Comments by Daniel B. Botkin
Copyright (c) Daniel B. Botkin 2007
The life of Henry A. Wallace is a fascinating lesson for our times, as we try to solve large problems about food, energy, and environment. Wallace was a remarkable man: a scientific genius who as a young man invented hybridization of crops; a successful businessman who founded the Pioneer Seed Company, still one of America's largest producers of crop seeds; a public speaker who could attract large crowds; a man who came from a long line of Iowa Republicans to become Secretary of Agriculture under Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt, and finally to become politically radicalized and run for president in 1948 as a candidate of the Farmer-Worker party.
Wallace also managed to do good works in applying science to solve some major societal problems. He conceived of, helped found, and appointed the first director of the International Rice Research Institute and a similar organization in Mexico to develop new strains of crops. IRRI continues to develop hybrids that have increased crop production and nutritional quality, while at the same time remaining controversial among some environmentalists. Wallace grew up in a family of farmers who believed in doing good works and helping their fellow human beings, and that one of the best ways to do this was through public service serving in the government. This is an attitude toward life and government little promoted these days.
Living during the Great Depression and the American Dust Bowl, Wallace but one of many men and women who believed that big government was the way perhaps the only way to solve large social problems. It was the time of the start of the Bonneville Power Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority, two huge quasi-governmental agencies that built some of the biggest and most important dams to generate electricity and provide water for irrigation. It was the time of the Works Project Administration, set up under a belief that a society should have creativity of many kinds and should support that creativity writers, artists, and so forth especially during a depression when there was little other work for many of these people. For example, to help writers support themselves, the WPA funded a series of books, each about a major river in America.
An irony of Wallace's career is that, although coming from a politically conservative
background, as secretary of agriculture he created the largest bureaucracy then existing in the world --- 140,000 employees with all the disadvantages that are obvious to us today about huge bureaucracies, as well as the good works that they are sometimes able to accomplish. There is also an irony in the way that that huge bureaucracy set the scene for the rise of others, which seem to many Americans to do more damage than good.
Today we live in a time when we have learned that big bureaucracies tend not to solve the problems they were set up for, yet we don't know what else to do we have not agreed on a societal means to solve such major problems. We live in a cynical time when the media engage in feeding frenzies over the mishaps and mistakes of the famous, including famous politicians, and we have thus come to believe that there are few honest and ethical people in public service who strive to do good work and help their fellow human beings. In this situation, Henry Wallace's life becomes even more important to us. For there is no doubt that he was a man who truly believed in doing good, who believed in the scientific method and used it properly, who sought the truth without intentional distortion.
Today, thoughtful people wonder why we no longer can find great leaders like those of the past, who ought to exist in fair numbers among America's 300 million but do not appear. Where are the people of truly goodwill who are in positions of leadership and power and are truly attempting to do good? Which of our politicians can meet this test. And which of their scientific advisers?
When we confront global warming, threats to endangered species, consequences of huge hurricanes and large wildfires events that seem beyond the help of individuals working alone, small towns, perhaps even states, and regions, and seem to be the realm only of national governments and perhaps even international agreements, then Henry Wallace's life, accomplishments, and failures become important stories for us.