the camp was run democratically, along the lines of a New England town meeting.
This is not to say that Wallace might not have been mugged by reality. In 1950, two years after his third-party challenge to Truman (in which some of those on his campaign staff were card-carrying Communists and even KGB agents), he renounced his previous stance because of the Korean War. Henceforth, he became a supporter of the American side in the Cold War. When Wallace was informed by a Gulag prisoner about what was really going on in the slave-labor camp he had visited in 1944, he publicly apologized for being fooled by Stalin. In 1962, three years before his death, he told his former boss, Truman — who had forced him out as secretary of commerce in 1947 because of his pro-Soviet views — that he was “glad you fired me when you did.”
Counter-factual history has always been a no-no for serious historians. But if leftists are going to engage in it, they should be aware of the actual evidence about their subject.
— Ron Capshaw is a writer in Midlothian, Va.