Oliver Stone’s Mythic Man: Henry A. Wallace

Film director Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick have produced a cable television documentary series and book—The Untold History of the United States—which packages Stone’s left liberal and small-bourgeois populist interpretation of the twentieth century into some serious infotainment. Stone passes for an incisive crititc of U.S. politics only because of the extremely narrow spectrum of critical thinking (political and otherwise) that characterizes the U.S. left.

Central to Stone’s thesis is now-forgotten Iowa farmer-turned-New Deal politician-turned fellow-traveling third-party presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace. Stone polishes up an old image of Wallace as the true inheritor of Rooseveltian democratic state-capitalism who was shoved aside as the post-war bipolar world began to take shape. In this tale, Wallace’s 1948 presidential run was perhaps the great lost chance for U.S. democracy. In the Stone and Kuznick “What If?” theory of history, “We’ll never know.”

The reality is that Wallace’s program and vision was nothing less than the continuation of the New Deal’s state intervention into the era of a world divided between two competing poles of world capital. Setting aside Wallace’s foreign policy, the true measure of Wallace is his tenure as Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture, particularly his conduct during the struggle of the sharecroppers of Arkansas—organized in the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union—against their landlords. We’ll spare the reader a mention of Wallace’s penchant for esoterism and  the relationship with Nicholas Roerich here.

Perhaps the best contemporary critic of Wallace was Dwight Macdonald, the highly individualistic political writer and cultural critic who made his way from journalism to the Fourth International, then on to a pacifistic anarchism developed in the pages of his short-lived but important little magazine, Politics, and finally to a somewhat curmudgeonly position of the defense of high culture in the face of the cultural popularization of U.S. society.

As a radical, Macdonald managed to antagonize in turn James P. Cannon, Max Shachtman, Leon Trotsky, and the Johnson-Forest Tendency (Macdonald is mentioned in passing in Trotskyism in the United States, 1940-1947: Balance Sheet, the JFT’s departure document from the Workers Party—Macdonald adhered to the bureaucratic collectivist position on the U.S.S.R.). Quite a feat.

Ironically , Stone and Kuznick quote Macdonald on the militarization of the mind during this period—a focus of  Macdonald and the Politics school.

Below is a representative excerpt from Macdonald’s book Henry Wallace: the Man and the Myth, published in 1948, before Wallace announced his third-party candidacy. The text of the book amplifies articles from Politics.

A preview of the Stone and Kuznick book is available in Google Books.

•  •  •

Henry Wallace: the Man and the Myth (excerpt)

by Dwight Macdonald

Vanguard Press, [1948]

from Chapter 3: Prophet of the People’s Century (1941-1946)

The “Free World” Speech

Wallace’s most celebrated wartime oration, an effort he never surpassed and one which made him overnight into the spokesman for the “people’s century,” was the speech he delivered to the Free World Assocation in New York City on May 8, 1942. Political speeches do not withstand the passage of time very well, but few have dated so rapidly in five years. Rereading it today, with the outlines of the postwar-prewar world taking grim shape about us, is a peculiar experience. One wonders about the psychology of the speaker and of the many educated, idealistic citizens who mistook for reality a hallucinatory vision.

“This is a fight between a free world and a slave world,” Wallace began in clarion tones. “Just as the United States in 1862 could not remain half slave and half free, so in 1942 the world must make its decision for a complete victory one way or the other.

“As we begin the final stages of this fight to the death…it is worth while to refresh our minds about the march of freedom for the common man. The idea of freedom—that we in the United States know and love so well—is derived from the Bible with its extraordinary emphasis on the dignity of the individual. Democracy is the only true political expression of Christianity…

“The people are on the march toward even fuller freedom than the most fortunate peoples of the world have hitherto enjoyed. No Nazi counter-revolutionist will stop it…The people’s revolution is on the march, and the devil and all his angels cannot prevail against it. They cannot prevail, for on the side of the people is the Lord.”

This encouraging view of the future, long since punctured by postwar events, was possible to Wallace because his is a Victorian optimisim of progress, based on a belief in the automatic beneficence of industrialization plus popular education: “Down the years, the people of hte United States have moved steadily forward in the practice of democracy. Through universal education, they can now read and write and form opinions of their own…Everywhere, reading and writing are accompanied by industrial progress, and industrial progress sooner or later brings a strong labor movement.”

That universal literacy, with all media of communication in the hands of the dominant class—whether the Soviet politburo or our own hucksters—has become a means of preventing people from having “opinions of thier own”—this in no clearer to Wallace today than it was to Herbert Spencer in the last century. Nor is there any place in his antiquated cosmology for the two great historical developments of our time: the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the growth of Nazism. For the industrialization of Russia and the well-publicized reduction of illiteracy by the Soviet regime have been accompanied by a contraction of the area of political freedom; while Hitler came to power precisely in that European country which was the most heavily industrialized and had the finest system of public education, as well as the strongest labor movement. Wallace attempted to meet these objections by asserting (1) that “in the process” of abolishing illiteracy “Russia’s appreciation of freedom was tremendously increased,” which simply is not true (unless in the sense that one values what one hasn’t got); and (2) that Germany lacks a tradition of self-government, which merely raises the question as to why so industrialized and well-educated a nation failed to develop a democratic tradition.

If such phenomena simply refused to fit into Wallace’s historical scheme, so did the fact that for the second time in a generation the world was at war. The sins of capitalism he loaded onto the scapegoat HItler, “the curse of the modern world,” such as Hitler loaded them onto the Jews. Instead of seeing Hitlerism as the terrible result of the decadence of both capitalism and the 1917 Revolution, Wallace presented it as a monstrosity which in some way had arisen entirely outside history—a kind of pure diabolism. The speech referred to Hitler as “Satan” no fewer than seven times.

Against the black picture of Satan-Hitler, Wallace set a bright lantern-slide of the situatino on the Anglo-American-Russian side of the battle-lines: a steady, inevitable forward-march by the common people toward ever-increasing democracy and security: “The march of freedom of the past 150 years has been a long-drawn-out people’s revolution…The people’s revolution aims at peach and not at violence, but if the rights of the common man are attacked, it unleashes the ferocity of a she-bear who has lost a cub…The people, in their millenial and revolutionary march toward manifesting here on earth the dignity that is in every human soul, hold as their credo the Four Freedoms ennunciated by President Roosevelt. These Four Freedoms are the very core of the revolution for which the United Nations have taken their stand.” It was characteristic of Wallace that an advertising slogan like the Four Freedoms (Love Those Freedoms!), which are now as mercifully forgotten as Phoebe Snow and the Sapolio jingles, should have appeared to him as the “core” of a “people’s revolution.” Also characteristic was the notion of a revolution whose Navy was commanded by a Knox, whose army was led by a Stimson, and whose foreign policy was conducted by a Hull.

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