The Lowest Ebb: Norman Thomas & America's Minor Parties in 1944
While sitting next to a young soldier in a crowded club car as their train sped across the Kansas plains, the Socialist Party’s Norman M. Thomas was mildly startled by a question innocently posed by his young traveling companion who had just returned from active duty in the United Kingdom. “Sir, if I may ask you — and, of course, you don’t have to answer, who are you going to vote for in the next election? I’ve been away so long I don’t rightly know the score.”
The soldier, who was on leave and returning to Texas to visit his mother, had no idea that Thomas was a presidential candidate. “Well,” replied Thomas with a slight grin, “this may surprise you, but I’m going to vote for myself.” Thomas then introduced himself and explained that he was the Socialist Party’s candidate for president. Though obviously taken aback by Thomas’s unexpected reply, the soldier hesitated for a moment and then asked, “But sir, suppose you weren’t a candidate, or didn’t think you could be elected, which of the others would you vote for?”
That brief exchange pretty much summed up life on the campaign trail not only for Thomas, but for each of the minor-party candidates seeking the nation’s highest office in 1944.
For those challenging the duopoly in wartime America, it was a contest so uphill that it was almost a vertical climb.
Throughout our nation’s history, the American people have been more receptive to dissenting voices during tumultuous periods, especially moments of profound economic or social crisis, than in more tranquil times. Occasionally given expression through the country’s nationally-organized minor parties, those usually faint yet frequently prophetic voices — the chorus of angels from the antislavery movement during the antebellum era to the relatively short-lived Populist and Progressive movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — have often gained popular support, profoundly influencing the course of American history.
That was particularly true during the early years of the Great Depression, a devastating and destructive global economic crisis caused by the reckless policies of a small clique of leading central bankers acting on behalf of the world’s financial oligarchy led by the Bank of England’s manipulative and mysterious Montagu C. Norman and his willing accomplices on J.P. Morgan-dominated Wall Street, when spontaneous and vibrant third-party movements took hold in New York City, Minnesota, Wisconsin and elsewhere.
Moreover, the once-robust Socialist Party of the late Eugene V. Debs, increasingly viewed as a viable alternative in an atmosphere of widespread joblessness, hunger, and needless suffering engendered by the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing and seemingly never-ending economic depression, was again showing signs of life in the early thirties.
A dozen years later, things were quite different for the nation’s alternative parties. With more than eleven million American men and women in uniform and relentless around-the-clock Allied bombing of Berlin as a backdrop, the presidential campaign of 1944 — conducted during a deadly conflict that claimed the lives of nearly 417,000 U.S. soldiers and more than 60 million people across the globe, including more than 23 million citizens of the Soviet Union who not only endured the largest and bloodiest theater of war in history, but made the greatest sacrifice in thwarting the Axis Powers and ultimately defeating fascism — war-weary Americans paid precious little attention to the minor-party candidates running for president that year.
Anticipating victory against Nazi Germany and Japan while anxiously prepared for a post-war nation that might or might not resemble the United States prior to December 7, 1941, the much-heralded “Greatest Generation,” clinging fiercely to the same tired yet familiar duopoly that never adequately pulled the country out of the deepest economic depression in the nation’s history prior to the war, could have cared less about any of the minor-party candidates seeking the highest office in the land or what their visions of post-war America might look like.
Sadly, a majority of the American people were insufferably indifferent to what anybody other than President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who — against seemingly impossible odds — had performed an extraordinarily heroic task in alleviating much of the country’s economic misery during the darkest days of the depression, and Republican challenger Tom Dewey, a young former prosecutor making his second bid for the White House, had to say about the postwar nation that had become the world’s “arsenal of democracy.”
Completely ignoring the country’s alternative voices at the close of war, the vast majority of Americans just wanted life in the United States to return to normal, or as close to normal as possible in a world famously described by Life magazine’s Henry Luce some ten months before Pearl Harbor as the “the first great American century.”
Coupled with the merger of Minnesota’s once-powerful Farmer-Labor Party and that state's Democratic Party earlier that year and the virtual collapse of the once-potent Progressive Party in neighboring Wisconsin, the 1944 presidential election proved to be an unusually lean year for the nation’s minor parties — “that phantom,” to borrow a particularly perceptive phrase from early twentieth century historian James A. Woodburn, “which makes the two-party system workable.”
