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Norman Thomas discusses social progress ; part 2

BROADCAST: Dec. 30, 1964 | DURATION: 00:26:32


Socialist Party leader and Presbyterian minister Norman Thomas discusses social progress, his political views, and where society is headed with Studs Terkel. This is the final part of his interview.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel Mr. Thomas, as you're talking now about Vietnam, a place thousands of miles away where little, and I'll emphasize this adjective, little yellow men, and that may be a factor, too, die, isn't this word, does the word "impersonal" figure here? That's something impersonal?

Norman Thomas Yeah, oh, yeah, act-- Even on the reports of it, at this time it's quite successful, 30 men of the guerrillas were killed, you know. Now, if you're playing chess and you got rid of, well, you wouldn't have 30 pawns, but you see what I mean. All right, you could rejoice, but when you're playing with lives it's awfully impersonal. I don't think we do it, but we give 'em napalm, and our -- The people we're helping use it, and they don't even burn the right villages always. That's extraordinarily impersonal.

Studs Terkel But something that is dropped, and it's no longer--not that war was ever decent, always hell--but there's not soldier-to-soldier contact,

Norman Thomas That's right. You can, you can -- If we have a nuclear war, some man or a very small group of men will succeed in killing hundreds of millions whom they've not seen at all.

Studs Terkel This leads us back to the machine again. This leads us back to technological advance again, to science, to abundance you speak of, and to destruction. This crazy paradox has never been quite this sharp, has it, in the history

Norman Thomas No, and I'd feel better if we were, I guess I'd feel better if we were more rational. We're so rational when it comes to it now, to technology and science, and on the whole so irrational about other things. For instance, to go back to what I said, I think about the First World War. That war made no sense for the people that continued it, but they did. [Angel?] was right, the war didn't pay and so forth. But we get irrational. It's just that we, we are a material people but we prize our face sometimes more than anything else. We save our face at the cost of great destruction.

Studs Terkel This word "nationalism"

Norman Thomas It's a kind of a collective face that we want to save.

Studs Terkel This world "national," Mr. Thomas, one of your colleagues Erich Fromm, I think, has said something that if individuals behaved as nations behaved, they'd be put into the booby hatch. That is, mine is the greatest in all the world, and no

Norman Thomas If individuals behaved as nations behaved, we probably wouldn't have much left of the world because the way nations behave collectively is so utterly amoral or immoral. Anything goes to win. This is one of my objections to organized communism. Lenin, who in many ways a great man, but he too often acted on the principle that what advanced the party interest, well, the rest of us that criticize him for that, usually accept the same doctrine: what advances my nation is right. Lies, perjury, all the rest, what advances my white supremacy or maintains it in Mississippi is right. In the Middle Ages, or not the Middle Ages, but later, it is what advanced my religion was right.

Studs Terkel The end justifying the means in any case.

Norman Thomas Pretty completely. Now we all say that isn't so, but we all -- That it shouldn't, but most of us give in somewhere.

Studs Terkel Well, Norman Thomas. Before we ask about feelings about specific developments in the world today, Russia vis-a-vis USA, the human rights, other matters. You yourself, again, it's 80th birthday. We just touched upon beginnings in Ohio, your parents--what other influences? Was Eugene Debs an influence?

Norman Thomas Not much. I wish he had been, for I'm a great admirer of his. My whole experience was peculiar and not really too interesting. I--life in general, reading in general, experience in general, made me take the positions I did. I can't truthfully say that I owe a lot to reading and men, but not the way a good many people do: this book, this man, really made the difference. I didn't know Gene Debs 'til fairly late in his life and mine. I wish I had. I was his great admirer.

Studs Terkel [But? Rather?] it was just the nature of your own development itself?

Norman Thomas The nature of life around me, my own development, yes, and the war. The first World War.

Studs Terkel You'd gone to Princeton and then you went to a seminary?

Norman Thomas Yes, I went to Princeton, I went to Union Seminary, which is a very liberal, very fine seminary, by the way. And, of course, it had an influence on me, and I got a lot out of it. But it didn't make me a socialist, exactly, and it didn't make me, well, every experience helps to make you what you are. But I don't say this at this moment, this thing helped me or made me something else. Perhaps I'd been better off if I could say something like that.

