Henry A. Wallace Common Man Speech

Cinema Insiders

Published on Aug 3, 2015

From a 1942 Paramount documentary short titled “Paramount Victory Short No. T2-3: The Price of Victory” In it, Vice-President Henry A. Wallace narrates a patriotic, propaganda short designed to boost morale in the the early days of World War II. The film was nominated for Best Documentary at the 1943 Academy Awards. Directed by William H. Pine.

On May 8, 1942, Wallace delivered what became his most famous speech, to the Free World Association in New York City. The speech, delivered during the darkest days of the war, was formally titled “The Price of Free World Victory” but came to be identified by its phrase “the century of the common man”. This was Wallace’s answer to Republican publisher Henry Luce’s call for an “American Century” after the war. For Wallace the war was a conflict between the slave states and the free world.

“The concept of freedom,” Wallace explained, was rooted in the Bible, with its “extraordinary emphasis on the dignity of the individual,” but only recently had it become a reality for large numbers of people. “Democracy is the only true political expression of Christianity,” he declared, adding that with freedom must come abundance. “Men and women can never be really free until they have plenty to eat, and time and ability to read and think and talk things over.”

For Wallace the outcome of the war had to be more than a restoration of the status quo. He wished to see the ideals of New Deal liberalism continuing at home and spreading throughout a world in which colonialism had been abolished and where labor would be represented by unions. “Most of all,” write Culver and Hyde, “He wanted to end the deadly cycle of economic warfare followed by military combat followed by isolationism and more economic warfare and more conflict.”

For millions Wallace’s speech defined America’s mission in the war and the vision of a peaceful and more equitable world to follow. Nevertheless, it roused the ire of the more conservative Democrats, of business leaders and conservatives, not to mention Winston Churchill, who was strongly committed to preserving Britain’s colonial empire.

In this speech, Wallace formulated the vision of a Century of Common Man, to come once the war was over. The world would not be remade in the American image as in TIME-publisher Henry R. Luce’s idea of an American Century. Instead the war would create a wholly new society in the entire world and on the way get rid of what Wallace saw as American wrongs.

During the war this was a powerful theme, not the least in the many underdeveloped countries associated with the Allied powers. The Nevada State Journal wrote that Wallace, speaking in front of ten thousand Chilean miners in late march 1943 was cheered lustily from time to time as he spoke in Spanish. A few in the crowd carried Communist party flags. (1 April 1943, frontpage)

After the War Wallace was fired from his position as Secretary of Commerce because he held onto the conviction of this speech, and refused to gang up with Western European colonialism show hostility no matter what to the war wrecked Soviet Union.

In times where a Project for a New American Century terrorizes people at the Persian Gulf it timely to recall the points made by one of the earliest critics of this trend in American foreign policy: Vice President Henry A. Wallace.


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