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Untold History: The Coup Against Wallace and What Might Have Been

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A Wallace Presidency might have prevented the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan and prevented the Cold War.

Peter Kuznick (co-author with Oliver Stone of the Untold History of the United States): A Wallace Presidency might have prevented the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan and prevented the Cold War.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. We’re continuing our series of interviews about The Untold History of the United States with coauthor Peter Kuznick. Thanks for joining us again, Peter.

And just one more time, to remind everybody, Peter teaches at American University, history, in D.C.

So we’re just going to pick up the discussion. We were talking about the convention where Henry Wallace loses the vice presidency. We’ll—as we said in the last segment, you’ll see in the series, this is like a coup, in a sense.

PETER KUZNICK, PROF. HISTORY, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Yeah. And, in fact, Edwin Pauley, the Democratic Party treasurer, referred to it as Pauley’s coup. Pauley’s an important figure. He went into—he was a California oil millionaire who went into politics, he said, when he realized it was cheaper to elect a new Congress than to buy up the old one. And so he later gets indicted. He’s corrupt. And he’s the treasurer of the Democratic Party. The chair of the Democratic Party is Bob Hannegan. And the two of them work together.

Pendergast, who was Truman’s initial sponsor, was in federal prison in Kansas City in 1940 when Truman was up for reelection. Roosevelt refused to support him and endorse him.

Truman was coming in third in that election, and he turned to Hannegan, who was the head of the St. Louis machine, the Hannegan-[‘dIkl3’] machine around St. Louis. And Hannegan throws his support to Truman, who barely pulls out that election in 1940.

He was not very popular. In fact, most of the senators shunned him after his first term. They referred to him as the senator from Pendergast and thought of him as a corrupt hack. It’s during his second term where he begins to develop a national reputation. But Truman is no stellar figure at that point, which is why he had so little support.

JAY: So let’s go back to this moment.


JAY: Roosevelt says yes to Truman, knowing he’s a hack. He gives in to these party bosses. But there’s another step to it. We talked a lot about this thing about Roosevelt in the last segment, so I won’t go over that again, but once this coup takes place, it’s clear the majority of the party wants Wallace.


JAY: They manipulate the process to force—in a way that gives them time to rally the votes for Truman. They essentially steal it from Wallace. But then, once they do, Wallace says, okay, I accept this. And then the trade unions who one would think were a much more powerful force at the time—they were a powerful force—they accept it too. I mean, why isn’t there a war? Because it—you know, you could say the whole soul of what the Democratic Party was under FDR is being wrenched out of that party to quite a different path. Why does Wallace—and particularly the unions, why do they go along with this?

KUZNICK: There’s no clear answer to that one. Wallace had the support. I mean, Wallace didn’t just have union support. He was the leading spokesperson for labor in the Democratic Party at that point, but he also had the support of every black delegate there. He was the leading spokesperson for civil rights in the Democratic Party. He had tremendous women’s support because he was an outstanding spokesperson for women’s rights much earlier, and feminism.

And he—but his other enemies—Wall Street people hated him. The British and the French hated him, ’cause he had been writing books and pamphlets attacking British and French colonialism. And they actually had Roald Dahl spying on him for Churchill during this time. So he had a lot of enemies.

But he had the support of labor, and he had the support of the black delegates, and he had the support of all the progressives and the liberal and the average Democratic Party voters. So why does he not fight more? It’s not really his nature, in a certain way, if you know Henry Wallace. He’s a man of great principle, but he’s not the—.

JAY: Well, yeah, even if—but my question was more the unions. I understand Wallace might have felt, okay, I’m not going to split the party over this, I don’t want it to be about me, and I guess I can imagine that. But why the unions?

KUZNICK: But that was why they were—when they went through the list of who they could replace Wallace with, the party bosses, they went through various people, and they decided Jimmy Burns was too segregationist, that’s not going to work.

JAY: But were the unions in on the deal?

KUZNICK: The unions were not in on the deal. The unions were very strongly supporting Wallace at the convention. And it was actually finally when they—given their choices, when it was clear they weren’t going to get Wallace, they agreed to Truman. But they were very, very angry about that and they fought very hard for Wallace at the convention.

Truman was chosen because he didn’t have any real enemies. He wasn’t pro-labor, but he wasn’t anti-labor like a lot of the other people in the party. The party still had a conservative wing.

JAY: And easily manipulable.

KUZNICK: They knew he was manipulable ’cause he had always been manipulable. As a senator he was willing to go along with the conservative influences from Missouri who were behind him, Pendergast and other people.

JAY: So does it tell us something about the character of the Democratic Party in the long run, which is, when push comes to shove, it is a party of one section of the American elite, and when push comes to shove, it’s those instincts that really take over the party?

