Friday A/V Club: Karl Hess Interviews Henry Wallace

On Longines Chronoscope in 1952


Karl Hess had one of the most wide-ranging ideological journeys of the libertarian movement. An anti-Communist writer and activist in the 1950s and early '60s, he was a key speechwriter in Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign. But in the late '60s, he shocked a lot of his old friends by turning against the Vietnam War and embracing the New Left, which he felt was more attached in practice to his anti-state, pro-liberty ideals than a conservative movement devoted to wars abroad and "law and order" at home. He wrote one of the most famous libertarian essays of the period—"The Death of Politics," published in Playboy in 1969—and he kept moving leftward: dabbling in anarcho-syndicalism, joining the Industrial Workers of the World, serving as secretary of education in the shadow cabinet of Benjamin Spock's People's Party. He kept his ties to the free-market libertarians, though, and as his attitude towards much of the left started to sour he became buddies with Charles Murray and was hired to edit the Libertarian Party News—though I can attest, having read his correspondence with my editor at Liberty toward the end of Hess' life, that he never lost his interest in eliminating workplace hierarchies.

If you're a longtime libertarian, chances are good that you know that story already. (Those of you who don't can learn more in Hess' two memoirs, Dear America and Mostly on the Edge.) I gave you the quick version here to set up this 1952 episode of the CBS show Longines Chronoscope, in which a rather young Hess—29 years old and working for Newsweek—interviews Henry Wallace, who had been vice president during FDR's third term before becoming the 1948 presidential candidate of the leftist Progressive Party. Hess is joined by William Bradford Huie, editor of The American Mercury, which at that point was no longer the lively literary journal run by H.L. Mencken but had not yet devolved into the anti-Semitic rag it became in its final decades.

If you're hoping for a big left/right confrontation between Hess and Wallace, you won't get it: Huie asks most of the questions, and Wallace is in a contrite anti-Communist mode, worrying that Stalin plans to subvert the country via inflation. (The only allusion to their guest's left-wing past comes after Wallace's comment at 7:55 that Stalin wants "a fifth column in every western country." Huie asks: "Is that rather disillusioning to you, sir? You've been friendly toward the Soviet Union at various periods in your life.") But it's still a pretty amazing artifact.

Bonus video: A few months later, Hess and Huie interviewed the Illinois congressman Harold H. Velde, chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Hess asks more questions in this episode, and Velde peppers his comments with phrases like "pinkos, as they are properly known."

Elsewhere in Reason: Read Reason's interview with Hess here, and watch him reminisce over a joint with Robert Anton Wilson here. I mention Wallace's perhaps-surprising role as a trucking deregulator in this article.