To the extent there was any such threat to Roosevelt’s reelection that year from outside the duopoly it came from former Secretary of War and ex-Kansas Gov. Harry Woodring’s aborted attempt to launch a nationally-organized American Commonwealth Party and later by the creation of the deceptively-named “American Democratic National Committee” (ADNC), an organization briefly chaired by the conservative Kansan, but later headed by Gleason Archer, Sr., the founder of Suffolk University in Boston. Former Democratic congressman John J. O’Connor of New York, who had been famously purged by FDR in 1938 and was still nursing a grudge of gargantuan proportions, emerged as one of the group’s leading spokesmen.
Despite their futile efforts to recruit a well-known challenger to oppose Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination — more than a dozen prominent Democrats were approached that winter and spring, including Joseph B. Ely, a fiscally conservative former governor of Massachusetts who waged a forlorn favorite-son candidacy against FDR in the Bay State's Democratic presidential primary in late April — the anti-New Deal Democrats later flirted with the idea of mounting a national third-party effort led by the colorful Sen. W. Lee "Pappy" O’Daniel, but the junior senator from Texas, one of the New Deal’s most outspoken critics, decided against mounting what almost certainly would have been a futile candidacy.
They also briefly floated a trial balloon promoting a potential bipartisan "coalition" ticket comprised of Republican Gov. John W. Bricker of Ohio, a prewar isolationist who campaigned tirelessly as Thomas Dewey's vice-presidential running mate later that year, and Virginia Sen. Harry F. Byrd, Sr., an ultraconservative states' rights Democrat highly critical of the New Deal.
Failing in those objectives, but still determined to deny Roosevelt a fourth term, the Roosevelt haters then focused on a scheme to deny the president an Electoral College majority by fielding southern-based unpledged electoral tickets friendly to the reluctant Byrd — a favorite of southern white supremacists — in the general election, and by organizing and actively promoting “Democrats for Dewey” organizations throughout the rest of the country. Their stated purpose was to throw the election into the House of Representatives, where the South would potentially hold the balance of power in determining the next president.
While little of this panned out for them, there were a few promising developments for the anti-Roosevelt Democrats in the summer and fall of 1944, the most intriguing and potentially puissant of which involved the amply-financed Texas Regulars, a short-lived reactionary movement that attracted the support of an interesting cavalcade of leading Democratic Lone Star politicians troubled by the administration’s friendliness to organized labor and deeply distressed by the demise of white supremacy, particularly the landmark Smith v. Allwright U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing the party’s all-white primary earlier that spring.
In addition to the anti-Roosevelt uprising in Texas, which was lavishly funded by deep-pocketed oil and gas interests opposed to federal rationing policies during the war, there was also plenty of speculation that spring and summer about the possibility of fielding independent electoral slates in numerous other southern states.
Despite those occasional glimmers of hope, the ADNC’s determined attempt to reclaim the Democratic Party from the New Dealers and restore conservative, constitutional government to the United States by denying FDR a fourth term turned out to be “The Great Flop of 1944.” A once-promising movement closely watched by an increasingly worried White House and by the president’s anxious supporters on Capitol Hill had been rendered virtually impotent by the almost inexplicable hesitancy of those who might have led its cause.
As the conservative Democratic rebellion fizzled, Roosevelt’s reelection was all but assured. That might not have been the case if the immensely popular O’Daniel, who personally raised a relatively impressive $313,000 — the equivalent of more than $4.3 million today — while barnstorming the country in an effort to defeat Roosevelt that year, had agreed to mount an insurgent third-party candidacy from the right.
The conservative Texan, after all, had won four straight statewide elections in a span of only four years, defeating some of the state’s most prominent and powerful Democratic politicians in twice gaining the governorship and later winning his Senate seat in 1941 by narrowly defeating New Deal congressman Lyndon B. Johnson and several others in a highly controversial special election. Despite spirited opposition from former governors James Allred and Dan Moody, “Pass-the-biscuits, Pappy” was elected to a full six-year term in the U.S. Senate the following year.