Studs Terkel But it was an accretion of many

Norman Thomas Oh, altogether, and I can't tell you at what time. I made rather very considerable changes in my way of thought. But I can't say, Monday morning at six o'clock I woke up and I knew something like that.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking, Mr. Thomas, memories of Debs, perhaps, and then ask about socialist party, third parties, the two major parties. Gene Debs--where, where lay his strength?

Norman Thomas In his personality. He was a very extraordinary personality and his genuine love, things he said that would be sentimental with other people were not sentimental. "While there is a working class I am of it. While there are souls in prison, I am not free." He meant it, and people realized he meant it. This was his greatness. He was a fine speaker. In his earlier days, quite an organizer, not so much so after he got working primarily for the party, but it was this greatness of spirit, which ought to be somehow perpetuated. Some of us think he ought to be in the Hall of Fame, and we're starting to work on it.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of this railroad fireman from Terre Haute and his communion with men. He was imprisoned for objecting to World War One for a speech in Canton, Ohio, and yet he was imprisoned by Woodrow Wilson, a liberal, and he was pardoned by your fellow Ohioan, Warren Gamaliel Harding.

Norman Thomas That's right.

Studs Terkel A Republican.

Norman Thomas You see, it was Hardings' virtue had resolved, so perhaps his limitation, that he had no great depth. He superficially went along with life, took it pretty easily, liked people, though he would not sacrifice too much for any of them, was incapable of dreaming of a League of Nations, but was quite capable of treating Debs humanly. The trouble with Wilson was that he confused his notions with God's, and a sin against him was a sin against God, kind of thing.

Studs Terkel Self-righteousness.

Norman Thomas It was too bad if Wilson marred his greatness very substantially in my judgment that way.

Studs Terkel Mr. Thomas, for six times you were a candidate, in 1924, of course, there wasn't a socialist -- 'Cause Bob La Follette ran on the Progressive

Norman Thomas We were trying then very hard to do what I still wish we could have done, that is to create a Farmer Labor Party, sort of like a [Quillens?] or British Labor Party, and we made a coalition, not a party, with La Follette and it involved the conference with progressive labor action, a certain wing of labor, and we did pretty well, but Labor pulled out, and nothing came of it. We lost a good deal of our own strength by the process of this temporary merger.

Studs Terkel Well, do you feel, there is -- we have two major parties. I know you sense, you have some suggestions to make about the two major parties, don't you? About shifting their saints, shifting their

Norman Thomas Yes, I almost wrote a letter to the press saying it was very clear that the Democrats should take Lincoln's birthday, because they are the people that are driving for a strong federal government, and Johnson in his speech after his election quoted Lincoln at length. On the other hand, Goldwater goes beyond anybody but Jefferson Davis in what he thinks about states' rights. I was going to suggest that the Democrats have observed Jackson's birthday quite a lot, but Jackson was too much of a union man for Goldwater. I think you've got to be John C. Calhoun.

Studs Terkel A states' rights man.

Norman Thomas Yes.

Studs Terkel And John C. Calhoun for the Republicans, and Lincoln for the Democrats.

Norman Thomas Then Strom Thurmond get his successor to Calhoun, didn't he come over? Sure.

Studs Terkel Well, this is a revolutionary rewriting of history here, and a shift.

Norman Thomas No, it's a revolutionary thing the Republicans have done, in changing their base and not knowing

Studs Terkel That's an interesting phrase, you use the word revolutionary here in this sense of the word. We always think of revolution in connection with left, and never in connection with right.

Norman Thomas You can have a rightist revolution, it's happened in history more than once.

Studs Terkel 'Cause I haven't asked then about a third party, the Socialist Party. Do you feel there is no longer a place for it, or?

Norman Thomas Oh, I very much believe there's a place for it. But I think the place for it is primarily educational and it's a possible catalytic agent watching for its tactics on developments. It's a simple truth of American history that no third party, although many have been started quite auspiciously, no third party has grown like an oak from an acorn. Republicans became a second party in their first national election and that's just what will have to happen on the electoral front. But in order that that shall happen, or in order that there shall be a realignment of the present two parties, it's got to be some organized Democratic socialist group and this is of course my great regret of my life is, one at least of them, is that I don't leave a stronger Socialist Party behind me. It would be awful to leave none.