KUZNICK: But it was even worse during this time, ’cause you have such a strong southern segregationist wing of the party that it doesn’t have now. It’s not held back by those forces in the same way. And those people were outright racists, segregationists, and very conservative on most issues, and they wanted Jimmy Burns.

So Roosevelt was always a pragmatic politician. I mean, he had some principle, of course, but he was always very pragmatic and he was always figuring how you put together coalitions that can get you elected and where the money was going to come from and where the votes were going to come from. And the party bosses convinced him that he would do better in ’44 with Truman on the ticket, or if not do better, then if they wanted his—he wanted their strong support.

JAY: At this time does he think he’s going to live long enough for another term?

KUZNICK: Yes, yes.

JAY: So he’s not thinking it’s imminent that this guy’s going to be the next president.

KUZNICK: No, no, he’s not thinking it, but everybody else understood that. When he would try to pour people’s drinks or light their cigarettes, his hands would shake at that point. They knew that his health was deteriorating rapidly and visibly.

JAY: So this is more this guy can help me get reelected more than Wallace can, and as long as I’m around, things are okay.

KUZNICK: But then he begged Wallace to stay in the cabinet, you know, said, you can have any position you want, he said, other than secretary of state; I don’t want to break old Cordell Hull’s heart. So he says, I have to leave him as secretary of state, but you can have any other position. And Wallace chose to stay in as secretary of commerce.

And it’s from that vantage point that he fights against Truman’s policies. And he fights heroically. But I think in some ways it goes against his nature to be a fighter in that way. He’s always this man of principle. He’s above the fray, in a sense. And that’s why some people thought of him as so otherworldly. Some people thought of him as not a typical politician, and he wasn’t in any way.

JAY: So, then, let me argue with you on one thing now.


JAY: Do you not think that if Wallace had remained vice president and he became president, that the fundamentals of the American political system, where power resides, that in spite of all his intentions, he would not have been able to do what he wanted to do, and one way or the other he wouldn’t have been president for long, whether they defeat him in an election or they shot him or whatever it was? He’s just too at odds with the basic class interest of those people who have real power in the country.

KUZNICK: We don’t know that. I mean—.

JAY: Well, I can speculate as well as you can.

KUZNICK: You can speculate better than I can, I think. But certain things he could have done. And he could have prevented the atomic bombing at Hiroshima—

JAY: Yeah, that’s possible.

KUZNICK: —and Nagasaki. And the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a fundamental aspect of the Cold War as it goes forward. That was in large part a warning to the Russians, to the Soviets, of what the United—how ruthless the United States really was.

JAY: But the bomb development begins under Roosevelt.

KUZNICK: Bomb—and it begins under Wallace, because the October 1941 meeting in which they decide to move forward with the project, Wallace is the person who’s in that meeting with Roosevelt and Vannevar Bush and others. And I think Wallace had a lot of guilt as a result of that, because he—. But, you know, the people who were pushing the project at that point were mostly the emigre scientists who had escaped from Nazi-occupied Europe. It was the Leó Szilárds and the Albert Einsteins and the Fermis. These were the—.

JAY: Because at that time they think Hitler could actually—

KUZNICK: They thought—.

JAY: —win this war,—


JAY: —and if push came to shove, you needed the ultimate weapon.

KUZNICK: Well, they thought that Hitler—they knew that Hitler was going to develop a bomb himself. That was their belief. And the Germans do begin, ’cause the Germans, even though they’d gotten rid of the Jewish scientists, they still were very advanced in science and technology and physics, and they begin the bomb project, and they put it under Heisenberg, who’s a brilliant physicist. And so we didn’t know till 1944, late 1944, that the Germans had abandoned their bomb project back in 1942. But at this point, the scientists believed that we were actually possibly a year or more behind the Germans in developing the bomb. So that was the reason why Wallace and others supported it initially, for fear that the Germans would get it and use it to take over the world.

JAY: Okay. In the next segment of the interview, we’re going to talk more about the role of the Soviet Union in the war, because certainly one of the things this series does that you’ve never seen on mainstream television before, I think, is unpack the role of the Soviet Union in being the real bulwark or the force that broke the back of German fascism. I mean, anyone that has ever studied this history with any seriousness kind of knows that, but it’s sure not part of what’s taught in schools—

KUZNICK: No, it’s not taught at all.

JAY: —and it’s not part of the official narrative.

KUZNICK: And it’s not even a part of people’s consciousness. When you ask people who won World War II in Europe, they say the Americans. But when you explain it to them, they get it.

JAY: Alright. So join us for the next segment of our interview with Peter Kuznick on the untold history of the United States on The Real News Network.

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