Though O'Daniel's political fortunes would change dramatically a few years later, the former flour salesman — a household name throughout the state for more than a decade — was virtually invincible in Texas during this period.
Few could have tapped into the anti-New Deal, anti-fourth term sentiment prevalent in the South that year like O’Daniel, a folksy political outsider who had famously remarked a few years earlier that “Washington is the only insane asylum in the world run by its own inmates” and had once called Roosevelt a greater menace than Hitler. His candidacy certainly would have received some serious national attention.
As a third-party candidate with an impresario’s flair for generating publicity, the former hillbilly music radio host might have been a genuine factor in the November election and — at a minimum — presumably would have given FDR all kinds of fits in one-party Texas, possibly even putting that state’s 23 presidential electors in doubt.
The same thing might have been true if Virginia’s Harry F. Byrd, throwing caution to the wind, had enthusiastically consented to an independent electoral strategy designed to deny FDR the support of the “Solid South,” thereby forcing the increasingly preoccupied and fatigued president to fight for that region’s support — something he clearly never had to worry about during his three previous campaigns for the presidency.
As the state's chief executive, Byrd significantly cut government spending, leaving the Old Dominion with a huge surplus, and was later credited with eliminating nearly $2 billion in wasteful federal spending as a U.S. Senator during the New Deal — both of which made him a hero to fiscal conservatives in both parties.
Concerned that his seniority on the Hill would be seriously jeopardized if he decided to formally break with the Democratic Party — a hesitancy that haunted the cherry-cheeked Shenandoah Valley apple grower throughout much of his Senate career — the congenial former newspaper publisher was flattered by the attention, but shrewdly resisted the spirited "Draft Byrd" movement spearheaded by New Orleans industrialist John U. Barr that year.
An unapologetic segregationist who later urged "massive resistance" to the racial integration of public schools throughout the South following the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the frugal Virginian was widely respected by southern Democrats and could have potentially altered the dynamics of the 1944 presidential election not only in Virginia, where his own political machine was dominant, but also in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana — the latter four states carried by Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond in 1948 — and possibly in Georgia and elsewhere.
Relieved that a southern insurrection never materialized, Roosevelt obviously wasn't the least bit concerned about the minor-party candidates who actually entered the race that year, none of whom stood a puncher’s chance against the popular wartime chief executive.
Though his minor-party rivals, particularly the Socialist Party’s Norman M. Thomas, often had far more profound and substantive things to say than FDR’s youthful and energetic Republican opponent, a “me-too candidate” almost single-mindedly focused on the “tired old men” in Washington, meaning — without ever quite saying it — the president himself, in the minds of most Americans the 1944 presidential election was strictly a contest between President Roosevelt and Thomas E. Dewey.
Demonstrating its awesome power and military might around the globe, America had little time for any “doubting Thomas” in its midst. Having swung noticeably to the right during the 1942 mid-term elections, a year when the GOP picked up 47 House seats and added nine members to the Senate, the United States didn’t appear to be a particularly friendly or inviting place for somebody such as Thomas, the dignified, urbane and principled wartime dove and “Conscience of America” who once again answered the fire bell — for the fifth consecutive time — reluctantly agreeing to carry his left-wing party’s tattered banner in that year’s extraordinarily difficult campaign.
The 59-year-old Thomas, who gave up his preacher’s pulpit to spend a lifetime fighting for democratic socialism, knew it would be a tremendously difficult campaign, but was determined to keep his party’s flame burning. A general without an army that year, the lanky, white-haired Socialist, in an unusually lugubrious mood following the election, described it as a “grim” experience, but later maintained that he was perhaps more proud of his 1944 effort than any of his other five campaigns for the presidency.
Attorney Darlington Hoopes, a Quaker and former state legislator from Reading, Pennsylvania, who would later lead the increasingly inconsequential Socialist ticket in two national campaigns during some of the party's bleakest years in the 1950s, proudly galloped along with Thomas that year.
While FDR regarded the 1944 presidential election as “the meanest campaign of his life,” the same thing might have been doubly true for the battle-scarred Thomas, who repeatedly reminded his audiences that the United States was "winning the war, but losing the peace."
