Did you know that an ancient astronaut theorist was almost president of the United States? It’s true, and, as always, there’s a weird connection to H. P. Lovecraft.
Our story opens in 1944, during World War II, when an ailing President Franklin Roosevelt was running for his fourth term as America’s head of state. For the previous term, Henry A. Wallace had been serving as vice-president of the United States, and he served as the Secretary of Agriculture before that. Wallace recognized that Roosevelt was unlikely to survive his fourth term, and, of course, he wanted to remain on as vice-president with the near-certainty of succeeding to the top job.
Party bosses were deeply troubled by the possibility of a Wallace presidency, and they worked behind the scenes to dump Wallace and replace him on the ticket with the more acceptable Harry Truman. What was it that made Wallace unacceptable? Ancient astronauts. Sort of.
Wallace never formally joined any theosophical groups, but he was deeply influenced by theosophical thinking. One of Theosophy’s main tenets is that extraterrestrial spirit beings from Venus, the moon, and Mars came to the ancient earth and influenced the development of civilization on Lemuria and Atlantis.
Wallace became deeply involved in the occult speculations of the Russian émigré artist Nicholas Roerich, who had joined Theosophy and developed his sub-discipline of Theosophy, called the Living Ethics or Agni Yoga, named for the Vedic fire god, Agni.
Roerich believed that World War I had been the apocalypse that signaled the end of the Hindu Kali Yuga and the start of the next phase of human evolution and civilization. He claimed that this new world age would be directed by a mysterious cult of Mahatmas living in isolated splendor deep in Shambhala in Central Asia. These, of course, answer to the “deathless Chinamen” who live in Central Asia in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” and they derive from Theosophical traditions, as appropriated from Buddhism, in turn derived from the Hindu belief that Vishnu’s incarnation as Kalki will rule the millennial kingdom of Shambhala thousands of years from now.
Agni Yoga preserved Theosophy’s “astral plane,” on which some of the extraterrestrial beings were thought to live. (Roerich believed he was in communication with some of these trans-dimensional creatures, called the “Hierarchy of Light.”) It also retained Theosophy founder Helena Blavastky’s race theory, which held that extraterrestrials from Venus, the moon, and Mars incarnated as earlier races of human beings. Agni Yoga taught that a new incarnation was manifesting as the Sixth Root Race in the present. The movement also adopted Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine, with its tales of ancient astronauts, as one of its core texts.
Wallace met Roerich in 1929, years before FDR’s election, and he quickly hit it off with the spiritual leader and painter, referring to him as his “guru.” Roerich, for his part, opened a museum in New York City in 1930 to display his dramatic paintings, including some of Buddhist monasteries clinging to the snowy sides of the Himalayas. H. P. Lovecraft visited the museum shortly after its opening, and he was inspired by these strange vistas.
“Surely Roerich is one of those rare fantastic souls,” Lovecraft wrote in a 1930 letter, “who have glimpsed the grotesque, terrible secrets outside space & beyond time & who have retained some ability to hint at the marvels they have seen” (qtd. by S. T. Joshi in The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories.)
He modeled the Old Ones’ frozen mountain city in At the Mountains of Madness (1931) on Roerich’s paintings, which he explicitly cited in the story: “Something about the scene reminded me of the strange and disturbing Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich, and of the still stranger and more disturbing descriptions of the evilly fabled plateau of Leng which occur in the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.”
Wallace was also quite taken with Roerich’s esotericism, and he brought his occult beliefs to Washington after FDR’s election and his appointment to head the Department of Agriculture. As Secretary of Agriculture he used his influence with the U.S. government to send Roerich on an official U.S. mission to Central Asia after FDR normalized relations with the Soviet Union in 1933. FDR also knew and liked Roerich, though he was not a believer in Roerich’s occult musings. Officially, Roerich went to the USSR in 1934 to collect grasses; unofficially, he was there on a spiritual journey. Wallace was fascinated by botany and agronomy, and he was one of the most brilliant men ever to head the Department of Agriculture. With his favorite on an expedition to collect grasses, Wallace’s special area of interest, expectations were high.
The expedition was a fiasco; Roerich collected just 20 plants during a 16-month trek across Central Asia. A second expedition, sent by the Department of Agriculture in the same period, collected 2,000 plants in less time. Worse, Roerich began making indiscrete statements to foreign leaders as though acting with the authority of the U.S. government.
Wallace was humiliated, and after more than five years in thrall to Roerich, he finally broke with Roerich and rejected his Agni Yoga and his millenarian expectations. Wallace directed the American embassy in India to refuse aid to Roerich and forward all Roerich’s communications directly to Wallace. He also held a press conference in which he accused Roerich of being a spy. Finally, he strongly encouraged the IRS to audit Roerich, which they did, producing a bill for nearly $50,000 in back taxes.
Roerich, for his part, simply stayed put in India and lived out the rest of his life as a tax exile.
Although Wallace had broken with Roerich, unease about his occult connections followed him after his nomination for the vice-presidency in 1940. (That he was also a 32 degree Freemason didn’t help.) Republicans obtained copies of the so-called “guru letters” from the early 1930s in which Wallace had written to Nicholas Roerich as his “dear Guru” and signed himself as “G” for Sir Galahad. In the letters, Wallace told Roerich that he eagerly awaited the imminent apocalypse and the arrival of the people of North Shamballah (a Buddhist term for heaven, but used in Theosophy to refer to the place of the Ascended Masters, the aliens, etc.), who would cleanse the earth of poverty and lead to a new era of peace.
Democrats contained the scandal only by threatening to reveal Republican presidential nominee Wendell Wilkie’s extramarital affair with Irita Van Doren. The two parties agreed to suppress the other’s scandal.
As a result of these events, party leaders and political journalists concluded that Wallace was a mystic and an occultist and unfit to be president. Unable to shake the accusations, Wallace saw his chance at the presidency evaporate in 1944 when party elders unceremoniously dumped him from the ticket. The final straw was FDR’s own agreement that Wallace had become a liability, both for his occultism and for his political ineffectiveness. Wallace saw the writing on the wall, but he refused to watch his chance at real power fade away. His supporters printed fake tickets to the Democratic National Convention in the hope of rigging the vote and nominating Wallace, but party leaders caught wind of the plan and called an early adjournment. After rooting out the fake delegates, Democrats reconvened and nominated Truman. FDR died in April 1945, and Truman duly succeeded to the presidency.
Unwilling to let it go, Wallace tried to run for president in the next election, only to see the long-forgotten “Guru Letters” published in 1947, humiliating him (again) and helping to spark hostile questioning from reporters like H. L. Mencken. Truman would go on to win the nomination in 1948 and the general election as well.
What the ancient astronauts giveth, the ancient astronauts taketh away.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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