Saturday, February 2, 2013

What Might Have Been

It seemed to me that Sean Wilentz, in his NYBooks review, hoped to drive a dagger through the heart of Stone's and Kuznick's thesis of  The Untold History of the United States by attacking Henry Wallace.  Andrew Goldman noted in his earlier review in the NYTimes that Kuznick is apparently as enamored with Wallace as Stone is Kennedy and sold the filmmaker on the idea of building a historical documentary around the former Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President to Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Stone and Kuznick see American history as having had an entirely different trajectory if Wallace had remained on the ticket with Roosevelt in 1944, instead they insist Truman was thrust upon Roosevelt despite his own misgivings with the Missouri senator he barely knew.

In his review, Wilentz cites Robert Ferrell's book Choosing Truman, which I had previously linked.   Ferrell notes that various meetings were held long before the Democratic Convention of 1944 to present an alternative to Wallace on the ticket and that at a dinner a week before the convention, Roosevelt had begrudgingly accepted Truman, despite knowing very little about him.  Wilentz goes further in stating that not only Southern Democratic heavyweights like Byrnes were against Wallace, but Eleanor Roosevelt and other liberals didn't like Wallace either, larger because of his pro-communist sentiments.  It seems that Wallace had fallen out of favor with pretty much everyone in the Roosevelt administration, including Roosevelt himself, but FDR liked to play both ends of the stick and teased Wallace along by saying he "hoped" to run with him again.  Wilentz notes Wallace's own journal entry where he states, "[FDR] wanted to ditch me as noiselessly as possible," only Wallace didn't want to go out "noiselessly" and staged the attempt to get him on the ballot the opening day of the convention, only for Roosevelt himself to issue the order to close the convention that evening before a vote could be taken, lining up a reluctant Truman for the second day.

Wilentz goes on to note that Wallace received a strong rebuke from the former first lady when he tried to use Roosevelt's support for his presidential bid in 1948.  By this point, Wallace had become an ardent communist in Eleanor's mind.  He defended the Soviet Union's annexation of Czechoslovakia, although he felt it was largely a response to Truman's policies.  These kinds of statements cost him dearly, and he ended up with only 3% of the vote while Strom Thurmond posed a much bigger threat to the Democrats by taking 4 key Southern states in the general election, largely in response to Harry Truman's civil rights policy that had gone much further than FDR before him.

This undermines much of Kuznick's and Stone's History, as they constantly refer to Wallace throughout their narrative as the man who could have greatly changed America's global role.  Oddly enough, Wallace didn't support Adlai Stevenson in '52 and '56, but rather voted for Ike, apparently having come to the realization that he was wrong about the Soviet Union.  An historic footnote Kuznick and Stone conveniently chose to ignore.  In this October 17. 1952 interview on Longines Chronoscope, he withheld his endorsement, seeing Independents as a "third way" much the way Henry Adams had envisioned earlier in the century.  However, Wallace does strongly state his opposition to the Soviet Union and its influence in China, India and Southeast Asia.  Very interesting interview as Wallace discusses his views during and after the war regarding the Soviet Union, which run counter to those "cherry picked" for the television series.

This leads Wilentz to wonder if you can even call what Stone and Kuznick present in their series and companion volume "history," much less "untold history."  I'm sure we will hear a response, as Wilentz's review had been long anticipated.  I think it will more likely add fuel to the fire, and revive interest in a series that apparently fell flat as far as television ratings go, with few holding out interest to the end.  Much of the press surrounding the series was in regard to the first three episodes which were screened for critics back in early November.  Since then, there had been very little press or blog reactions to it, even in regard to the smackdown of Obama in the final episode, in which Stone admonishes the President for abusing the Constitution and international agreements in many of the same ways as his predecessors.  Showtime still has the series available to watch for subscribers, but it seems it would be wise to make it available on DVD as soon as possible.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't notice the date on Wilentz's review until now -- February 21, 2013. I guess that's when the next issue of NYRBooks hits the streets.