Moler on Devine, 'Henry Wallace's 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism'

Thomas W Devine
Dale Moler

Thomas W Devine. Henry Wallace's 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. 424 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-0203-5.

Reviewed by Dale Moler (Central Michigan University) Published on H-USA (August, 2014) Commissioned by Donna Sinclair

In Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism, Thomas W. Devine explores the shifting politics that strongly shaped American liberalism in the late 1940s. He examines the formation of the Progressive Party in a world increasingly dominated by the Cold War, the idealistic and often unrealistic convictions of Wallace himself, and the party’s inability to attract a wide base of support in the lead-up to the disappointing performance in the 1948 election. The book provides a fascinating glimpse into a postwar America where the liberal alliances that had so strongly shaped the United States during the New Deal and the Second World War were shaken by rising anticommunist sentiment across the country and by internal disagreements within the Progressive Party.

Devine situates the Progressive Party within the context of a rapidly changing postwar world, building on the work of several other postwar political historians. As mainstream American politics shifted right and the Truman administration denounced communism at home and abroad, many Americans struggled with the liberal-communist alliance inherited from the Popular Front. As some liberal Americans sided with Truman and the Democrats, others found their way into a new party, which would ultimately become the third incarnation of the Progressive Party. Like many other historians, Devine shows how the combination of American anxiety about communist control over the Progressive Party and the reluctance of many liberals to abandon the Democratic Party negatively affected Wallace’s campaign from the beginning. 

However, Devine also demonstrates how the decisions made by party leaders and Wallace himself were as important to the disappointing results in the election of 1948 as growing anticommunist sentiment outside the party. The liberal-communist alliance, which had been relatively strong before and during World War II, was increasingly strained as the Cold War developed and liberal Americans questioned their support of the Soviet Union. However, Devine shows that even after crises in Poland and Czechoslovakia increased the pressure on this alliance, most party members avoided speaking out against the Soviet Union for fear of being denounced within the party as a “red-baiter.” Indeed, the stubbornness with which party liberals refused to denounce communism in the face of Soviet aggression and growing anticommunism among Americans in general only left the party open to criticism and attacks from the media and political opponents. In this way, Devine examines the control communists within the party had over the formation of a third party and the creation of a Progressive Party platform. For Devine, debates over whether Moscow had direct influence over these events is less important than the fact that the Progressive Party often acted in what seemed like the interest of the communists. This, combined with a failure to articulate a platform significantly different from that of the Communist Party, left the party and Wallace open to criticism from liberals and non-liberals both within and outside the party.

Of course, Henry Wallace plays an important role in the text. Devine depicts Wallace as an idealist who inherited the Popular Front liberal tradition as well as the recognition of millions of Americans. For Devine, Wallace’s commitment to peace was both his most attractive selling point and his biggest weakness. Wallace’s tirades against corporate control over the Marshall Plan and the Truman administration’s escalation of the Cold War were popular among his followers, and Devine captures the “camp-meeting” atmosphere created by his enthusiastic supporters at party rallies. However, Wallace’s commitment to peace and his convictions that the Truman administration was solely responsible for the developing Cold War often led him to make erroneous and sometimes nonsensical public statements that revealed his idealistic, and unrealistic, approach to the postwar world. Even worse, his reliance on speechwriters intimately connected with the Communist Party left him open to criticism by Americans worried about communist influence in American politics. Wallace’s sincerity is evident throughout Devine’s narrative, but his increasingly inaccurate and unpopular portrayal of the Cold War and his connections to the Communist Party could not be overcome in the months prior to the election.   

Although Wallace plays a central role in the narrative, Devine’s main concern is the Progressive Party and its development and operation on a wide variety of levels. He discusses the formation of the party and concerns among American liberals about the decision to create a third party at the cost of the Democrats. Devine spends an entire chapter on the development of the party platform at the national convention, where disagreements over several key issues led to heated and contentious battles between party factions. Regional circumstances also play an important role in Devine’s study. His excellent chapter on Wallace’s campaign through the American South and the failure of southern progressivism in the face of deep-rooted racism reveals the limitations of postwar progressivism in certain areas of the country. At the heart of everything is the relationship between the Progressive Party, American liberals, and communists at home and abroad. Devine demonstrates how liberals struggled to cope with a political environment shifting right and a Democratic Party split multiple ways, leaving the future of liberal political action in question at the precise moment when anticommunist fervor began to sweep American political and popular culture. 

Following the disappointing Progressive performance in the 1948 elections, the narrative ends rather abruptly and the author fails to discuss the consequences for the future of American liberalism in much detail. The strained relationship between American liberals and communism is left here without resolution, and an added chapter detailing the fate of this relationship and outlining the long-term impact of the Progressive Party and its major contributors would be welcome. The lack of even a small selection of photographs is also unfortunate, as the descriptions of party meetings and the convention would have been well supplemented by photographic evidence. 

Despite these limitations, however, Devine’s work is well written and the personalities driving the narrative make the book exciting and informative. His ability to capture the enthusiasm of Wallace’s supporters and the rabid nature of his critics reveals the turbulent political situation in postwar America from within the Progressive Party and through the eyes of American liberals of all types. Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism is a valuable addition to the scholarship on postwar liberalism and American politics in general.

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