But Henry Wallace offers progressives like his grandson more than just a convenient symbol of those halcyon years of New Deal dominance. Particularly in his fight for full employment, Wallace’s political career offers insight into the difficulty of connecting racial and economic equality. While a challenge for progressives then and now, grappling with race is essential for the left to truly combat questions of poverty.
Henry Wallace arrived in Washington in 1933 as secretary of agriculture with provincial ideas about rural poverty: He thought poor farmers in California or Mississippi required the same solutions as farmers in his native Iowa and resisted what he saw as preferential treatment for racial minorities and tenant farmers. In 1935, Wallace fired a number of his subordinates in the Department of Agriculture because they had acted independently to protect the rights of white and black Southern sharecroppers. This move provoked heated criticism from the left, and in response he went on a tour of farming conditions in the South.
What he saw shocked him — and spurred him to action. He began directing more of the USDA’s energy toward anti-poverty programs and supported new legislation to aid tenant farmers. Two of the direct results were the Farm Security Administration — famous for its iconic and haunting photographs of agricultural workers during the Depression — and the first food stamp program.
Wallace joined the Democratic ticket as Franklin Roosevelt’s running mate in 1940, and during World War II, he expanded his awareness of the ways that racial and economic subordination often worked hand in hand beyond the borders of the United States. Critiquing earlier U.S. economic exploitation of Latin America, Wallace also began speaking out forcefully against European colonialism — enraging Winston Churchill.
Wallace’s wartime assault on colonialism culminated in his famous speech “The Century of the Common Man,” where he laid out a vision of World War II as a moral crusade for social democracy that would bring an end to material deprivation throughout the world. But this “people’s revolution” would only come with the end of colonialism. He asserted that “No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations … there must be neither military nor economic imperialism.”
Conservatives mocked Wallace’s idealism and blasted him for prioritizing the welfare of colonized peoples over the safety of U.S. troops. The president of the National Association of Manufacturers sputtered that he was “not fighting for a quart of milk for every Hottentot.”
“The Century of the Common Man” made Henry Wallace into an icon for progressives, particularly within the labor movement, but it also made him powerful enemies. Although Wallace received support from Eleanor Roosevelt and other prominent liberals, Franklin Roosevelt replaced him on the ticket in 1944 with Harry S. Truman, demoting Wallace to secretary of commerce. From that position, Wallace moved on to his next fight: full employment after the war.
Wallace first articulated his ideas in a 1945 book titled “Sixty Million Jobs,” which was the total number of jobs that he had determined would be required to keep the United States employed at “full capacity” after the war ended. The title of the book was a subtle critique of a rival approach to full employment — one which would eventually be enacted in the Employment Act of 1946. Rather than promulgate an abstract principle like “full” or “maximum employment,” Wallace wanted to set a concrete benchmark for the number of jobs that would be required to supply everyone who wanted a job with one. That, rather than a floating percentage, would be the federal government’s target.
Wallace foresaw how “full employment” would become watered down over time to mean a tolerable level of unemployment, and he also understood that the people most likely to be left in that margin of tolerable unemployment would be racial minorities.
Sixty million jobs was a number high enough in 1945 that workers — including soldiers returning from the war — would have a sellers’ market: There would be more job openings than people looking to fill them. Under such conditions, racial prejudice would be economically stupid. Wallace did not just depend on the market’s invisible hand to eliminate racism, though. He wanted to extend wartime measures like the Fair Employment Practice Committee, which was supposed to prevent employment discrimination in all work related to war production. Full employment and fair employment would have to be pursued conjointly.
Ultimately Wallace’s vision lost out: The Employment Act placed the federal government’s powers behind more abstract forms of employment accounting and steered clear of race. After Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Wallace quickly wore out his welcome in the Truman administration, and he was fired in 1946. He mounted a controversial and ineffective third-party campaign for the presidency in 1948. Plagued by redbaiting and fierce Southern resistance to his promises of expanded civil rights for African Americans, he underperformed even the modest expectations for a third-party candidate.
Wallace’s 1948 campaign has often stood as a reminder that, inevitably, idealists in national politics will get crushed. But today, Wallace’s whole career may offer a different message for idealistic progressives — like his grandson — who have been emboldened to enter politics for the first time or to run for a higher office.
Wallace became a more complete advocate for economic equality when he began to fight for racial justice, as well. Demonstrating a willingness to confront his biases and learn, Wallace came to recognize that any program or law intending to combat poverty must contain explicit and concrete tools for redressing racism. Fairness can’t be achieved after the fact; it has to be part of the process.
Recently, potential presidential candidates Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders have signed on to a Wallace-like federal jobs guarantee. But as we’ve seen just this week in California’s Democratic primaries, progressives are still testing out a variety of approaches to problems of economic and racial inequality, searching for the policy proposals — a $15 minimum wage, free college tuition, abolishing ICE, ending mass incarceration — that will move the electoral needle. Meanwhile, still uncertain that the white working class will listen to economic populism if it’s mixed with “identity politics,” some mainstream Democrats deeply fear that these progressive demands will continue to alienate voters lost to the GOP in the last election.
The future of the Democratic Party, in other words, is still very much in flux. But progressives do have effective models for achieving the synthesis of race and class they desire. Rather than shun Henry Wallace for his quixotic idealism, progressives could usefully look back to him for an example of why racial and economic inequality must be solved together.