rent Lott's ill-judged remarks about Strom Thurmond have, among other things, pushed the 1948 presidential campaign into the public spotlight after more than half a century. But the most-important and dramatic issue in that election is being forgotten. Of course, no one should forget that then-Governor Thurmond was a renegade Democrat, not a Republican; or that it was historically Democrats, not Republicans, who supported Jim Crow segregation and exploited southern racist sentiment for political gain; or that Thurmond and his running mate, Governor Fielding Wright of Mississippi, won a grand total of two percent of the vote. I am referring to the other Democratic renegade who ran for president, a liberal renegade whose candidacy should be more of a political millstone around the necks of modern liberals than the old Dixiecrats can ever be for modern conservatives.
If Strom Thurmond and his supporters deserve execration for their ties to Jim Crow, then Henry Wallace and his Progressive party deserve the same for their ties to Joseph Stalin ties liberals today are unwilling or unable to repudiate. In fact, the Wallace campaign was the closest the Soviet Union ever came to actually choosing a president of the United States.
Henry Wallace had been Franklin Roosevelt's vice president, until Roosevelt decided to replace him with Harry Truman in 1944. Wallace had admired the USSR since the 1920s; a visit to Russia in 1941, including a tour of the notorious gulag camp at Magadan, only confirmed his enthusiasm. At the end of World War II, as historian Allen Weinstein has revealed, Wallace even arranged a secret meeting with the NKVD's Washington station chief, offering him access to American scientists working on the atomic bomb.
In 1946, Wallace publicly broke with President Truman over the issue of opposing Stalin's bid for domination of Europe. Two years later Wallace ran as the liberals' antiwar candidate. He opposed the Berlin airlift and blamed the fall of Czechoslovakia to the Communists on the United States. His campaign attracted many academics and intellectuals who saw him, not Truman, as the true champion of New Deal liberalism.
But the real backbone of his Progressive Citizens of America was the American Communist party. Its chairman was a secret Communist; John Abt, its general counsel, was a Soviet spy who was part of the same Communist cell as Alger Hiss (Hiss himself worked for Wallace when he had been secretary of agriculture). The campaign's platform committee was headed by another secret Communist, Lee Pressman. Every aspect of the official platform faithfully reflected the Stalinist party line.
Let us be clear. The segregationist south, into which Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott were both born and raised, wreaked great injustice on its black inhabitants and lynched nearly 5,000 people from 1882 to 1951 out of which 3,500 were black. The Soviet Union, which Joseph Stalin helped to create and then ruled for three decades, put nearly 20 million to death. In 1948 Strom Thurmond looked at the first and saw no evil; Henry Wallace looked at the second and reached the same conclusion. Wallace himself was not a Communist; nor was he a conscious Soviet agent. But the famous Venona decrypts do reveal that his favorite speechwriter, Charles Kramer, was an active NKVD spy who kept in regular contact with his Russian superiors. And Wallace knew more about what was really going on than his public denials of Reds under the Progressives' bed implied. In fact, when Hubert Humphrey complained about the prominent role Communists were playing in the election, Wallace blithely told him to go talk to the Russian embassy it had more influence over his campaign officials than he did.
Humphrey remains a hero to liberals for his tough speech on civil rights in the 1948 Democratic-party convention the same speech, ironically, that caused southern Democrats to walk out and launch Strom Thurmond as their separate presidential candidate. Yet Humphrey was also a fierce anti-Communist, and he recognized that Wallace represented as much a threat to American values as southern segregationists did given the international stakes involved, perhaps more so. Humphrey and other anti-Communist liberals even formed Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), specifically to purge the Democratic party of Wallace's baneful influence.
Half a century ago, Wallace's Progressive party took only two percent of the vote the same percentage, as it happens, as Thurmond's Dixiecrats. Later, Wallace repudiated his earlier views but then so has Strom Thurmond. Yet those same views, that the Cold War was America's fault, that J. Edgar Hoover was an "American Himmler," and that Republicans are stalking horses for the forces of "monopoly, militarism, and reaction" are now part of the American liberal mindset even as Thurmond is dismissed as an "abomination," by the likes of Dick Morris.
As for Wallace's reputation among Democrats today, let September 29, 1999 stand as a test case. That was the day the USDA dedicated a Henry Wallace Room in its building in Washington. Two speakers, former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, and Bill Clinton's secretary of agriculture, Dan Glickman, paid Wallace fulsome tribute. McGovern said that at "the turn of the millennium we still have a lot to learn from Henry A. Wallace." Glickman called Wallace "an inspiration" and said he was "proud to call myself one of Henry Wallace's successors."
Glickman, of course, could say he was praising Wallace not as a Stalinist appeaser but as an effective secretary of agriculture, or for his progressive views on race just as Lott says he was praising Thurmond on every issue except race. But McGovern left no room for guessing. Trent Lott was seven years old when Thurmond ran. McGovern, however, spoke with pride of having been a delegate for Wallace in the Progressive-party convention. He said, "I'm glad that I stood with Wallace in 1948" and then added: "Twenty four years later I won the Democratic presidential nomination on a similar platform" in 1972 namely abandoning Vietnam, "bringing the Cold War and the arms race under control," and diminishing America's role in the world.
Someone once said there is no such thing as a double standard, only a single hidden one. In Trent Lott's case, that hidden standard is this: Given time, the media and liberal opinion can forgive anything except being on the political Right.
Perhaps we should not forget who Strom Thurmond was, or forgive those who do. But why should we do anything less for Henry Wallace?
Arthur Herman is the author of How the Scots Invented the Modern World and Joseph McCarthy: Re-Assessing the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator.