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Norman Thomas (1884-1968)

Minister, antiwar and civil rights activist, leader of the Socialist Party of America, and social critic.

Preeminently in his generation, Norman Thomas secularized the pacifist impulse and criticized militarism in relation to social systems: ideology and institutions tending to impose military responses on political challenges.

Thomas was introduced to the religious Social Gospel at Union Theological Seminary and was immersed in the urban reality of an immigrant parish in New York. In World War I, he joined progressive peace organizations to prevent U.S. intervention. During U.S. belligerency, he resigned his pastorate, became the founding editor of the World Tomorrow (1918), and helped organize the National Civil Liberties Bureau, primarily to defend conscientious objectors.

He also joined the Socialist Party because of its social vision and antiwar stance. In the 1920s, Thomas became the party's acknowledged leader, its presidential candidate from 1928 to 1948. From that base he criticized the New Deal as inadequate and opposed the nation's rearmament and drift toward war.

Thomas gave critical support to the Roosevelt administration in World War II, but condemned internment of Japanese Americans and policies such as the bombing of civilians and unconditional surrender. He lobbied for a postwar foreign policy that would address real conflicts of power by institutionalizing mutual interests. He advocated measuring power politics against social reconstruction and flexible and realistic policies against democratic and just principles. Skeptical of both unilateral disarmament and arms control, he helped to form the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (1957).

Norman Thomas was significant precisely because he put military issues in their social context, warning that military approaches both reflect and reify arbitrary institutions and unjust social orders. War is therefore the crisis of democracy, and, whatever the merit of a specific conflict, does not offer a realistic or acceptable solution for political problems. In speeches, articles, and books, Thomas insisted that the alternative to war is social change that increases equity, democracy, and stability.

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