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The Untold Story: How America Became a Dangerous Empire

Director Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick offer a major reexamination of modern American history in “The Untold History of the United States,” which has many strengths.

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This is an important historical issue because Truman replaced Wallace as Vice President in 1944 and then became President in 1945 when Roosevelt died. If Truman had not replaced Wallace, Wallace would have become President and might have shaped the post-war period very differently, with less antagonism toward the Soviet Union.

Wallace had been Secretary of Agriculture during the New Deal. And according to Arthur Schlesinger, he was very good in that position. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 91) He was then Roosevelt’s personal choice for VP in 1940.

According to the authors, FDR said he would refuse to run for President for an unprecedented third term unless Wallace joined him on the ticket. (pgs. 92-93) By all indications, Wallace was a populist.

For instance, the book contrasts the famous Henry Luce quote about the 1900s being the American Century with Wallace’s reply that it must be “the century of the Common Man.” (p. 101) The authors then contrast Wallace’s view of the Soviet Union, which was much closer to Roosevelt’s during the war, with that of Truman’s belligerence.

The Rise of Truman

How did Truman replace Wallace on the ticket in the first place? FDR’s health was already failing in 1944. This meant two things to the party bosses: 1.) He would not make it through a fourth term, and 2.) They had to stop the too-liberal Wallace from becoming President.

Realizing that Roosevelt was in a weakened state, the bosses enacted what came to be known as “Pauley’s Coup”, since it was led by California millionaire and party treasurer Edwin Pauley. (pgs. 139-40) Pauley was also running the convention and was good friends with Sen. Truman.

Pauley’s group put together a list of alternative candidates to Wallace. Truman was the name that was least objectionable to everyone. In spite of the backroom dealings, Wallace still almost survived.

Sen. Claude Pepper of Florida approached the podium to place his name in nomination. If that had been done, Wallace surely would have won by popular acclamation. But before Pepper could do so, the session was adjourned. (p. 143)

For two reasons, the authors see this as a turning point. First, they feel that the atomic bombs would never have been dropped on Japan if Wallace had become President at FDR’s death. And second, they feel that the Cold War would never have gone into high gear with Wallace in the White House.

There is certainly a lot of evidence in support of those two arguments. Truman was not really well versed in foreign policy at the time he became President. FDR had largely acted as his own Secretary of State.

And, during the war, Roosevelt had tried to serve as a kind of bumper between Stalin and the hard-line anti-communist Winston Churchill. Roosevelt and Cordell Hull, his cooperative Secretary of State, managed to hold off the hardliners, including Churchill. This arrangement fell apart once Hull retired in late 1944 and Roosevelt died in April 1945.

Suddenly, the thinly qualified Truman was in the White House – and was much more malleable in the guiding hands of the hardliners. Little about Truman qualified him for the extraordinary geopolitical and moral issues he would face.

Truman had failed at three businesses before he became the creation of Missouri political boss Tom Pendergast, who started Truman off as a judge, though Truman had never graduated from law school. Pendergast then got Truman elected to the U.S. Senate.

When Roosevelt died, Truman felt overwhelmed, since he had only been VP for three months. Because Roosevelt had been ill during those months, the two men did not see each other very much.

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