Interview with Norman Thomas and Lillian Smith ; part 1
BROADCAST: Nov. 11, 1961 | DURATION: 00:32:28
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Studs Terkel Mr. Justice Holmes and Mr. Justice Brandeis probably will be remembered in the history of jurisprudence and the history of America, really, for their dissenting opinions rather than for their being part of any majority decision. The element of dissent is so much a part of the American tradition, yet we wonder how strong that element is in our life today. And we're delighted to have across the microphone one of the most distinguished of American dissenters, Mr. Norman Thomas, who several times have been a candidate for president on the minority party ticket, yet Mr. Thomas has such stature in our country that he is respected by a man of all shades of belief. Mr. Thomas, your recent book, "Great Dissenters", dealing with five figures, that's the subject, I know. Yet what is your feeling today in the mid-20th century of the nature of dissent in America today?
Norman Thomas It isn't too different from what it always was, or that the problem of dissent is not, has not changed too much. I began the book with a general notion, which I haven't lost, that respect for dissent had gone low in America, that we were a nation of conformists and gray-flannel-suit men and organization men and so forth. Now that's true, but it's always true that there's been a lot of conformity. Uh, I'm not sure we are much worse than our fathers. Our times are more difficult, that's all. Ah, dissenter always had to make his way one way or another, and we've got a lot of dissent now. The '50s was a very bad time of apathy, but in the '60s the story is quite different. You can say in a sense, that the people who have led in this fight for racial equality were dissenters of a certain type. Oh, the people who fight for peace. Many of them are dissenters. Those people who marched to walk to Moscow, were dissenters. You can't find many things much better than that in our past, we've got dissenters now, I, uh, my first chapter in the book I comment on this. I say I'm writing about the past on which we have perspective, but I said I would, if I were writing for the present, I'd pick a man like A. J. Musty, or I'd pick a woman like Margaret Sanger. Now, birth control is quite reputable. Most churches will say a good word for her, but believe me, when she started it, it wasn't. She was in jail. She was a dissenter.
Norman Thomas Ah, well, the early suffragettes didn't many of them land up in jail, unless they deliberately made demonstrations to get there. The, the, uh, people who went down in Woodrow Wilson's time, the militant suffragists who picketed the White House almost courting arrest for the sake of their cause were arrested, and they were treat--weren't treated very well. And it did their cause, I think in the long run, quite a lot of good. They were dissenters, yes.
Norman Thomas I feel very depressed about our times, but it isn't because I think that in respect to dissent we're worse than our fathers, our times are more complex, our dangers are very much greater, and our orthodoxies are even more inadequate. But I don't think just in and the relative proportion of dissenters or the courage of dissenters were much worse than our forefathers.
Norman Thomas Oh, don't we, though. We romanticize many things. There's a tendency, not universal, even in legal quarters, but there's a tendency in America to romanticize Holmes and Brandeis as dissenters. They were very significant dissenters within a framework that invited dissent. After all, there's nothing too courageous about being a Supreme Court judge and writing a dissenting opinion. But we have dissenters now and God knows we need them on the Supreme Court
Norman Thomas No, not necessarily you, ah, you can be quite respectable as a dissenter. You must remember that Galileo was intensely respectable. He got in a lot of trouble. You must remember that Wendell Phillips, who's forgotten too much, he had lots of troubles, and he was very much criticized. But he was, uh, New England patrician, so to speak, and ultimately and regarded as respectable, no matter what he did, partly by the reason of his background.
Norman Thomas Gandhi.
Studs Terkel Gandhi.
Norman Thomas Don't forget that Gandhi got respectable in a curious way. When he went to England and loincloth and all, he was received by almost everybody. Somebody asked him what he's going to wear when he was received by the King, he said, well, the king would have on enough for both of them.
Norman Thomas Well, that is a cliche. You see, it's this way. Not all dissent is right. There are lots of false prophets who have been on Earth and on the whole, society does well to say, "Well, is that so? And how do you prove it?" to a dissenter. The dissenter ought to be, have so good a cause that he can prove what he wants to do. I, I don't think any great dissenter ever was a dissenter just for the sake of dissent. You can get a reputation as the wit or an iconoclast just by dissenting for the sake of dissent. I don't think that's worth much. You're a dissenter of value when your regard for what you think is truth along one of many lines makes you speak out, even if you have to break with the orthodoxies of the times. And the judgment is the value of the truth you are serving, not whether or not you're a dissenter, nor what kind of a dissenter, respectable or unrespectable.
