Thursday, 23 July 2020 05:58

Henry Wallace, JFK, and The Nation

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Jeff Carter examines John Nichols’ new book, The Fight For The Soul of the Democratic Party, in light of Donald Gibson’s ground-breaking book, Battling Wall Street: The Kennedy Presidency, on the Kennedy administration and its New Deal/progressive concepts. Carter compares how both Wallace and Kennedy publicly faced their critics in the media with respect to these progressive policies.

Books Reviewed:

Nichols, John. The Fight For The Soul of the Democratic Party.

Verso Books. 2020.

Gibson, Donald. Battling Wall Street: The Kennedy Presidency.

1994 Sheridan Square Press. reprinted 2014 Progressive Press.


Longtime liberal/progressive journalist John Nichols, associated with The Nation and The Capital Times, has authored a new book examining Democratic Party politics through the lens of Henry Wallace, who served as FDR’s vice-president from 1941-44. He was poised for a second-term as such before the Establishment wing of the Party intervened against him at the 1944 Democratic National Convention. While Wallace was personally liked and his New Deal policies enjoyed widespread support across the Party, his internal opponents controlled the mechanisms of procedure at the Convention. They were able to see Senator Harry Truman through to the vice-presidential slot.

The story of Wallace and the 1944 Democratic Party infighting was portrayed in Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s book/documentary series The Untold History of the United States. It was portrayed as a critical event leading to the advent of the Cold War and the domestic political repressions of the late 1940s and 1950s. Nichols also designates the events at the 1944 Convention as crucial, but tones down the Cold War hyperbole to focus on the consequences to the internal politics of the Democratic Party in the years and decades following. This approach has resonance with contemporary Democratic Party politics which post-date the 2012 release of the Stone/Kuznick series. The echo of 1944 was readily apparent in the Party’s abrupt treatment of maverick progressive Bernie Sanders in 2016 and again in 2020. Nichols identifies a progressive New Deal platform, as espoused by Wallace and later figures such as George McGovern and Sanders, as representing the true “soul” of the Democratic Party, otherwise understood as a spectral effusion often shackled by blinkered Party centrists and compromisers.

In 1944, ahead of the Democratic National Convention which would confirm a vice-presidential candidate for the national election in the Fall, Wallace had the advantage of incumbency as well as overwhelming support amongst the rank-and-file party members. He did not have the support of the Democratic Party establishment and its related vested interests, who were determined to install their own candidate in Wallace’s place. A popular attempt at upending the Party bosses by forcing a vote for the vice-presidential candidate in the immediate aftermath of FDR’s own confirmation as presidential candidate was finally stymied by a desperate motion to adjourn, accepted without a proper voice vote. The installation of Truman as the vice-presidential candidate was then sealed in the backrooms ahead of a more controlled vote the next evening.

Moving ahead seven decades, self-described “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders, although not as dynamic a figure as Wallace, was also to enjoy a widespread coalition of supporters, visible as the most enthusiastic and numerous at campaign rallies in 2016 and 2020. While the Democratic Party’s establishment was mostly confident during the 2016 contest that the combination of DNC control of campaign events plus the super delegate votes at the convention would see Hillary Clinton through to the presidential nomination, the 2020 campaign would require a sudden decisive intervention to blunt Sanders’ popular momentum. It’s reasonable to speculate internal Democratic Party polling ahead of the March 3 Super Tuesday round of state primaries revealed that Sanders was on the verge of a significant victory which could create problems with plans to upend him at the national convention. Something like that almost certainly motivated the senior leadership of the party to contact the campaigns of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar—the two candidates who at the time were promoted as the best “moderate” alternatives to Sanders—in the interest of abruptly closing their shops and shifting their full support to the, then, rather lackluster campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden.[1]

That Sanders had already been sidelined before the publication of The Soul of the Democratic Party (released May 10, 2020) removed much of the urgency and relevance that may have animated the book’s later chapters, where the prospects of realizing a renewed commitment to a New Deal progressivism within the Democratic Party are considered.[2] The history therefore verges on the futile, as the Democratic Party establishment is understood as posting a decisive track record in disrupting popular candidacies espousing progressive/New Deal policies. Further, the George McGovern presidential run in 1972, which Nicholls highlights as exemplifying a true progressive platform, ended in a total rout aided by the defection of establishment Democrats who would for years afterwards use the loss to discredit the Party’s “left” in favor of often unappealing centrists.[3] Despite this legacy, the book retains purpose and relevancy through its focused contextual examination of the uneasy relationship between the Party and its progressive wing. Beyond McGovern, disparate persons such as Michael Harrington, Tom Hayden, and Jesse Jackson are discussed not as quixotic figures, but rational actors who understood the real structural limitations of third parties in modern U.S. politics, but who could not overcome a Democratic Party establishment which had “made itself a managerial movement that softly promised it would never be quite so bad as the Republicans.”


There is a rather notable shortcoming with The Soul of the Democratic Party and that rests with the extent to which the administration of Democrat John F. Kennedy does not at all factor in Nichols’ narrative. To readers familiar with Professor Donald Gibson’s unique and valuable 1994 book Battling Wall Street: The Kennedy Presidency, this omission should appear baffling, because Gibson is able to chart, in some detail, policy initiatives which derive from or are in the spirit of progressive/New Deal concepts. “As president, and before,” Gibson writes, “[Kennedy] had a very definite and coherent set of goals and a consistent overall strategy to achieve them.”[4]

Kennedy assumed the presidency…with a program which had as its central purpose the advancement of the productive powers of the nation. This progress was to be achieved through an intense effort to expand and improve both the human and the technological capabilities of the country…Kennedy attempted to use the power of his office and of the federal government to achieve this goal through tax measures, government programs, government spending, and monetary and credit policy.[5]

Gibson notes that, in response to Kennedy’s initiatives in both domestic and foreign policies, “the Establishment’s rejection of Kennedy became increasingly intense during his time in office.”

Working through both volumes—Nichols and Gibson—it becomes readily apparent that the opposition to Wallace and, later, Kennedy came from the same interests and for much the same reasons. The opposition rejected, as Gibson puts it, an ideology “based on the idea that economic and social progress were the goals and that the power and policies of government were important parts of the means to achieve those goals.”[6]

Further, this rejection extended to the means employed by Kennedy (i.e. government actions to shape economic decisions). It extended even to the goal itself (i.e. economic progress—global and national).”[7]

Gibson claims, with considerable documentation: “Kennedy’s economic program could be compared to Roosevelt’s Economic Bill of Rights, but Kennedy’s program went beyond Roosevelt’s statement of goals to an actual program to achieve those goals…In the process of elaborating on and adding to Roosevelt’s Economic Bill of Rights, the 1960 party platform included many of the initiatives later taken by Kennedy…Kennedy went beyond the platform.”[8]

In contrast, while noting that a bloc of “young liberals” had been elected to Congress in 1958—and so were in position to contribute to the 1960 Party platform—Nichols sees their agency emerge only in 1965, with Johnson’s Great Society programs. While observing that Wallace in the 1940s had the “necessary vision to combine a commitment to social progress at home with a commitment to peace,” and that “it was impossible to delink the two,” Nichols goes on to assert that “Democrats did not get the connection in the 1950s and early 1960s and only rarely have they done so in the years since then.”[9] The thesis of the Gibson book is that some Democrats did in fact get the connection and were seeing movement on these fronts under the capable leadership of John Kennedy. Gibson is able to transform the analysis of progressive platforms and policies vis-a-vis the Democratic Party from a lament over lost opportunities and betrayals, towards concrete examples of what an “actual program” to achieve what otherwise was limited to a statement of goals would look like.[10]

An example of a practical program was the administration’s tax reforms—“a part of the overall strategy of using government to further economic progress…Tax reform was intended to increase investment in plant and equipment and to stimulate economic growth. This amounted to an aggressive effort to channel the flow of money and credit away from short-term, speculative, and nonproductive investments.” Additional measures, directed at closing favorable tax loopholes for dividends and charitable contributions, eliminating special tax preferences, and introducing a specific anti-speculation tax, never made it out of Congress (but might have during a prospective second term).

