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Wallace, Henry Agard

Published onNov 08, 2021
Wallace, Henry Agard

(October 7, 1888 — November 18, 1965)

Quick Facts

Editor, geneticist, cabinet officer, and vice president of the United States under Franklin D. Roosevelt.


Henry A. Wallace was born on a farm in Adair County, Iowa, the first of six children born to Henry Cantwell Wallace and May (Broadhead) Wallace. His grandfather, the Reverend Henry "Uncle Henry" Wallace, was the founding editor of Wallaces' Farmer, the family's influential farm paper, and a nationally known advocate of scientific agriculture and progressive reform. Henry C. Wallace also edited the paper before becoming secretary of agriculture in President Warren Harding's administration.

As a boy growing up in Des Moines, Henry A. Wallace's chief interest was plants, especially corn, and by the age of 15 he was conducting experiments that would profoundly change agriculture. He successfully challenged the prevailing theory that the best-looking ears of corn produced the highest yields.

In 1906 Wallace entered Iowa State College (now University) and graduated in 1910 at the top of the agricultural division. From 1910 to 1933 Wallace worked as a reporter and editor at Wallaces' Farmer and devoted his spare time to corn breeding and the study of mathematics, statistics, and economics. Wallace's first book, Agricultural Prices (1919), is considered the first econometric study published in the United States.

In 1914 Wallace married Ilo Browne of Indianola, Iowa. Their marriage lasted 51 years and produced three children. His breakthrough as a corn breeder began in 1919, when Wallace learned of experiments in which two lines of hybrid corn were "doubled crossed," producing new hybrids of great vigor. Within five years, Wallace was producing hybrids that greatly exceeded the yields of older varieties. In 1926 Wallace and his wife used most of her modest inheritance to establish Pioneer Hi-Bred, the first company in the world to develop, grow, and sell hybrid seed. By the end of the 1930s virtually all midwestern corn was grown from commercial hybrid seed, and Pioneer remained the dominant seed company throughout the 20th century.

In 1921, when Henry C. Wallace was named secretary of agriculture, Henry A. Wallace became editor of Wallaces' Farmer. Throughout the 1920s, with the agricultural economy mired in depression, Henry A. Wallace waged a fierce editorial campaign for farm relief. After his father died unexpectedly in 1924 at age 58, Wallace became increasingly critical of the Republican Party. He publicly broke with the party in 1928, when he supported the presidential candidacy of Democrat Al Smith over Iowa-born Republican Herbert Hoover. In 1932 Wallace endorsed the candidacy of Democratic Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York and helped write his major farm speech.

Roosevelt's selection of Wallace to be Secretary of Agriculture won wide acclaim from Iowans and farm leaders across the nation, although some Democrats distrusted his Republican roots. At age 44, Wallace was the youngest person in Roosevelt's cabinet when he was sworn into office on March 4, 1933, and he rapidly proved to be its most vigorous member. Within days of taking office, Wallace devised and won Roosevelt's backing for a sweeping plan to address the crisis in rural America. The farm bill was the first major New Deal program enacted into law. The heart of the agricultural program was the "domestic allotment plan," which provided direct subsidies to farmer in exchange for cutting back production. Under Wallace, the Department of Agriculture revitalized and expanded its scientific research, conservation, economic, extension, and publication Services. Dozens of new programs were started, including rural electrification, school lunch, food stamps, farm credit, and crop insurance programs. The department's workforce more than tripled, from about 40,000 to 146,000 employees, and its budget grew from $280 million in 1932 to $1.5 billion in 1940, when Wallace resigned as secretary to run for vice president.

Throughout the 1930s, Wallace produced scores of speeches, articles, pamphlets, and books on matters ranging from genetics to nutrition, from international trade to religion. Toward the end of the 1930s, as the crisis in Europe deepened, Wallace increasingly addressed international issues and strongly backed the need to confront totalitarianism abroad.

