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Who Was Henry A. Wallace ?

The Story of a Perplexing and Indomitably Naive Public Servant

AMERICAN DREAMER: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace; By John C. Culver and John Hyde; W.W. Norton: 608 pp., $35

March 12, 2000|ARTHUR SCHLESINGER JR. | Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is the author of many books, including three volumes of "The Age of Roosevelt." He served as special assistant to President John F. Kennedy and is working on his memoirs

Political leaders in our democracy come in many varieties, as the present campaign suggests and as history amply records. One of the more curious examples in this century was Henry Agard Wallace of Iowa, editor, geneticist, economist, businessman, the best secretary of agriculture the country has ever had, a vice president of the United States during World War II, a third (or, as it turned out, fourth) party candidate for president at the start of the Cold War and, at the same time, an incorrigibly naive politician and privately a mystic given to improbable spiritual quests.

The oddities of Wallace's life seem to have discouraged biographers. Monographs have appeared on aspects of his career, but there has been no adequate one-volume biography. Now John Culver, a distinguished Iowa legislator who served five terms in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate, and John Hyde, a former Des Moines Register reporter, have teamed to write the life of the man they term their "state's greatest son." With unimpeded access to Wallace's diaries, his family papers, the 5,000 pages of his oral history and his thousand-page FBI file, supplemented by interviews with the vanishing group of people who actually knew Wallace, Culver and Hyde have produced in "American Dreamer" a careful, readable, sympathetic but commendably dispassionate biography.

Henry Agard Wallace came from an eminent family in the Farm Belt, a family of editors rather than of dirt farmers. His grandfather, the first Henry Wallace, began as a minister and ended as an editor, founding Wallace's Farmer, a journal dedicated to the cause of scientific agriculture and to defense of the farmer's role in the national economy. His father, Henry Cantwell Wallace, took over Wallace's Farmer and, when appointed secretary of agriculture in Warren G. Harding's administration, turned over the editorship to his son young Henry, known to friends as "H.A."

H.A. inherited a passion for the modernization of agriculture, a talent for genetics, statistics and agricultural research and a conviction that farmers, who had not shared in the fabled prosperity of the 1920s, required federal support to achieve stable incomes. He inherited also a strong religious, mystical, even messianic compulsion that undergirded his life.

The Wallaces were a relatively prosperous family. For H.A.'s 21st birthday, his father chartered a railroad car to bring the guests to a formal dinner dance at a Des Moines country club. H.A., however, was a shy young man, something of a loner, devoted to hybrid corn, econometric analysis of farm prices, the McNary-Haugen bill to raise farm income and teaching William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience" to his adult Sunday school class. When Presbyterian elders objected to James, H.A. quietly resigned from the church.

The Wallaces were also a Republican family, but in the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt, not of Herbert Hoover. H.A.'s father and Hoover, Harding's secretary of commerce, were bitter foes in the Harding cabinet. After his father died in 1924 at the age of 58, H.A. blamed Hoover for his death and opposed him for this and other reasons in the 1928 and 1932 elections. When a Democrat made the White House in 1933, Wallace was one of the two Republicans Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed to his cabinet, giving him his father's old job (the other Republican was Harold Ickes as secretary of the Interior).

Wallace was a great secretary of agriculture. In 1933 a quarter of the American people still lived on farms, and agricultural policy was a matter of high political and economic significance. Farmers had been devastated by depression. H.A.'s ambition was to restore the farmers' position in the national economy. He sought to give them the same opportunity to improve income by controlling output that business corporations already possessed. In time he widened his concern beyond commercial farming to subsistence farming and rural poverty. For the urban poor, he provided food stamps and school lunches. He instituted programs for land-use planning, soil conservation and erosion control. And always he promoted research to combat plant and animal diseases, to locate drought-resistant crops and to develop hybrid seeds in order to increase productivity.

Today, as a result of the agricultural revolution that in so many respects Wallace pioneered, fewer than 2% of Americans are employed in farm occupations--and they produce more than their grandfathers produced 70 years ago.

To Washington, H.A. remained something of a mystery. He neither smoked nor drank nor swore nor partied nor small-talked. He did not enjoy the rough-and-tumble of politics. A frugal man, he lived modestly and disdained the amenities of life. He was married to a pleasant, nonpolitical woman: No one saw them kiss, nor did anyone see them fight. Politicians found him baffling. One said, "Henry's the sort that keeps you guessing as to whether he's going to deliver a sermon or wet the bed."

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