Today, as I approach my 91st birthday, I have many retrospective thoughts, some pleasant and some not. In human life, so much often depends on so little. Fewer and fewer people alive today will be with us to tell of their personal observations of historical events – observations that can deepen our understanding. In particular, I am reminded today of an apparently small event that changed the course of history.
One of the first political broadcasts I can remember occurred in July 1944 – 64 years ago, this month – during the Democratic national convention at Chicago. It was widely assumed that Franklin Roosevelt would be the nominee, although that would lead to an unprecedented fourth term as president. But what was most controversial was the question of who would be the party’s nominee for vice-president.
Henry Wallace had been Roosevelt’s vice-president since 1941, but Roosevelt was the “supreme ruler” and never paid much attention to his vice-presidents. John Garner, who had been vice-president during Roosevelt’s first two terms, had said that the vice-presidency was “about as important as a bucket of warm piss.” Roosevelt had never paid much attention to Wallace either, not even informing him of many of his major decisions.
But this time there was a difference: many of Roosevelt’s associates did not expect him to live through another term, and for them the office of vice-president naturally assumed an enormous importance. It presented a great opportunity for left-leaning Democrats, who thought of Wallace as a potentially great president, especially from the perspective of his Soviet-inclined friends. In May 1944 Wallace had given a speech at Magadan, a remote location on the Pacific coast of the Soviet empire. Magadan was a center of the infamous system of slave labor camps, in which many thousands of coerced workers had died, many of them perishing while mining gold to support the socialist economy. Wallace, deluded by his hosts, extolled the Soviet labor camp system and praised Magadan for its “efficiency” as a center for labor camps, and for its “healthful fresh air.”
Most radio listeners (there was no television then) had never heard of Magadan and took no note of Wallace’s remarks. Some of them apparently felt sincerely that the Soviet system was superior to the American system of free enterprise. Thousands of them shouted at the convention, “We want Wallace!”
Roosevelt himself had remained in at his home in Hyde Park, New York, away from the convention, until word reached him that some delegates were opposed to Wallace as possible future president. Robert H. Ferrell, the Democratic Party chairman, took a voice vote of the delegates (which I heard on the radio); by a large margin they favored Wallace. It was clear to the listeners that Wallace would have a clear victory when the votes were counted.
But meanwhile, Roosevelt had been warned that Wallace must not be the nominee. Had the party chairman not ignored any “official voice vote,” Wallace would have won. In a decision for which I will forever praise him, the chair- man announced that the final vote would be postponed until the following day – at which time the delegates were able to regroup, and a senator named Harry Truman, hitherto little known except for his personal honesty and fiscal integrity, received Roosevelt’s approval by telephone and became the Democratic nominee for vice-president.
Few persons sensed at the time that this was one of the historic decisions of the century. Without the Truman vote, Wallace would have become president of the United States on Roosevelt’s death the following April. The United States might well have become part of the expanding Soviet empire, and Stalin might have become in effect the “ruler of the world.”
As things turned out, Truman was as suspicious of Stalin as Churchill was, and Stalin was left with something less than the dictatorship of all Europe. Much of what America salvaged from the war can be attributed to the doggedness and courage of Harry Truman. Seldom in history has the seemingly inconsequential decision of one man – in this case, the Democratic Party chairman who delayed a vote for a few hours – so decisively altered the history of the world.