Vasodilator and inotropic drugs work through independent mechanisms in augmenting left ventricular pump function in patients with heart failure. The selection between these two classes of pharmacologic agents for an individual patient may be based on the control blood pressure as well as the underlying disease. Although vasodilator drugs are easiest and safest to employ in patients with normal or high arterial pressure levels, even in relatively hypotenslve subjects (systolic arterial pressure less than 105 mm Hg), a salutary hemodynamic effect can be achieved without an undue decrease in pressure. Inotropic drugs may be safest to administer to patients without coronary artery disease, but the oxygen-consuming effect of these drugs need not necessarily have an adverse effect on patients with ischemic heart disease. Combined vasodilator and inotropic drug therapy is the most potent pharmacologic means of restoring pump function in patients with severe heart failure. The long-term use of vasodilator and inotropic drugs in the treatment of heart failure is dependent on the availability of agents that will produce a sustained hemodynamic effect. Hydralazine, nitrates and prazosin have been employed alone or in combination and provide a promising approach to vasodilator treatment of heart failure. Better and more selective oral inotropic agents are needed to allow this therapeutic modality to be employed optimally.