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In 1905 Thomas helped to establish the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Other members included Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Clarence Darrow, Florence Kelley, Anna Strunsky, Bertram D. Wolfe, Jay Lovestone, Rose Pastor Stokes and J.G. Phelps Stokes. Its stated purpose was to "throw light on the world-wide movement of industrial democracy known as socialism."
Thomas did voluntary social work in New York City before studying theology at the Union Theological Seminary. Influenced by the writings of the Christian Socialist movement in Britain, Thomas became a committed socialist. Thomas was ordained in 1911 and became pastor of the East Harlem Presbyterian Church.
A pacifist, Thomas believed that the First World War was an "immoral, senseless struggle among rival imperialisms". His brother shared his views and went to prison for resisting the draft. Thomas joined with Abraham Muste, Scott Nearing and Oswald Garrison Villard to form the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). In 1917 Thomas, Crystal Eastman and Roger Baldwin established the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB).
In 1918 he founded and edited the World Tomorrow and two years later joined with Jane Addams, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Upton Sinclair to establish the American Civil Liberties Union. As well as being associate editor of the Nation (1921-22), he was co-director of the League of Industrial Democracy (1922-37), an organization he had created with Jack London and Upton Sinclair. Thomas was also a frequent contributor to its journal, The Unemployed (1930-32).
Thomas, a member of the Socialist Party, was its candidate for Governor of New York in 1924. After the death of Eugene Debs Thomas became the party's presidential candidate in 1928, 1932 and 1936. Although easily defeated, Thomas had the satisfaction of seeing Franklin D. Roosevelt introduce several measures that he had advocated during his presidential campaigns.
Thomas joined Burton K. Wheeler and Charles A. Lindbergh in forming he America First Committee (AFC) in September 1940 and soon became the most powerful isolationist group in the United States. The AFC had four main principles: (1) The United States must build an impregnable defense for America; (2) No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America; (3) American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European War; (4) "Aid short of war" weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.
The AFC influenced public opinion through publications and speeches and within a year had over 800,000 members. The AFC was dissolved four days after the Japanese Air Force attacked Pearl Harbor on 7th December, 1941. Although previously a pacifist, Thomas now supported United States involvement in the Second World War. However, he was critical of some aspects of Roosevelt's policies, including the internment of Japanese Americans and big business control of war production.
Thomas was the Socialist Party presidential candidate in 1940, 1944 and 1948. A strong critic of the Soviet communism, Thomas also denounced rearmament and the development of the Cold War. Other issues associated with Thomas during the post-war period included his campaigns against poverty, racism and the Vietnam War.
Thomas wrote several books on politics, including Is Conscience a Crime? (1927), As I See It (1932), A Socialist Faith (1951), The Test of Freedom (1954), The Prerequisites of Peace (1959) and Socialism Re-examined (1963).
Norman Thomas died on 19th December, 1968.
(1) Norman Thomas, New Republic (26th May 1917)
As conscientious objectors we turn to your journal because, more powerfully than any other, it has expressed in subtle analyses our abiding faith in humane wisdom. You have never countenanced the evil doctrine of the brute coercion of the human will. You have preached and practised the virtue of tolerance, the kind of tolerance for the lack of which the state grows mechanized and conscienceless.
You know something of the machinery of unfair play. You understand the tyranny of sham shibboleths. You appreciate the menace of military psychology. We appeal to you, strategically situated as you are, to assist the cause of the conscientious objectors. We beg you to note the following facts:
In the evolution of the human mind we discover a gradually widening hiatus between physical competence and intellectual moral competence. So deeply imbedded in our life values is this distinction that we feel rather ashamed of being too expert physically. The man of blood and iron does not appeal to our finer perceptions as a being altogether worthy of our worshipful attention. (The God whom we worship is neither a jingo nor a militarist.) But Voltaire - he of the skinny shanks and the anemic face - what exuberant pride wells up in the greatest and in the least of us at the sound of that marvelous name! And soft-spoken Jesus - what fitting tribute can the reeling world lay at the feet of him who died that goodwill and loving kindness might assuage the hearts of inimical men.
The complexity and richness of life have permitted, and increasingly so, the more or less free play of all modes of energy. There are many men best adapted by training and temperament to the performance of physical acts of heroism; there are some men more naturally suited to the performance of intellectual deeds of courage, while yet some others shine in deeds of moral bravery.
Why sanction the inhuman device of forcing all manner of men into the narrowly specific kind of devotion for which so many of them are hopelessly unfit? Tolerance arises from the existence of varying types of doers, all willing to respect one another's special competence. It is not too extreme to assert that in wartime (as in peacetime) some of the most heroic deeds are performed by those who do not (and, if called upon, would not) take up arms in defense of the cause. There are other forms of bravery than the purely military one. Let us be reasonable.
The one ineradicable fact which noamount of official intimidation can pulverize out of existence is that there is a type of man to whom (military) participation in war is tantamount to committing murder. He cannot, he will not commit murder. There is no human power on God's earth that can coerce him into committing (what he knows to be) the act of murder. You may call him sentimentalist, fool, slacker, mollycoddle, woman - anything "disreputable" you please. But there he is, a tremendous fact. Shall he be maltreated for his scruples? Or shall he be respected (as his denders are) for his conscientiousness? We cannot leave so momentous an issue to chance or to the cold machinery of administration. Men of sensitive insight must help prepare a social setting within America sufficiently hospitable to all conscientious objectors.
