When Government Was Good

Did Henry Wallace, with a heart of gold, have his head in the clouds?

When the one-half of Americans who actually vote go to the polls this November, included in the process will be a generation of post-baby-boom citizens who've been raised under a relentless barrage of negative images of politics and government. From Ronald Reagan's 1981 inaugural speech--"Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem"--to Newt Gingrich's attacks on the New Deal and Great Society, antigovernment rhetoric has been the loudest political message of the last 20 years. Bill Clinton, too, has succeeded largely by coopting and capturing the same message. In both his pledge to "end welfare as we know it" and his Reaganesque echo, "The era of big government is over," Clinton has benefited from and contributed to the belief that the best government can hope to do is not harm the people it ostensibly serves.

Against this backdrop, American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace, by John C. Culver '54, J.D. '62, IOP '81, and John Hyde, reminds us of a time when Americans turned to their government to help solve their problems and of a man who wholeheartedly believed in the government's power to assist its citizens. The authors are well suited to their subject. Culver served as a congressman and U.S. senator from Wallace's home state of Iowa, and Hyde worked in the Washington bureau of the Des Moines Register. Drawing extensively from Wallace's writings as well as new sources (including foreign government files on Wallace), Culver and Hyde have written a detailed biography that at times doubles as a narrative history of American politics in the 1930s and 1940s. Beyond this, however, they show Wallace, LL.D. '35--who gained public recognition as secretary of agriculture and vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in 1948 ran for president on the Progressive ticket--as an idealist and dreamer rooted in the most practical and immediate of human problems: providing material goods enough for a decent life. In so doing, they identify the essential humanity of liberal politics and recall the goal of more equitably distributing wealth and social power that has dominated twentieth-century American economic reform.

While best remembered as a New Dealer, Wallace had a far broader background than most politicians. From his family he inherited both editorial control of the most important farm journal of the Midwest, Wallaces' Farmer, and a Jeffersonian-Social Gospel belief that farming was both the backbone of American society and the best way for "man...[to] worship God through his service to his fellow man." To this inheritance he contributed his own deep suspicion of intellectual orthodoxy as well as a fascination with genetics, botany, statistics, and corn. Throughout the 1920s Wallace carried out a series of experiments that helped develop hybrid seed corn, an innovation that dramatically increased crop yields, enriched American farmers, and made for a better standard of living around the world. As a farmer-scientist-journalist, he was a natural choice as secretary of agriculture when FDR assumed the presidency in 1933 but for one fact--Wallace came from a staunchly Republican family. (His father had, in fact, served as secretary of agriculture under two Republican presidents in the 1920s.) With ideology in flux and the nation's farms in crisis, however, Roosevelt overlooked Wallace's party affiliation and named him to the post at the beginning of his administration, and Wallace became, according to his successor, "without doubt, the greatest Secretary of Agriculture the department ever had."

By grounding their book with an early chapter on Wallace's family and his father's frustrated attempts to get the federal government to assist ailing farmers in the 1920s, Culver and Hyde show exactly how revolutionary the New Deal farm program was. Rejecting the laissez-faire orthodoxy that had held back his father's program, Wallace used the federal government to rescue America's agricultural economy. Under his direction the Roosevelt administration took the novel step of making direct payments to farmers in exchange for limitations on crop production--a major factor in reversing the decade-long drop in farm prices that preceded the New Deal. As a further step in moderating the rural economy, Wallace introduced the concept of the "ever-normal granary" to American politics and farming. Taking a cue from traditional Chinese political economy, the federal government purchased surplus crops during times of overproduction, with the intent of releasing them during poor harvests in order to moderate both the food supply and market price. Taken as a whole, under Wallace's direction America's farmers and the federal government developed a partnership that stabilized the nation's agriculture for half a century and made the farmers, in the authors' words, "the richest and most productive in the world."

Although critics believed Wallace's approach was part of a turn toward socialism, Culver and Hyde's narrative shows a fundamental connection between liberalism and capitalism. When one dissenter disagreed with the focus on declining farm prices, Wallace took on the role of hard-headed economic realist and responded, "It will sooner or later be a very unfortunate thing for you if you fail to realize that there is such a thing as supply and demand....I hope that when you step off your barn roof, gaily saying, 'There is no such thing as the law of gravitation,' you will have a nice pile of hay ready to receive you." True to his advice, Wallace's program produced economic results. In the first year of the Agriculture Adjustment Administration (the main New Deal farm program), federal administrators made direct payments to half of America's six million farmers. Thanks in large part to this government intervention, produce prices rose and cash income for farmers increased 30 percent during the same span.

