Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism by Thomas W. Devine (review)
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Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism. By Thomas W. Devine. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Pp. 424. $39.95 cloth; $39.95 ebook)

This book will be the definitive account of Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign. Although many historians have written about this important campaign, there has not been an entire book about it since Curtis MacDougall’s Gideon’s Army, published in 1965. With the benefit of new evidence and extensive research, Devine offers a [End Page 153] much-needed corrective to MacDougall’s account, which dismissed the idea that communists played a significant role in the campaign.

The book is less about the future of postwar liberalism (as the title promises) and more about attempts by anti-Cold War liberals to cooperate with the American Communist Party (CPUSA) in the postwar years. That is the main story here, and while it does shed light on the future of postwar liberalism, its greater contribution is showing us the complexity of the relationship between the noncommunists and communists in and around the Progressive Party.

This is important because so many historians and liberals today hold the Progressive Party in great esteem and blame its demise on the redbaiting of the early Cold War era, either dismissing or celebrating the communist involvement. Those historians who came of age during the Vietnam War especially look back at Wallace and the Progressive Party as a lost opportunity to have averted the tragedy of American Cold War imperialism. Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick have recently presented an extreme version of this interpretation in a new ten-part series for Showtime called The Untold History of the United States. The Progressive Party challenged the developing Cold War consensus; it presciently warned that anticommunism would lead to repression at home and hubris abroad. Of course, Cold War supporters believed it was controlled by “Reds.” As a result, to look too closely at the role of communists in the Progressive Party could be seen as an updated form of redbaiting. Devine challenges this assumption. It is hard to read Devine’s well-researched book and see the communist role as anything but a disaster for those liberals who really wanted to find a way out of Cold War hostilities. After documenting examples of the communists’ mendacity, domineering behavior, and stubborn loyalty to the Soviet Union at the expense of the credibility of the Progressive Party, Devine concludes that the blame for the failure of the party rests at least as much with the communists as the redbaiters.

In addition to new details about the founding of the party, the convention, and intraparty debates, the book offers several new insights, [End Page 154] perhaps the most important of which is that Moscow and the CPUSA were not always on the same page. Although new evidence from the Soviet and Eastern European archives indicates that Moscow was very much in control of international communist parties, Devine offers a more nuanced interpretation, showing that Moscow did not have all that much control over, or interest in, the Progressive Party venture of the CPUSA. In this episode at least, there was no foreign “fifth column,” only American communists, who misinterpreted and overreacted to what they saw as Moscow’s wishes as they tried to reconcile their own policy of encouraging “anti-monopolism” with a rigid defense of Soviet foreign policy.

The author does his best to present Wallace fairly, but, as someone from the time noted about Wallace, “no distortion of the facts was necessary to produce an unflattering portrait” (p. 131). In the end, one is left with a greater appreciation for the plight of those liberals who genuinely wanted to curb American Cold War aggressiveness and were betrayed in their efforts by both Henry Wallace and the communists.

Jennifer Delton

Jennifer Delton is professor of history at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. She is the author most recently of Rethinking the 1950s: How Anticommunism and the Cold War Made America Liberal (forthcoming in 2014).

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