Norman Thomas Yes.
Norman Thomas And I deliberately took people whose dissent didn't take the form of violent rebellion. Socrates emphasized the fact that a man should recognize--should recognize his own conscience even when it took him in conflict with the state that he loved. And he has become a sort of a secular saint for dissent. Ah, well, I happened to make a long jump to Galileo. The importance of Galileo, who wasn't temperamentally interested in being in a center. He liked to be well-placed in society. He was quite a charming man and all that, the importance of Galileo was his scientific dissent. That is to say that he symbolized a fight between science and the church, which after his experience wasn't repeated, that is, to say, that science wasn't after his time, very badly crowded by authority by the church. On the whole, science has been singly free, thanks partly to Galileo. Science, it's--scientists have been influenced by the prejudices of their time, by the orthodoxies of their time. But science has very few markers to authority.
Studs Terkel Savonarola--
Norman Thomas Savonarola wasn't a scientist at all, he was a reformer. Religious dissenters have been the ones that have suffered worse, and nowadays we have transferred the emotions that our ancestors [supplied? applied?] to religion to certain ah, ranges of the political field. It's there you get yourself in trouble.
Norman Thomas He's a, he's a, you'll hear stories about how Pasteur had trouble with the orthodox doctors of his day. And how what's that man that--well, I can't think of his name now, there, there are stories where they had a hard time--
Studs Terkel Semmelweis.
Studs Terkel Semmelweis.
Norman Thomas That's a name I'm hunting for, I'm getting old. Semmelweis really had a hard time, but it wasn't because the state bothered him, and it wasn't because the church bothered him particularly.
Norman Thomas The name Gandhi originally meant that he was of a caste which furnished grocers. Uh, his father had an office in a minuscule, uh, principality, native principality subject, of course, to the British Raj. They had enough money, so he wasn't one of the poorer Indians, but neither was he the bear--one of the very rich Indians.
Norman Thomas That's right. And it's a feeling, I suppose that this, that you're unhappy, that you are personally unhappy to find yourself in a world where this can happen, that you have too much regard for your fellow men to believe that this has to happen, that you have too much regard for your country to believe that it has to happen. And by gracious, you're going to say so. You lose your self-respect, you lose other things. I suppose each man would have his own explanation, but I'm quite sure that something like that's what Wendell Phillips would say. An
Norman Thomas An element, it can almost take an aesthetic form. This is too ugly for me to tolerate without criticism. This is too, too unjust for me to tolerate. This is too much an offense against the fellowship that in some degree has certainly has to bind men together. And I can't, I'm going to speak out against it. It nearly always an inner compulsion, so that I assume that the average dissenter would be, uh, unhappier not speaking than speaking, even if he gets in trouble. With Gandhi, it was a scientific. This is scientific truth. Gandhi would--no, I don't mean Gandhi, Galileo.
Studs Terkel Galileo.
Norman Thomas Galileo didn't want to be a dissenter. In the end he made a rather humiliating recantation. That's a story in itself. Very interesting human story. As I read more, I got more and more sympathetic with Galileo. But Galileo is an example of an Italian of his time. A very cultured man who loved the best society of his time, who was astonishingly good companion, they said. He was, wasn't wanting any martyr's role. He was no, you referred to Savonarola. He was no Savonarola. He had no desire to get the church particularly down on it. But he had an impulse, "This is what's true." It's the impulse that, that--on which science depends. All right, you can say what you want and maybe I have to agree to your superior authority. But by all the rules I know anything about, I can show you that the Earth moves around the sun, and this and that and the other thing is true.