But attachment to capitalism and an appreciation of market forces did not, in Wallace's view, spell a pursuit of wealth regardless of social consequences. An advocate of active government involvement in the economy, he believed that the same assistance that could help produce greater profits could also lead to a more equitable distribution of that wealth. In the early years of the Depression, he argued that "a greater percentage of the income of the nation [must] be turned back to the mass of the people." As part of a program to slaughter baby pigs in order to avoid overproduction that would depress prices, the federal government distributed more than 100 million pounds of pork and byproducts to families hit worst by the Depression. Similarly, after a tour of the South revealed the abject poverty of tenant farmers, Wallace took responsibility for the Farm Security Administration and supported legislation providing long-term loans aimed at helping America's landless poor purchase their own land and break the grip of debt and borrowing that kept them trapped in poverty.

In back of all of Wallace's attempts at creating economic and social justice was a broadly based spiritualism that influenced every aspect of his life. Intensely religious, he moved in and out of Christianity, sampling Native American religion, Theosophy, "Reformed Catholicism," and other alternatives in his attempt to find spiritual contentment. Not surprisingly, this active spiritualism led him to be unabashedly millennial; like many other reformers of the first half of the twentieth century, he believed in the ability of people and society to progress toward a more perfect future. In 1942, he forecast the upcoming "Century of the Common Man"--a time when religion, politics, and economics would all come together to provide a better life for everyone. The problems of earthly living such as food, shelter, and justice struck him as no less spiritual than the existence of the human soul, and he saw farming and government service as similar expressions of religious and moral ideals.

Critics derided Wallace's idealism as naïve and attacked him as a dreamer. Walter Lippmann dismissed him as a "mystic and isolated man to whom the shape of the real world is not clear." To a large extent this interpretation stuck, and Wallace has become known as a historical figure with a heart of gold, but with his head in the clouds. In taking on this "dreamer" image directly--in fact choosing it as their title--Culver and Hyde significantly revise our assessment of Wallace. He was a dreamer and idealist, they acknowledge, but they believe this explanation is not sufficient. They convincingly show that Wallace's spiritual experimentation and political innovation fed off each other, and both were fundamentally rooted in life as it was lived on earth, not in the starry world beyond. When asked if he was a pantheist, with pantheism defined as "the belief that nature, science, and religion are as one," Wallace quickly answered, "If that's pantheism, I'm for it." Then he added, "You can throw in some economics, too." He saw religion, politics, and economics as one piece because he believed that democracy depended upon material security. Men and women, Wallace declared, "can not be really free until they have plenty to eat, and time and ability to read and think and talk things over." Government intervention, economic growth, and national power were never ends in Wallace's view, but the means to a fulfilling life for the mass of the people in America and across the world.

Ironically, Wallace's mainstream economic convictions limited his liberalism far more than did his spiritualism or idealism. Despite rising concern about rural poverty, the New Deal could only help make the lives of sharecroppers and tenant farmers slightly less difficult and failed to address the causes of their poverty. To have done more would have required land redistribution from large landholders to the poorest of rural society--an intervention that was well outside the mainstream and one with which Wallace was uncomfortable. Even more importantly, Wallace's commitment to supporting crop prices while also improving yields ran at cross-purposes to his broader social commitment: he was torn between what was good for farmers (as suppliers) and what was good for consumers (many of whom were unemployed and unable to pay their own bills).

Wallace had more than an administrator's interest in this problem, for his own experiments helped deepen the gulf. As secretary of agriculture he tried to keep the supply of farm products down, paying farmers to leave land fallow or plow under existing crops, but at the same time the hybrid seeds he helped produce dramatically increased yields on the acres that remained under the plow. Culver and Hyde acknowledge Wallace's inability to solve this paradox, but they offer little more analysis. In reality, it went to the heart of Wallace's own programs and theories. Ironically, his most mainstream commitment--his attachment to traditional market economics--was at the root of the problem. As individual capitalist actors, farmers needed to produce more crops to maximize returns in the marketplace, but as a group they needed to limit supply in order to raise prices over the cost of production. Only a greater governmental intervention into actively balancing wages, prices, and supply might have resolved the paradox. That Culver and Hyde did not delve into this limitation in Wallace's thinking is a notable flaw. That Wallace did not is telling about his own ideological commitments.

Following the 1996 presidential election, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich commented on the general emptiness of American politics and hoped for a renewal of "confidence in the public sector to be a good and helpful force in people's lives." But she worried that such an argument "begins to sound ever more remote and utopian, as the helpful functions [of government] become a memory confined to the elderly." On the surface, Wallace's story could confirm the worst of Ehrenreich's fears: liberalism is not only something remembered solely by "the elderly," but is the utopian stuff of dreams and dreamers.

Instead, Culver and Hyde's biography of the archetypal liberal dreamer, Henry A. Wallace, shows the true liberal concern with the mundane and practical--how to provide a material existence that will allow people to focus on broader social, moral, and spiritual concerns. Although derided as a mystic and as un-American, Wallace also reflected the dominant concerns of the American heartland: commitment to family, religion, and service to the broader community. His politics--his passionate belief in the need for the government to help Americans create a more just, equitable, and humane society--stemmed from these traditional convictions. Far from being remote, utopian, or un-American, Wallace's liberalism was as traditional as the American dream itself.


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