The Cold War dawned with the United States facing a crisis in political leadership. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our first and only four-term president, had dominated American politics for a generation. For many Americans during the Great Depression and World War II, FDR was not merely the head of the United States government; Roosevelt practically was the United States government. Roosevelt's sudden death in April 1945, just months before World War II ended and the Cold War began, left a tremendous void—a void which new President Harry S. Truman struggled to fill.
Truman hadn't been close to Roosevelt. In fact, FDR much preferred Truman's predecessor as vice president, former Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, an old Iowa Progressive who was a fervent devotee of the New Deal program. Roosevelt had only dumped Wallace as his vice presidential nominee in 1944 to appease Southern Democrats who threatened to split the party at the Democratic Convention if FDR didn't allow them to install a more conservative VP. If FDR had decided to burn his political capital by fighting for his first-choice vice president, or if he had simply died a few months earlier, the critical decisions of the early Cold War period would have been made not by Truman but by President Henry Wallace. And in light of Wallace's fervent belief in cooperation rather than competition with the Soviet Union, there may never have been a Cold War at all. (Whether Wallace's policies would have led to peace and prosperity or to Soviet conquest of the entire globe is impossible to say—but one way or the other, the history of the second half of the twentieth century would have been very different.)
But Roosevelt decided that he couldn't risk alienating the southern conservatives within his New Deal coalition, so he demoted Wallace to the position of Secretary of Commerce in order to offer the vice presidency to Harry S. Truman. But FDR apparently felt that Truman's usefulness to him ended with the 1944 campaign; during the 82 days that passed between Truman's inauguration as vice president and FDR's death, Truman played no important role in the government. Roosevelt excluded Truman from the critical negotiations with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta in February 1945, and he didn't even let Truman in on the nation's greatest secret—the atomic bomb.
Then FDR died. Suddenly Harry Truman became president, assuming the burden of preserving and extending Roosevelt's policies in the postwar era. Only he'd never really been let into the loop on exactly what those policies would have been.
Truman soon decided to deal with Stalin as he believed Roosevelt had dealt with Hitler—with a tough policy of confrontation and resistance. Truman never thought twice about dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he saw as useful not only to hasten Japanese surrender but also to intimidate the Soviets. In his very first meeting with Stalin's foreign minister, V.M. Molotov, Truman unleashed a barrage of criticism that caused Molotov to protest, "I have never been talked to like that in my life."8 And later, in his most important foreign policy address—known ever since as the Truman Doctrine—the President committed the United States to opposing Communism everywhere in the world, declaring that "totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States."9
Henry Wallace, still serving as Secretary of Commerce in Truman's Cabinet, dissented forcefully from Truman's aggressive anti-Soviet policy, arguing that cooperation, not confrontation, was the only way to peace. On 12 September 1946, Wallace gave a speech criticizing Truman's hard line. "He who trusts in the atom bomb," said Wallace, "will sooner or later perish by the atom bomb—or something worse."10 The next week, Truman demanded Wallace's resignation. "The people of the United States may disagree freely and publicly on any question," Truman said, "but the Government of the United States must stand as a unit in its relation with the rest of the world."11
Wallace, feeling Truman had abandoned the social thrust of his beloved New Deal in favor of an overly aggressive foreign policy, made one last stand in an attempt to revive the left wing of the Roosevelt legacy. In 1948, Wallace ran for the presidency on a third-party ticket. Initially fancying themselves as "Roosevelt Democrats" and seeking to defeat Truman in the Democratic primary, Wallace's backers soon abandoned that plan to form a new Progressive Party, devoted to expanding the social democratic programs of the New Deal, seeking peaceful accommodation with the Soviets, and rejecting anticommunism at home.
American Communists, not surprisingly, enthusiastically supported Wallace's efforts. "I am getting a lot of support from the Communists," Wallace admitted, "and the Communist leaders seem to think they need to endorse me every day or so. There is no question this sort of thing is a political liability."12 Wallace himself was no Communist, but on principle he refused to practice the politics of repudiation by denouncing the Reds who backed his campaign. "I will not repudiate any support which comes to me on the interest of peace," he said, thereby destroying his candidacy.13
Wallace hoped that his campaign might undo the emerging, bipartisan Cold War consensus by proving at the ballot box that unending fear of the Communist menace at home and abroad need not define the limits of American politics. In the end, Wallace's campaign had precisely the opposite effect.
Wallace's campaign began well enough. In late 1947, an internal Democratic National Committee strategy paper fretted that, "Wallace has captured the imagination of a strong segment of the American public."14 The surprising February 1948 victory of Leo Isacson, a Wallace-backed candidate in a New York special congressional election, emboldened Progressives to hope for as many as ten million Wallace votes in November. But Wallace's campaign soon foundered. His refusal to repudiate Communists caused many Americans to conclude that Wallace was either a Communist himself or was being used as a dupe of the Communists. On election day, Wallace carried only a pathetic 2.4% of the vote, losing not only to Truman and his Republican challenger Thomas Dewey, but even to segregationist "Dixiecrat" Strom Thurmond, who had split from the Democrats in protest against Truman's modest support for civil rights.
Henry Wallace's humiliating defeat proved that questioning the basic premises of the country's anticommunist policies had moved beyond the pale of acceptable political opinion in the Cold War era. After Wallace, every major candidate of both parties would be a committed Cold Warrior. The two parties would compete not over whether to wage Cold War against the Soviet Union, but instead over who could be trusted to wage Cold War tougher. A corollary to both parties' commitment to defeat the Soviet Union was both parties' commitment to root out Communist subversives at home—a commitment that quickly escalated into the Red Scare and McCarthyism.