In 1905 Thomas helped to establish the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Other members included Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Clarence Darrow, Florence Kelley, Anna Strunsky, Bertram D. Wolfe, Jay Lovestone, Rose Pastor Stokes and J.G. Phelps Stokes. Its stated purpose was to "throw light on the world-wide movement of industrial democracy known as socialism."
Thomas did voluntary social work in New York City before studying theology at the Union Theological Seminary. Influenced by the writings of the Christian Socialist movement in Britain, Thomas became a committed socialist. Thomas was ordained in 1911 and became pastor of the East Harlem Presbyterian Church.
A pacifist, Thomas believed that the First World War was an "immoral, senseless struggle among rival imperialisms". His brother shared his views and went to prison for resisting the draft. Thomas joined with Abraham Muste, Scott Nearing and Oswald Garrison Villard to form the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). In 1917 Thomas, Crystal Eastman and Roger Baldwin established the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB).
In 1918 he founded and edited The World Tomorrow and two years later joined with Jane Addams, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Upton Sinclair to establish the American Civil Liberties Union. Thomas, a member of the Socialist Party of America, was its candidate for Governor of New York in 1924. As well as being associate editor of the Nation (1921-22), he was co-director of the League of Industrial Democracy (1922-37), an organization he had created with Jack London and Upton Sinclair.
The leader of the Socialist movement, Eugene Debs, died in 1926. Two other prominant figures, Victor Berger and Morris Hillquit, were eligible to run for President in 1928 by virtue of their foreign birth. The third main figure, Daniel Hoan was unwilling to leave his post as Mayor of Milwaukee. Thomas, who have developed a reputation as an articulate spokesman for socialism was chosen as their candidate. It was hoped that the well-educated, good looking, middle-class, Thomas, would make a good candidate.
The 1928 Presidential Election was won by the Republican Party candidate, Herbert Hoover. He received 21,427,123 votes (58.21%), whereas Al Smith of the Democratic Party only obtained 15,015,464 (40.80%). Thomas finished in third place with 267,478 (0.73%). However, he easily beat the American Communist Party candidate, William Z. Foster, who gained only 48,551 (0.13%) votes.
The Great Depression severely damaged the prospects of the Hoover administration winning in 1932. Franklin D. Roosevelt represented the Democrats. Thomas once again became the Socialist Party of America candidate and was expected to do well considering the growing number of unemployed workers. Thomas was also a frequent contributor to the journal, The Unemployed (1930-32). However, the American Communist Party, also seemed to be gaining support from those suffering from the economic slump.
Sidney Hook pointed out: "At the time the Socialists were not short of revolutionary rhetoric, and their chief spokesman, Norman Thomas, towered head and shoulders intellectually above the mediocrities of the rival organization. The real reason was that, in attaching themselves to the organizations influenced by the Communist Party, they felt they were identifying with the Soviet Union - the country that was showing the world the face of the future: a planned society, in which, allegedly, there was no unemployment, no human want in consequence of the production of plenty, and in which, allegedly, the workers of arm and brain controlled their own destinies... The Socialists, it was claimed, lacked the verve and fire required for the total expropriation of the bourgeoisie, for the destruction of its state apparatus, and for the transformation of existing educational, legal, and political institutions from top to bottom."
Franklin D. Roosevelt easily won the 1932 Presidential Election with 22,821,277(57.41%) votes, compared to Herbert Hoover who received 15,761,254(39.65%) votes. Once again Thomas won his fight against William Z. Foster of the American Communist Party. Thomas won 884,885 (2.23%) votes compared to Foster's 103,307(0.26%).Although defeated Thomas had the satisfaction of seeing Roosevelt introduce several measures that he had advocated during his presidential campaign.
Thomas was disturbed by the events that were taking place in the Soviet Union. He found the confessions in the Soviet Show Trials unbelievable and came to the conclusion that Joseph Stalin was attempting to establish a dictatorship and gave her support to his rival, Leon Trotsky. In March 1937 he joined forces with John Dewey, Sidney Hook, Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos, Bertrand Russell, Reinhold Niebuhr, Franz Boas, John Chamberlain, Carlo Tresca, James T. Farrell, Benjamin Stolberg and Suzanne La Follette to form the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky.
Sidney Hook later recalled in his autobiography Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century (1987): "The first and most important step of the commission was to appoint a subcommission to travel to Mexico City to take Leon Trotsky's testimony. It was crucial for the success of the commission that John Dewey consent to go, because without him the press and public would have ignored the sessions. It would be easy for the Kremlin to dismiss the work of the others and circulate the false charge that they were handpicked partisans of Trotsky. Only the presence of someone with Dewey's stature would insure world attention to the proceedings. But would Dewey go? And since he was now crowding seventy-nine, should he go? Dewey must go, and I must see to it." The Dewey Commission published its report on 21st September, 1937. The commission cleared Trotsky of all charges made during the Show Trials.
Thomas joined Burton K. Wheeler and Charles A. Lindbergh in forming he America First Committee (AFC) in September 1940 and soon became the most powerful isolationist group in the United States. The AFC had four main principles: (1) The United States must build an impregnable defense for America; (2) No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America; (3) American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European War; (4) "Aid short of war" weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.
The AFC influenced public opinion through publications and speeches and within a year had over 800,000 members. The AFC was dissolved four days after the Japanese Air Force attacked Pearl Harbor on 7th December, 1941. Although previously a pacifist, Thomas now supported United States involvement in the Second World War. However, he was critical of some aspects of Roosevelt's policies, including the internment of Japanese Americans and big business control of war production.
Norman Thomas was also the Socialist Party of America candidate for the 1944 Presidential Election. His previous support for the America First Committee and his outspoken pacifism worked against him in an election that took place during the bitter fighting of the Second World War. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had an easy victory, winning 25,612,916 (53.39%) votes. Thomas Dewey was in second place with 22,017,929 (45.89%) votes. Thomas was once again third with 79,017 (0.16%) but this was a massive drop in support since the 1932 Presidential Election when he won 884,885 (2.23%) votes.
Norman Thomas was once again the Socialist Party of America candidate for the 1948 Presidential Election. This time he had a major rival for left-wing support. Henry A. Wallace, the former Vice-President under Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the candidate for the group associated around the Progressive Citizens of America. Wallace also had a boost to his campaign when William Z. Foster, the head of the American Communist Party, announced he would be supporting him in the election.
The programme of Wallace and his running-mate, Glen H. Taylor, the left-wing senator for Idaho, included new civil rights legislation that would give equal opportunities for black Americans in voting, employment and education, repeal of the Taft-Hartley Bill and increased spending on welfare, education, and public works. Their foreign policy program was based on opposition to the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.
Harry S. Truman and his running mate, Alben W. Barkley, won 24,179,347 (49.55%) votes. His Republican Party opponents, Thomas Dewey and Earl Warren, won 21,991,292 (45.07)votes. Storm Thurmond ran third, with 1,175,930 (2.41%) votes. Henry A. Wallace finished next with 1,157,328 (2.37%). Thomas was only fifth with
139,569 (0.29%) votes.
A strong critic of the Soviet communism, Thomas also denounced rearmament and the development of the Cold War. Other issues associated with Thomas during the post-war period included his campaigns against poverty, racism and the Vietnam War.
Thomas wrote several books on politics, including Is Conscience a Crime? (1927), As I See It (1932), A Socialist Faith (1951), The Test of Freedom (1954), The Prerequisites of Peace (1959) and Socialism Re-examined (1963).
Norman Thomas died on 19th December, 1968.