March 23, 2024

How FDR (Really) Saved America

When reading the title of this piece, I'm sure many assumed I would talk about the great New Deal programs that pulled the United States out of the Great Depression. Social Security, the WPA and many other of FDR's policies did, in fact, save the American economy and prevent civil discord—and maybe even revolution. Or, other readers might have assumed I was referring to the fact that FDR stood up to fascism (German, Italy) and imperialism (Japan) to lead the world to victory in WWII. Of course, both of these would be excellent arguments for Franklin Delano Roosevelt "saving America"—and being one of the country's greatest presidents.

But another—far lesser known—action may have had an equal or greater impact on the nation. In 1944, readying for election to his fourth term as president, an ailing FDR dropped his sitting vice-president Henry Wallace from the Democratic ticket and added Harry Truman. 'Big deal', you may reasonably say.

Well, a wonderful new biography of Wallace by Ben Steil ("The World That Wasn't: Henry Wallace and the Fate of the American Century'") argues that FDR's decision shaped the post-war world in a way that still resonates today. Says Steil: "With Henry Wallace in the White House, there would have been no Truman Doctrine. No Marshall Plan. No NATO. No West Germany."

Wallace was—to be generous—a very odd duck. He served as Agriculture Secretary under FDR during the depths of the Depression. He implemented some pretty bizarre polices—including paying farmers to plow under 10 million acres of crops and slaughter six million pigs. All this was done in the name of driving up prices for farmers—a general approach to farm subsidies that still exists today. Of course, thanks to these policies, the average American family had to pay a lot more to put food on the table during those hard economic times. But that was an afterthought for Wallace. He saw himself as a grand planner who wanted to "reorganize agriculture" and (more ominously) "re-settle" America. 

Wallace also had a curious admiration for the brutal Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. On a visit to Russia in 1944, Wallace gushed over how Stalin had settled barren Siberia (mostly with prison labor camps)—and saw it as a model for Alaska. One can only imagine how a Wallace Administration would have stood by as the Soviet Union expanded its reach across Europe. Thank you, FDR!