Max Shachtman

In This Corner

(27 June 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 45, 27 June 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Of the type of “open letter” calculated to put its recipient on the spot, few we know of are as profoundly important as the one Norman Thomas addressed last week to Father Coughlin.

Polite ... But Firm

Its loftiness of purpose is matched only by the spirit of tolerance animating it. It is polite, yet firm in its resolve to seek out and find foe very essence of Truth. Just read a few of the sentences:

With this document Thomas takes his place by the side of such outstanding contemporary open-letter-writers as Bruce Bliven, editor of the New Republic and author of famous unanswered epistles to Al Smith, William R. Hearst, Roosevelt, Hitler and Stalin (also, it is said, he is now contemplating addressing the Almighty Himself), and Israel Amter, local Stalinist leader, whose open letter memorializing the late Pope Pius is reported to have been the final straw that broke the failing prelate’s back.

Now every fair-minded person will agree that Coughlin, if he’s half the man he ought to be, is duty-bound to answer Thomas’s letter, and finally show where he stands. There has been altogether too much uncertainty about the views and aims of the Detroit priest and it is high time the public at large was put straight about them.

Thomas, for example, comes right out with an assurance that he favors civil liberties for Coughlin. That’s fair and square. The least Coughlin can do, if he’s going to be decent about it, is to give a personal assurance that he favors civil liberties for Thomas and all other democrats. That alone would immediately give a more gentlemanly and scholarly tone to the disagreements between the fascists and the anti-fascists. It would make it possible to discuss divergent opinions calmly, over a dish of tea and an after-dinner Cubeb – removed, from the hurly-burly and above all the deplorable rancor hitherto attendant upon such discussions in the streets. Best of all, a timely declaration by Coughlin in opposition to totalitarianism and violence would automatically act as a restraint upon his more youthful and ardent adepts who, in their mistaken zeal, sometimes act like fascists.

A Way to End Fascist Menace

If Coughlin would only take Thomas’s letter in the spirit of humaneness and tolerance that conceived it, the whole annoying problem would be resolved. We could all breathe a big sigh of relief, because that would simply mean the end of the fascist menace to American labor. That is, if Thomas also sent a letter like that to Pelley, Roy Zachary, Deatherage, and Moseley.

If, on the other hand, Coughlin doesn’t answer the letter, or answers evasively, there are a lot of people who will begin to get the impression that he’s not as sound a democrat and Christian as he might be. Thomas himself – and he’s obviously not the man to believe readily that any one is really bad at heart – will feel that his efforts to redeem the fair name of the Coughlin movement were, to put it vulgarly, a flopperoo. Still others may even be led to believe that Coughlin just doesn’t believe in democracy and is actually flirting with totalitarian ideas.

Yet, upon reflection, we would see no grounds for discouragement in such an outcome. We would set it down to one of those all-too-human aberrations to which all mortals are subject, and we wouldn’t relent for a moment – that is, if we were Thomas. He shouldn’t stop with one open letter. He ought to keep hammering at Coughlin – not too vigorously, to be sure – until the priest softens up. As a next step, he might send him one of his latest pamphlets; or photostatic copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. They couldn’t help making a deep impression on the Gentleman from Detroit. Or he might introduce the homely touch, just to show that he bears him no ill will personally, and send him a jar of home-made apple butter or a box of cookies. Or invite him up to the house some evening for a bowl of borscht.

We don’t swear that this will work, but what can you lose by trying? Nothing, it seems to us. And if it does work, just think of the vistas of progress and peace for humanity opened up to us by the outcome of similar letters from Norman Thomas to Hitler, Mussolini and other erring souls.

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Max Shachtman
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Last updated on 17 January 2016