Norman Thomas Well, I was writing for Americans, and he is perhaps the most complete dissenter of the whole lot because you see, he was ah, dissenter. He was a Britisher who came to America and was dissenter against Britain in that he immediately espoused the American cause with astonishing effect. Ah, he was a pioneer in the exposition of the doctrines of democracy. Then he goes back to England and from England to France, and is a dissenter against the, uh, the monarchy and what went with it. Ah, he said, "Where liberty is not, there is my fatherland." He was a dissenter against that, then the revolution got power and the majority voted the execution of the king, and he was a dissenter against that. He, uh, he was a dissenter against America's, I think not altogether, perhaps barely because he thought they had neglected him in Japan. I--listen to me, in France. Ah, he was, he was a thorough-going
Norman Thomas Oh, and he, he's a dissenter, I left out the thing that made him the most trouble. He became a dissenter against the Christian doctrine of God. So much of a dissenter that he was unjustly called an atheist even by Theodore Roosevelt, "the dirty little atheist." He wasn't dirty, he wasn't particularly little, and he wasn't an atheist. He was a Deist. He actually wrote the, the, what he wrote, in pamphlets and in books, his appeal to reason and so on. This was written as a Deist. He did criticize very sharply the churches of all sorts. He pointed out the fallibilities of the allegedly infallible Bible very acutely, and so aroused the conventional. But, but he was not an atheist. He was a Deist. Actually, he was quite a believer because, as I say, uh, his faith that nature reveals so good and lovely a God, doesn't altogether stand up. Job had a different idea of what was [field?] about God. But I, don't get me into that.
Studs Terkel But, didn't Paine, wasn't Paine the wonderful sort of, marvelous definition of infidelity: infidelity does not consist of believing or disbelieving, but of professing to believe what one does not believe.
Norman Thomas Yes, that's right. Oh, he said things, well, Paine was not exactly an original thinker, but he was one of the great popularizers in the good sense. He never descended to the, uh, meretricious in style or substance. But he was a wonderful popularizer of the point of view, of the age of the, of the Enlightenment, so forth. He, ah, and he had a courage. In a way, he had more courage than some of the others. For instance, about religion. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, most of them believed about what he did, but they took pains not to say it too plainly. They were busy with
Norman Thomas Well, or else he felt that he was compelled to do it. Franklin at one times ah, in some connection like this said that it was a foolish man that spit into the wind. And Franklin apparently thought that to talk like Paine was spitting into the wind on religion and so on.
Norman Thomas To a certain extent, but not just that, because I could have picked a lot of rather--people who left no great mark. They did so much more than that, that that's hardly, hardly obvious. That they--Socrates as a philosopher was, among other things, the first to impress men with the value of constructive doubt, with a necessity for self-knowledge and with the right of a man who was sure he was right to stand up to the state even if he loved it. He thought that Athens should reward him for being a gadfly. Now, that's quite a doctrine and makes him a great hero to civil libertarians everywhere. The inconsistent part, either about Socrates or I guess Plato is this: that if Socrates, who is a spokesman in the, Plato's "Republic", really believed what he said, it was inconsistent with what he did, because in Plato's "Republic", the philosopher king weren't to encourage other people to be gadflies. On the contrary, they were to feed the people even a little dose of lies when it would help. Same principle our press proceeds on now, only less philosophic than Plato probably meant.
Studs Terkel Of "Great Dissenters". Oh, perhaps before I want to ask about yourself, you and what made you, if I may perhaps go into the seeds of things? What made you the dissenter? 'Cause I know originally you, you were a Presbyterian minister.
Norman Thomas No, not too specific. Somebody could have persuaded to do something else. But I was interested in them. Ah, and frankly, I was doing a lazy man's job of writing about it. I am too busy now at my own dissents, if they are dissent, to become a scholar in a library, digging out perhaps new truths about dead men. And I had been for many years of my life just as a citizen and, uh, citizen of the world. I was interested in Socrates. It may interest you to know, as I say in the book, that I was never greatly drawn to him except in his last scenes of his life, that's idiosyncratic if you like. I was always interested in Galileo because I thought he was so important. And yet I didn't think he'd acted very bravely in the end. I was interested in Tom Paine from a lot of angles, partly because he'd been called so many names, he'd been so excessively eulogized and so excessively criticized. I was particularly interested in Wendell Phillips because I take a great offense at a notion now popular in some academic circles of denying importance and value to moral indignation in believing that we men are so determined that we're really moved about by sources outside ourselves, forces outside ourselves. I was particularly stimulated to write about Wendell Phillips by reading a book, that was sent I think to review, called "No Compromise". It's a ridiculous book by a man who practically equates the fanatics in the defense of slavery with the fanatics for freedom, those he regards as fanatics, and says that effect we could have managed without any civil war except for them. Well, when you get to--
Norman Thomas This is really, it's, uh, rather dreadful. Only today I heard an example of that in modern times, a man was telling me that he'd gone through, uh, the Voice of America, their headquarters in some guided tour, and a man who was explaining it said that they thought they were right when they got equal criticism from the N.A.A.C.P. and the White Citizens Councils. This is a terrible view of the proper standards of dissemination of information. Therefore, I perhaps [had more?] warmth of [feeling?] not necessarily 'cause I thought Phillips was the greatest, but because of this evil in our time, as I see it, this discounting of moral indignation and in fact, of morality. So I wrote with hi--about him with some warmth. Then I wrote about Gandhi because he is the outstanding dissenter of our times. He is a pioneer in what, it may be our one of the essentials of our salvation. That is to say, the discovery of other methods than great violence to settle issues. I don't think he was always consistent, and so forth and so forth, but I have a very great respect for him.
Norman Thomas Yes, I know. I don't believe he was what he was on account of Thoreau. He was influenced by Thoreau, he says he was. He was influenced greatly by Tolstoy. He makes more of Tolstoy. He also makes more of uh, oh, Lord, the English--a man I've read a good deal of and can't think quickly. It'll come to me sooner. He was very, very punctilious in acknowledging his debts. But I do not think that you can explain him in terms of any one of them altogether.
Norman Thomas Ruskin.
Studs Terkel If we may, perhaps, for the moment, concentrate on Wendell Phillips, we think of Phillips; here is a man. I think of this because of the contemporary significance. Wendell Phillips, a Boston Brahmin, very well set. Didn't have to participate in the cause
Norman Thomas He did it because of this inner compulsion. And he married a wife that would see that she was, had some disease that the doctors at that time couldn't properly diagnose. Apparently a nervous disease, though she was a rather charming person, and she was as set as he was in his doctrines. And another thing about Phillips which made me love him, love him rather more than Garrison. After, after the slaves were freed, Garrison settled back. His work was done. Phillips didn't. Phillips became a pioneer in behalf of, of the victims of what he called wage slavery. He ran on a very radical ticket for Governor of Massachusetts.
Norman Thomas Oh, yes. Uh, he's the extraordinary man who doesn't just have one cause on which to fight. He was fighting, and I suppose he would say, "Well, yes, I'm fighting for freedom. I'm fighting for fair play. Now we've got formal freedom for the Negro, but we haven't got the kind of freedom I want. And I think there's such a thing as wage slavery. There's such a thing as an economic system that oppresses men, and" this is what he did say with his usual eloquence. He could have been a senator. He could have been lots of things, only he was continually finding something else to denounce that the--that put him outside the fold of practical politicians. You must remember that the years following the Civil War were years as so often happens after war of moral letdown. Ah, our public life reached pretty low levels. Grant had been a pretty good general and a pretty good man. He was a dreadfully ba--poor president. He wasn't personally dishonest, but he couldn't very well find the people that were. In those days was a great thing to have Phillips stand out. Those were the days when labor was weakly organized, was trying to get organized, having lots of trouble. And there was the days of the robber barons, and to have the best orator in America, which is what Phillips was regarded, generally, on their side was a great thing, but it wasn't a way for him to get to be senator from Massachusetts.
