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Morton: Controversial Henry A. Wallace misunderstood

On this day (Nov. 18) in 1965, the highly controversial politician and agricultural scientist Henry A. Wallace died at age 77 in Danbury, Conn., from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Wallace was born Oct. 7, 1888, on a farm near Orient, Iowa, into the prominent, deeply religious family of Henry Cantwell and May Brodhead Wallace.

The young Wallace inherited his early and long-lasting interest in scientific farming from his grandfather, Henry Wallace – who was a Presbyterian minister, a large Iowa landowner and an advocate of scientific farming – his father Henry C. Wallace – who was a farmer, university professor, newspaper and magazine editor, and secretary of agriculture (1921-1924) in the Republican administrations of Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge – and an early association with African-American agronomist George Washington Carver, who as a student at Iowa State lived in the Wallaces’ home.

After graduation from Iowa State University in 1910 with a degree in animal husbandry, the idealistic 22-year-old went to work as an associate editor (1910-1924) and, after his father’s death in 1924, as chief editor (1924-1929) of the family-owned Wallace’s Farmer. During his tenure as an editor of an agricultural magazine, young Wallace became an agricultural expert.

Through constant research and experimentation, Wallace developed a high-yield hybrid strain of corn and can be credited with introducing statistical analysis (econometrics) to the field of agriculture. Although his achievements in scientific agriculture were noteworthy, it is for his checkered political career that Henry A. Wallace is today best remembered.

Although born into a Republican family, Wallace slowly shifted ideologically from what he considered the too-pro business GOP to what he felt was the more pro-common man Democratic Party. In 1932, he became an enthusiastic, active supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal. Thereafter, his political career took off.

In 1933, FDR appointed Henry the 11th secretary of agriculture, a post previously held by his father. During the New Deal period, Wallace became the administration’s farm policy expert. Among other innovations, he authored the controversial Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), which aimed to stabilize farm income, and established the country’s first food-stamp program.

In 1940, FDR chose Wallace to be his vice president candidate. The Roosevelt-Wallace ticket was successful, and Wallace became the 33rd U.S. vice president. However, as vice president, he alienated many power brokers in the Democratic Party (especially southern senators), who objected to his increasingly progressive views on foreign policy and race relations.

FDR, during his successful 1944 fourth-term presidential bid, dumped Wallace as his veep choice in favor of the less controversial Missouri Sen. Harry S. Truman. To placate Wallace, Roosevelt appointed him the 10th secretary of commerce – a job from which President Truman fired him in 1946 because of differences regarding foreign policy (he was publicly accusing Truman of starting the Cold War).

In 1948, the now ultra-liberal Wallace became the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party. In the five-man race (Democrat: Truman, Republican: Thomas E. Dewey, Dixiecrat: J. Strom Thurmond, Socialist: Norman Thomas, and Wallace), Wallace barely nosed out Thomas for fourth place, tallying only 2.37 percent (1,157,328) of the popular votes.

Soon after the 1948 election, Wallace resumed his career as a scientific farmer. In 1952, Wallace published “Where I Was Wrong,” in which he stated categorically he was an anti-Communist and apologized for his previous ultra-liberalism and pro-Soviet stance, claiming he had been misinformed regarding Joseph Stalin’s crimes.

Despite this public repudiation of his earlier pro-Soviet Union stance and his seemingly Communist-leaning views, Wallace remains a controversial, unpopular, and often misunderstood American historical political figure.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at

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