In his tax reform proposals Kennedy was willing to give breaks to businesses if they were making productive investments…His tax policy was not anti-business; it was pro- production, equitable, and nationally oriented. Changes were intended to benefit the United States as a whole, as well as small business, underdeveloped countries, and the poor. The special rights and privileges of large corporations, investors, and others were to be curtailed.[11]

Further practical measures included federal programs to ensure affordable energy across the economic spectrum.[12] Education policy would recommend a significant increase in high-level degrees, complemented by programs of grants, fellowships, student loans, and financial assistance, as well as proposed assistance towards a national system of public community junior colleges.[13] These would all contribute to an over-arching plan:

… each specific policy would reinforce and intensify the other initiatives. The tax credit for investment and the numerous changes designed to shift capital from non-productive to productive investments would contribute to and be reinforced by the programs to develop and expand various forms of energy production. The educational policy would generate the creators and operators of a growing and more productive economy…Maintaining an adequate growth in money and credit and keeping interest rates down would allow for improvements in and expansion of the productive base of the economy. Budget and monetary policy would enhance the effects of the tax policy and other initiatives.[14]

In foreign policies, Gibson notes that Kennedy, in a 1959 speech, had articulated an “enduring long-term interest in the productive economic growth of less developed nations.” As president, Kennedy “set out to expand economic aid to poorer nations and to shift the purpose of such aid from military support to economic development.”[15] He observes that Kennedy “opposed neo-colonialism and wanted to offer an economic development program that would give progressive forces in the Third World an alternative to communism.”[16] While Kennedy was never passive in response to the Soviet Union—as seen in Berlin and during the Cuban Missile Crisis—he was comfortable with the non-aligned movement, in contrast to prevailing orthodoxies.


A point of comparison between Wallace and Kennedy was the public face of their critics, such as the Luce media empire; in particular the business magazine known as Fortune, which purported to represent a consensus viewpoint, but actually spoke for the interests of the international financial community.[17] Both Wallace and Kennedy were subject to stern editorials espousing concepts for the proper role of government which assumed, disingenuously, that no countervailing concentration of private power existed to extend influence, let alone control of policy.

Ahead of Kennedy’s inauguration, the Wall Street Journal editorialized against any inclination by his administration to create a “planned economy.”[18] Later, Fortune Magazine would accuse Kennedy of exhibiting “little understanding of the American political economic system” due to the pursuit of policies deemed to “undermine a strong and free economy,” and of attempting to implement controls, for instance through his tax initiatives, which would “erode away basic American liberties.”[19] Further, “Kennedy’s intention to use government-to-government coordination for development purposes and his determination to avoid using military force to subdue nationalist forces in the Third World caused the Establishment to view him as the major problem in world affairs.”[20] This after two concurrent administrations—Truman followed by Eisenhower, spanning 1945 through 1960—in which an establishment consensus had managed the postwar order according to private interests, initiated by the actions to neutralize Henry Wallace in 1944.

Whereas Kennedy had kept the ideological challenges and differences low-key,[21] Wallace, in the wake of the Second World War and looming postwar reset, faced an entirely different context. In 1944, the ideological challenge was starker and the direction the postwar world would take was still up for grabs. Wallace articulated policies which explicitly rejected colonialism abroad and championed economic development and opportunity for all, while directly warning that entrenched private interests harbored proto-fascist tendencies. This led to a run of editorials in outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times denouncing his rhetoric. Wallace, for his part, took to endorsing within the FDR cabinet a pushback against what he referred to generally as “the Time-Life-Fortune crowd.”[22]

The competing world-views at the time were encapsulated first by a widely read essay, followed by a heralded speech. The former was written by media baron Henry Luce and published in 1941 with the title “The American Century”. The response, delivered by Henry Wallace to the Free World Association in New York a year later, was titled “The Price of Free World Victory”. Luce articulated a vision of an American Century which would see the United States assuming “the leadership of the world” based on being “the dynamic center of ever-widening spheres of enterprise” by which to “exert upon the world the full impact of our influence.” In contrast, Wallace posited what he termed the “Century of the Common Man”. This was based on “the greater interest of the general welfare” and, as he would later say, “prioritizing human rights above money rights.”[23] It is this clash of viewpoints which informed the events which sidelined Wallace at the Democratic National Convention in 1944.

A similar dichotomy, although occurring again within an altogether different context, appears during the Kennedy administration. In generalized terms, Kennedy’s advocation of human development, progress and cooperation contrasted sharply with what one could describe as an Allen Dulles worldview based on elite control and resource extraction.[24] It is notable that while Kennedy was a reformist capitalist who was not a threat to the free enterprise system, his policies, which sought to improve indices which would later inform the United Nation’s Human Development Index, were treated as such. The blunt refusal to accept a fair distribution of wealth within a win-win growth-oriented social polity is a hallmark of both the American financial aristocracy and the regional proxies they have cultivated since the end of the Second World War. Dulles, through his work with the corporate law firm Sullivan and Cromwell, his long association with the Council on Foreign Relations, and his personal friendship with David Rockefeller, represented and epitomized that aristocracy. As David Talbot chronicled in his book The Devil’s Chessboard, President Dwight Eisenhower abided by the CIA Director for seven years. It took very little time for President Kennedy to have serious problems with Dulles and his world view. Dulles was gone within ten months.

