Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Henry A. Wallace (1945–1946): Secretary of Commerce

Henry Agard Wallace was born on October 7, 1888, near Orient, Iowa. He shared a name with his grandfather and father as well as their prominence as agricultural leaders. His grandfather was a former Presbyterian minister who edited the Iowa Homestead and converted a small farm journal into Wallace's Farmer, an agricultural newsletter widely read throughout the Midwest. His father served as secretary of agriculture in the administrations of Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge until his death in 1924. Henry Agard, after finishing his studies in agriculture at Iowa State College, took over the editorship of Wallace's Farmer when his father departed for Washington, D.C. In addition to editing, Wallace also experimented continually between 1913 and 1933 in breeding high-yielding strains of corn. In 1926, he created the Hi-Bred Corn Company, a firm which marketed the first high-yield, disease resistant corn for commercial sale.

Although his family was traditionally Republican, Wallace gradually came to support the Democratic Party. The tumult of the Great Depression and the plight of American farmers convinced him of the wisdom of government intervention, and by 1932 he was an enthusiastic supporter of Franklin Roosevelt. When Roosevelt took office, he made Wallace his secretary of agriculture, giving him the position his father just a few years earlier.

As secretary, Wallace oversaw the implementation of significant New Deal measures, most notably the Agriculture Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1933. The AAA involved aggressive government measures to prevent overproduction and to control farm prices. The destruction of crops and livestock were not popular at a time when 25 percent of Americans were unemployed, but farm prices did rebound and the program was reasonably successful. Wallace was a loyal ally to Roosevelt, even supporting his highly controversial "court-packing" plan in 1937.

When Roosevelt and Vice President Garner acrimoniously split in 1940, Roosevelt offered Wallace the nomination. Support within the party was limited, and opposition to his nomination was substantial enough that he did not even deliver an acceptance speech at the convention. Nonetheless, the endorsement of Roosevelt ensured his name on the ticket, and the two swept to a landslide victory.

As United States became increasingly involved in World War II, Wallace's duties expanded as Roosevelt's attention was absorbed by international affairs. He was a member of the President's war cabinet and presided over the Bureau of Economic Warfare (BEW), which was in charge of procuring strategically important materials. As BEW chairman, however, he engaged in bitter bureaucratic battles with Commerce Secretary Jesse Jones and eventually lost his position when Roosevelt intervened and dissolved the agency. The dissolution was a substantial political defeat for Wallace.

Wallace was not particularly enthusiastic about his duties presiding over the Senate and loathed the endless debate and arcane rules. He was likely relieved when Roosevelt made use of him as something of a roaming ambassador, sending him on tours throughout Latin America, China, and the Soviet Union. Soviet officials gave Wallace a well-orchestrated tour, which left him with a favorable impression of the USSR that proved politically damaging in the long run.

By 1944, Roosevelt had become convinced that Wallace a political liability because he was too liberal for conservative Democrats whose support the President needed. When Roosevelt did not openly endorse Wallace's renomination, Democratic insiders were eager to prevent his nomination and successfully nominated Senator Harry Truman from Missouri. Although his vice presidency could not be called a successful one, Wallace's assumption of certain executive duties and involvement in international affairs set important precedents to be followed by later vice presidents.

Roosevelt did offer Wallace a position as Commerce secretary, which he accepted. After Roosevelt died, he retained the position in the Truman administration for a time but left his position in 1946 after a controversial speech advocating a more sympathetic understanding of the Soviet Union. He became editor of the New Republic and ran for president in 1948 as the Progressive Party candidate but attracted barely 2 percent of the vote. After the election, he retired from public life and died on November 18, 1965.