Sunday, March 20, 2011

Book Review: American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace

If you want to understand American agriculture and agricultural policy, then you need to know something about Henry A. Wallace. Henry A. Wallace (1888-1965) was an influential man who came from an influential family. He was the editor of one of the top farm journals in America, Wallaces' Farmer, founded in the late 1800's by his dad and grandfather and still in print to this day; founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred, which commercialized and popularized hybrid corn (also still in existence today but now owned by DuPont); and served as Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce, and Vice President under FDR. And if that wasn't enough, he is also credited as the man behind the Green Revolution.

The following is a summary of Wallace's life, using the book American Dreamer: A Life of Henry Wallace by John C. Culver and John Hyde. The book was, on the whole, excellent - but I wish it included more specifics about agriculture!

First, let's look at the two Henry Wallace's before him - his grandfather, Reverend Henry Wallace, and his father, Henry C. Wallace. None of the Henry Wallace's spent much of their lives farming. Reverend Wallace was first a preacher and later, a successful writer in a farm journal. He never held political office himself, but was politically influential and was close friends with influential men - James “Tama Jim” Wilson and Seaman Knapp. Wilson served in Congress and later served under several presidents as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Knapp was a professor of agriculture at Iowa State, and you might remember him from his work with the Rockefeller Foundation.

Henry C. Wallace was a professor at Iowa State but ultimately left to work on Wallaces' Farmer, which he founded with his dad, full time. He founded the American Farm Bureau Federation and he served as Secretary of Agriculture under Harding and briefly under Coolidge.

Like the two Henry Wallaces before him, Henry A. Wallace (who went by H.A. to his friends) devoted much of his life to agriculture but did not rely on farming for his income. As a young boy, he was an avid gardener, fascinated by plant genetics and plant breeding. In high school, this fascination turned its focus to corn. At the time, corn was judged and seed was saved based on looks, not yield. As a high schooler, Wallace took a challenge from a corn expert, taking 33 bags of corn from the expert and setting out to prove that looks were unrelated from yield. Which he successfully did.

After graduating from Iowa State with a degree in livestock, H.A. went into the family business at Wallaces' Farmer. Simultaneously, he pursued his love of corn breeding, and, in 1926, founded Pioneer Hi-Bred. During those years, their market share was tiny and so were their revenues. Some of Wallace's hybrid corn had been sold by another seed company a few years earlier, so it would not be correct to say that Pioneer Hi-Bred was the first to sell hybrid corn... but it would nearly be correct. Especially since Wallace was the corn breeder behind both the earlier hybrid corn and Pioneer Hi-Bred. (I think it's also significant that the open pollinated corn used before hybrids came along was never judged on yield. I've heard some say that if the same amount of research and development was put into open pollinated crop varieties as it is for hybrids, perhaps the difference in yields would not be so stark.)

While his father was Secretary of Agriculture and afterward, H.A. Wallace pushed for economic reforms to agriculture. Ultimately, when he became Secretary of Agriculture in 1933, he was the force behind the first Farm Bill. (Note: He left Wallaces' Farmer and Pioneer Hi-Bred when he became Secretary of Agriculture. He continued to make money off of Pioneer, although he did not make very much from it in the first decade or so.)

The politics behind the passage of the first farm bill are fascinating. For example, I had no idea before reading this book that the first Farm Bill was thrown out by the Supreme Court. What I often refer back to as the successful ag policy under FDR came out of a second Farm Bill in 1938.

The second Farm Bill put in place the "Ever Normal Granary," an idea Wallace found in Chinese history, which he also referred to as "Joseph's Plan" in reference to the Old Testament. When prices are low, the government buys some of the excess commodities at a fair floor price. Then, when prices are high, the government releases the commodities back onto the market to lower the prices. I think reading the politics of how this was enacted the first time around is crucial, in order to understand how we might get such a reform enacted again.

Wallace was an interesting contradiction compared to today's politics. He was for "scientific" agriculture, which ultimately gave us the industrial farming we have today. On the other hand, he was not crazy about giving tons of power to major corporations. He was a registered Republican until 1936, even though he served under a Democratic president. (At the time, there was such a thing as a progressive Republican. Wallace was never a conservative.) Wallace was die-hard for free trade, and at least at one point in his career, he embraced a plan that would help farmers by dumping cheap excess commodities on foreign markets. While he supported labor and the New Deal, the environment never came up in his politics.