The Democratic Party itself, in fact, would eventually come to fully support a worldview based on neo-colonialism and resource extraction, known in the contemporary lexicon as “neoliberalism”, while continuing to espouse vague New Deal progressive platitudes to its ever-hopeful base. In large measure, this sleight-of-hand depends on a “lesser evil” argument which underpins the current two-party system. President Obama, for example, widely understood by Americans as a “progressive” leader, oversaw a determined multi-faceted rollback strategy directed at left-leaning development-oriented governments in Latin America, in favor of “market-oriented” center-right regimes. Rhetoric explicitly celebrating and rationalizing such policies were reserved for foreign visits, and rarely articulated domestically.[25]

Despite being once poised to control a significant number of delegates going into the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Bernie Sanders—for a second time—accepted a token personal role and limited representation in the platform and presidential campaign.[26] Henry Wallace responded to his sleight by running on a radical third-party ticket for President in 1948, only to be criticized for attempting to split the vote. But his proposed policies in that campaign would poll very well today.

[1] The abrupt turnaround apparently came after phone calls from former president Barack Obama and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Certainly Biden had little momentum other than a single victory in a largely Republican state, an effort greatly assisted by the local Democratic machine and resulting in a relative handful of delegates. No clear momentum-swinging event occurred - other than the phone calls - which could be identified as motivating the sudden switch to Biden by the two candidates, particularly as they were receiving far more favourable media coverage at the time. It is also noteworthy that exit polling for the Super Tuesday primaries favoured Sanders in states he would lose, commonly by about 8 percentage points Biden may have been considered an acceptable placeholder, behind whom the “moderate” Democrats could agree to coalesce in the immediate interest of preventing Sanders from achieving decisive momentum which might be difficult to overcome at the later Convention.

[2] Sanders perhaps could have challenged the Super Tuesday results based on the exit polls, but he responded as if an effective checkmate had already been played. This may have been the case, as a vote-rigging scandal facilitated by the Democratic Party would have presumably led to consequences affecting the campaign to defeat the detested president Trump. More apparent in retrospect, US Senators, such as Sanders, had already been briefed on the impending coronavirus public health disaster, and the prospect of a divisive and possibly bitter political feud within the Democratic Party would not have been considered appropriate during the pandemic.

[3] Nicholls is able to argue effectively that McGovern’s platform was, if anything, ahead of its time, and that the platform’s policies consistently find favour in contemporary polling.

[4] Gibson, Donald. Battling Wall Street: The Kennedy Presidency, p. 1.

[5] ibid, p. 19.

[6] ibid, p. 24.

[7] ibid, p. 51. (emphasis in original)

[8] ibid, pp. 31–32

[9] Nichols, John. The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party, p. 151.

[10] There has long been an inclination towards dismissal of the Kennedy administration in American left/liberal/progressive dialogue. Much of this seems related to attitudes and positioning over Kennedy’s assassination, motivated by both a rejection of “conspiracy theories” derived from the event and also a rejection of so-called conspiracy theorists. These rejections have generally coalesced around a conclusion which determines the theorists as incapable of accepting JFK was killed by a nobody loner, and therefore projections of a vast deep state conspiracy represent some form of cult which necessarily features an over-estimation of Kennedy’s values and accomplishments which, it is argued, in reality amount to mediocre centrist domestic policies and murderous Cold War repressions directed at the colonized world. This position found its fullest expression during the controversies over Oliver Stone’s JFK film, and notably has not yet been re-examined in the almost thirty years since, despite the enormous amount of information available as result of the ARRB.

[11] Gibson, p. 23. Kennedy as well went beyond the 1960 Democratic platform with the following: “tax proposals to redirect the foreign investments of U.S. companies; distinctions in tax reform between productive and non-productive investment; eliminating tax privileges of U.S.-based global investment companies; cracking down on foreign tax havens and other proposals to eliminate tax privileges enjoyed by the wealthy; his tax proposals concerning large oil and mineral companies; his version of the investment tax credit; and expanding the powers of the president to deal with recession.” Gibson, p 32-33

[12] ibid, p. 24. In a 1962 speech on conservation issues Kennedy stated: “The goal of this administration is to ensure an abundance of low-cost power for all consumers—urban and rural, industrial and domestic.”

