Henry A. Wallace: His Search for a New World Order

Henry A. Wallace: His Search for a New World Order

by Graham White and John Maze
Chapel Hill, NC.: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Hardcover, 347page.

Few modern American political figures are more intriguing than Henry A. Wallace, farm journalist, agrarian scientist, New Deal Secretary of Agriculture, Vice President of the United States (1941- 45), and finally quixotic candidate for President on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948. While Wallace stood in the superheated political pressure-cooker of Washington during the Franklin Roosevelt years of depression and World War II, and remained a prominent name in the Truman years of emerging cold war, in some ways he never seemed totally to belong under the capitol dome. Something in him always seemed to be elsewhere. The man from Iowa was also on a deeply personal and often unconventional spiritual quest. From it flowed both the inner alienation and the profound commitment to world order, and to "progress" as he understood it, that kept him in the messy world of politics. His simple, unpretentious way of life seemed to be part of that character. Needless to say, Wallace was loved for his genuine humanity and hopeful visions, and damned by those who saw him as hopelessly naive, with his "head in the clouds" above such things as communism and the real nature of world politics.

The full contours of Wallace's spiritual journey were not widely known during his life. He was in fact a member of the Theosophical Society in America from 1925 to 1935 and was active in the Liberal Catholic Church in Des Moines between 1925 and 1929. He corresponded with the Irish theosophical mystic, poet, and agrarian reformer George Russell (''AE'') and in 1931- 32 successfully took a Theosophical correspondence course from the Temple of the People in Halcyon, California.

In the early New Deal years the Iowan established a complex and controversial relationship with the Russian mystic and artist Nicholas Roerich. Letters Wallace wrote to Roerich often couched in effusive occult language, the so-called "guru letters," were later obtained by political enemies and used against him. Partly because of the political quicksand likely to engulf a public esotericist, about the same time he came to Washington in 1933 Wallace commenced attending a "high" Episcopal church, combining Anglo-Catholic worship with a liberal vision of Christianity and its social mission. All these diverse spiritual resources went into Wallace's role as custodian of the New Deal spirit in its most idealistic form, and his dream that the twentieth century could, in the title of his popular 1943 book, become the "century of the common man."

Henry A. Wallace, the work of two Australian scholars, attempts to interpret this vision and its spiritual sources. Unfortunately the product is a bit uneven. White and Maze appear not especially well informed about the actual culture of American Theosophy. The recent archival work of Mark Kleinman on Wallace's spirituality, published in articles in Peace and Change and The Annals of Iowa, seems not to have been available to them; this material from Wallace's papers would have fleshed out considerably the youthful idealist's relation to Theosophical correspondents and institutions. More surprisingly, White and Maze were also apparently unfamiliar with the subject's later participation in the Episcopal church and his liberal Christian writings like Statesmanship and Religion (1934).

On the other hand, these authors present a full and useful account of the Roerich affair, although here too one suspects there is still more to be known. Whatever the limitations of their information on Theosophy and other forms of unconventional spirituality with which Wallace was involved, they are generally sympathetic in their handling of it.

A complete account of the spiritual life and vision of this extraordinary statesman remains to be written, if indeed the task is possible. For as prominent and recent a figure as he, the subject of several more political than spiritual biographies, extant information and interpretations remain remarkably varied, full of puzzling inconsistencies, and leave a sense of something, perhaps a master key, still missing. If only as a reminder of how much remains to be done by biographers, this book, attempting to balance the picture with serious attention to his spiritual life, is a serviceable starting-point for those seeking fresh perspectives on the man's life and ideas. For those involved in Theosophy and other forms of alternative spirituality, the book is also a salutary reminder that such ideas and ideals can and sometimes do have consequences at the highest levels.


June 1997