Once upon a time, liberals knew what they believed. They believed America must lead the world by persuasion, not command. And they believed that by championing freedom overseas, America itself could become more free. That liberal spirit won America's trust at the dawn of the cold war. Then it collapsed in the wake of Vietnam. Now, after 9/11, and the failed presidency of George W. Bush, America needs it back.
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May 30, 2006
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Excerpt from The Good Fight by Peter Beinart
A New Liberalism
THE TRIP BEGAN badly. Within minutes of former vice president Henry Wallace's arrival at the Minneapolis airport, the crowd waiting to greet him had already begun to squabble. Wallace's aunt and uncle, who were Minnesota residents, wanted to drive their famous nephew to his hotel. But the leaders of Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party insisted that he travel in their car instead, in a show of solidarity. Communists were like that. In the transportation sweepstakes, Hubert Humphrey, the 35-year-old mayor of Minneapolis, came in a distant third. Not only was he denied the honor of ferrying the country's leading liberal politician in his car, but the Communists didn't even give him a seat in theirs. So he had to wait to speak to his political idol until later that night.
Despite their differences, Humphrey revered Wallace. The younger man was jovial, corny, everybody's best pal; the older man was mystical and introverted, a lover of humanity but rarely of those around him. But they were both Midwesterners, and they both worshipped the New Deal, seeing it not merely as a template for America, but for the entire world. At the 1944 Democratic Convention, Humphrey had unsuccessfully fought to renominate Wallace as vice president, rather than the hackish Harry Truman. On the day Franklin Roosevelt died, Humphrey poured out his soul to the man he hoped would one day be president. "I simply can't conceal my emotions," he wrote to Wallace. "How I wish you were at the helm."
Now, more than a year later, Humphrey needed Wallace's help. Nineteen forty-six had been difficult for the young mayor. During the war, when the Minnesota left had united in a popular front, Humphrey had gotten along fine with the Communists. But now they were moving against him. In June, Communists and their allies had packed the state DFL convention in Saint Paul, choosing their own slate to run the party, and passing resolutions excoriating Truman's new hard line toward Moscow. When Humphrey rose to speak, the crowd greeted him with cries of "fascist" and "warmonger." He persevered, until a security guard growled, "Sit down, you son of a bitch, or I'll knock you down." And so, without finishing his remarks, Humphrey did.
If things were turning ugly in Minnesota, they weren't much better on the international stage. In February, Stalin warned that American capitalism and Soviet Communism were on a collision course. In March, Winston Churchill journeyed to Fulton, Missouri, and after an introduction by Truman, declared that "an iron curtain has descended across the Continent," dividing Western Europe from the "police governments" to the east. Humphrey wasn't eager for the cold war he had hoped World War II would leave a new era of international cooperation and development in its wake. But he couldn't ignore events in the world, and in his backyard. By the end of summer, he was condemning Soviet despotism and declaring Minnesota's popular front dead.
Wallace was headed the other way. In September, in a rally at Madison Square Garden, he attacked the "numerous reactionary elements" seeking to undermine "peace based on mutual trust" between the United States and the USSR. He was still in government, serving as Truman's secretary of commerce. Yet he was contradicting Truman's foreign policy. Eight days later, he was out of a job.
Despite all this, Humphrey the inveterate optimist still believed that when he sat down with Wallace, they would see eye to eye. When they finally did, at Wallace's hotel that night, he explained what was happening in Minnesota and pleaded for Wallace's help in taking the party back. Wallace seemed puzzled by the talk of Communist treachery. After all, he explained, he knew only one Communist himself. Humphrey was stunned: Several open Communists had driven Wallace from the airport. Liberalism was headed for civil war and the man he once idolized would be on the other side.
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