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Sunday, February 5, 2023

Dorothy Thompson: Precursor to Lane, Paterson and Rand?

Thompson’s blistering attacks on political and economic authoritarianism abroad mirrored what she often said about similar developments here in America.

Image Credit: Public Domain (via Picryl)

In an article published on January 29, 2023, I introduced readers to Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961) and promised to return to the subject to give her views a closer look.

Thompson became the first American journalist to interview Hitler (in 1931) and the first to be expelled from Nazi Germany (in 1934). As a radio broadcaster, widely syndicated newspaper columnist, and foreign correspondent, she earned a reputation as America’s “First Lady of Journalism” by 1940.

The Dorothy Thompson Papers, an extensive collection of her writings and correspondence, reside at Syracuse University.

In a short biographical sketch introducing Thompson’s archived material there, Lisa Sergio writes,

The international fame she achieved and the political influence she wielded…were due less to her skillful recording of events than to her extraordinary percipience in analyzing them. A sound knowledge of history, a well-trained memory, and a surprisingly wide range of personal contacts with the great and near-great, many of which became enduring friendships, enabled her to measure any situation against its background as well as to assess its consequences and foresee new situations likely to derive from it.

Serious journalists are human beings like the rest of us. They don’t always get it right. Dorothy Thompson, for example, underestimated Hitler at first, but she rarely hung on to misconceptions when reality dictated a change of mind. She authored many of the most trenchant critiques of the socialist isms of her day—Nazism, Fascism, Communism—yet she didn’t cherry pick the facts to fit an ideology. That’s the sort of thing that characterizes unserious journalists (from which we suffer a superabundance today).

When advocates of freedom and free markets think of the female luminaries who helped spark a revival of classical liberal ideas in the middle of the 20th century, three names almost always spring to mind: Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson and Ayn Rand.

Personally, I rank Dorothy Thompson right up there with them. It’s a public disservice, if not a tragedy, that she isn’t as well-remembered as Lane, Paterson and Rand.

Thompson’s blistering attacks on political and economic authoritarianism abroad mirrored what she often said about similar developments here in America.

She was among the first, for instance, to warn of the dangers inherent in charismatic demagogues and the similarities between two of them of the 1930s: Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt. The latter, she believed, had “worked himself up to the point where he believes that a mystical compact exists between him personally and the American people.” One of her biographers, Peter Kurth, reveals,

To Dorothy there was ‘nothing more fearful and wonderful than a society congealed in the pattern of an adolescent mind,’ and when Roosevelt, accepting the nomination for a second term, declared that ‘this generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny,’ she replied that ‘this generation had better not make any blind dates.’

Thompson’s early warnings about Hitler (after at first underestimating his chances of attaining power) were not peculiar to the rise of the Nazis. She feared the rise of demagogues anywhere, including in our own democratic republic. Here is one of her especially cogent observations:

No people ever recognize their dictator in advance. He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship. He always represents himself as the instrument—the Incorporated National Will. … When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American. And nobody will ever say “Heil” to him, nor will they call him “Führer” or “Duce.” But they will greet him with one great big, universal, democratic, sheeplike bleat of “O.K., Chief! Fix it like you wanna, Chief! Oh Kaaaay!”

Thompson was suspicious of Roosevelt’s New Deal, launched in 1933, from its very inception. As it rolled along, writes Kurth, she criticized FDR increasingly as “leading the country down the road of benevolent despotism.” She stirred up a fuss many times for pointing out elements of the New Deal that reeked of fascism. And when FDR proposed his Social Security plan, she opposed it vigorously, declaring:

I wish to stand on what I consider my constitutional right to be insecure. It seems to me that all this solicitude for human rights ought to include the voluntary right to live dangerously, just for those who happen to like it that way. The government doesn’t know what kind of old lady I am going to be, and neither do I, but I think I can guess better than the government. And so I want to provide for that particular old age that I, particularly, anticipate.

