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What Was ‘America First’?

In his inaugural address, Donald Trump used a slogan that he had already quoted approvingly in earlier speeches: “From this day forward,” he said, “it’s going to be only America first. America first.” Liberal writers profess to find the phrase terrifying, a confirmation not just of Trump’s dictatorial instincts, but also of his racial and religious prejudice. Sidney Blumenthal is one of many to recall that the slogan “was emblazoned on the banner of the movement for appeasement of Hitler.” In reality, the original America First movement of 1940–41 was far broader and more complex than this critique might suggest, and was actually much more respectable and even mainstream. It was a sincere anti-war movement that drew from all shades of the political spectrum. Its later stigmatization as a Nazi front group is tragic in its own right, but it also closes off legitimate paths of public debate that have nothing whatever to do with authoritarianism or bigotry.

[1]The America First Committee (AFC) was formed in September 1940 and operated until the Pearl Harbor attack. In all that time, though, historical attention focuses on just one shameful moment, namely the speech that Charles Lindbergh gave in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11, 1941, when he openly attacked Jews as a force driving the country toward war. The speech was appalling—and worse, Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism really did represent the view of a small minority of AFC supporters. That event, above all, fatally tainted the memory of America First. In modern television documentaries, the movement is usually mentioned alongside authentic Nazi groups like the clownish German American Bund, whose members paraded in brown shirts and swastikas. The impression we are left with is that the AFC was a deeply unsavory pressure group that tried to undermine the political will of a nation united behind the Roosevelt administration in its determination to fight Hitler when the proper time arose. Any ideas associated with America First must, by definition, be regarded as anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi, and toxic.

The fundamental problem with that view is that on most critical issues, the AFC held positions that were close to a national consensus, and in these matters, it was FDR and the interventionists who were the minority. The AFC can be understood as the clearest institutional manifestation of the nation’s deep-rooted anti-war sentiment.

It is very difficult today to understand just how deeply and passionately pacifist the U.S. was through the 1930s, and how strongly that sentiment persisted almost to the outbreak of war in 1941. That had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, or with sympathy for Hitler. Rather, it arose from a widespread perception of the First World War as an unmitigated catastrophe. According to this consensus, U.S. involvement in that earlier war arose because of the machinations of over-mighty financiers and plutocrats—what we might call the 1 percent—who deployed vicious and false propaganda from London and Paris. Also complicit were the arms dealers, for whom the phrase “merchants of death” now became standard.

Throughout the New Deal years, Republicans and Democrats alike worked to expose these crimes, and to ensure that they could never be repeated. Between 1934 and 1936, the Senate committee headed by Gerald Nye provided regular media copy about the sinister origins of U.S. participation in the First World War, a theme taken up in bestselling books. Those critical ideas led to the creation of a detailed series of Neutrality Acts of 1936–37, designed to prevent U.S. involvement in any new conflict. From 1935 through 1940, Congress repeatedly voted on the Ludlow Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have made it impossible to go to war without the consent of a national referendum except in cases of direct attack. As late as August 1941, when the House of Representatives approved a measure to extend the term of military draft service and ensure that the U.S. would retain a large fighting force, it did so by a single vote: 203–202.

Anti-war ideas saturated popular culture. Look, for instance, at the 1938 film You Can’t Take It With You, directed by the thoroughly mainstream Frank Capra. In one scene, the sympathetic anarchist played by Lionel Barrymore mocks the bureaucrat who is trying to make him pay taxes. What do you want the money for, he asks? To build battleships? They’re never going to be any good to anyone.

From 1939 to 1941, the Nazi-Soviet pact brought American communists wholeheartedly into the peace crusade, with results that are embarrassing in retrospect. Today, popular-culture historians cherish the memory of iconic folk singers like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and the Almanac Singers. But listen to the songs they were singing in 1940 and 1941, which mock the Roosevelts as warmongers who dutifully serve the interests of the British Empire: why should I die for Singapore? One tuneful Almanac singalong compares FDR’s appetite for war with his agricultural policy. The government destroys crops to keep prices high, says the song, so let’s plow under, plow under, every fourth American boy!

In such an atmosphere, even cynical jokes went viral. In 1936, Princeton students organized a prank organization called the Veterans of Future Wars. Since the government was so likely to draw them into idiotic wars, they argued, could they please have their bonuses now, instead of after the conflicts had ended? Veterans of Future Wars became a national campus sensation, with 60,000 members at its height. As in the 1960s, the anti-war cause was a campus youth movement, with its own potent folk songs.