In the 1940 election, Roosevelt selected Wallace as his running mate. The VP for Roosevelt's first two terms, Garner, had not remained loyal to Roosevelt in some political conflicts in his second term. Wallace was loyal. Also important to Roosevelt was Wallace's good health (in the event that Roosevelt died in office).

After winning but before taking office, Wallace went to Mexico for the inauguration of the new Mexican president Avila Camacho. He spoke Spanish (not perfectly, but well enough to be understood) and never hesitated to get out of his car and wander out into a corn field to discuss corn with a peasant. He spent an extra month in Mexico, touring the country and discussing agriculture with anyone who would talk to him. When he came back, he met with senior officers of the Rockefeller Foundation and proposed what ultimately became the Green Revolution. The authors say of this:

Yet this revolution, the central achievement of Wallace's life, was also its biggest paradox. Even as he was teaching Iowa farmers how to produce more corn, Wallace was in Washington wrestling with the problem of overproduction. And as he was bringing scientific advancement to the farm, he was setting in motion forces that would drive ever more farmers off the land. p. 149-150

Once he became VP, Wallace was mostly consumed with World War II. Even before the U.S. entered the war, he began work to stockpile and secure important materials, most notably rubber. His most famous speech, known as "Century of the Common Man," set out his vision for not just winning the war but also winning the peace afterward. He did not want to be set up to have a war with Russia, and he was quite opposed to some of Churchill's ideas about the superiority of Anglo-Saxons.

In the speech, Wallace said, "Men and women can not be really free until they have plenty to eat, and time and ability to read and think and talk things over." He traced progress and development to education and literacy and then said, "If we were to measure freedom by standards of nutrition, education and self-government, we might rank the United States and certain nations of Western Europe very high. But this would not be fair to other nations where education had become widespread only in the last twenty years. In many nations, a generation ago, nine out of ten of the people could not read or write."

Later in the speech, he said:

Modern science, which is a by-product and an essential part of the people's revolution, has made it technologically possible to see that all of the people of the world get enough to eat. Half in fun and half seriously, I said the other day to Madame Litvinov: "The object of this war is to make sure that everybody in the world has the privilege of drinking a quart of milk a day." She replied: "Yes, even half a pint." The peace must mean a better standard of living for the common man, not merely in the United States and England, but also in India, Russia, China and Latin America — not merely in the United Nations, but also in Germany and Italy and Japan.

Some have spoken of the "American Century." I say that 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. Perhaps it will be America's opportunity to suggest that Freedoms and duties by which the common man must live. Everywhere the common man must learn to build his own industries with his own hands is a practical fashion. Everywhere the common man must learn to increase his productivity so that he and his children can eventually pay to the world community all that they have received. No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations. Older nations will have the privilege to help younger nations get started on the path to industrialization, but there must be neither military nor economic imperialism.

In a later speech, he said "The new democracy by definition abhors imperialism." (p. 292)

Wallace's interest in Latin America continued, and during his time as VP, he took a five-week trip through many Central and South American countries. Wherever he went, he was loved. In 1946, toward the end of his time in government, he returned to Mexico and met Norman Borlaug. He was incredibly impressed with the work of Borlaug and others at the Rockefeller Foundation and "believed this foretold a stable foundation for Mexico's future." (p. 418)

In 1944, Wallace was replaced by Truman as VP. Roosevelt told Wallace to pick any seat in the cabinet he wanted except for Secretary of State, and he chose Commerce. He remained Secretary of Commerce until 1946. In 1945, he bought a farm in Westchester County, NY. However, his resignation from the cabinet was not the end of his political career. He ran, unsuccessfully, for President in 1948, on the Progressive Party ticket.

I hope you'll permit me to skip most of the politics in Wallace's later years to keep the focus on agriculture. Wallace remained an avid gardener almost to the end, even when his professional life was consumed with politics. Near the end of his life, in 1962, he returned to the USDA to give a speech.

His address reviewed the breathtaking changes that had occurred in agriculture during his lifetime. The Iowa farm on which he was born in 1888, he pointed out, wasn't too different from the farm of his grandfather's boyhood, a place where men and horses labored for an hour to produce a bushel of corn. Seventy-four years later the American farm had been revolutionized by machines and pesticides and hybrid seed. A competent farmer could produce a bushel of corn with less than six minutes of labor. - p. 524

Wallace died in 1965 of ALS.

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