THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Norman Thomas and the Defense of Japanese

Norman Mattoon Thomas (1884-1968), leader and perennial presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, distinguished himself by his tireless defense of the human rights of Japanese Americans during World War II.

He was the only national political figure to take a public position against Executive Order 9066, which he decried as “totalitarian justice.” In newspaper articles and public speeches, including some on the West Coast, he decried the government’s action and warned that it was a precedent for other arbitrary action against American citizens.

Thomas was also active in organizational efforts against mass removal and confinement. Thomas was so active, in fact, that all I can do here is begin to explore his involvement.

By the time of World War II, the Socialist Party had been reduced from a once impressive force to a small and largely powerless group, and Norman Thomas in particular had been discredited for his pacifism and long opposition to American military intervention against Nazi Germany.

Although he announced his support for war after Pearl Harbor, he remained on guard to protect civil rights at home, and campaigned against wartime censorship and for the rights of minorities. While Thomas was deeply and sincerely troubled by the treatment of Japanese Americans, it also demonstrated for him the potential for government abuse of power under cover of war.

Thomas knew few West Coast Nisei before the war, although during 1941 he corresponded with Sam Hohri, a columnist for the Rafu Shimpo and Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) activist, who reported on the troubles of Japanese Americans.

In mid-January 1942, Ann Ray, a Socialist activist in Santa Barbara who served as secretary of California’s Race

Norman Thomas photo by Peter Stackpole/courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

Relations Commission, began sending Thomas reports from the commission’s chair, African American attorney Hugh MacBeth, on the growing calls for removal of all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast and the greed and racism that underlay them. Thomas was further energized when his colleague Harry Fleischmann took him to task for ignoring the question of Japanese Americans in a radio broadcast Thomas made at the end of January 1942 supporting anti-lynching legislation: “How about Americans of Japanese descent, who are today being discriminated against even more violently and cruelly than Americans of Negro origin…Children of Japanese descent are now being put out of public schools in New York. God knows what is happening in California — where at least one man has been murdered for being of Japanese origin.”

Thomas was concerned but failed to respond publicly until Executive Order 9066 was publicly announced. He quickly denounced the order before audiences in Detroit and Chicago and drafted a series of articles for the Socialist Party newspaper The Call. He also had his assistant Mary Hillyer send immediate letters to all the people on his mailing list, asking them to write the government and “bring pressure for sanity and fair play” on the government.

Thomas considered the order not just an injustice to Japanese Americans, but a shocking example of the violation of individual rights in the name of patriotism. As he put it, even if there were a risk of subversion, “So drastic a provision is a good deal like burning down Chicago to get rid of gangsters.” He was even more uneasy about the lack of visible public outrage and protest.

Thomas tried to persuade the American Civil Liberties Union, of which he was a founding executive board member, to fight mass removal, but in June 1942 the ACLU National Board voted by a decisive margin not to oppose the constitutionality of Roosevelt’s order, although local union lawyers were still prepared to bring test cases to oppose the arbitrary application of the order to Japanese Americans. Thomas later protested to ACLU lawyer Ernest Besig that such a position was illogical “for that order was clearly intended to make possible just what has been done, which in every respect has had presidential backing.” He seriously considered resigning from the ACLU as a public protest, which “amounts objectively to betrayal of a cause,” but decided against it.

When Thomas learned that the ACLU had sent a message congratulating General John DeWitt, the West Coast Defense Commander, on the efficiency and humanity of the removal operation, he hit the roof and fired off a letter dripping with sarcasm to Director Roger Baldwin asking whether he had also praised Nazi commandants for their humane operations: “Better keep your letter of thanks to a form letter. In the years to come there may be many humane American army officers engaged in establishing ghettoes.”

Blocked by the ACLU, Thomas mobilized the Post War World Council, a Socialist planning agency. In May 1942, Thomas drafted a petition in its name of the council that called for rescission of Executive Order 9066, which “approximates the totalitarian theory of justice practiced by the Nazis in their treatment of the Jews.” Within a few weeks, more than 200 people agreed to sign, including such notable figures as John Dewey, Reinhold Niebuhr, Ruth Benedict and W.E.B. DuBois. Encouraged, Thomas scheduled a forum on “the Japanese Question” in New York in June 1942. At the meeting, Mike Masaoka of the JACL stated that the treatment of Japanese Americans was “a test of democracy” and warned, “If they can do that to one group they can do it to other groups.”

With Masaoka’s support, Thomas introduced a resolution calling for the immediate establishment of hearing boards to determine the loyalty of the “evacuees” and warning against the “military internment of unaccused persons in concentration camps.”

However, the Japanese American Committee for Democracy, an antifascist group close to the Communist Party that favored full war mobilization, introduced a counter-resolution approving mass removal. Although the JACD resolution was defeated handily by those assembled, Thomas was unable to persuade the other groups at the meeting to support his demand for the “reconsideration” of Executive Order 9066. In the end, the meeting settled on a weak compromise resolution that avoided criticizing the government and called for resettlement of Japanese Americans outside the West Coast.

Meanwhile, Thomas turned to the press. In addition to his articles for The Call, in July 1942 he published a pamphlet, Democracy and Japanese Americans, in which he repeated his description of Executive Order 9066 as “totalitarian justice” and described the difficult conditions facing inmates in the Assembly Centers. The last several pages were devoted to a program to promote immediate resettlement, including provisions to reimburse the dispossessed Japanese Americans through government grants of land.

Thanks in part to financial support and distribution by the JACL, the pamphlet enjoyed wide circulation. Its influence was limited by attacks from Army officials who unsuccessfully sought to discredit the information contained in the pamphlet, and by scurrilous commentary in the West Coast media. One of the most damaging attacks on Thomas was a letter sent from the camp at Manzanar to the San Francisco Chronicle by Nisei Communist Karl Yoneda.

Throughout the years that followed, Thomas continued to receive reports from inmates and their supporters. In return, he pressed the government to respect the civil rights of the inmates and speed resettlement. He also attempted to put together an estimate of the financial losses incurred by Issei and Nisei, and supported compensation for those who had lost their property. He even defied hostile West Coast opinion. In September 1944, he made a speech at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club in which he denounced the “racism” of Californians who wished to prevent inmates from returning to their homes “legally if possible, illegally if necessary.”

Norman Thomas’ actions, and the opposition he faced, demonstrate the nature and extent of dissent over the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans.

Thomas never wavered from his position that Executive Order 9066, more than an injustice to Japanese Americans, was a disturbing sign of totalitarian rule, and deplored the lack of public opposition.

As he stated during the war, “In an experience of nearly three decades I have never found it harder to arouse the American public on any important issue than this.” Although his dissent was little noticed by most Americans and won him few supporters even among Japanese Americans, it stands for us as positive evidence of a road not taken.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is an associate professor of history at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached via e-mail at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

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