Studs Terkel Well, obviously there have been, you feel there have been, that impact has been made whether the word socialist is used or not. Impact has been made in our life, in our society.

Norman Thomas Oh, a great deal that -- For instance, if Roosevelt hadn't done at least as much as he did with the New Deal, I hate to think where we'd be now. I speak very seriously. I was around and all over the United States. Even after his election, there was among workers practically no confidence in democracy. Roosevelt saved the day in the beginning of his inaugural speech. He was elected simply because he wasn't Mr. Hoover. But after that, he was elected very much because he was Mr. Roosevelt, because he had done as much as he has for the welfare state.

Studs Terkel And since condemned by the men whose very world he saved, in a way.

Norman Thomas Yes. Since -- However, I think Roosevelt has a pretty high place in history. I was a critic of him. I think I helped him by being a critic, on the whole. But I think I would have always said that he was rendering some service. I think his great service was rendered between '33 and '37-8. Then he got preoccupied with the war, and he was a good war president. I don't think he was particularly good in his approach to peace. Oh, you remember "unconditional surrender," that was all. Well, of course we wanted to get rid of Hitler, and that was right, but Stalin didn't say "unconditional surrender," he was thinking what he wanted. And I think if we thought more, we could have averted some of the troubles that have since been started.

Studs Terkel This leads to a fascinating question of which you have opinions, Mr. Thomas. Now, the changes have taken place in the world, a shattering of blocs, the Soviet Union, Russia, and us. You feel there seems to be a common ground now, more and more, doesn't there?

Norman Thomas Well, there has been reached an uneasy but very valuable detente. The detente is somewhat affected if, for instance, France and China both develop bombs. One of the basis of the detente was the partial test ban treaty. If we keep up this war in Vietnam, Russians have already sworn that, and while the Russian/Chinese division is pretty permanent, I think, it can be smoothed and softened a little bit if they both unite against us. First in words, and then maybe in more than words. In other words, it's a very dangerous situation, and the danger comes from our systems of alliance. What I'd like to see on the basis of the detente is a Europe at least united in banning nuclear weapons, a Europe which found it possible to trade. Obviously, de Gaulle's ready to negotiate with Russia on his own terms. Obviously, de Gaulle wants to be the boss in Europe. Well, his idea of rapprochement with Germany is good, but what isn't good is it's too much de Gaulle and not enough Europe.

Studs Terkel Colorful man there, by the way.

Norman Thomas By the way, a very colorful man.

Studs Terkel And I was going to ask you that about FDR, too, that

Norman Thomas He was a colorful man, although he was a colorful man for particularly in the times which he lived. His temperament, his boyish -- Well, now, I don't mean boyish, exactly.

Studs Terkel Ebullient, perhaps.

Norman Thomas Ebullient spirit, his pragmatic disposition, and his wife whom he was blessed and so are we, all these were tremendous factors. Roosevelt hadn't been a remarkably good governor, he was good. I think Al Smith was -- Shown more initiative as a governor, but he just conformed to the times to which he came to power.

Studs Terkel Back to this theme of Russia and U.S., there's something else. I always think so much of Russia/U.S. as against the rest of the world. But internally, some of that non-socialistic aspect and some of our welfare as-- Isn't this

Norman Thomas Of course, since I was in Russia, nobody can deny there's been tremendous progress of an evolutionary sort. I was in Russia in '37, it was pretty terrible. Those were the days of the purges and all, but the Russians I meet here, for instance, and I met a good many, they're quite like Americans, I may say, unless you get fighting, well, we fight, too. But

Studs Terkel Organization men on both sides.

Norman Thomas I think that we may, although I don't think you'll live to see it, although I hope you'll live to be 120, but I think in a couple of generations, anyway, that we will, in a couple of generations if we avoid war, which is by no means certain, and if we both continue about along our present lines of drift, the economics in Russia and the United States won't be too different. That is to say, the Russians will become more pluralistic and we more centralized. How the common man will fare, well, fairly well. I don't think that the drift in in matters of politics and civil liberties will be perhaps as fast. But I think that we may get in a couple of generations so the competition between us is like the competition between, let's say, General Electric and Westinghouse, with deals under the table, rather than a very different economic ideology.

