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Henry Wallace and the 1944 Democratic National Convention

Written by Laszlo Wheatley. The declining health of Roosevelt by 1944 meant the choice of Vice president was more important than ever. How then did Henry Wallace, the sitting Vice President, lose the nomination overnight?

Henry Wallace is one of the most famous ‘almost-Presidents’ in the history of the United States. The 1944 Democratic National Convention (DNC) was incredibly contentious. Factions within the party were vying for the position of vice president with the knowledge that Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) would not survive a fourth term as president. Wallace had been FDR’s vice president since 1941, though he was unpopular within the party. The movement against him has been termed ‘a veritable conspiracy’ by historian Robert Ferrel. After three days of chaos at the convention, Harry Truman secured his position as vice president, drastically altering the political course of the United States.

Henry Wallace was a self-described ‘progressive capitalist’ and a staunch supporter of the New Deal, designed to help America recover from the Great Depression. An advocate for progressive politics, Wallace called for ‘the century of the common man’, in his famous speech delivered in 1942. Millions of copies of the speech were distributed worldwide. In this he stated there ‘must be neither military nor economic imperialism’. His hatred towards imperialism was deep rooted in his desire to end colonial empires. Like many Americans of the era, including FDR himself, Wallace detested the British Empire and was outspoken against the ‘Anglo-Saxon superiority inherent in Churchill’s approach’. As Secretary of Commerce in Truman’s administration, Wallace continuously proposed policies that would promote the decolonisation of European empires in both Africa and Asia.

Wallace attracted criticism for his extreme political views at the time. He was attacked for his pro-Soviet views and lax stance on foreign policy. Prior to the DNC in 1944, Wallace endeavoured on a goodwill tour of the Soviet Union and China. He praised the infamous Soviet gulags for their ‘enlightened farming methods’. In defence of this statement, the Soviets had put up an elaborate presentation to hide the true conditions. However, these views made the conservative members of the Democratic party rather uneasy, and so Wallace was regarded as a Stalinist supporter. Wallace’s progressive views were particularly contradictory with the Southern conservatives, whose stalwart support and influence within the Democratic party was of notable significance.

Ahead of his time and against his party’s views, Wallace proposed policies on both race and gender equality, and was even present during the Detroit race riots. He famously said, ‘We cannot fight to crush Nazi brutality abroad and condone race riots at home,’ which was reiterated by civil rights activists during the Vietnam War. His promotion of racial equality created a powerful enemy within the Democratic Party: Jimmy Byrnes. As a South Carolinian senator, Byrnes represented a state where segregation was rampant, and he was crucial in blocking an anti-lynching bill in 1938. Byrnes was also vehemently opposed to Trade Unions and this united him with other pro-business, anti-labor Democrats who comprised the majority of the Party leaders.

By 1944, however, the political situation in America had changed drastically from four years prior. In 1940, Roosevelt had threatened to decline the presidential nomination if Wallace was not allowed to be his vice president. The role, however, was considered to be symbolic, and therefore to have a relatively powerless nature. Thus, the conservatives agreed to the demand, and were in support of Wallace.

However, by 1944 Roosevelt’s ill health made it likely that whoever was selected would become president upon his death.

The stage was set for a competitive and ruthless campaign to secure the nomination.

What Wallace lacked in party support he made up for in popular support. Unbeknownst to many, the Second World War saw more strikes by organized labor than any other time in US history. In 1944, approximately one million workers were on strike all year-round. Wallace had tapped into this demographic and gained the support of these workers. As a result, the powerful trade unionist, Phil Murray, one of the most popular politicians at the time, was in support of Wallace. Furthermore, a Gallup poll showed Wallace was the choice of fifty-seven percent of Democratic Party voters to succeed Roosevelt. From an outsider’s perspective, it seemed like Wallace was all but guaranteed the post of vice president.

However, within the party itself, there were manoeuvres being made by powerful figures. The first task for Wallace’s opposition was to select a candidate. Byrnes’ unpopularity amongst black voters and the working class made him unelectable in the future. They settled on Harry Truman, the ideal compromise candidate. He supported the party on most issues, was liked by the trade unions, and opposed Roosevelt’s third term – which pleased the conservative core of the party. Roosevelt’s personal preference was vague; he had written a note of support for Truman but failed to appear at the DNC, suggesting he did not feel strongly about either candidate. Wallace may have seen this as a betrayal considering his unwavering support for Roosevelt, and how that was reciprocated in 1940.

A Gallup poll on the day of the convention showed that sixty-five percent of the delegates supported Wallace. The eventual winner, Truman, came eighth with two percent. As Wallace arrived at the convention, labor leaders had roused thousands of supporters. Hysteria seemed to have had descended, with constant cries of support for Wallace, especially when the speakers were hijacked to play Wallace’s campaign song. A vote was set to take place, with a victory for Wallace seemingly guaranteed. Moments before Senator Claude Pepper placed Wallace’s name for nomination, Samuel Jackson, the Session Chair, adjourned the convention for the day. Pepper later wrote in his autobiography that Jackson said: ‘I had strict instructions from Hannegan [Democratic National Chairman] not to let the convention nominate the vice president last night’.

Overnight the forces behind Truman mobilised and began convincing delegates to vote against Wallace. Truman’s biographer David McCullough wrote, ‘Hannegan, Flynn, Kelly and the others had been working through the night, talking to delegates and applying a good deal of pressure’. It is not known how many deals were made, or how many ambassadorships were promised, but the Democratic Party leaders had undoubtedly influenced the vote. Some claim that Hannegan had called every State Chairman telling them that Roosevelt wanted Truman as his running mate.

The third day of the convention was the day of the vote. It is reported that the Chicago police force was used to prevent thousands of Wallace’s supporters from entering the hall. In the first ballot, Wallace remained ahead with 429 votes to Truman’s 310. However, a second ballot had gotten underway in which the delegates’ allegiance switched. The final results were in. Truman with 1,031 votes to Wallace’s 105. Henry Wallace accepted his defeat and pledged his loyalty to the Roosevelt/Truman ticket agreeing to be a cabinet member as Secretary of Commerce. The man who might have been president could only watch impotently as events unfolded.

During his brief period in Truman’s cabinet, Wallace was a critic of the Truman Doctrine, saying: “the tougher we get, the tougher the Russians will get”. His open hostility to the nuclear arms programme clashed with the Democratic Party’s view. Eventually, his resignation was demanded, and he left, along with any chance of ending the nuclear arms program in the US.

Wallace would go on to form a third party, the Progressive Party. He ran for president in 1948 but his links with communism and the Red Scare of the late 1940s meant any support for him had evaporated, with Wallace only receiving just over two per cent of the popular vote. Wallace soon faded into political obscurity.

The question on whether Wallace should have been VP can never be truly answered. However, the influential manoeuvres of key party figures may have been the sole reason that the ‘Missouri Compromise’, Harry Truman, was elected. Whatever the significance of their influence over the DNC, the second half of the twentieth century could have been drastically different with Wallace at the helm of the United States’ policy making.

Written by Laszlo Wheatley.


Bibliography

Ferrell, Robert H. Choosing Truman: The Democratic Convention of 1944. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994.

Davis, Michael A. Politics as Usual: Thomas Dewey, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Wartime Presidential Campaign of 1944. De Kalb, Illinois: NIU Press, 2014.

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