Henry A. Wallace

Explore how the life and legacy of Henry A. Wallace informs the struggles and solutions of today.

A Life Dedicated to a Progressive Vision


From his career at the height of national politics, to his legacy building a philanthropic foundation dedicated to his ideals, Henry A. Wallace lived a life dedicated to his progressive ideals. His work to further human rights, racial justice, and ecological preservation — and restrain corporate greed — lies at the heart of Wallace Global Fund’s mission today.

Henry A. Wallace was born in Iowa in 1888 to an activist family. His grandfather founded an influential magazine, “Wallace’s Farmer,” and his father would later serve as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. When Henry A. Wallace was young, his father invited one of his Black graduate students to live with them because racial segregation kept him from living in the dorms.

That’s how young Henry began a friendship with the brilliant botanist George Washington Carver, a relationship that would influence his views on race and ecology for the rest of his life.

Henry A. Wallace was a key champion and architect of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Appointed to his father’s old job as Secretary of Agriculture in Roosevelt’s first term, he successfully pushed the president and Congress to include farmers in the package of reforms being developed for the economy.

Government intervention in what had been a destructive and out-of-control free market system resulted in a huge boost to farmers’ incomes, saving many from total collapse.

Wallace redefined the role of Vice President, taking on genuine leadership in the Roosevelt Administration’s preparations for World War II. But his time as Vice President is perhaps best remembered for the ideals he championed in his most celebrated speech. In 1942, in the middle of World War Two, he rejected Life Magazine publisher Henry Luce’s famous call for an “American Century” and other calls for America’s domination of the postwar world.

Instead, Wallace urged that “the century on which we are entering can and must be the century of the common man.” He warned against unfettered free enterprise and “international cartels that serve American greed” and said they “must be subjected to international control for the common man, as well as being under adequate control by the respective home governments.” To Luce’s notion of American exceptionalism, he declared: “There can be no privileged peoples. We ourselves in the United States are no more a master race than the Nazis.”

The popular speech was the inspiration for Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

Wallace foresaw many of the dangers of 21st Century American political life. Among his most insightful predictions was his famous New York Times essay warning of the danger of “American fascists,” who “deliberately pervert truth and fact,” and “carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity.”

“They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest,” he wrote. “Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.”

Frozen out of the Democratic Party for refusing to keep quiet about his beliefs, Wallace formed a new “Progressive Party” and launched a long-shot bid for president. The campaign was driven by Wallace’s unshakeable commitment to justice and peace – fighting racial segregation, promoting equal rights for women, preventing the Cold War – even though they were politically unpopular causes whose time had not yet come.

During the campaign, Wallace’s commitment to racial equality earned him enemies. He refused to speak before segregated audiences and toured the region with a mixed race staff. Southern whites responded viciously. “They were egged, and they were tomatoed,” wrote Studs Terkel of Wallace and his companions. “They were threatened. They were driven out of town.” A sheriff warned, “Mr. Wallace, this is very dangerous. You may not live through this week.”

Henry A. Wallace’s innovations in agriculture were commercially successful through his company Pioneer Hi-Bred International. Wallace then put his fortune to work to advance his progressive values with the establishment of the Wallace Genetic Foundation in October 1959, which he ran with his three children, Robert B. Wallace (Bob), Jean Wallace Douglas, and Henry B. Wallace (HB).

The Legacy Endures and a New Chapter Begins

Henry A. Wallace’s son Bob Wallace and Bob’s wife, Gordon G. Wallace, extended the family’s philanthropic work into new directions.

Bob searched for ways to advance systemic change and address the root causes of environmental and social ills.  He understood the value of analytical research to provide sound evidence to support improved policies. He was deeply committed to the issue of sustainable development, a grantmaking priority during those early years. He was an early champion of expanding access to reproductive health services for women and adolescent girls. Their philanthropic work was initially housed at Population Action International, where Bob served as National Co-Chair.

Gordon G. Wallace (Gordie) pioneered efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) wherever practiced. She supported African women’s work to document the negative health impacts of FGM on women and girls and build community support for FGM abandonment. Her efforts catalyzed broader recognition of the far-reaching health consequences of this harmful practice.

  • 1995

    Due to their diverse grantmaking interests, the children of Henry A. Wallace amicably split the Wallace Genetic Foundation into three separate foundations, one of which became the Wallace Global Fund, chaired by Bob Wallace. Bob and Gordie’s three sons - R. Bruce Wallace, Randall C. Wallace, and H. Scott Wallace - and their wives, joined the Fund’s inaugural board. The Fund’s initial mission was to “stimulate and leverage critically needed progress at national, regional, and global levels toward an equitable and environmentally sustainable society.”

    Wallace Global Fund was a pioneer in supporting and advancing the field of Sustainable Development, which it saw as essential to advancing generational equity, global stewardship, long-term planning and improving the quality of life for all.  Sustainable development requires systems change by private and public sector actors, and the Fund supported a range of interdisciplinary strategies, including developing sustainable development indicators, promoting multilateral development bank reform, and funding advocacy for policy change at the global and national levels.

    The fund continued the work on FGM pioneered by Gordie Wallace decades earlier. Examples of these innovative efforts included support for Mandeleo, a major Kenyan women’s association, which embraced alternative rituals, and for the National Association of Nigerian Nurses & Midwives, an organization that recognized the impact of FGM on women’s ability to safely deliver children. Wallace Global Fund’s support of pioneering FGM activists continues to this day.

  • 1996

    To advance its strategic focus on sustainable development, Wallace Global Fund established five core program areas: ecology, economic reform, institutional reform, population and women’s reproductive health, and equity. The Fund catalyzed innovation across all of these issues and strategies.