[13] ibid, p. 26. In 1963, the president’s Science Advisory Council noted: “it is clearly contrary to the national interests to have the number of graduate students limited by the financial ability of those able and interested in pursuing advanced degrees.”

[14] ibid, p. 31. In comparison, it is fairly obvious that today’s environment features tax and monetary policies favouring speculative and financialized interests; higher education often leads to punitive student loan burdens while enrolments in STEM programs whither; and domestic energy and other basic utilities favour profit extracting private interests.

[15] ibid, p 38. While this shift would face Congressional opposition, aid for economic development would be larger than military aid during the run of the administration.

[16] ibid, p 38. Colonialism is defined by Gibson as “ the direct and formal control of other territories for the purpose of extracting wealth. The policy of colonialism was also one of suppressing economic development in the captured territories in order to keep them weak and dependent on the production and export of agricultural products and raw materials. Neo-colonialism, or imperialism, refers to the same policy of suppressing economic development and extracting wealth, but the process is carried out without direct and formal control of other societies.”

[17] ibid, p 62. “The criticism of Kennedy’s international economic policy was aimed at the purposes of aid and loans, the manner in which the policy was carried out, and the roles to be played by nations and private interests, particularly banks…Kennedy’s initiatives were significantly at odds with the preferences of the international banking community.”

[18] ibid, p. 64. “It noted his comments about pursuing the spirit of the Employment Act of 1946, and advised him that the purposes of the Act were purely a response to the depression and were not relevant to the 1960s.”

[19] ibid, p. 57.

[20] ibid, p. 84.

[21] A low-key rather than direct or explicit approach may explain why the Kennedy administration’s progressive/New Deal orientation remains a black hole in consensus reflection. Kennedy had already served in Washington for fourteen years before becoming President—six years in the House and eight years in the Senate. He was familiar with the power structure. At the time of his assassination, Kennedy was genuinely popular and a second term by which to continue to pursue his development oriented policies seemed well in hand.

[22] Nichols, p. 43.

[23] ibid, pp. 36–55.

[24] Dulles, as head of the CIA, was a carry-over from the Eisenhower administration, during which the U.S. covert apparatus pursued dirty tricks and regime-change across the globe in the interests of private enterprise. Dulles would assume an outsized role in the Warren Commission, which did much to establish the official cover-up of the true circumstances of Kennedy’s death.

[25] This was exemplified by Obama’s trip to Argentina in 2016, to bolster a newly elected government headed by Mauricio Macri, who pledged to restore the same neoliberal policies—described by Obama as “the universal values and interests that we share” —which led the country to the edge of ruin fifteen years earlier. Macri was decisively voted out of office four years later after turning to the hated IMF to prop up a faltering federal budget, weakened in part by a decision to pay off a large public debt purchased on the cheap by vulture fund Wall Street speculator Paul Singer (rationalized by Obama in the NY Times article).

[26] Sanders, for his part, had the opportunity after withdrawing to name members to what would become the Biden-Sanders Task Force, responsible for a detailed list of recommendations meant to shape potential Democrat domestic policies ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign. As an aspirational document, pretty much every possible progressive social policy - from health to education to employment equity to housing to racial politics to the environment—is highlighted with attendant promises of large federal investments for each sector. Many of the proposed policies are direct reversals of initiatives undertaken by the last two Democratic presidents. Furthermore, the document makes no referral to foreign policies—where Democrats are already committed to massive investments pursuing a renewed “great-power” rivalry directed at both China and Russia, as well as a trillion-dollar program to facilitate a new generation of nuclear weapons (an Obama administration initiative). Exactly how both programs—domestic and foreign—are expected to be realized is left unstated by their advocates, and in fact are discussed as if the other did not in fact exist. By past precedent, most of the Unity Task Force recommendations will not proceed much beyond the recommendation phase.

Last modified on Saturday, 25 July 2020 00:17
Jeff Carter

Jeff Carter is a filmmaker and audio technician based in Vancouver, Canada. Along with Len Osanic, he produced the web series 50 Reasons for 50 Years in 2013.

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