Why I Stood With Henry Wallace

Famed socialist Victor Grossman on why Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party campaign mattered.

The Maryland delegation to the Progressive Party convention in Philadelphia, July 27, 1948. Washington Area Spark / Flickr.

Back in 1948, I was a member of Communist Party (CP) and an active participant in the Young Progressive organization in Boston.

When the former vice president and still popular national figure Henry Wallace decided to run for president under the Progressive Party banner, the CP was an important participant. But far from being a postwar sectarian swing from the Earl Browder Popular Front years, the effort that I was involved with seemed to me motivated by an attempt to build meaningful alliances with non-Communist progressives in a last-ditch effort to save the once powerful left-wing movement of the 1930s and early 1940s.

That period had been characterized (under Communist participation and leadership to a great extent) by the creation of powerful unions for automakers, steelworkers, electrical workers, black and white cigarette makers, fur and leather workers, longshoremen, and maritime unions, pushed the New Deal towards the creation of Social Security and other advances in social welfare, took big steps in combating racism and, despite the complex ups and downs of the FDR years, assumed a strong antifascist position until his death.

“Don’t We All Dream of a Socialist America?”

I participated in the campaign at Harvard and all over Massachusetts, and saw how Communists were indeed among the most active Progressive Party supporters. Every weekend (and not a few weekday evenings) we knocked on doors collecting signatures to get on the ballot (about one hundred thousand were needed in the state). Together, CP and non-CP, we sang the many catchy campaign songs written by then-Communists like Pete Seeger and (at least) Communist-sympathizing Paul Robeson, who contributed his services with the greatest devotion.

But I was also aware that Communists like myself took the greatest care not to advance any positions which non-Communists would find hard to accept. Compromises were sought if need be, but some CP positions were downplayed – not with any insidious intent, but to save this lingering hope that we could prevent the United States from spiraling off into the Cold War and the racist, anti-union and repressive era of Joseph McCarthy and company. I see nothing sinister or ruinous in this, but rather a search for common ground in order to rescue a broad left-wing movement.

So why did it fail? One reason was because by 1948 Communists and other leftists in once-strong left-wing unions of the CIO – already weakened by Browder’s abandonment of party cells in the factories and black centers and by the Taft-Hartley Act, which barred Communists from any union leadership — were under such severe attack that they had neither the people, the resources, nor the courage to support the Progressive Party. Thus, those who should have provided the most support failed to help their best allies — and in most cases lost out anyway and were eliminated.

A second reason was the lack of support for the Progressive Party — the only really antiracist party at the time — by the main African-American organizations, most of which were allied to the Democrats (and some even to the Republicans).

Another important reason was the world situation: over the course of the electoral campaign, three major events gave the US media material with which to frighten Americans and drive the Progressives into various corners. One was the Chinese Communists’ impending victory against Chiang Kai-check despite massive US military assistance and even the use of defeated Japanese troops. This was played up as a “yellow menace.”

Then there was the February regime change in Czechoslovakia, with Communists taking full control. Most telling in its effect was the Berlin Airlift, provoked by the Western Allies in a two-day surprise move introducing a new Deutschmark, a measure which threatened to immediately wreck the East German economy (where there was no replacement for the now useless old currency). All three were complicated matters for which Wallace and the Progressives bore no responsibility, but took heavy losses nonetheless.

A third reason was a relentless media onslaught — first ignoring, then playing down and finally red-baiting the campaign — almost exactly like the media treatment Bernie Sanders faced.

But perhaps most decisive in Wallace’s defeat was that a very large number of his supporters (including quite devoted ones) entered the voting booth on election day and saw the name Thomas Dewey on the GOP ticket. A bit like George W. Bush for my generation, many ultimately chose to opt for the “lesser evil,” Harry Truman.

I am convinced that these factors are what broke the Wallace campaign. Its defeat essentially broke the back of the American left, condemned the union movement to its AFL-CIO retreat from militancy and anti-racism, served it up to the multi-continental divisive manipulations of Irving Brown (and Jay Lovestone, together with the recently created CIA), opened wide the doors to the Cold War, nuclear rivalry, attacks on the sovereignty of Guatemala, Haiti, Iran and many others, and support for bloody colonial rule against national liberation in Indonesia, Algeria, and most tragically, Vietnam.

It was not until the late 1950s with the emergence of the Black Freedom movement, and later the events of the 1960s, that this stranglehold could be weakened for a while. I think none of this development could be blamed on Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party — or the Communist Party.

The latter, further battered in the McCarthy/Taft-Hartley era, faced even more difficulties after Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech,” the events in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Many complicated matters were involved. But analyzing them from different aspects can only be useful now, when divisions within or actions outside the Democratic Party are being considered.

I might add one anecdote: at Wallace’s last pre-election rally at a big Boston hotel, when supporters still had hopes of making at least some electoral gains, Paul Robeson also made an appearance. As was customary with him, he spoke and said a few words before and between his songs. All I can recall some seventy years later is one sentence he said to the large crowd, a majority of whom were certainly not Communist Party members: “But don’t we all dream, someday, of a socialist America?”

Suddenly, there was a gasp of total silence. We Communists had always carefully avoided just such a topic so as to get along with the non-Communists in a common campaign. But the silence was brief: the whole auditorium broke into loud, enthusiastic applause.

This was in part, no doubt, because “Big Paul’s” magnetic charisma and speaking voice alone could almost win over trees and stones. But it also indicated that quite a few of the non-Communists in the Progressive Party also shared such dreams, a phenomenon which appears to be present once again in the feelings of many millions of young Americans today.

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Victor Grossman is a journalist from the United States now living in Berlin. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany and A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee.

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