It was 1940, and the Democratic Convention was about to pick their presidential candidates. Paul Block, a Pittsburgh newspaper publisher, knew he had dynamite. The “guru” letters. They were strange letters written by Henry A. Wallace, currently FDR’s popular Secretary of Agriculture, and rumored to be his choice for VP in the upcoming presidential election. Wallace had written them years before to Nicholas Roerich, a man he addressed as “guru.” Coded language, otherworldly sentiments. FDR’s aides panicked and sent Morris Ernst, a New York attorney, to head off Block’s representative, who was carrying the documents to the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
In 1940, Wallace, called a “farmer-intellectual” was a hero to many farmers, but considered an odd duck by the Democratic leadership. Roosevelt, in poor health, chose him as his running mate because he felt Wallace was the best qualified to carry on the New Deal. Edwin Pauley, millionaire oilman, director of oil production and distribution to the Allies, and a leader in the Democratic Party, said of Wallace: “He was so much the prophet, an unworldly man of mysterious leanings and ideas, that it was obvious to all who knew him that he would only make the country a mighty strange President”.
Wallace had always followed his “inner light”. His experimentalism not only included scientific agriculture bu extended to spirituality as well. He had been dues paying member of the Theosophical Society, headed by Madame Blavatsky, since 1925. Madame Blavatsky, a Russian occultist, claimed to have encountered a group of spiritual masters. Nicholas Roerich, also Russian and an occultist, said he received their ancient wisdom by nonphysical means while he was in India. The result was a doctrine he called “Agni yoga.”
Wallace’s fascination with Roerich began when he met him at the Roerich Museum in New York in 1929. Roerich was a man of wide ranging interests: a prolific painter, and an organizer of a widely acclaimed “Banner of Peace” project. This was an international project meant to protect cultural treasures around the world during war. Wallace embraced this project and Roerich’s theosophical teachings. While serving as the Agriculture Secretary in the ’30’s, Wallace began to write letters Roerich expressing an increasing emotional involvement with his “guru”: “Long have I been aware of the occasional fragrance from the other world which is the real world.” In these letters Wallace goes on to say that he sees visions of Roerich during his meditations and they have healing power.
In 1935, Wallace, hired Roerich, a veteran traveler and explorer, to go to Mongolia to collect drought resistant grass seeds to alleviate the problem in the US Dust Bowl. But when Roerich reached Manchuria, he instead used the money from the US government to buy rifles and ammunition to arm groups of Cossacks, creating disturbances on the Russian border. The British Foreign Office thought he was a Soviet agent. The US papers printed this episode as an embarrassment to the US. At this point Wallace cut off ties with Roerich, but the guru letters remained.
Roosevelt’s aides were able to suppress the letters during the 1940 campaign by threatening to expose the extramarital affair of the Republican candidate, Wendell Willkie. They surfaced again in 1948 when Wallace was running as a third-party candidate for President, and already marginalized, refused to comment on them. His candidacy was already badly damaged by accusations of loyalty to the Kremlin.
The whiff of mysticism lingered. Twenty years later the Beatles flew to India to meditate with the Maharishi. And since the Sixties we have had the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Jim Jones, and numerous other cults involving guru figures. In 1940 the Democratic leadership was perhaps rightly alarmed when the man selected to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency was so deeply involved with a rogue religious figure. American are careful to elect only very stable geniuses.