    Wallace Global Fund backed advocacy campaigns that influenced corporate and public opinion and buying patterns. Key campaign support went towards early efforts advancing sustainable commodity certification, such as the Forest Stewardship Council, and support for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and others that focused on the impact of big box stores on local economies. Campaigns also targeted unsustainable growth in fisheries and oil and gas. The Fund was also deeply engaged in “following the money”: exposing the perverse subsidies from public and private financing institutions that have caused some of the most egregious environmental damage and human rights abuses worldwide. The Fund helped catalyze key mechanisms such as the Inspection Panel at the World Bank, the Export Credit Agency Watch, and the Equator Principles within the private banking system.

    Wallace Global was one of the few funders of that era targeting early campaign finance reform efforts, through supporting groups such as Common Cause, Public Citizen, and the League of Conservation Voters. The Fund also understood the value of media and the need to communicate stories and alternative perspectives to maximize campaign reach and impact.

  • 1997

    Wallace Global Fund made a strategic program-related investment in Innovest, an entity that was one of the first to analyze corporate financial performance with what is now commonly known as ESG screening. Some of the Fund’s financial managers were asked to utilize this model to “beta test” the impact of Innovest’s analytical model. Innovest was acquired by RiskMetrics and then by Morgan Stanley’s Investment Capital who used it to form the basis of their ESG strategy that measures a company’s resilience to long-term industry material environmental, social and governance issues.

  • 1998

    Shortly after the Kyoto Protocol, which emerged from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and committed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, Wallace Global Fund became an early investor in efforts to mitigate climate change. The Fund also sought to diminish the spread of “junk science” through funding the strategic efforts of the National Environmental Trust.

  • 2001

    Joined by the US Agency For International Development, the Public Welfare Foundation, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Bank, and others, Wallace Global Fund co- founds the Donor Working Group on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (DWG), a new donor alliance committed to mobilizing resources and elevating efforts to end FGM worldwide.

  • 2006

    Wallace Global Fund develops a new strategic plan with three overarching priorities: empowering citizens and democracy, upholding human rights and safeguarding the environment and natural resources. Within these programs, the foundation was noted for pioneering work on civic engagement and media policy reform, advancing women’s rights globally, supporting the movement challenging the economic effects of globalization, and deep and systemic work on climate, energy and peak oil, among other issues.

  • 2010

    With the help of the SRI Group of Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), the foundation begins a multi-year journey to move its investments to socially responsible and environmentally sustainable funds. An investment committee is created containing luminaries in the field, and a new investment policy is adopted. Divesting assets from fossil fuel and mining companies begins along with adoption of a range of positive screens for advancing social and environmental rights.

  • 2012

    Henry Scott Wallace (grandson of Henry A. Wallace) and Scott Fitzmorris (great grandson of Henry A. Wallace) become Co-Chairs of Wallace Global Fund. A new strategic plan called the Great Adventure is adopted, with cross cutting priorities of advancing systemic change, supporting social movements, and challenging outsized corporate power by safeguarding democracy, fighting climate change, and protecting women’s rights. With the new investment model in place, the foundation begins deploying multiple tools to advance the new priorities – grants, investments, and advocacy voice.

  • 2014

    As part of the United Nations Climate Summit, the foundation’s grantees make an unprecedented announcement of $52 billion in assets under management committed to divestment from fossil fuels. Divest-invest Philanthropy is launched by Wallace Global Fund with the Compton Foundation, Schmidt Family Foundation, Russell Family Foundation, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund, bringing new resources and energy to the movement to leverage finance in the fight against climate change.

  • 2016

    Joined by members of Congress, Ambassadors, celebrities, donors and activists, the FGM Summit at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, DC mobilized resources and policy attention to global FGM abandonment. One of the Summit’s goals was to advance U.S. policy consistent with the global framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and push for resources for front-line activists. The Summit also emphasized that FGM has long taken place in the United States.

  • 2017

    The Henry A. Wallace Award is launched to honor his legacy by supporting movements that demonstrate extraordinary courage against oppressive governmental and corporate power. The inaugural award goes to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe for its brave resistance in defending sacred land and water against the Dakota Access Pipeline project. Accompanying the Award is a catalytic commitment to invest $1million in a grid-scale wind farm project led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, designed to generate significant renewable energy and stimulate transformative economic development. Learn more about subsequent Henry A. Wallace awards

  • 2017

    Global partners kick off SHINE, an international campaign designed to spur investment in distributed renewable energy projects to reach over 800 million people without energy access. Grants and investments combined will scale affordable and reliable systems, with a focus on projects developed and owned by women, indigenous people, and local communities.

  • 2018

    Wallace Global Fund launches new democracy initiative focused on engaging rural communities. Grounded in the landmark report All The People All The Places, the Fund provides catalytic support for the Heartland Fund, a donor partnership dedicated to building vibrant civic engagement and organizing capacity in rural areas of the United States, across diverse issues and communities.

  • 2020

    In response to the compounding crises of the Covid pandemic, threats to democracy, and the climate emergency, the Fund spends 20% of assets and calls on counterparts to follow suit. In an op-ed in The Hill, Co-Chair H. Scott Wallace urges Congress to mandate a temporary doubling of the amount foundations are required to donate each year, as one way to raise additional funds to address the unprecedented crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a related op-ed, Executive Director Ellen Dorsey challenges foundations to adopt five strategic priorities to address the climate crisis before it is too late.

  • 2021

    A reinvigorated progressive movement has driven a renewed interest in Henry A. Wallace’s life and legacy. Noted progressive journalist John Nichols releases the book “The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace’s Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist Politics”.

    Artist Robert Shetterly releases a portrait of Wallace as part of his “Americans Who Tell the Truth” project, alongside other luminaries like Abraham Lincoln, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.