In 1943, in the midst of World War II, then-Vice President Henry Wallace gave a speech on racism in Detroit that would ultimately lead to the Democratic Party kicking him off the ticket the following year.
“We cannot fight Nazism abroad and condone race riots,” Wallace warned a mass meeting of community and labor groups, following a series of riots and protests that police said killed 17 African Americans. “Those who fan the fires of racial clashes for the purpose of making political capital here at home are taking the first step toward Nazism.” He highlighted those trying to undermine President Franklin Roosevelt’s domestic progress. “Some people call these powerful groups ‘isolationists,’ others call them ‘reactionaries,’ and still others call them ‘American Fascists.’”
The Nation’s correspondent John Nichols’s bold new book The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace’s Antifascist, Antiracist Politics argues that the Trump era has made it obvious that the Democratic Party has not learned the lessons of how a new “American fascism” could rise in the U.S.
“I wrote this book because I believed that we had to explain how the Democratic Party lost in 2016 to Donald Trump and we had to stop making excuses, we had to stop looking for someone to blame and recognize that some of the blame game comes with a Democratic Party that chose compromise over the big fight over race,” said Nichols in an interview with the Prospect.
“The fact is that we knew what to do in 1944 and we understand it, progressives understood it and yet the Democratic Party said no,” says Nichols of the decision to dump Wallace as vice president, so he could not succeed an ailing FDR, who died in office less than a year later.
Building on the success of the New Deal, FDR added Wallace, initially his agriculture secretary, as vice president in 1940, dumping segregationist Democrat John Nance Garner. Roosevelt felt that Wallace could succeed him and ultimately continue on the work of the New Deal. More importantly, FDR needed Wallace’s energy and vision to help make the case to the American public to back the war effort.
As vice president, Wallace spent the war years touring the U.S. with a vigor that the wheelchair-bound FDR couldn’t, arguing that in order to truly win the war against fascism abroad, the United States must take on racism, sexism, and economic inequality at home, or risk the rise of a new “American fascism.”
“The survival and strength of American democracy are proof that it has succeeded thus far, but we all know that it contains the seeds of failure,” said Wallace in a pre-election speech in 1940. “I for one will not be confident of the continued survival of American democracy if millions of unskilled workers and their families are condemned to be reliefers all their lives, with no place in our industrial system,” he told the crowd.