Oliver Stone, Peter Kuznick, and Matt Graham produced ten remarkable episodes of The Untold History of the United States. How they do not send a shout out to Howard Zinn, the incredible man and historian behind the prior, best-selling book A People’s History of the United States, I do not know. However, despite the glaring omission, the series is a good ten hours of, more or less, truth told by historians, progressives, and iconoclasts. No one could produce a completely objective, truthful account of 100 years chock-full of events and occurrences, and Stone is not a wallflower by any means. However, they do the country a service by unearthing, exposing, and highlighting some little-known facts and details. For example, I (age 43) was relatively ignorant about prominent progressive statesman, Henry Wallace. That must sound preposterous to an 80-year-old, but it was, in fact, the case.
Professor of History, Kuznick said this in an interview as to why he joined up with the learned, controversial, and outspoken director of movies such as Born on the Fourth of July, JFK and Platoon:
“The first motivation was that Oliver made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. The real motivation, though, was the prospect of reaching an audience of tens of millions rather than an audience of tens of thousands. And the third motivation was the appeal of working so closely with Oliver. What most people don’t realize is that Oliver is not only extremely intelligent, he is a voracious reader. He regularly sends me books by historians that are hot off the press before I’ve had a chance to get my hands on them. Behind the public persona is a very serious thinker—a man who Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills called ‘Dostoyevsky behind a camera.’”
Kuznick really shines when he answers a question about why he did the project:
“Jack Kennedy once remarked that, when he took office, the thing that surprised him most was that things were actually as bad as he’d been saying they were. That also applies to my studying the past one hundred plus years of U.S. history. I had never looked at such a long swath of U.S. history through this prism and the results were sobering. Looking at all the aspects that have gone into creating and maintaining the American empire over such a long period of time presents a picture that, while not seamless, is compelling, troubling, and at times shocking. In 2001, Dick Cheney said the U.S. would have to be prepared to go to ‘the dark side.’ He was perfectly suited to lead that voyage. What we are presenting is the entire little-known history of the United States’ descent into the dark side. As Dan Ellsberg said about Vietnam, ‘We were not on the wrong side. We were the wrong side.’ Under the cover of spreading freedom and prosperity, that has been true of much of recent American history. And if the American people don’t grapple with the implications, it will continue. That is what we are trying to put a stop to. We hope that, by shining a light on the less savory aspects of U.S. history, we will inspire the American people to make sure the U.S. never goes down those roads again.”
One of my favorite historical bombshells Stone, Kuznick, and Graham tell about in The Untold History of the United States is the rise and fall of Henry Wallace as three-term Vice-President of the United States. Here is dialogue from the second episode in the series relevant to this unique and patriotic man:
“His health clearly failing, Roosevelt easily secured the nomination for an unprecedented fourth term. Henry Wallace, his vice-president, was probably the second most popular man in America – the people’s choice to be his running mate.
But he had made many enemies over the years. In May, 1942, Wallace had given the acclaimed “Century of the Common Man” speech. He called for a worldwide “people’s revolution” and an end to colonialism. The speech was received coldly across the Atlantic.
Churchill charged his secret agents in the U.S. to spy on Wallace. Wallace detested the British Empire. His hatred of imperialism was universally known and widely-acclaimed.
…in a Gallup Poll, Wallace was the choice of 57% of Democratic voters to succeed Roosevelt, but opposition to him from inside the Party was enormous. Jesse Jones, Secretary of Commerce, was allied to a powerful group of Democratic Party bosses, led by party treasurer and oil millionaire Edwin Pauley.
United by their hatred of Wallace, their champion was a man known to many as the “Assistant President.” James Byrnes had been raised in the “hothouse politics” of sultry South Carolina, an environment where white superiority and segregation trumped all other issues. He was a force behind a federal anti-lynching bill in 1938. After making his name smashing trade unions in the South, Byrnes became a powerful U.S. Senator; if you wanted something done on Capitol Hill, you saw Jimmy Byrnes. By 1943, the mood in Washington had shifted. It was no longer the New Deal, and Roosevelt removed Wallace…and put Byrnes in charge of the new Office of War Mobilization.
But Wallace still had a powerful supporter: the American working man. Today, few remember that the Second World War saw more strikes by organized labor than any other time in U.S. history. In 1944 alone, one million workers were on strike at one time or another. The war had rejuvenated American capitalism; corporate profits rose from $6.4 billion in 1940 to $10.8 billion in 1944.
Put simply, the war was good business. But in the face of rising corporate profits, workers’ wages were frozen. As a result, a wave of strikes rocked the nation.
…the anti-Wallace forces told the president that Wallace’s renomination as vice-president [for the President’s fourth term] would ‘split the party.’ The president would not answer their ultimatum; he stalled for time. Eleanor Roosevelt reminded the president that Henry Wallace had been there with him since the beginning, a fellow visionary. But, the president’s attitude toward Wallace remained a puzzle.
