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A revisionist account of Walllace's failed presidential campaign

Henry Wallace's 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism - Thomas W Devine

The presidential election of 1948 was a remarkable one for any number of reasons, but one of the most prominent was the visible third-party candidacy of Franklin Roosevelt's former vice president, Henry A. Wallace, as the nominee of the Progressive Party. Having emerged as a prominent critic of Harry Truman's postwar foreign policies, he campaigned on a platform of a less-confrontational approach towards the Soviet Union, only to suffer a humiliating defeat. In the years that followed, Wallace's campaign has been the subject of much sympathetic attention from historians, one of the consequences of this, as Thomas Devine argues in this book, is that the pivotal role of American Communists has been overshadowed or ignored. In this book Devine offers a corrective, one that highlights the role that Communist Party members, both active and "concealed" played in determining not just the fate of the Wallace candidacy, but of postwar American liberalism.

 

Curiously for a book on American history, Devine starts by focusing on the French Communist Jacques Duclos, who in 1945 published an article denouncing the "Popular Front" policies of Communist parties in the 1930s. In the temporary absence of Soviet institutions designed to control Communist parties internationally, Duclos's letter was taken as a signal by Communists in the United States to abandon their support for the Democratic Party and instead to advance their agenda independently. As the Cold War deepened in 1947, American Communists searched for a means of opposing the Truman Administration electorally in an effort to bring about a political shift within the United States.

 

The growing alienation of Wallace from the Truman Administraton gave the Communists a candidate around which to rally. While demonstrating the influence that Communist advisers would have on Wallace, Devine makes it clear that Wallace was motivated by genuine concerns that Truman's foreign policies risked sparking a new world war with the Soviet Union. The palpability of this concern for many young Americans convinced Wallace that challenging Truman could be successful. Yet while many Americans were sympathetic to Wallace, they were put off by the very visible presence of Communists within the nascent party organization, particularly as the Communists used their organization and discipline to assume a dominant role in shaping the party's political positions and campaign organization. As a result, support for Wallace's candidacy fell steadily, with his fourth-place showing in the presidential election effectively ending the influence of Communists in American politics and determining the shape of liberal politics for decades to come.

 

Drawing upon previously inaccessible Soviet archives and convincingly argued, Devine's book is revisionist history at its finest. He makes a persuasive case that the role of American Communists in the Progressive Party played a role in dooming their hopes and Wallace's that they might shift American foreign policy away from Soviet confrontation, or that they could influence the development of postwar liberalism. Yet Devine's book falls short as the general history of the Wallace campaign that its title suggests, as his illumination of the Communists' role has the effect of overshadowing the less-important but still significant role that many non-Communists played in the Wallace election effort. For their stories readers must still turn to the older studies of his presidential campaign, those these now must be read in light of the persuasive and fascinating case that Devine sets out for readers here.