Studs Terkel So the organization man, they're wearing blue serge and our organization man gray flannel.

Norman Thomas That's right. That's right. So that kind of thing. Now I'm not too sure of that, and I don't want people to think who disagree with that, to therefore disagree with everything else I've said, because I'm telling you I'm not so sure. But this is sort of a speculation, which better-informed men than I share.

Studs Terkel Well, Mr. Thomas, Norman Thomas, 80 years old now, and of course your experience is so many and so rich, not sure, you say. This I suppose is one of the aspects, too, of the man today, that is, some are so certain, aren't they?

Norman Thomas Yeah. Well, of course you can go back to Socrates. He made quite a virtue of not being too sure. And there is a great virtue in it. But after all, they have to be fairly sure of some things. You have to be some, fairly sure of some basic principles about life and about what life could be and about the necessity of avoiding war in the nuclear age and about the possibilities of a real fraternity which would get rid of, with the aid of our modern machinery of the ancient, ancient poverty which has really cursed so many people.

Studs Terkel Well, assuming then that no nut will push the button. Then we come to the question of a different kind of war entirely, against poverty. Since we're on the threshold technologically

Norman Thomas Technologically you've got to have a war against poverty all right, and it's got to be in the world. We have to begin in the United States, and we have to begin on a much broader scale than the Johnson program. I'm proud of the fact that Mike Harrington, the young Socialist, really triggered the war on poverty with his book about the other America. This makes me proud. But we've got to go farther, and I am proud of the Socialist platform of 1964 on this subject. I think it was very well worked out. Quite largely, I think the first draft was written by Mike, if I'm not mistaken, and then it's very good. I recommend that you can get it at 1182 Broadway. I think they've still got some.

Studs Terkel Eleven eighty-two Broadway, let me repeat that.

Norman Thomas In New York. This shows the habitual New Yorker, I apologize to Chicago that I forgot to say the city.

Studs Terkel New York City. Norman Thomas, you get this matter of New York City, Chicago, Moscow, California, New Delhi, this leads to another point. Assuming again that sanity will prevail, and there is no war, no destruction, new problem facing man. Isn't the aspect of sameness, too, of course this is a bridge to be crossed later. Conformity, though, would it not be the danger of uniqueness is too being lost?

Norman Thomas Yes, there is that danger, but still I don't know if you look at a modern art show, I wouldn't say that there is too much conformity except a non-conformity.

Studs Terkel Oh, since you've talked, you mentioned a modern art show, I know you have some opinions about the literature that is written today. You mentioned earlier, alienated man in buying art

Norman Thomas On literature I'm a square, I'm a semi-puritan, I'm a lot of things. I have yet to hear of any book sufficiently pornographic that find a literary critic to say it's English literature. I think we wallow in sex. Now, I know about Freud, and I think that he's probably been a blessing to the world, which is more than some of his followers have been at all times, but there's a certain wallowing in sexuality that does us no good.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of all the other aspects of it, too. Man -- I remember you touched upon man thinking of his impotence, of being little, what can I do, that

Norman Thomas It's a part of it, it's this sex business is an escape, too. It's curious and I'm almost hipped on it. I think it's a contrast between what we can do with external things and what we feel we can't do with ourselves or our institutions. It's largely responsible for the note that there is. It's almost a sort of, not exactly exalting, but almost boasting of our, our

Studs Terkel Littleness.

Norman Thomas Littleness.

Studs Terkel Well, since you talk about littleness, in real life and true life, something has happened here in America you've touched upon it, of course, the human rights revolution, the civil rights revolution

Norman Thomas Well, you've seen men who really give me great faith in mankind, a lot of young people, what they've done for, in that movement, and this is one of the hopeful things of our time. It's dreadful that it has to be done this way, but it's very hopeful that at last we've got around to purging ourselves of what was such an enormous strain upon all our pretensions. From the time of the Declaration of Independence on, we've been enormous hypocrites. "We hold these truths to be self-evident." But the truths we held to self-evident, it merely meant that white men were created free and equal, not that man were. We paid a terrible price for that.

Studs Terkel You said something about the young. I'm sure you're thinking of the Mississippi project and other events. For years has we've been thinking about the silent generation, the quiescent young, and yet the opposite seems to be the case.

