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Henry Wallace: Progressive Pioneer

Henry Agard Wallace (October 7, 1888 – November 18, 1965) served as Vice President under Franklin Delano Roosevelt from January 20, 1941 to January 20, 1945. Roosevelt preferred that Wallace serve a second term as Vice President, in which case he would have become our 33rd President, but other forces intervened to bounce him off the ticket and change the course of history. Though from Iowa, New York City was where Wallace found the most support for his 1948 presidential campaign as the Progressive Party candidate, and Greenwich Village was particularly fertile ground for his politics. He was supported by labor leaders and activists here, including a young Norman Mailer. His progressive policies played a large role in the 1948 election, and things may have played out much differently if not the timing of the Cold War and second red scare.

This photo of Wallace in Washington Square (date unknown) was donated to our historic image archive:  www.archive.gvshp.org

The Battle for Nomination

In March 1944, Wallace was by far the most popular choice for Vice President among Democrats and many predicted that he would win re-nomination. Roosevelt supported Wallace as the nominee, but his support was not 100%. With Roosevelt’s declining health, it was expected that the nominee would eventually succeed Roosevelt as President.

Vice President Wallace with President Roosevelt

Wallace was known as a progressive – mainly for opposing segregation, his unorthodox religious views, and his acceptance of communism – and he had many enemies within the Democratic Party. On the first vote at the convention for Vice President Wallace received 429 1/2 votes (589 were needed for nomination); Truman finished with 319 1/2 votes, and the balance went to various favorite son candidates. On the second ballot, many delegates who had voted for favorite sons then voted for Truman, giving him the nomination.


Following his dismissal from the ticket, Wallace served as the Secretary of Commerce under Roosevelt and Truman from March 2, 1945- September 20, 1946.  After leaving office, Wallace became the editor of The New Republic, a progressive magazine founded in 1914 that still publishes today. He also helped establish the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA) which accepted members regardless of race, creed, or political affiliation. Wallace was considered the PCA’s leader and was criticized for the PCA’s acceptance of Communist members. Wallace strongly criticized Truman in 1947 for the Truman Doctrine, which countered the expansion of Soviet power and expanded the scope of the Cold War, and for Executive Order 9835, which began a purge of government workers affiliated with political groups deemed to be subversive. Wallace and the PCA were both closely scrutinized by the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee, both of which sought to uncover evidence of Communist influence.

The Progressive Citizens of America members supported Wallace’s campaign and his Progressive Party. From left seated, Henry A. Wallace and FDR’s son Elliott Roosevelt; standing are Dr. Harlow Shapley and Jo Davidson (1947)

Election of 1948 & the Progressive Party

On December 29, 1947, Wallace launched a third-party campaign. Wallace’s supporters held a national convention in Philadelphia in July, 1948, formally establishing the Progressive Party. The party platform included support for the desegregation of public schools, gender equality, a national health insurance program, free trade, and public ownership of large banks, railroads, and power utilities. He won backing from many intellectuals, union members, and military veterans. Among his prominent supporters were Congressmen Vito Marcantonio from East Harlem and Leo Isacson from the Bronx, musicians Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, and future presidential nominee George McGovern.

Henry Wallace Campaign Material

Wallace was opposed in both the North and South. He openly defied the Jim Crow regime in the South, refusing to speak before segregated audiences. Time magazine described Wallace as “ostentatiously” riding through the towns and cities of the segregated South “with his Negro secretary beside him.” The Pittsburgh Press began publishing the names of known Wallace supporters, and many pro-Wallace academics lost their positions. Nationwide, just three newspapers endorsed his candidacy (one of which was the National Guardian, established in 1948 by Norman Mailer and other Wallace supporters).

Many Americans came to see Wallace as a Communist. The CIO and the AFL rejected the Progressive Party with the AFL denouncing Wallace as a “front, spokesman, and apologist for the Communist Party”. Many of Wallace’s liberal supporters returned to the Democratic fold.

Wallace won just 2.38 percent of the nationwide popular vote and failed to carry any state. His best performance was in New York, where he won eight percent of the vote. Though Wallace siphoned some votes away from President Truman, his presence in the race likely boosted Truman’s overall appeal by casting him as the candidate of the center-left rather than the left. 

Wallace’s campaign resulted in a closer race, playing a small role in the infamous “Dewey defeats Truman” headline.

Post Election Future of the Progressive Patry

Following the 1948 election, Wallace moved away from the Progressive Party. The final split came in 1950 when the Progressive Party issued a statement against US military involvement in Korea. Wallace supported  US intervention in the Korean War and he quit the Progressive Party. In 1952, the Progressive Party ran Vincent Hallinan for president. Their vice-presidential candidate was Charlotta Bass, the first African-American woman ever to run for national office. The campaign attracted little media attention and few votes, and was not even on the ballot in many states. Wallace supported Eisenhower and strengthened his positions against the growth of Communism. The Progressive Party disbanded in 1955, as the Cold War dominated the political spectrum, and any party which had not taken an anti-Communist position was deemed to be unviable.

One response to “Henry Wallace: Progressive Pioneer

  1. Good timing—what an appropriate bit of AMerican political history . Well written and informative–

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