Saturday, July 26, 2008

Democratic Left Hero: Norman Thomas

I'm not sure if "hero" is the right word, but I've decided to start a weekly series featuring some of the political and intellectual giants of the American democratic left. (I may include some non-Americans such as George Orwell or Tommy Douglass who have had a profound lasting impact on the American democratic left.)

Norman Thomas is first up, partly because Rick Hertzberg recently blogged about him after neo-con David Frumm mistakenly calledThomas an "adamant isolationist."

Here's what Hertzberg wrote

If you’ve never heard of Norman Thomas (all too likely if you’re not yet eligible for A.A.R.P. membership), he was the leader of the American Socialist Party and its Presidential candidate in every election from 1928 to 1948. This may make him sound like a marginal crank, but he was neither. Bigger by far than his party affiliation, he embodied and fought for just about every decent cause of his era, whether that cause was popular (social insurance) or not (protesting the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War). Tall, handsome, white-haired, and resonant-voiced, with a manner and a wardrobe more aristocratic than proletarian (Princeton, the Presbyterian ministry, Gramercy Park), he was one of the most famous Americans of his day, and his prestige was such that F.D.R. found it politic to have him in for regular White House visits.

Frum probably has mistaken Thomas for an isolationist on account of Thomas’s opposition to U.S. entry into World War II before Pearl Harbor. This opposition was ill-judged, a misjudgment shared by many liberals of the day, including Chester Bowles, William Benton, Oswald Garrison Villard, and Robert Maynard Hutchins—people who believed (rightly) that the first World War had been a catastrophe for all concerned and (wrongly) that participation in a second one would push the country over the edge into totalitarianism, as the first one had done to Russia and Germany. But the fact that on this one issue Thomas found himself temporarily in uncomfortable alliance with isolationists did not make him one, any more than their initial support for the Iraq war makes John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Paul Berman, Peter Beinart, and Matt Yglesias a bunch of alliance-busting, torture-promoting, habeas corpus-trashing Bush-Cheney unilateralists.

In every other way one can imagine, from his decades-long advocacy of greatly strengthened international institutions to his tempered support for Truman’s (and the U.N.’s) military intervention in Korea to his untiring and highly concrete work on behalf of the victims of tyrannical regimes no matter what their ideological colorations to the grown-up level-headedness of his opposition to the Vietnam War (“don’t burn the flag, wash it”), Norman Thomas was an internationalist par excellence. And unlike his old Princeton and coast-of-Maine friend John Foster Dulles, he knew the words to “The Internationale."


Something that Hertzberg doesn't mention is that in 1948, Thomas very actively urged A. Philip Randolph to run as the Socialist Party candidate, or as the candidate of the New Party, an effort to create an American version of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation of Canada.


Several excellent biographies of Norman Thomas. Check one out in your public or college library. Consider buying one, if you come across it in a used book store.

  • Harry Fleischmann, Norman Thomas: A Biography, New York, Norton & Co., 1964.
  • Bernard K. Johnpoll, Pacifists Progress: Norman Thomas and the Decline of American Socialism, 1987. ISBN 0-8129-0152-5 (1970 first edition)
  • Murray Seilder, Norman Thomas: Respectable Rebel, Binghamton, New York, Syracuse University Press, 1967. Second Edition.
  • W. A. Swanberg, Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist, New York, Charles Scribner and Sons, 1976.

Articles on Thomas on the Web

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