It is good to remind ourselves of our in- stinctive respect for conscientious objectors. When a man is called to serve on a jury empaneled in a murder case, he may be honorably excused from duty if he has conscientious objections to the death penalty. When we think sanely we are not averse to honoring the man of conscience provided he be an active friend of mankind and not a mere ease-taker. The test of manhood lies in service; not in one particular kind of service (suitable to one particular type of mind and body) but genuine service genuinely rendered to humanity.
Hence the philosophic value of tolerance. To keep alive genuine tolerance in wartime is the greatest single achievement to which rationalists can dedicate themselves. America is caught in this insidious entanglement; obsessed with the tradition - the mere outward form and symbol - of liberty of conscience, she has failed to realize the living need of a real grant and a substantial practice of our vaunted freedom of conscience. It is not the tradition we lack; only a vital belief in that tradition.
In times of precarious peace, when the social classes wage an almost relentless warfare and the daily grind of poverty and distress lays armies of the proletariat low, life for the disadvantaged groups is made more or less livable only by the thought that between them and their official superiors certain constitutional and humane guarantees of tolerance exist as safeguards of mutual understanding. There is room for difference of opinion. There is a breathing space for discussion.
How desperate must the social situation have become if large numbers of conscientious and law-abiding citizens have begun to feel an appalling sense of uneasiness in the presence of huge inscrutable forces, far beyond their power of control or sympathetic understanding. Why this amazing disquietude? The answer is simple and straightforward. There is no longer the sense - so natural and dear to free men - of being able to appeal from manifestly unfair decisions. Too many subordinate officials are being vested with a tremendous authority over impotent human beings.
(2) Statement issued by the Norman Thomas, Roger Baldwin and Crystal Eastman for the Civil Liberties Bureau (2nd July 1917)
It is the tendency even of the most 'democratic' of governments embarked upon the most 'idealistic of wars' to sacrifice everything for complete military efficiency. To combat this tendency where it threatens free speech, free press, freedom of assembly and freedom of conscience - the essentials of liberty and the heritage of all past wars worth fighting - that is the first function of the AUAM today. To maintain something over here that will be worth coming back to when the weary war is over.
(3) Norman Thomas, The Profit System and Unemployment, The Unemployed (December, 1930)
Power driven machinery makes it possible to support great populations in plenty. It has changed the basis of our civilization from one of enforced frugality to abundance. In spite of its mismanagement it has shortened hours and in many cases lightened the burden of monotonous and back-breaking toil. Yet under the the profit system the story of the progress of machinery is literally written in tears and blood. And for every advance step in technological progress the under dog has paid in the loss of his job.
This is true because we have never asked: how can we use machinery to provide more abundant goods and increase leisure for everybody? Instead the profit seeking owners of factories have said: how can we increase profits? It is easy to how that in the long run machinery by making it possible to have more things makes possible more jobs as well as shorter hours of labor. But men eat in the short run, and in the short run the boss introduces a new machine in the hope of making an immediately greater profit, which profit is very often realized only by cutting down his payroll. The employer who does this is not a villain. Under the profit system his business is to make profit. He can't help it if that means giving some men the bitter leisure of unemployment and speeding up others.
Only planned production for use, the abolition of parasitic ownership and the increase of spending power in the hands of the masses of the workers will end unemployment. I do not say that this way to end unemployment is easy. In the long run it will have to take account of the whole world and not merely just the United States. The final answer to unemployment and to poverty is intelligent international Socialism. There is no other way. Immediate remedies for some of the suffering of unemployment will be good not only in themselves but because they help our progress toward this goal.
(4) In March 1942 Freda Kirchwey, editor of The Nation argued that the fascist press should be banned in the United States. In a letter to Kirchwey, Norman Thomas objected to this point of view (3rd April, 1942)
It is a rather terrible thing that liberals should now be the spokesmen for a jittery program which, if it means anything, can only be interpreted to mean no criticism of the Administration except from us. In ten years or less it won't be the people you want to suppress now who will be suppressed and stay suppressed by your theory; it will be yourselves along with many others, unless, indeed, you want to go farther than I think you do in support of a Roosevelt totalitarianism. Don't forget that neither Roosevelt nor anybody else is immortal. The principles once established are apt to outlive men.
(5) John Gates, The Story of an American Communist (1959)
A few people, including Mrs. Roosevelt, Norman Thomas and A. J. Muste, did support amnesty for us. These particular personalities had been staunch defenders of civil liberties throughout the years. But even here something bothered me. If any people were justified in not coming to our defense, it was just these three whom I have named. Had we not heaped personal and political abuse upon them (alternating with periods of praise)? I asked myself how we would have responded had the situation been reversed, and my answer was not a comforting one. I came to feel that these individuals must have a moral superiority over us, that there must be something decidedly wrong with the attitude of communism toward democracy.
(6) Fenner Brockway, Towards Tomorrow (1977)
Norman Thomas, succeeding a hero of my youth, Eugene Debs, was Socialist candidate for the Presidency during one of my visits. I met him many times and through the years we remained friends. He was originally a minister of religion and still had the appearance of one, tall, silver-haired, clean-shaven, domed forehead, a distinguished scholarly figure. I found he was respected throughout America by members of all Parties. I remember at a football match the spectators round me discussed the election whilst waiting for the game to begin. "Thomas is the best of the three, but he's got
no chance. I'm voting Roosevelt," said a man, and I was impressed by the many who agreed. Thomas had a continuously developing mind. On my first visit he was a typical Social Democrat of the Centre, except that he was a pacifist. On my third visit he had moved far to the Left. He was a pioneer in denouncing America's part in the Vietnam War.