Elbert Duncan Thomas was a professor, politician, and statesman, most noted for his tenure as a United States Senator from Utah during the Great Depression and World War II. He was born on 17 June 1883 in Salt Lake City, the son of Richard Kendall and Carrie Stockdale Thomas, who had converted to Mormonism in England and emigrated to Utah in the 1860s.
Thomas graduated with an A.B. degree in Greek, Latin, and history from the University of Utah in 1906. On 25 June 1907 he married his first wife, Edna Harker. A few months later, they set off to Japan on a five-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During his stay, he gained an appreciation for the Orient that directed much of his future activities. He became proficient in Japanese, subsequently writing and publishing a Mormon tract in the Japanese language. After completing his mission in 1912, he and his family traveled through Asia, India, and western Europe before returning home to Utah.
The years directly after Thomas arrived home were a transitional phase in his life. From 1914 to 1916 he taught Latin and Greek at his alma mater, the University of Utah. In 1917 he accepted a position as secretary to the university's Board of Regents, a position at which he worked until 1922. From 1917 on, he also served in the Utah National Guard and the United States Reserve, holding the rank of major for nine years.
In 1922 the University of California at Berkeley awarded Thomas a two-year teaching and research fellowship. His studies there emphasized East Asian politics and history, and he wrote his doctoral thesis, Chinese Political Thought, on Chou Dynasty politics and philosophy. Published in 1927, it was widely acclaimed for its erudition.
After graduation, Thomas again returned to the University of Utah as a professor of political science and history. His scholarship and teaching were rooted in his concern for social improvement; ideas and issues were projected back in history to gain perspective and context. A blend of Eastern and Western philosophies influenced his thought. During the late 1920s, his political interests shifted toward the more practical aspects of political expression, leading directly to his Democratic nomination for the Senate in 1932.
In this election, Thomas defeated five-term incumbent Senator Reed Smoot. His campaign reflected the times, emphasizing the need for more responsive governmental policies. From the beginning of his tenure in the Senate, Thomas proved himself loyal to this philosophy, translating his ideals into active political reform. He gained a reputation in the Senate as a friend of labor and an advocate of public responsibility for social welfare.
A great admirer of Rooseveltian policies, he originated and introduced significant New Deal legislation. He served on various New Deal committees, most notably as chairman of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare. He was largely responsible for the creation of the Department of Education and Public Welfare, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the National Science Foundation. During the mid-thirties, he associated with Senator Robert LaFollette in the LaFollette/Thomas civil liberties investigations. He fought tenaciously for fair labor laws, national health insurance, and other measures to meet the nation's social and economic needs. A proponent of federal education assistance, he authored the Federal Aid to Education Act which gave assistance to returning servicemen in completing their education. As vice-chair of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Committee, he wrote Thomas Jefferson, World Citizen (1942).
During World War II, Thomas became a principal actor in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee because of his expertise in East Asian affairs. Even prior to the war, his international experience afforded opportunities to represent the Senate five times at International Labor Organization gatherings and twice at Interparliamentary Union meetings. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he broadcast a monthly message to Japan for the Office of War Information, advising Japan of her futile ways.
His post-war activities extended from his efforts to promote international cooperation and peace. He actively promoted United States participation and leadership in the post war world by sponsoring and supporting legislation for U.S. acceptance and leadership in the United Nations.
In 1950 Thomas was defeated for reelection by Wallace F. Bennett, after a bitter campaign in which he was accused of being pro-communist. His liberal voting record, pro-labor policies, and sympathy for the Soviet Union as expressed in his book The Four Fears (1944) led to his political demise. In 1951 he became High Commissioner of the United States Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, in which office he served until his death. He died on 11 February 1953 in Honolulu.