From 1939, a series of ad hoc anti-war committees and campaign groups emerged across the country, out of which the AFC coalesced. America First had 800,000 paying members, and that at a time when membership meant far more than merely ticking a box on a website. Some AFC leaders were hard-right anti-New Dealers, but many others were former members of the Progressive movement, dedicated to social improvement and liberal reconstruction. Across the ideological board, women were very well represented. The churches were another key source of recruitment. Most American Roman Catholics, especially the Irish leadership, disliked the prospect of an alliance with imperial Britain, but many AFC supporters were liberal Protestants, organized through the mainline’s flagship magazine, Christian Century. AFC was cross-party, and cross-ideological.

Lindbergh’s horrible speech apart, virtually none of AFC’s campaigning or publicity materials so much as mentioned Jews. Instead, they raised a series of challenging questions about whether American interests were well-served by direct involvement in a war that might have consequences as grim and futile as those of its predecessor. What corporate interests desired such an insane conflict, and which media? Why were Americans so persistently vulnerable to manipulation and crude propaganda by foreign nations? Why would people not understand the administration’s blatant efforts to provoke an incident that would start a new war? (The AFC was actually dead right here. Throughout late 1941, FDR really did strive to provoke clashes between U.S. destroyers and German U-boats.)

Such questions are all the more relevant in light of more recent historical developments: questions about the nature of executive power in matters of foreign policy and the official use of propaganda and deceit to achieve a political end. You do not need to be a crypto-Nazi to oppose any war except one fought in the direct defense of national interests.

If Donald Trump’s administration wants to start a national debate about those aspects of the America First tradition, then good for them.

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels [2]. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

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16 Comments To "What Was ‘America First’?"

#1 Comment By Petrus On January 25, 2017 @ 5:50 am

An enjoyable and informative read, thank you.

#2 Comment By Uncle Billy On January 25, 2017 @ 8:24 am

Following the First World War, the British got German colonies in Africa and the French got massive reparations. The United States got 100,000 dead Americans and billions of war debt. Such a deal. The American people realized that they had been bamboozled and did not want that to happen again. I could not agree more with the philosophy of “America First.”

#3 Comment By M_Young On January 25, 2017 @ 9:27 am

It seems to me that if organized American Jewry was (understandably) actively promoting war with Germany, then Lindbergh was entirely correct to point that out. After all, in the very same speech he also blamed to British for trying to get us into the war.

#4 Comment By Liam On January 25, 2017 @ 9:54 am

Adam Tooze makes a grim and numbing case that the USA and Japan made out like bandits from World War I compare to the rest of the world. Among the allied coalition, the USA’s death rate (compared to total population) was among the very lowest (only higher than Scandinavia and Japan).

[3]

#5 Comment By collin On January 25, 2017 @ 12:04 pm

Several points:

1) It is very easy to forget that a lot of US public drew a historical line from WW1 to the Great Depression. (Reasonable view considering WW1 turned the US economy into an exporting machine the next 15 years.)
2) A lot of US citizens thought the European system decaying.
3) While American First did not focus on anti-Semitism, it is easy to forgot how popular Anti-Semitism was in the 1930s. Father Coughlin had a really popular radio show during the period. It was popular when FDR turned away Jewish refugees in 1939.

#6 Comment By ScottA On January 25, 2017 @ 8:29 pm

I have heard from people alive at the time that in the US before Pearl Harbor, people watched the newsreels of the German blitzkrieg through Poland, etc. and thought the Germans were invincible.

I don’t think for most people it was about being against Jewish people, but about not wanting to die while fighting the Nazi war machine.

#7 Comment By Monte On January 25, 2017 @ 8:53 pm

Why are you propagating the misinformation that Lindbergh was an anti-Semite. Have you done your research? I agree with M_Young. Lindbergh was pointing out the understandable truth. But given his strategic viewpoint, focused narrowly as it was on air supremacy, Lindbergh felt Hitler might very well defeat an ill-prepared America.

And that would have been bad for everybody.

There just wasn’t enough hatred in Lindbergh for him to be labeled “Anti-Semite”. That he recognized Jewish Americans as an influential group, that he lumped them in with the British, that he inferred, therefore, that their concerns weren’t truly American concerns–that’s the gist of the matter–isn’t it?–and a rather interesting topic for discussion. It seems to me that if Americans are going to band together and divide themselves into subsets based on ancestry or religion, then they should not be offended to be referred to as a subset. If influential Swedish Americans had banded together to agitate for war, Lindbergh would have called them out as well.

#8 Comment By Alex On January 25, 2017 @ 9:52 pm

to M_Young. I doubt very much that American Jewry at that time in history had any influence in the US politics.