In part because of Wallace's liberalism and internationalism, Roosevelt selected him as his running mate when the president decided to seek an unprecedented third term in 1940. Roosevelt hoped Wallace would add strength to the Democratic ticket in the Midwest, where Wallace was popular but isolationist sentiment was strong. The choice met stiff resistance from Democratic Party regulars, and several other candidates were nominated for vice president at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Wallace's name was loudly booed before disgruntled delegates finally acceded to Roosevelt's demand that Wallace be on the ticket.

Wallace resigned as Secretary of Agriculture on September 4, 1940, in order to devote his attention to the campaign. In November the Roosevelt-Wallace ticket defeated the Republican ticket of Wendell Willkie and Charles McNary by 27.2 million to 22.3 million votes, but the Democrats failed to carry Iowa and several other midwestern states.

In late 1940 Roosevelt dispatched Wallace to Mexico to act as his personal representative at the presidential inauguration of Manuel Avila Camacho. Wallace's fluent Spanish made him wildly popular in Mexico. Wallace returned appalled at the state of Mexican agriculture. He approached the Rockefeller Foundation and recommended the establishment of a station to develop improved crops for Latin America. Norman Borlaug, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in starting a worldwide "green revolution," was hired to head the station.

Wallace became the nation's 33rd Vice President on January 20, 1941. Roosevelt assigned Wallace unprecedented duties in the executive branch, appointing him chairman of the Economic Defense Board, the Supply Priorities and Allocations Board, and the Board of Economic Warfare. The president also asked Wallace to serve as his personal liaison to a group of physicists proposing to develop an atomic bomb. Wallace chaired the highly secret Top Policy Committee that made the final recommendation to build the bomb.

Wallace spoke frequently during the Second World War on the moral purpose of the war and what he hoped would be a period of peace and prosperity to follow. His most famous address was "The Price of Free World Victory," a response to magazine publisher Henry Luce's call for an "American Century" after the war. "I say the century on which we are entering—the century which will come out of this war—can be and must be the century of the common man," Wallace declared. He also went on two extended diplomatic missions. In 1943 he was sent on a five-week tour of Central and South America, and in 1944 he went on a 51-day tour of Soviet Asia and China.

Wallace's attempt to use the Board of Economic Warfare (BEW) as a mechanism to improve living standards in other countries earned the enmity of conservatives led by Commerce Secretary Jesse Jones. Their highly public feud finally caused Roosevelt to fire Wallace as head of the BEW and abolish the agency.

Wallace's fall from power left him vulnerable at the 1944 Democratic National Convention. Urban bosses and southern segregationists, who loathed Wallace's liberal views, conspired to replace him with Missouri Senator Harry Truman. Wallace led on the first ballot, but Truman prevailed on the second ballot. In 1945 Roosevelt appointed Wallace secretary of commerce. Wallace took office on March 2, 1945, about five weeks before Roosevelt's death.

Wallace remained in the cabinet for 16 months, increasingly at odds with the administration's Cold War foreign policies. After he delivered a speech in September 1946 calling for more cooperation with the Soviet Union, Truman fired him.

Soon after his dismissal, Wallace was named editor of the New Republic magazine, and he settled on a farm in Westchester County, New York. Throughout 1947, Wallace harshly criticized the Cold War, and late that year he announced that he would run for president as the head of the Progressive Party. The participation of Communists cast a cloud over the campaign from which it never recovered. Wallace received fewer than 1.2 million popular votes and no electoral votes.

Thereafter, Wallace slipped slowly from public view. On August 8, 1950, he resigned from the Progressive Party over the issue of the Korean War, which Wallace supported. He played no further role in politics and devoted the remaining years of his life to agricultural research.

Wallace died on November 18, 1965, as a result of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and was buried in Glendale Cemetery in Des Moines.

Selections of text republished with permission from the Iowa Biographical Dictionary, edited by David Hudson, Marvin Bergman, and Loren Horton. Published by the University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA. Online publication, 2009.

Selected Sources

Wallace's personal papers are in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.

His official papers are in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Hyde Park, New York.

Selections from Wallace's extensive wartime diary were published in The Price of Vision, ed. John Morton Blum.

The Oral History Research Office, Columbia University Libraries, New York, holds a valuable oral history.

Biographies include John C. Culver and John Hyde, American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace (2000).

Biographical Profile, U.S. Government.

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