I have three items for my write-up today on W.A. Swanberg’s biography of Norman Thomas, the six-time Socialist candidate for President of the United States. The biography is entitled Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist.
1. Norman Thomas was concerned about Socialists being discharged from the foreign service. President Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who was long an acquaintance of Thomas because they knew some of the same people and both had a connection to Princeton, suggested that Thomas meet with Eisenhower himself before making his concern into a public issue. Thomas at first was not an admirer of Eisenhower, for Thomas did not like the idea of a general being President. Thomas was even more distrustful of Eisenhower’s Vice-President, Richard Nixon, and in 1952 Thomas criticized Nixon for having received money from rich men without public accounting (though Nixon says in his book, Six Crises, that the money was used only for political purposes and was regularly audited).
When Thomas met with Eisenhower, however, Thomas was actually quite impressed. He found Eisenhower to be a decent man, who understood what Socialism was better than Thomas had anticipated. Eisenhower said that he accepted the Tennessee Valley Authority but believed that socialization would be unstoppable once it started with certain services and industries (which Eisenhower seems to have considered a bad thing). Eisenhower also affirmed that he did not doubt the loyalty of the Socialists who were discharged, and that Socialists should not be excluded from the Civil Service. Thomas felt better, then he went over to the Attorney General’s office to protest some of the Justice Department’s policies!
This story interested me for at least three reasons. First of all, although Thomas had been a marginal Presidential candidate, he still appeared to have relatively free access to people in power. Some of this was probably due to his long-time contacts within the elite (such as Dulles), the fact that he pestered public officials continually through his letters, his fame as a past Socialist candidate who had a following, and his regular column. Second, while there were times when the Red Scare lumped Communists together with Socialists, the two were not the same. Granted, there were times in the past when the two worked together, but Thomas and a number of Socialists were quite anti-Communist. When the Soviet Union crushed a Hungarian revolt in the 1950’s, there were Socialists who became refugees, showing that they were not on the side of the Soviets. And, three, I had to admire Eisenhower for being smarter than he looked, as well as fair and broad-minded.
2. During the Eisenhower Administration, the Central Intelligence Agency engineered a coup that overthrew a leftist government in Guatemala, replacing it with a “United States-oriented” regime (page 375). I remembered this coup from Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Education of a Politician, for Ambrose narrated that Nixon during the 1960 Presidential election implied that something similar could be done to Castro! According to Swanberg, Norman Thomas “took in his column a curiously mild view” of the coup (page 375). Thomas said that it was good that there was no longer “a Communist beachhead in Guatemala” (Thomas, as quoted on page 375), yet he said that the coup had moral and perhaps material support from Washington and that liberal elements in Guatemala resented such imperialism on the part of the U.S. Thomas then went on to say that “‘our American responsibility will be very great’ for good government in Guatemala” (Swanberg quoting Thomas).
Thomas’ mild response to the coup surprised me, for, while Thomas was very anti-Communist, he did not support a hawkish approach to the Cold War. He was against the U.S. supporting anti-Communist dictators because he thought that contradicted its alleged support for freedom against authoritarianism. Thomas also opposed whatever smacked of American imperialism, and he was critical of the U.S. trying to defend a couple of islands from Communist China. This inspires me to ask how exactly Thomas proposed that Communism be fought. Perhaps Thomas hoped that it could be fought through education and persuasion rather than force.
3. Thomas was anti-Zionist because he felt that Zionism combined religion with government, a stance that alienated Thomas from a number of other Socialists. Thomas was also critical of Israel’s invasion of the Suez. On pages 397-398, there is a story about Foreign Minister Salah el-Bitar of Syria. Bitar studied in Paris and flirted with Communism while he was there, and later he helped to establish the Socialist Baath Party in Syria. The U.S. regarded Bitar as an enemy because Syria quarreled with Israel and made an arms deal with Russia, and the CIA, along with English and Iraqi conspirators, sought to overthrow “the purportedly pro-Communist government in Damascus” (Swanberg on page 397). Bitar wanted to meet with American politicians, but they did not want to meet with him because they feared that doing so would cost them Jewish votes.
Bitar met with Norman Thomas, and Thomas was impressed by Bitar’s claims that Bitar was a Socialist and not a Communist, and that Syria only accepted aid from Russia because Syria needed it, with all of the problems that confronted Syria! Senator John F. Kennedy met secretly with Bitar, with Jacqueline Kennedy translating the French that Bitar was speaking. According to Swanberg, the meeting was secret because Kennedy did not want to lose political support from Jews. That prompted Thomas to remark, “All profile and no courage”, since Kennedy in his book Profiles in Courage “celebrated politicians whose backbone forbade this kind of concealment” (Swanberg on page 398).
I don’t know enough to judge whether Kennedy was right or wrong to meet with Bitar. But was he cowardly to do so secretly? It’s easy to celebrate politicians who display courage. Perhaps Kennedy even hoped to emulate that courage at certain times in his political career. But Kennedy also wanted for his political career to continue to exist, so he didn’t want to alienate a constituency!