[Wallace noted about Roosevelt:] …His affection for me seemed to be completely undimmed, for I remember him putting his mouth next to my ear, and said: ‘Henry, I hope it will be the same old team.’
When the [1944 Democratic] Convention opened, he was waiting for that support. But, increasingly ill, the president stayed in San Diego, only sending a note [F.D.R. said: If I were a delegate to this convention, I would vote for Henry Wallace]. Despite these words, it was a cruel blow: the president was not willing to fight for his vice-president.
Wallace remained a favorite. Labor told the president that the strike-breaking Jimmy Byrnes was not acceptable. He was out. Desperate, the Party bosses, led by Edwin Pauley, Edwin Hannegan, Ed Flynn, Ed Kelly and others needed an 11th-hour substitute. They settled on Missouri Senator, Harry S. Truman — a man of limited qualifications, but one with few enemies.
Wallace’s speech was interrupted constantly by applause; a chant of ‘We Want Wallace’ filled the halls. …a victorious vote was almost a foregone conclusion. Florida Senator Claude Pepper realized that if he got Wallace’s nomination in this night, he would sweep the convention. He fought his way through the crowd to get to the microphone, but the bosses were now demanding the Session Chair Samuel D. Jackson adjourn. This chaos was a fire hazard, they screamed. …Jackson had the gall to claim that the vote to adjourn had passed. It was outrageous. ‘What I understood,’ Pepper wrote, ‘was for better or worse, history was turned topsy-turvy that night in Chicago.’ Pepper wrote in his autobiography that Jackson said ‘I had strict instructions from Hannegan not to let the convention nominate the vice-president last night.'”
There are more machinations left in the sordid story, but the gist is that the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, IL was the time and place of the undoing of Henry Wallace by party bosses, corporate interests, and war-oriented businessmen. It’s one of the most important and remarkable stories, but it all but forgotten. Politico has a piece about it here. Truthout has a story in which Wallace was called “America’s forgotten visionary.” His undoing was a subversion of popular will. A dark chapter in a party with many such stories — not the least of which being the rigging of the 2016 primary against a man of similar convictions and character, Bernie Sanders. The Sanders and Super Delegate thing is discussed in this story.
Henry Wallace was truly a remarkable American. He really cared about people and their economic condition. He was also against racism, colonialism, imperialism, and war with the Soviet Union. He grew from an Iowa farmer to be a very influential progressive statesman. Not only did he serve three terms with Roosevelt and play a huge role in politics for a vice-president, he was widely respected both at home and abroad. He co-founded the magazine The New Republic, became a millionaire based on the genetic improvements of corn he pioneered, and ran on the Progressive Party ticket for POTUS. Scientist and inventor, he was a person of conscience, humaneness, erudition, and rationality. One of the shining moments in Henry’s convention speech was this egalitarian note — especially for 1944: ‘The future must bring equal wages for equal work, regardless of sex or race.’
M.B. Masur of Anselm College introduces the remarkable “Century of the Common Man” speech given by Henry Wallace in this way:
“Vice President Henry Wallace gave this speech in 1942, a time when Americans were debating wartime strategy and America’s role in the post-World War II order. Wallace’s speech, also known as “The Price of Free World Victory,” reiterated support for Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” and criticized Henry Luce’s concept of the “American Century.” Wallace declared that the United States had an obligation to contribute to the war and to the post-war settlement. He described a liberal world system in which freedom, fairness, and opportunity would promote global peace.”
“The Century of the Common Man” speech can be seen in full here. Henry Wallace truly extols the value of freedom, dignity, economic prosperity for all, peace, Christian ideals, and the honor of the United States.
Here is a remarkable quote from it:
“The prophets of the Old Testament were the first to preach social justice. But that which was sensed by the prophets many centuries before Christ was not given complete and powerful political expression until our nation was formed as a Federal Union a century and a half ago. Even then, the march of the common people had just begun. Most of them did not yet know how to read and write. There were no public schools to which all children could go. Men and women cannot be really free until they have plenty to eat, and time and ability to read and think and talk things over. Down the years, the people of the United States have moved steadily forward in the practice of democracy. Through universal education, they now can read and write and form opinions of their own. They have learned, and are still learning, the art of production — that is, how to make a living. They have learned, and are still learning, the art of self-government.”
It’s a bit religious for my taste. But it does show what a man of conscience and character he was. A real mensch. I put him up there with Howard Zinn and Bernie Sanders as great Americans. Like Howard, he is sorely missed, especially nowadays.
Here are a number of great Henry Wallace quotes from the book American Dreamer, a 700-page book I read cover to cover.