Many writers of the day supported FDR’s federally funded make-work schemes such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) because those schemes included money for writers and artists. Dorothy Thompson was not one of them. She wrote,

The WPA artistic projects are full of people who have no better claim to be actors, writers, designers, painters, or sculptors than I have to being a locomotive engineer… [The writer] doesn’t need a “project,” and if he really has anything to say, he will shun the project as he would the plague.

In 1937, fresh from a landslide reelection the year before, FDR aimed at the Supreme Court. Its opposition to many of his New Deal measures prompted him to propose his famous “court-packing” scheme. Dorothy Thompson threw everything but the kitchen sink at the idea, and for all the right reasons. It was a power grab that threatened to upset the separation of powers America’s Founders wisely established:

If the American people accept this last audacity of the President without letting out a yell to high heaven, they have ceased to be jealous of their liberties and are ripe for ruin…This is the beginning of pure personal government. Do you want it? Do you like it? Look around the world—there are plenty of examples—and make up your mind.

When Roosevelt ran for a third term in 1940, Thompson predictably endorsed his Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie. But then, just a month before the November election, and to the shock of most observers, she switched her support to FDR. She hadn’t changed her mind on his domestic policies, but with the world facing a major war she opted against Willkie’s increasing isolationism and in favor of the incumbent’s foreign policy experience. She was honest and forthright about it, but the flip-flop is not a move I can defend.

The last major battle of her journalistic career, and one which contributed to her later obscurity, concerned the creation of the State of Israel and its immediate aftermath. Thompson was strongly supportive of the Zionist idea but increasingly took issue with Israeli treatment of Palestinian refugees. That led to claims that she was anti-Semitic; though utterly unfounded, in some quarters those charges stuck. Newspapers began to drop her column and both her notoriety and popularity waned. She died in Portugal in 1961 at the age of 67.

Some observers argue that her articles critical of Israel and in defense of the Palestinians led to a secret, successful campaign behind the scenes to get her viewpoint out of the media. I do not know how valid this perspective may be. A decade ago, an effort began to produce a film, The Silencing of Dorothy Thompson, that might have shed some light on the matter but for reasons unknown to me, it didn’t get off the ground. Nonetheless, this short trailer for the film is fascinating to watch.

I do not know if Thompson ever met or knew Ayn Rand or Isabel Paterson. But I do know that she and Rose Wilder Lane were friends for four decades. A significant portion of their correspondence is accessible in the 1991 book edited by William Holtz, Dorothy Thompson & Rose Wilder Lane: Forty Years of Friendship.

In 1938, this remarkable woman published a small book on politics and political philosophies titled Dorothy Thompson’s Political Guide: A Study of American Liberalism and Its Relationship to Modern Totalitarian States. Interestingly, this book appeared five years before Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom, Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine, and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (all of which debuted in 1943). In hindsight, I can’t help but wonder how Dorothy Thompson may have influenced the other three women and their political views.

So that readers may understand why Dorothy Thompson should be better known and appreciated by lovers of liberty, I close with the following excerpts from her Political Guide:

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So far, private enterprise and political democracy have gone hand in hand. When one has perished or been rigidly controlled, the other has perished also. The only countries left in the western world where science is free, where art is uncontrolled, where men can write, speak, and think as they please, where the individual enjoys security in his person, against arrest without warrant and trial by jury without indictment, are capitalist countries….[W]here private enterprise has been abolished or placed under complete state control, civil liberties have been abolished, too.

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I am willing to die for political freedom; for the right to give my loyalty to ideals above a nation and above a class; for the right to teach my child what I think to be the truth; for the right to explore such knowledge as my brains can penetrate; for the right to love what my mind and heart admire, without reference to some dictator’s code to tell me what the national canons on the matter are; for the right to work with others of like mind; for a society that seems to me becoming to the dignity of the human race. I shall pick no fight, nor seek to impose by force these standards on others. But let it be clear. If the fight comes unsolicited, I am not willing to die meekly, to surrender without effort. 

