Fascism. That single word has had immense influence on American political life and on world history since it was openly explored by a sitting vice-president 70 years ago. It cost Henry Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt’s vice-president from 1940 to 1944, his chance to become president when Roosevelt died early in his fourth term.
Wallace’s published views on fascism sent panic through the minds of corporate leaders of the nation, so they made sure he was in no position to succeed FDR.
When Roosevelt gained an unprecedented fourth term in 1944, his health was failing. He was sapped of strength from having led the country out of the Great Depression and from having guided it to the verge of victory in World War II.
Corporate backers of both parties knew his chances for surviving in office another four years were remote. They wanted to guard against his successor holding strong liberal views like those Wallace held.
Sure enough, in the fourth month of his fourth term, Roosevelt died. Inheriting the presidency was Harry Truman, a little known senator from Missouri whom FDR had reluctantly accepted as Wallace’s replacement. The power-brokers chose him because he was conservative and they knew they could control him.
Most of the public had been elated by Roosevelt gaining a fourth term, but was also in denial about the state of his health. While political insiders from both major parties saw the president’s growing terminal illness, the public did not see the signs of his physical degeneration — because there was no television at that time.
Press photos did not reveal it — while Roosevelt’s radio voice continued as positive and reassuring as it was when it inspired the country to overcome the depression and the uncertain early years of World War II.
Wallace had a long public service record, including productive years as Secretary of Agriculture. He fully supported Roosevelt’s liberalism and went even further — as seen in his public statement about the growth of fascism in the US during an interview with the New York Times. It gave his detractors the ammunition they needed to replace him.
I remember a World War II slogan that suggested how Wallace’s newspaper response made him a target: “A slip of the lip can sink a ship.” Some believe such a slip sank his candidacy. Perhaps. But to his lasting credit, Wallace chose to speak his truth even if it jeopardized him.
When asked by the Times if fascism — which we were fighting in Europe against the Germans — could develop in the US, his direct answer was “Yes, it already is in subtle ways.” That moment of honesty was exploited by his enemies, as described in his diary, “The Price of Vision,” published in 1973.
He had trouble within his own party, whose conservative wing was pro-business and segregationist. The absence of its support led to the biggest blunder of Roosevelt’s extensive term in office, allowing Wallace to be erased from the 1944 ticket.
His foes ignored the American Heritage Dictionary definition: Fascism is a system of government that exercises a dictatorship by the extreme right through the merging of state and business leadership together with belligerent nationalism.
I believe we see those characteristics developing in our nation today, which leads to the question: how different would the nation have become had Wallace been the one to inherit the presidency after FDR died?