I long ago passed into and perhaps beyond the Elvis Costello “I used to be disgusted and now I try to be amused” attitude toward politics, but I suppose I’ll be in love with political Americana till the day I die.
My office is festooned with posters and pinbacks, including those bearing my two favorite slogans in American political history: “Come Home, America,” the plaintive motto of the patriotic prairie liberal George McGovern in 1972, and “America First,” which rings an oval photograph of that doughty foe of U.S. intervention in the world war … Woodrow Wilson.
WTF? as the young ’uns say.
Yes, Woodrow Wilson, patron saint of the liberal interventionists, proudly ran in 1916 under the America First banner. “He kept us out of war,” his campaign buttons read, and he did, at least until after his reelection, whereupon he blotted out George Washington’s Farewell Address, ripped up the Monroe Doctrine, and plunged his country into a war in which 116,000 doughboys were fried, the First Amendment was effectively repealed via the Espionage and Sedition Acts, and “overnight America became a highly centralized, collectivized war state, virtually a total state,” as the great conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet told an audience of bemused Reaganauts in his 1988 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture.
Historically, the pacifically tinged “America First” sentiment has been antonymic to Wilsonian busybodism, but then again the Archangel Woodrow, as H.L. Mencken dubbed Wilson, had done what politicians do: lie. FDR would do much the same when he pledged on Oct. 30, 1940, “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war.”
(Roosevelt’s fib was ghosted by the 6-foot-7-inch playwright Robert Sherwood, weathervane of midcentury liberalism, who once complained, “The trouble with me is that I start off with a big message and end with nothing but good entertainment.” Like war propagandists ever since, Sherwood came through the sanguinary “entertainment” of 1941–45 with nary a scratch.)
In the bitter hangover following Woodrow Wilson’s bloodbath, candidates eagerly adopted America First as their chant. I have America First items from the 1920 campaign advertising Sen. Hiram “God gave us two great oceans” Johnson, the California progressive Republican; and Warren G. Harding, our first African-American president. (Well, maybe: as Harding once told a friend who questioned his lineage, “How do I know, Jim? One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence.”)
As the threat of war receded, so did the perceived necessity of antiwar shorthand. Calvin Coolidge, Fighting Bob La Follette, Al Smith, and Herbert Hoover had no reason to proclaim “America First” when no one was really agitating against peace. Not until 1940 would the slogan revive, when a band of Yale Law School students, and a coalition that stretched from Socialist Norman Thomas to American Legion national commander Hanford MacNider to such young enthusiasts as Sargent Shriver and John F. Kennedy, pled for their country to refrain from entry into what would become the Second World War.
The phrase sank after Pearl Harbor, though in the 1970s, strangely, it shows up on campaign pins for the internationalist Republican Richard Nixon as well as Gerald Ford, who had been a cofounder of the America First Committee at Yale before resigning in fear that a public attachment to peace might cost him his position as assistant football coach.
“America First” received its most sophisticated postwar interpretation in the fin de siècle campaigns of Pat Buchanan, whose themes, in coarse and erratic form, have been picked up by Donald Trump.
Trump’s happenstance adoption of “America First” as his credo—it was suggested to him by a New York Times reporter—has predictably called forth buckets of spittle-flecked slander from the gatekeepers of the Only Acceptable Narrative of American History, which is social democratic at home, and world-saving militarist abroad.
While Trump’s gutsy criticisms of the Iraq War, NATO, and our rabid Russophobes merit the America First mantle, his enthusiasm for torture, contempt for the Iran deal, and lack of evident fondness for the Bill of Rights places him outside the tradition of Robert A. Taft, Edmund Wilson, Gore Vidal, and the best exponents of America First.
Better than Trump’s big-is-beautiful “make America great again” bluster is the message of an earlier America Firster, Sen. Hiram Johnson, who said in 1919, “Bring home American soldiers. Rescue our own democracy. Restore its free expression. Get American business into normal channels. Let American life, social and economic, be American again.”
Now there’s a real American platform.