Running on a platform opposed to any appeasement of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and the Japanese empire, yet highly critical of Roosevelt’s insistence on an “unconditional surrender” — an idea initially proposed by Wall Street’s Council on Foreign Relations — the dovish Socialist candidate argued that based on the president’s handling of pre-war issues, there was “no reason to accept the indispensability of the Roosevelt administration for handling the peace.” Until Pearl Harbor, of course, Thomas had vigorously opposed U.S. entry in World War II.
Partitioning Germany and turning much of Europe over to Stalin — inexorably setting the stage for the ensuing Cold War — coupled with a restoration of the imperialist British, French and Dutch colonial empires in the Far East, was the last thing Thomas, one of the American Left’s most prescient and rigorously discerning anti-communists, wanted to see happen at the conclusion of the war. Pricking at the nation’s conscience, its inherent sense of fairness, the former Presbyterian minister also favored far more reasonable and less punitive peace terms — except, obviously, for those involved in war crimes — which he firmly believed would lead to an earlier end to hostilities while guaranteeing a more lasting peace.
As a consequence of his courageous and unyielding criticism of the wartime president — a man he personally knew and respected and had frequently visited at the White House — the avuncular Thomas, arguably the nation’s most consistent civil libertarian, was subjected to almost unimaginable abuse during the 1944 campaign.
Despite a longstanding record of demanding asylum for Jewish refugees and others displaced by the atrocities inflicted by the fascist powers, Thomas found himself vilified by a number of leading Jewish newspapers, one of which depicted him as a Quisling. Even the Jewish Daily Forward, a paper once friendly to the perpetual Socialist standard-bearer, charged that the Socialist Party’s platform was offering peace to Hitler on a silver platter.
The five-time presidential candidate was also viciously libeled by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which published an article in its magazine accusing the former Presbyterian minister of “fawning on the German and Japs while they were killing Thomas’ fellow countrymen.” Completely ignoring the fact that Thomas had been one of this country’s earliest and most consistent critics of both fascism and Nazism, the Teamsters’ publication also breathtakingly maintained that the Socialist nominee’s postwar plans fit in perfectly with Hitler’s plans for future world conquest, as though Thomas was some sort of spineless appeaser, or worse — an outright pro-Nazi collaborator. In their distorted view, Hitler and Thomas were virtually indistinguishable, “just a couple of socialist boys looking at the world through blood-smeared glasses.”
The campaign’s ugliness aside, Thomas somehow managed to enjoy some lighter moments on the campaign trail that year. As in his previous bids for the presidency, the good-natured and fast-talking veteran campaigner frequently used humor to make his point, telling a radio audience that he had to speak quickly because he only had a few minutes of air time to discuss what Roosevelt and Dewey would normally take hours to evade.
The Prohibition Party, the nation’s third oldest party and oldest third party, also buoyantly entered the fray, arguing that repeal of national prohibition had actually prolonged World War II. The Prohibitionists promised the nation’s voters that a dry post-war America would bring both prosperity and happiness.
Fielding more than seventy gubernatorial and congressional candidates, as well as hundreds of local candidates — more than any other nationally-organized minor party that autumn — the venerable Prohibition Party was led by colorful dry crusader Claude A. Watson, a little-known Los Angeles attorney who firmly believed that the nation’s once-powerful dry forces still wielded enough political clout to elect a Prohibitionist to the presidency.
Promising to eliminate the “crushing curse” of bureaucracy while winning World War II as quickly as possible, the pink-cheeked Prohibitionist had been the first candidate to officially enter the 1944 presidential sweepstakes. “If the old adage is true that the early bird catches the worm,” he joked in early February, “then I will be the next president.” While that obviously didn’t happen, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.
Though severely restricted in his ability to freely roam the country that year due to wartime rationing, the plump and pleasant third-party aspirant — railing against a product that “makes a man see double and think half” — had already logged more than 35,000 miles by the time President Roosevelt, running for an unprecedented fourth term, became fully engaged in the autumn campaign.
An ordained Free Methodist minister, the 58-year-old Watson was confident that he would poll the largest popular vote for president in the party’s 75-year history, surpassing the 271,000 votes garnered by California's populist-leaning pioneer John Bidwell in 1892. One particularly witty columnist thought he might even have a fighting chance in 1944, not because of his charisma or personality, but because so "many citizens who wouldn't ordinarily vote a dry ticket remember so well that, during prohibition, whisky was easier to get."
Watson, who campaigned more extensively in the Solid South than any other presidential aspirant that year, believed many southern voters were going to support the Republican and Prohibition tickets for the first time in their lives. “They are no longer slaves of tradition,” he said.
With the determination of a prizefighter willing to take one brutal pounding after another in search of the elusive heavyweight crown, the tiny Socialist Labor Party also entered the ring that year. It was the fourteenth consecutive time that the doctrinaire SLP, throbbing to give birth to its long-awaited Socialist Industrial Union, had fielded its own ticket in a presidential election.
Hoping to rekindle the party’s ever-so-faint dream of ushering in a socialist revolution by landing a lucky left hook against the twin parties of capitalism — a completely unexpected knockout blow against the entrenched Democratic and Republican parties — the punch-drunk disciples of Daniel De Leon convened at the Cornish Arms Hotel in New York City in late April and enthusiastically nominated Edward A. Teichert, a relatively obscure steelworker from western Pennsylvania, for the presidency.
“The present global war, the greatest crisis ever to face civilized man,” explained the little-known Socialist Labor candidate, “grew out of the prewar struggle among the capitalist powers for the markets and resources of the world. The chaos it has wrought is evidence of the breakdown of the capitalist system, of its inability to manage for the benefit of society, the immensely productive machinery created under it.” Socialism and only socialism, he declared, offered the only hope for sustained economic security and a lasting peace.
Billed as “the greatest political campaign in the history of the Socialist Labor Party,” the small De Leonist party, claiming fewer than 3,000 members nationally, raised more than $100,000 during the 1944 presidential campaign — a figure easily dwarfing the relatively meager war chests amassed by the Socialist and Prohibition parties — almost all of which was spent on radio and newspaper advertising, as well as the printing and distribution of literally millions of leaflets. (Unlike America’s contemporary third parties, the nation’s smaller parties didn’t waste money on overpaid and generally under-performing “political consultants” in those days; virtually every dollar raised was spent on actual campaign activities.)
Ignored by almost every historian and chronicler of U.S. presidential elections — most books written about the 1944 presidential election, including a couple published in the past few years, don't even mention Teichert's candidacy — the little-remembered Greensburg steelworker and his equally obscure vice-presidential running mate, a young photoengraver from Ohio who remained loyal to the SLP until his death nearly sixty years later, outhustled each of their major and minor-party opponents during that campaign, traveling across the country by automobile and giving the tiny Socialist Labor Party a fighting chance at finishing third in a presidential election for the first time in the party’s long and neglected history.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party, which then boasted more than 80,000 dues-paying members and had fielded a ticket in every presidential election since 1924, formally disbanded in the spring of 1944, reconstituted itself as the Communist Political Association, and enthusiastically backed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bid for a fourth term — an issue the president’s opponents exploited for all it was worth.
There were some in the party who vehemently disagreed with the decision to convert the party into a "nonpartisan" left-wing pressure group, the most vocal of whom included William Z. Foster, the party's former general secretary and three-time presidential candidate, and longtime party organizer Sam Darcy, but their dissent was stifled by Earl Browder, the party’s soft-spoken and occasionally aloof general secretary and former Roosevelt foe who managed to convince the party's rank-and-file membership that organizational adaptation was necessary and that the party could have a much greater impact by working within the existing two-party system.
Later disapprovingly interpreted by the party's international leadership — meaning, of course, that it was a view shared by Moscow — as liquidating the only truly independent working-class party in the United States, Browder's decision to disband the party and form the Communist Political Association eventually led to his unceremonious expulsion from the party fifteen months after the 1944 presidential election.
In the interim, the publicity-seeking Browder, who was prominently featured in Republican attacks on the administration during the autumn campaign — and apparently enjoyed every minute of it — spent much of that year rallying support for the Democratic ticket, vigorously defending the president's new vice-presidential running mate to disappointed Henry Wallace supporters on the left while dismissing rumors of Roosevelt's failing health as pro-Nazi propaganda.
Browder, who had waged a thinly disguised effort to reelect Roosevelt in 1936, but actively campaigned against him as the Communist Party’s nominee again in 1940 — a year when his party, having abandoned its Popular Front strategy, faced widespread public distrust and resentment stemming from the notorious Nazi-Soviet Pact — also sharply attacked the Republican candidate, asserting that Dewey’s election would signal an end to the prospects of post-war cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union.
A Dewey victory, he told an enthusiastic and nearly sold-out crowd at New York’s Madison Square Garden in late September, would also mean that the U.S. was abandoning the idea of a permanent international peace organization while inviting the nations of Europe to drive Communists and those who sought to cooperate with them out of public life, thereby risking the possibility of plunging those European countries into a “devastating civil war” once the threat of Nazi domination was removed.
Dewey and his supporters, declared the Communist leader, were waging a campaign as though it was “more important for Dewey to win the election, by whatever means, than it is for America to win the war.”
While the Communists formally dissolved as a political party, the nascent Liberal Party of New York — one of the most enduring statewide third parties in U.S. history — made its triumphant debut during the 1944 presidential campaign, the product of a particularly bitter internal skirmish within the older American Labor Party, a left-wing party founded eight years earlier.
Though most pundits believed that Wendell Willkie's presidential ambitions had ended in the snows of Wisconsin earlier that year, the leaders of New York's newly-formed Liberal Party had other plans for the highly intelligent, charisma-filled hustling Hoosier who had seemingly come out of nowhere to capture the GOP’s presidential nomination four years earlier. As a possible springboard for a national effort in 1948, the Liberals planned to nominate Willkie for mayor of New York City in 1945, possibly on a fusion ticket with the GOP.
Willkie, still eyeing a prominent role in national politics, was more than a little intrigued by the idea. So, too, was the man in the White House who had defeated him in 1940. As implausible as it might seem today, in the spring of 1944 Roosevelt was already thinking beyond a fourth term while carefully contemplating a major realignment of America’s political parties in the years ahead. His health permitting, a fifth term wasn’t completely beyond the realm of possibility.
Deeply troubled that his own party had virtually surrendered to the rapacious and predatory forces of Wall Street and increasingly anxious to unite progressives in both major parties under a single banner, Roosevelt — a particularly shrewd and deft politician who had worked closely with various third-party leaders across the country throughout the Great Depression — had privately discussed the possibility of forming a new nationally-organized liberal party once the war was over.
Willkie and the newly-formed Liberal Party of New York both figured prominently in his future plans. It was no coincidence, moreover, that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had been the featured speaker at the party's gala dinner kicking off the 1944 campaign in early August, urging the party to take a lesson from Tammany and begin organizing at the precinct level while telling the overflow crowd of more than 1,800 that they were “the most hopeful group in the country and perhaps the whole world."
If fate hadn’t intervened — tragically striking down the 52-year-old Willkie a month before the 1944 presidential election and claiming FDR's life six months later — could an unlikely pairing of the two men on a forward-looking third-party ticket have been in the offing in 1948, a robust challenge capable of seriously threatening the hegemony of the entrenched “two-party system” in the United States? It’s an enormously intriguing question, but one that will forever remain unanswered.
While the party’s dream of occupying the White House vanished with the passing of Willkie and Roosevelt, the Liberal Party — a party that sent Roosevelt’s son and namesake to Congress against Democratic and Republican opposition in a special election in the spring of 1949 — persisted for nearly six decades, not as a national entity as the party’s founders had initially envisioned, but as an important fixture in New York politics.
Like the leaders of the newly-created Liberal Party in New York, Norman Thomas and the biographically-neglected Claude Watson and Edward Teichert also lived to fight another day. Facing impossibly long odds, all three men ran for the nation’s highest office again in 1948, but the desperately lonely and widely ignored campaigns they waged in wartime America in 1944 was nothing less than heroic, a remarkable tribute to those who have consistently labored outside this country’s traditional two-party establishment.
The Lowest Ebb: Norman Thomas & America's Minor Parties in 1944
© 2017 Darcy G. Richardson