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…[T]hey (America’s Founding Fathers] were men of extraordinary abilities, who towered so high above the level of their times, and most times since, that they commanded the respect of the whole civilized world, and this despite the fact that they were citizens of a still uncouth and unformed country. They were men of exceptional mental capacity and deep culture…[T]hey showed themselves to be familiar with the history, the constitutions, and the political experiences of most preceding civilizations, and to have devoted the most exacting reasoning processes to the Constitution which they worked out and defended…They set out to make a free federal state; and in doing so, they definitely rejected pure democracy, and for a very clearly seen reason: they knew that every attempt at pure democracy in the history of the world had quickly degenerated into tyranny.

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To be a liberal [in the classical, not modern, sense of the term] means to believe in human freedom. It means to believe in human beings. It means to champion that form of social and political order which releases the greatest amount of human energy; permits the greatest liberty for individuals and groups, in planning and living their lives; cherishes freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of action, limited by only one thing: the protection of the freedom of others.

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[T]he industrial revolution, coinciding with the rise of liberalism, brought forth the free market, the division of labor, the idea of production that would be responsive to the demand and the supremacy of the consumer. The liberation of mankind from absolutist government and from rigid, authoritarian economic regulation had results not wholly advantageous. It destroyed a certain kind of security, and it upset stability. It changed a static, ordered world into a dynamic and often chaotic world…And the gains were incredible. It increased and democratized economic rewards as they had never been increased or distributed in the history of mankind. It gave impetus to invention and technique. It produced wealth at a rate which the world had never dreamed of. It made social classes elastic and impermanent. It stimulated the human imagination in unprecedented ways, by giving the mind room to breathe in. In a century it lifted the standard of living for the average man to a level which had previously been enjoyed only the exceptionally situated, and in many ways above that level. It put on the breakfast table of the average man delicacies which kings, a century earlier, had not enjoyed.

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The world is so obviously rich that he [the average man] believes it richer than it is; nor has the average man the faintest conception of how so diverse and complicated a mechanism functions. If it fails to function smoothly, he demands that something be done. He calls in the government, with much the same certainty that he calls in a mechanic if the oil burner stops. He does not see that no more virtue or wisdom or intelligence resides in government than resides in the rest of society. He does not realize that government has only one thing not shared by other organizations and instruments of society. It alone has force.

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In country after country, under one slogan or another, the people are retreating from freedom, and voluntarily relinquishing liberty to force and authority, with instructions to bring order into men’s affairs. They are affirming that the world which their numerous energies have made has become too complicated for them to run, and they are delegating the power to run it to a dictator, or a president, or the corporate state, or a political party, or a planning board, or what not. But a world subject to such fine, diverse and interdependent mechanisms cannot be run from the top, except by enormously simplifying it. The easiest way to simplify society is to reduce it to a military organization. That is the most primitive form of social organization.

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Men and women must be free to experiment, to search, to question, to act—why? Obviously, that they may approach the truth. The object of liberty is to give men and women a chance to their best selves. That is its first and last purpose…People are actually welcoming enslavement in order that, without liberty, they may at least have rest and the sense of being caught up into some purpose, however fantastic, however unrealistic, unhuman and grotesque.

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The fathers of American democracy had no exaggerated respect for the State, because they were pre-eminently men of reason and common sense. They never, for instance, identified the State with the People. They knew that the State is, by very definition, an instrument of oppression and coercion, and their idea was to make it strong enough to keep order and ward off enemies and limit it otherwise very strictly…But now this mysticism of the State…[which] cannot stand the light of either reason or common sense, infects the thinking of people all over the world.

For Additional Information, See:

Meet the First American Journalist to Interview Hitler by Lawrence W. Reed

A Good Journalist Understands that Fascism Can Happen Anywhere, Anytime by Nancy Cott

The Rise and Fall of Dorothy Thompson Into Obscurity by John Wear

Audio of a 1936 “Town Meeting of the Air” featuring Dorothy Thompson on fascism, freedom of speech, Social Security, etc.

The Silencing of Dorothy Thompson (trailer)


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.