Magazine article Monthly Review

Notes from the Editors

Magazine article Monthly Review

Notes from the Editors

Article excerpt

In an article on the role of third parties in U.S. presidential elections in the August 21, 2000, issue of In These Times, founding editor and publisher James Weinstein observed:

In 1948, when I cast my first vote for president, Henry A. Wallace, vice president during FDR's second and third terms, was running as the Progressive Party candidate against Republican Thomas Dewey and Democrat Harry S. Truman. In August, he was at 12 percent in the polls. On election day, he got 2 percent. My history professor at Cornell, a wonderful man named Paul Wallace Gates, was the New York state treasurer of the Wallace for President Committee. On election day, he voted for Truman, Within a year the Progressive Party disintegrated.

Weinstein's point was that Wallace's 1948 Progressive Party campaign, which was aimed at preserving the New Deal coalition in the face of the rightward tilt of the Democratic Party under Truman, was doomed to a natural devolution as the election neared--in what could be regarded as a historical law for third-party movements in U.S. politics. But missing from this argument, astonishingly, was the main reason for the Progressive Party's rapid decline, which had nothing to do with any law of natural devolution of third-party movements but rather grew out of the most virulent redbaiting presidential campaign in U.S. history, setting the stage for the full-fledged McCarthyism that followed.

Faced with the challenge from the Progressive Party on the left, and thus a serious threat to his winning the election, Truman appealed to progressives by arguing that he was the lesser evil: "A vote for the third party plays into the hands of the Republican forces of reaction, whose aims are directly opposed to the aims of American liberalism." But Truman didn't stop there. In his campaign speeches he pointedly referred to "Henry Wallace and his Communists" and declared that "Communists are using and guiding the third party." It was no mere coincidence, moreover, that on July 21, 1948, just two days before the Progressive national convention, the Truman administration commenced the Smith Act prosecutions against twelve Communist leaders, putting the issue of Communism on the front page of every newspaper in the country, and effectively tainting the Progressives by association.

In the end Truman's strategy worked. Numerous Wallace sympathizers were scared off by the redbaiting campaign and by a fear of a Republican reaction if Dewey were to win. Wallace received only about a million votes, as compared to twenty-four million for Truman and twenty-two million for Dewey (and a million for Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond). Yet, even then, the votes cast for Wallace came close to upsetting what the great progressive leader, Robert LaFollette, had once called the "Tweedledum and Tweedledee" politics of the two major parties. A few thousand votes lost by Truman to Wallace in Illinois (where they would have had to have been write-in votes, since the Democratic machine there had kept Wallace off the ballot), California, and Ohio would have resulted in a Dewey victory.

Truman had declared that a Dewey victory, resulting from a strong Wallace showing, would have meant the triumph of "forces of reaction." But under the circumstances of the time, a Republican victory might not have been the unmitigated disaster for progressives that was feared. …

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