“We’ve never had anything like this happen in any of our elections before,” said Hillary Clinton at the final presidential debate, referring to the Russian-directed hacks aimed at influencing the US election. She was right in the narrow sense: 2016 is witnessing a new combination of Russian cyber and political warfare directed at the United States.
However, it is not Russia’s first attempt to interfere in a US presidential election. Moscow has trod this ground before — back in 1948.
Though the election of 1948 is best remembered for the Chicago Tribune newspaper’s embarrassing, incorrect “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, its forgotten story is of Henry Wallace, a liberal dreamer who, though unlike Donald Trump in nearly every respect, shares Trump’s fate of being too blinded by his self-messianic vision to realize he too had become a Kremlin pawn.
Wallace: Stalin’s unwitting pawn
While some may remember Strom Thurmond’s “Dixiecrats,” most have no memory of the Progressive Party, led by Franklin Roosevelt’s previous vice president, Henry Wallace.
Rising tensions with the Soviet Union greatly troubled this internationalist dreamer. The early hardening of Cold War relations threatened to undercut his dream of taking the New Deal global, embracing trade, commerce, and cooperation to enhance global peace and prosperity (ironic given Donald Trump’s stance on trade).
In a September 12, 1946, speech titled “The Way to Peace,” Wallace, even as secretary of commerce, called for a repudiation of President Harry Truman’s “get tough with Russia” policy, asserting, “‘Getting tough’ never bought anything real or lasting — whether for schoolyard bullies or businessmen or world powers.”
In Wallace’s mind, responsibility for the acrimonious relations between the United States and the Soviet Union fell on Washington. Like Trump, Wallace saw Russia as a partner. Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s actions in Eastern Europe and his authoritarian reign at home could be patched over for common goals.
American actions were to blame for the downward spiral. As pro-Wallace campaign literature would argue in 1948, “The bi-partisan Marshall Plan, under the guise of a ‘recovery’ program is actually the first step toward the formation of a Western military bloc aimed at Russia.”
Wallace sought to portray himself as a candidate for “good relations” with Russia. On May 11, 1948, before a full crowd at Madison Square Garden, he called for a new dialogue with the USSR. Reading aloud an open letter to Stalin, he offered a six-point plan. It had laudable elements, including arms reductions and a ban on weapons of mass destruction.
However, it also problematically asserted that “neither the USA nor the USSR should maintain military bases on other UN countries.” Wallace, like Trump is today, was proposing an effective American withdrawal from Europe.
A week later, Stalin replied. In an open letter broadcast on radio and then reprinted in the American press, the Soviet leader painted Wallace as the candidate of peace. The importance of Wallace’s letter, explained Stalin, was that it “proposes a concrete program for the peaceful settlement of the differences of opinion between the Soviet Union and the USA.”
The Soviet leader stated that while he did “not know whether the government of the USA acknowledges the program of Wallace as a basis for understanding between the USSR and the USA … we believe that the program of Wallace could be a good and fruitful foundation for such understanding and for the development of international cooperation. …” Stalin’s message was clear: For the peace candidate, pick Wallace.
Of course, as history tells us, Wallace’s candidacy concluded in abject failure. The former vice president captured only 2.37 percent of the popular vote. As Howard Norton of the Baltimore Sun reported at the time, there emerged “a growing and spreading conviction among New Dealers and other ‘liberals’ that Wallace, wittingly or unwittingly, is playing Moscow’s game and is hurting rather than helping the cause of peace.”
Wallace was unwitting, at least vis-à-vis the larger agenda behind Stalin’s endorsement. As with Trump today, the Kremlin was adroitly manipulating Wallace. Shortly before Wallace’s May 11 speech at Madison Square Garden, the US ambassador to Moscow, Walter Bedell Smith, met in a secret dialogue with Stalin.
Smith’s objectives were twofold. First, as the postwar settlement of Europe, especially around peace with a divided Germany, remained deadlocked, Smith sought to test the waters for any potential diplomatic progress.
Simultaneously, Smith intended to draw a line in the sand following the tumultuous events of early 1948; only months earlier, a February coup in Czechoslovakia had toppled the last non-communist-controlled government in Eastern Europe. With Western Europe under increasing pressure, seemingly from the USSR, Washington worried Moscow was on the march.
The United States, Smith relayed, had “no hostile or aggressive designs with respect to the Soviet Union.” Nonetheless, Smith emphasized, Moscow should not believe that “domestic considerations, such as the forthcoming elections, would in any way weaken the determination of this country to stand up for what it believes to be right.”
Stalin wanted to test that point.
Radio Moscow declared that the United States had proposed a secret Soviet-American conference, taking the diplomatic world by surprise. Washington’s allies were furious at apparent secret unilateral negotiations.
Later that same evening, as Secretary of State George Marshall raced to reassure various European delegations of US intentions, Wallace took the stage for his Madison Square Garden speech.
Stalin’s response to that speech and open letter, selecting that exact moment to answer Wallace’s repeated messages, was timed for this strategically advantageous moment.
Where Smith had averred the elections would have no impact on American resolve in Europe, the Soviet leader desired to plant seeds of doubt – in the US government, with the public, and with nervous European allies in these pre-NATO days. Wallace, in a fervent hope to work with Moscow, was blind to the machinations in which he was a pawn.
Trump: Kremlin pawn 2.0
Today, in Donald Trump, America finds another presidential candidate who mistakenly believes a partnership with the Kremlin can supersede fundamental geopolitical divisions. But the United States and the Putin regime have starkly different visions for international order — divisions stemming from Truman’s time.
Since World War II, the United States has defended an open, rules-based global system; one where big states cannot use force to intimidate small ones, where trade and commerce work toward prosperity for all peoples, and where we support the spread of the rule of law.
Putin’s Russia values none of these things. It desires a return to spheres of influence where great powers decide the future of their neighbors, the use of trade as a tool to coerce others, and the erosion of democratic norms that challenge his regime’s legitimacy.
For Trump, this Russian vision is attractive. “Getting along” with Russia lets the United States dump European allies that don’t pay for protection. Moscow may use trade and energy as a club, but Americans will be safe behind large walls. And Putin may be ruler with little respect for the rule of law or the notion of separation of powers, yet that’s a kindred spirit for a candidate who threatens to jail his opponent.
Trump’s policy, like Wallace’s, would not bring peace and stability. If anything, it would sacrifice the considerable successes that came with the Cold War’s end. Europe today, unlike in 1948, is not divided into competing blocs, requiring a significant investment of American money and manpower to keep the peace.
The European Union may not be perfect, but since 1991 Europe has experienced a growth in democracy and prosperity that has benefited both Europeans and Americans. When functioning at its best, Europe has been a partner for the United States on the global stage.
The Trumpian foreign policy is to sacrifice these gains — ones unheard of in European history — for the illusion of good relations with Russia.
Instead, we should continue the model of presidents from Truman to Reagan of standing by our allies when confronted with aggressive states that seek to dominate their neighbors rather than live with them. Our longstanding alliances should not be boiled down to transactional relations. Nor in this roiling global climate will America find security in shirking our bonds with fellow democracies.
It is a time for engagement, not retrenchment, and for a leader with the judgment to recognize friends from adversaries — a judgment Donald Trump, like Henry Wallace before him, clearly lacks.
Will Moreland works at a Washington, DC, think tank where he specializes in US foreign policy and American grand strategy. He holds a master’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown University.