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No New Lies: In Soviet Russia, the Chamber Echoes You

No New Lies: In Soviet Russia, the Chamber Echoes You

This is the second instalment in our series No New Lies, where we explore how misinformation, disinformation and conspiracies from history can help us understand the politics of the present. This week, the story of 1948 presidential candidate Henry Wallace, and a filter bubble constructed by the Soviet Union to tell him what he wanted to hear.


As we near the election, there has been an understandable focus on the misinformation spread by President Trump, mostly notably around the COVID-19 pandemic and the integrity of mail-in voting.

But what about the bad information that the President himself is consuming? We know that Trump is a prolific twitter user, and that a filter bubble around his polling numbers may have allowed him to believe that he’s polling ahead of Biden. The President follows only 50 other accounts from his personal twitter; all are supporters, family members, Republican politicians or conservative commentators. Trump’s aides too, are famous for manipulating data and presenting information to the president in such a way that it shows him what he wants to hear. In short, he has constructed his own filter bubble to feed views that support his own back to him.

This is not, however, the first time a senior politician has found himself shrouded in a comforting bubble of the information he wants to hear, at the expense of that which he doesn’t. In 1948, Henry Wallace—a presidential candidate from the Progressive Party—based his campaign on the romantic idea of a partnership between the U.S. and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Wallace was a committed leftist, and it was years before he accepted that the U.S. didn’t share his vision. Decades later, historians discovered that Stalin and the NKVD (the Soviet Secret Service) had worked to manipulate Wallace by showing him the version of the USSR he wanted to believe in.


Who Are You, Mr. Wallace?

Henry Wallace was on a bright political path. He served as the Secretary of Agriculture (1933-1940), Vice President (1941-1945), the chairman of the dramatically named Board of Economic Warfare (1941-1943) and as Secretary of Commerce (1945-1946).

Described as an idealist and dreamer, Wallace's personality made him an easy target for taunting from his colleagues. Journalist Allen Drury, who met Wallace many times, described him as follows: 

"No matter what he does, it is always going to seem faintly ridiculous, and no matter how he acts, it is always going to seem faintly pathetic—at least to the cold-eyed judgments of the Hill." 


Others have described him similarly: "He was...an easy man to make fun of,” the historian David McCullough writes, “and to these tough party professionals, Wallace seemed to have his head in the clouds. They had never wanted him for Vice President. He was too liberal, too intellectual, a mystic who spoke Russian and played with a boomerang and reputedly consulted with the spirit of a dead Sioux Indian chief." 

Throughout his career, Wallace’s idealism affected all his political positions. He advocated for cooperation with the Soviet Union, criticized the Cold War approach and had ties to the American Communists as well as the USSR. Indeed, it was his support of the Soviet Union that resulted in President Harry Truman's decision to fire him from his role as secretary of commerce. When, in 1948, Wallace established the Progressive Party and ran for president, he was heavily criticized for being influenced by the Soviets. 


The Soviet disinformation feed

Wallace had several personal contacts in the USSR. However, historical analysis of his connections shows that the Soviet government repeatedly played him for a fool. 

One of the most illustrative cases of Soviet manipulation was Wallace's 1944 visit to the USSR. During the visit, Wallace, then Vice President of the United States, visited Kolyma, a region infamous for its Gulag prisons. 

The trip was controlled by the Russian secret service NKVD and orchestrated to impress the Vice President. Knowing that Wallace was sympathetic to the USSR, the Soviet government ordered the leadership of Gulag to hide all possible signs of the prison system’s inhumanity. Wallace was right in the heart of the Soviet political labor camps, but the real prisoners were locked in the barracks and almost all the people who talked to Wallace were agents of the NKVD or actors. One of the two officials who escorted Wallace during his visit was not, as Wallace was told, a diplomat from the Soviet Foreign Office, but a senior intelligence officer.

A particularly surreal event took place in a piggery, where Wallace caused confusion by asking a question of one of the “prettily dressed swineherd girls” at a model farm that formed part of the prison camp. In fact, the girls were unable to answer the question because they knew nothing about the pigs. According to the testimony of Elinor Lipper, a former prisoner held at the camp: “these girls were not swine herders at all; they were a group of good-looking office girls who had been ordered to play a part especially for Mr. Wallace’s visit. They took the place of prisoners who actually did take care of the swine. However, the interpreter saved the situation and the visit went off smoothly.”

Two years after the visit, Wallace delivered his infamous Madison Square Garden Address in which he claimed that the U.S. wanted peace and cooperation with Russia. Though Truman had already cleared the speech, he received a note from Secretary of State James Byrnes shortly afterwards. Byrnes was in negotiations with Soviet authorities in Paris, which Wallace’s remarks had seriously undermined.

In 1948, Wallace, now a presidential candidate for the Progressive Party, published an open letter to Joseph Stalin in which he called for a Peace Program and proposed a number of steps to stop the Cold War—a message that had been approved by Stalin himself. According to the memoir of Soviet diplomat Oleg Troyanvskiy, the Soviet government believed that Wallace had a significant chance of winning the presidency, and then changing U.S. foreign policy in a way which would greatly advantage the USSR.

A week after Wallace published his letter, Joseph Stalin replied positively in the Soviet newspaper Pravda. Stalin stressed that "among the political documents of recent times, that have the strengthening of peace, the furthering of international cooperation and the securing of democracy as their aims, the open letter of Henry Wallace, the presidential candidate of the Third Party in the U.S.A., is the most important." Pravda also published letters from grateful Soviet citizens who also supported Wallace. After Wallace lost the election, Stalin never replied to his letters again. Stalin had lost his use for Wallace; Wallace had lost his political career.


Lessons for today

Seventy years ago, the USSR mounted a campaign to influence an already sympathetic presidential candidate in the hope of gaining a foothold in the American political system. It didn’t work, though not because they failed to convince Wallace, but because their ideas, and Wallace’s, were drastically out of step with what the American people believed.

Some might think the relevant lesson to draw from the Wallace story today is the willingness of the Russian state to directly manipulate US political actors; Donald Trump and his entourage are often accused of having ties to Russia and even recently Trump stressed that he “does get along with President Putin.” But in fact the lesson here is more nuanced: disinformation is dangerous, but it alone is not enough to win power.

In the 2016 election, the U.S. saw a campaign of Russian interference on an unprecedented scale. New forms of media, both digital and social, pushed old Soviet disinformation techniques to a whole new level. The targets of Russian manipulation have become more diffuse, and Donald Trump clearly occupies a different domestic political space than Wallace did. Even so, like Trump’s own personal disinformation feed, the Soviets told Wallace what he wanted to hear. The difference is that in 2020, many more voters may want to hear it too.

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