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“...As Warm A Heart As Ever Beat”
Gene Debs was America’s leading socialist, but just about everyone agreed he had
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
But even at the time when he wrote this, Debs, from a health sanitarium, was writing perfervid letters to another woman.
Debs was never a philanderer. He cared deeply for his wife, who represented home for him, with all the connotations of the word. But passion, unstinted affection, and emotional release he found in a Terre Haute neighbor, Mabel Curry, the wife of a professor of literature at Indiana State Normal College. She and Debs first became intimate two decades after his marriage. A blond and rather buxom housewife, mother of three daughters, she was for Debs “Juno the Divine,” without whom, he told her over and over, he could not have endured his loneliness. During the Red Special’s tour she sometimes travelled aboard or met him secretly at one of the cities where he stopped off. Although not a formal Socialist, she was much more sympathetic to socialist doctrine than Kate was. She was for him beautiful, lovable, irresistible, he repeats in letters cloying in their repetitiveness. At the same time a strong streak of religiosity runs through the letters. Though Debs adhered to no formal religion, he tells Mabel that he believes with all his heart and soul in a future life and is convinced that she will have her place in it with him. Love, he insists, defies reason and the limitations of the human senses because it is itself divine and akin to the creative soul of the universe. God still reigns, he assures her, and love holds the planets in their orbits and the stars in their courses.
The bright day that seemed to dawn for American Socialism in 1912 soon clouded over. As Wilson captured the popular imagination with his New Freedom, interest in Socialism waned. Then the fateful August of 1914 arrived. Debs and his American comrades were thunderstruck as the European Socialists declared for war and nationalism. “I am opposed to every war but one,” Debs wrote; “I am for that war heart and soul, and that is the world-wide revolution.” As American sentiment swung from neutrality to the side of the Allies, and even after the entry of the United States into the war, Debs never moved an inch from that early statement. He was certain that peace could come only by the destruction of capitalism, not by the victory of the Allies. All his innate anger had been aroused by Wilson’s dispatch of American troops to Mexico in 1914 for what Debs maintained was merely a defense of Standard Oil interests. At the outbreak of the European war he called for unconditional neutrality; and when, after the sinking of the Lusitania , the preparedness tide rose higher, so that even Socialists like Upton Sinclair were carried along, Debs joined Bryan, Jane Addams, and Senator LaFollette in stern opposition to militarism in any form.
In 1916 he refused to consider running again for President, and the Socialists named a competent but relatively obscure newspaperman as their candidate. Nevertheless, over Debs’s protests, the Indiana comrades nominated him for Congress. Into this more limited role he put his best efforts, touring his district in a Model T and concluding the campaign with a boisterous torchlight parade through Terre Haute. Kate, nettled by reports and rumors that she was at odds with her husband, marched arm in arm with him at the parade’s head.
Wilson won only narrowly over the Republicans’ more war-minded Charles Evans Hughes. The Socialist vote dropped to almost half that of 1912. Debs ran ahead of the Democratic congressman, but the Republican candidate won easily. The United States war declaration, following on the heels of Wilson’s second inauguration, split the Socialist Party. Debs, aging and in ill health, remained as adamant as ever in his attitude toward the war. But much of the spark seemed to have gone out of him. Although the wartime hysteria of patriotism and the violations of civil liberties stirred him to angry protest, he did not publicly denounce the conscription act, the Liberty Loan drives, or the subsidies to the Allies.
Socialists proved themselves scarcely more immune to the war fever than the rest of the country. Some hundred thousand of them made a public declaration of their support of the war. A bare twenty thousand refused. Debs saw his own wife carried away in the surge of conforming patriotism. Kate became chairman of the women’s division of the Liberty Bond drive, was active in the Red Cross, and knitted socks for our boys “over there.”