Studs Terkel Well, the reason I'd asked about Phillips, I'm thinking of Norman Thomas now, too, there's been a biography of you, Mr. Thomas, and in your case, here were you, a--I believe you were a young Presbyterian minister at the time, rather fashionable church. What made--
Norman Thomas Not exactly. Now, hold, take care a minute. I never was meant to be a minister of a fashionable Presbyterian church. In my senior year in seminary, I became assistant under circumstances that were rather unusual to an old teacher of mine, Henry Van Dyke, who was only giving part-time at the Brick Presbyterian Church, and I was very glad to do it for a year or so, but I before I became a socialist, and before I became various things, I carried out my original intention, which was to work in, uh, well, let's put it roughly, the slums of New York. I had worked in them. I was--I became chairman of a very interesting enterprise known as the American Parish, of which the Presbyterian supported. It included quite a lot of churches and a settlement house in the Upper East Side and East Harlem, which was then a slum becoming a very bad slum area. Ah, wasn't inhabited then, primarily by Puerto Ricans and Negroes, it was inhabited primarily by Italian immigrants and other immigrants. You see, we still had free immigration. And I had a very interesting--my wife and I lived there very--had a very interesting and very absorbed life of several years until the first World War, that was the first World War that really drove me out. I, I became on political grounds a disbeliever that in the notion we should get into that war and I became on religious grounds a believer that you couldn't support war. I still have my doubts whether a good Christian should. I'm not sure I'm a good enough Christian, but I still have my political objections. Now, my people, the people of that district, I assure you had no desire to get rid of me. But this work cost a good deal of money, which came from outside, and I found first it's at Christmas time that some of these benef--benefactors of that mankind wouldn't give me dolls anymore, because they didn't believe if, you know, in I stand. And I thought that it's unfair to make kids and poor people suffer, so I resigned and I had been interested anyway in starting a magazine called "World Tomorrow", which I started. Uh, at no time did I say, "Go to now, I will be a dissenter." Anybody that does that's pretty much of a damn fool. I just said, "This is what I believe I have to do."
Studs Terkel I'm just, uh--there's always the--the how come, the beginnings when you were a young student in the seminary, were there men who influenced you, ideas that made you take the path you did?
Norman Thomas No. Now, this sounds almost snobbish and is less than just to men whom I admired and who influenced me, but nobody was particularly responsible. Ah, a good many people helped me, not necessarily as what you call a dissenter, but the business of getting educated, and I'm duly grateful, but I am a disciple of specifically of no one. Certain people on the religious side, as of that date influenced me. There was a man whose name is still remembered in certain circles. Walter Rauschenbusch, who wrote about Christianizing the social order and Christianity in a social crisis. He's quite a remarkable man. His books influenced me somewhat. I was influenced by books outside socialist and other writing. But I am not going to either give somebody else the blame or the--
Norman Thomas Credit or the responsibility of--that I was particularly their disciple. I was later helped and influenced by other men, some of them Englishmen. Ah, Bertrand Russell, for instance, some of his writing. You remember he was a pacifist in the First World War, and some of that, and some of his philosophical writing influenced me. In other words, I'm grateful to a lot of people, but I am not saying--I'm not even going as far as Gandhi did in, with regard to three or four writers, I'd say there are more than three or four that had something to do with it.
Norman Thomas Life, of course. Life, not just interpreted as if no one else ever lived. Nobody does that. We're all in, in the world. I would be a fool to imply that if you dropped me from the moon or some place that I would have done what I did. De novo, from start; but given life, which included having gone to school, college, included knowing a lot of good people and believing that goodness was possible and fairness was possible, I was singly fortunate. Having read quite a lot, even some of Marx, sure, it influenced me. But it's, it's the sum total of things. And mostly it was my conviction that living in this desperately poor district that we, that we had to do, to do something different, that we weren't curing poverty as we could, and added to that was that war was no answer to our problems, politically or otherwise.
Studs Terkel Mr. Thomas, as you're talking now I'm thinking of something. I watch you and you're, really vital and you're colorful. You say the element of dissent is still with us. But I'm gonna ask you something else now. The element of color, the color of the individual, whether be the dissenter or anyone else. Do you feel this? There is less of this today?
Norman Thomas Uh, for some reason, yes. And this is odd. That is to say, uh, public speech goes through fashions. The fashion in America at one period was, was, oh, too high-flown. I don't mean that the greatest public speakers--How do you do? It's so nice to see you after these years.
Norman Thomas Oh, I couldn't possibly remember that. You see, I live in a world where lot of people are often later. You know, radicals, one trouble with radicals is they have a habit of being late. At one time I said that I gathered how far left some of my colleagues were by how late they were to meetings. I thought they were emulating the Russians. They'd learned, and you weren't.