Norman Thomas Well, the young are getting quite vociferous now and I am all in favor of the kind of energy that sends them into the civil rights struggle, into the Peace Corps and so on. But I am frankly worried. I forget I've talked to so many people, did I already say this to you? I am frankly worried that so many youth were so active in the Goldwater campaign. This greatly disturbed me. They were the people really that got Goldwater nominated, they did the hard work, pulling the doorbells and what votes they got, I suppose they contributed to. I sat in one of the Goldwater meetings up high in Madison Square Garden when he was campaigning for the nomination. And it was an experience I didn't enjoy at all, for I was surrounded by very decent young people. I'm quite sure by the looks of 'em they'd have been in my camp or somewhere near it in the '30s. But now they're not the jobless. They've got pretty good jobs and pretty good hopes, but they live in a frustrated world, and words take the place of realities. They're for freedom, though they can't define it, and they're for this and that, and they don't like the government, and they cheer for nothing.

Studs Terkel You mentioned this word "frustration," that perhaps may be the key, isn't it, the frustration that made for a great deal of the Goldwater following, even among the affluent young, especially.

Norman Thomas And perhaps among, especially among the affluent or at least comfortably off young.

Studs Terkel What sort of frustration, and this leads to this matter of you, Norman Thomas, and your whole life, for it, isn't it, this matter of the spirit and the quest?

Norman Thomas Well, it doesn't seem to me that you've got a right to be frustrated unless you've given a much harder try than we have given individually and collectively to develop the better side. We're queer mainly, clearly made up, we human beings, and our institutions reflect it. But part of us at least is rati-- And we are capable of friendship. I'm reminded of it now by the outpouring I'm getting at this 80th birthday. My gracious, I've written, eaten so many birthday cakes now, parties of one sort or another that I feel as if I are about 90. But behind it is a kind of friendship which ought to lead us to see if the borders of friendship can't be increased, and there is enough glory in the record of men to make it quite impossible to just yield and say oh, you can't do anything. If we'd said that, we'd be worse off. And the best cure for frustration is to get out and try, to make some of these, I won't say dreams, but decent ideals come true.

Studs Terkel I wonder if this in essence isn't the idea in the life of Norman Thomas. Perhaps one last question, Mr. Thomas. I know you have a full day, full weekend ahead of you with celebrations of your birthday, 80th in honoring of you and the memory of your predecessor Gene Debs, as part of one strain it seems, you question at -- What were you going

Norman Thomas What I was going to say was, it's an honor that, when I was younger I never expected to be so intimately associated with so great a man as Debs. What were you going to go on

Studs Terkel I was about to say, Indiana and Ohio. I have two questions, and one is, beginning you said it's not for you to draw the parable that Marion, Ohio was the home of Norman Thomas and Warren Harding, and I think, then I can draw the parallel, if I may. That's simple

Norman Thomas Free country.

Studs Terkel One, one the quest, one the dream of someone who questions not the dissent, I know you're tired of that word, being the dissenter because there's a seeking of something positive, and the other who, a genial mediocrity who accepts, one who questions the other who accepts, perhaps, two out of the same little town called Marion, and perhaps two streams that is America today, isn't it?

Norman Thomas Well, I don't know, I wouldn't carry your parable too far.

Studs Terkel Well, I'll do it then. One last question, Mr. Thomas. What's your secret? Eighty years old, youth, vitality. What's the secret?

Norman Thomas I haven't the slightest idea. It seems to me that I've lived what is for me a normal life, and found it quite satisfactory. I ought to say this, which I do say in many of these birthday speeches, that I'm perfectly well aware that just plain good fortune attended me, that I've been able to do things and pay less price than many other people have done, and therefore have no particular reason to boast about that. It's been to me a satisfaction to do what I've done. I have been unsatisfied not to get better results. I'm never gonna write an autobiography. Thank you.

Studs Terkel Thank you, Norman Thomas. Eighty years old. Some doctors will say, lay off the cholesterol, lay off the calories, lay off the cigarettes, and some will say

Norman Thomas Well, I laid off the cigarettes, I commend that policy to you.

Studs Terkel Well, in addition, tobacco trust not sponsoring this program. In addition, perhaps we could say, curiosity, questioning, zest for life. That, too, may be the secret. Norman Thomas, congratulations.