Milton Sanford Mayer (August 24, 1908 – April 20, 1986), a journalist and educator, was best known for his long-running column in The Progressive magazine, founded by Robert M. La Follette Sr., in Madison, Wisconsin.
Mayer, reared in Reform Judaism, was born in Chicago, the son of Morris Samuel Mayer and Louise (Gerson). He graduated from Englewood High School, where he received a classical education with an emphasis on Latin and languages. He studied at the University of Chicago (1925–28) but did not earn a degree; in 1942, he told the Saturday Evening Post that he was "placed on permanent probation in 1928 for throwing beer bottles out a dormitory window." He was a reporter for the Associated Press (1928–29), the Chicago Evening Post, and the Chicago American.
During his stint at the Post he married his first wife Bertha Tepper (the couple had two daughters). In 1945 they were divorced, and two years later Mayer married Jane Scully, whom he referred to as "Baby" in his magazine columns. Mayer and Scully raised Scully's two sons, Dicken and Rock. Rock Scully was one of the principal managers of the Grateful Dead from 1965 to 1985, while Dicken also worked for the group as a merchandise manager.
Mayer's most influential book was probably They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45, a study of the lives of a group of ordinary Germans under the Third Reich, first published in 1955 by the University of Chicago Press. (Mayer became a member of the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers while he was researching this book in Germany in 1950; he did not reject his Jewish birth and heritage.) At various times, he taught at the University of Chicago, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of Louisville as well as universities abroad. He was also a consultant to the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
Mayer died in 1986 in Carmel, California, where he and his second wife made their home. Milton had one brother, Howie Mayer, who was the Chicago journalist that broke the Leopold and Loeb case.
He first gained widespread attention in an October 7, 1939, article in the Saturday Evening Post, entitled "I Think I'll Sit This One Out." He detailed that the approaching war would yield more harm than good because it did not deal with what he saw as the fundamental problem, "the animality in man." When he followed this piece up with one two and a half years later in the same journal called "The Case against the Jew," he opened the flood gates; letters flowed in attacking him as an anti-Semite, even though the article was sympathetic to the suffering of the Jews in Germany, saying that an old man spat on in a train "was prepared for suffering because he had something worth suffering for."
Before a group at a War Resisters League dinner in 1944, he denied being a pacifist, even while admitting that he was a conscientious objector to the present conflict. He opted for a moral revolution, one that was anti-capitalistic because it would be anti-materialist. About this time, he began promoting that moral revolution with his regular monthly column in the Progressive, for which he wrote the rest of his life. His essays often provoked controversy for their insistence that human beings should assume personal responsibility for the world they were creating. In 1968, he signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
In the mid-1950s, along with Bayard Rustin, he served on the committee that wrote the Quaker pamphlet, Speak Truth to Power (1955), the most influential pacifist pamphlet published in the United States; Mayer is credited with suggesting the title of this seminal work. During the 1960s, he challenged the government's refusal to grant him a passport when he refused to sign the loyalty oath then required by the State Department. Following the Supreme Court's declaration that the relevant portion of the McCarran Act was unconstitutional, Mayer got his passport.
In an Afterword to the 2017 re-issue of They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45, Richard J. Evans presents important information on how the book was written and raises multiple issues concerning the work. For example, questions can be raised regarding how representative were his ten interviewees. Even though women comprised a significant portion of Nazi support, Mayer failed to include any among his interviewees. Also, with the exception of a single teacher, none of his interviewees was a professional and none had ever been even reasonably financially well off. In addition, Mayer's treatment of the moderately sized Hessian university town of Marburg (depicted in the book as Kronenburg) as representative for all of Germany is questionable. Marburg lacked a significant industrial sector, under Weimar it was more conservative than the rest of the country (providing only limited support to the Social Democrats and virtually none to the Communists), and already by 1932 it was more pro-Nazi than the rest of Germany (handing Hitler 49 percent of its vote versus 33 percent elsewhere in Germany). According to Evans, Mayer failed to press his 'ten little people' as hard as he could have on painful, sensitive points, and his conclusions were influenced by his political views. Despite these observations, Evans describes Mayer’s book as "a timely reminder of how otherwise unremarkable and in many ways reasonable people can be seduced by demagogues and populists, and how they can go along with a regime that commits more and more criminal acts until it plunges itself into war and genocide".
- Ingle, "Milton Mayer, Quaker Hedgehog Archived 2013-06-30 at the Wayback Machine."
- Julius Schwartz, Solomon Aaron Kaye, and John Simons, Who's Who in American Jewry Vol. 3 (Jewish Biographical Bureau, 1939).
- Martin, Douglas (December 20, 2014). "Rock Scully, Grateful Dead's Manager Who Put the Band on Records, Dies at 73". New York Times.
- Kohn, Hans (May 8, 1955). "'Best Time of Their Lives' THEY THOUGHT THEY WERE FREE: THE GERMANS 1933-45. By Milton Mayer. 346 pp. Chicago: University of Chicago Press". New York Times. Retrieved 2020-05-10.
- "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" January 30, 1968 New York Post
- "WRITER DEMANDS PASSPORT ACTION; Milton Mayer Wants One or to Be Charged With Felony Unable to Fill Assignments". New York Times. September 22, 1963. Retrieved 2020-05-10.
- They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45 (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2017), p. 347 - 378.
- H. Larry Ingle, "Milton Mayer, Quaker Hedgehog," Quaker Theology #8 (Spring-Summer 2003).
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Milton Mayer|
- "The Case For the Jew", The Dawn Bible, November, 1943, Internet website , accessed January 9, 2015. A timely response to Mayer's original article.
- Claus Bernet (2007). "Milton Mayer". In Bautz, Traugott (ed.). Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German). 28. Nordhausen: Bautz. cols. 1091–1094. ISBN 978-3-88309-413-7.
- Extract from They Thought They Were Free
- Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir