Elbert Thomas as a young man, dressed in costume for a role in a play put on by the Utah Dramatic Club.
Elbert Thomas fought to protect Jewish refugees during World War II. He was a United States Senator from Utah when the war broke out, and he spent much of his twelve-year term fighting to get the United States to combat Hitler’s plan for genocide. And that was just one of his goals that he worked tirelessly to achieve.
A statesman is born.
When you spend five years in Japan as a young man, it changes you. That’s what happened to Elbert Thomas. In 1907 the LDS church sent him and his new wife to preside over the Japanese LDS mission. In Japan, he became very interested iin foreign relations and politics.
When he came home, he became a professor of political science and history at the University of Utah.
In 1932, Reed Smoot had been a popular senator for 30 years. But the Great Depression made people want change. Elbert Thomas ran against Smoot and won.
The horror of Nazi Germany.
In 1934, Senator Thomas traveled to Germany. He was appalled to see the evidence that Germany was persecuting the Jews. When he returned, he began to work within the Senate to save the Jews in Europe. He sponsored a resolution in the Foreign Relations Committee to create a government agency to rescue refugees.
Even though President Franklin Roosevelt opposed letting refugees resettle in the United States, the resolution was so popular that the Senate created the War Refugee Board anyway.
Due to his knowledge of Japan and the Japanese language, the Office of War chose Senator Thomas to broadcast a message to the Japanese people every month, explaining to them that their country was on a dangerous course and that they needed to stop right away. Thomas believed that it was not the ordinary Japanese people who were at war with the United States, but that the ruling elite had picked a fight.
Working to end the Great Depression.
Senator Thomas was a loyal Democrat, and during the Great Depression, he supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal--aimed at helping people have work and the necessities of life. In fact, he sponsored part of the New Deal legislation.
Elbert Thomas speaking to a group at the Memorial House in Memory Grove, Salt Lake City, sometime during the 1940s.
He also helped to create the Department of Education and Social Services, the National Science Foundation, and other agencies. These have impacted the lives of Americans ever since.
He believed in laws to protect workers, and he worked to prosecute labor lawbreakers through his involvement in the LaFollette/Thomas civil liberties investigations.
He also worked to get the U.S. to support and join the United Nations after World War II ended.
You win some, and you lose some.
In 1950, he lost his Senate seat to Wallace Bennett. During the campaign, some people accused Thomas of being a Communist, even though he was not a Communist.
The legacy he left.
Many of the things we take for granted today--like the United Nations, or refugee resettlement programs, or even the education benefits guaranteed to U.S. Armed Forces veterans--came partly from Senator Elbert Thomas’s persistence in fighting for his principles and for what he believed was right.