#9 Comment By GeneTuttle On January 26, 2017 @ 5:56 am

In acknowledging there was an anti-Semitic factor in the AFC’s movement, however minor, Professor Jenkins combines the Nazi-sympathizing Bund with Charles Lindberg. He refers to Lindberg’s “shameful moment… when he openly attacked Jews as a force driving the country toward war. The speech was appalling…”

A. Scott Berg, in his Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Lindberg, gives a fairer assessment of the Des Moines, Iowa speech:

“Lindberg had reduced his comments about the Jews to three paragraphs. They were the only public comments he ever made during the Great Debate in which he mentioned them.

…Ironically, it was in his third paragraph about the Jews, in what he intended to be his most compassionate words on the subject, that Lindbergh incurred the most wrath:

‘…I am not attacking either the Jewish or the British people. Both races, I admire. But I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war. We cannot blame them for looking out for what they believe to be their own interests, but we also must look out for ours. We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction.’

Lindberg had bent over backward to be kind about the Jews; but in suggesting the American Jews were ‘other’ people and that their interests were ‘not American,’ he implied exclusion, thus undermining the very foundation of the United States.”

Berg’s comment, much less harsh than Jenkins’, nevertheless assumes that it is inherently wrong to suggest that a small minority of the American population might perceive a collective interest regarding a specific issue, an interest that is in conflict with the perceived interest of the larger majority.

But is this so? Minority groups — Latino, Afro-American, Jewish or whatever — regularly refer to “us” or “our” in distinguishing themselves or some interests they share on a particular issue from “others” outside their group. This implies exclusion. And there is nothing unreasonable about it.

Substantively, there was little to challenge about the proposition that bonds of kinship etc. led some groups to prefer US entry into WWII more than others. Contrary to established dogma, Americans overall would almost certainly have been safer had the country remained neutral.

The idea that US entry into Europe’s war reflected a universal moral imperative was certainly debatable, especially given the fact that it would be on the side of Stalin’s Soviet state, a state that at that moment in history had committed far greater atrocities than Hitler’s state. That the latter eventually caught up with the former could not be known at the time. Just as it cannot be known now whether fewer people worldwide would have died if the US had developed its power and leveraged the threat of entering the war in a way that might have restrained Hitler from trying to match Stalin’s record.

The national mythos that had been spawned by US participation in the war has engendered countless US overseas military interventions since then. They did not make our country safer. While a few countries may have benefited, the costs to many others have been horrendous. This is a salient fact that needs to be kept in mind in considering the concept of America First as Jenkins otherwise helpfully spells out.

#10 Comment By Upstate Rick On January 26, 2017 @ 6:26 am

Thank you so very much for this article! It has bothered me that ‘America First’ is being associated with Nazi appeasement by American leftist as though it’s received wisdom. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I had forgotten that Lindbergh was tainted with anti-Semitism. It was hardly mentioned in the atmospere of the day, in the histories from the 40’s & 50’s. It was never suggested they were a Nazi front group, or unpatriotic. Short-sighted maybe, but that’s about it.
I had thought that the association with Nazis came from Lindbergh visiting Germany, if I am recalling correctly (I don’t want to take the time to go through my books to see, but I’m pretty sure). Although Lindbergh did go to Germany and let Goering show off the Luftwaffe, Lindbergh was debriefed and told our guys what he could about German technology.
During the war Lindbergh flew several combat missions, the ones that come to mind were in the Pacific. He was ostensibly there to instruct P-38 pilots how to get the most range out of thier planes, but really wanted to shoot down an enemy aircraft. The pilots enjoyed his company, and appreciated his advice.

#11 Comment By Upstate Rick On January 26, 2017 @ 6:59 am

ok, I found it. In April 1939 Lindbergh came home from Europe convinced the continent was about to be plunged into war. He met with the chief of the US Army Air Force, General ‘Hap’ Arnold at West Point. “He gave Arnold a tutorial on German airpower.”
Lindbergh had met the men who commanded the Luftwaffe, visited the factories, and flown German planes. Although the Germans probably inflated the number of planes they had, Lindbergh “impressed on Arnold the need to match, and eventually surpass, the German achievement.” Winged Victory by Geoffrey Perret, pp 36-37.
Although written in 1993, Perret still did not mention anti-semitism. Whether that was because the book was written before *everyone* was to be measured by today’s standards or if Lindbergh was not in fact an anti-semite, but protesting Jews advocating for intervention in Europe as M. young suggests, I don’t know.
Interestingly, although Perret recounts how Gen. Arnold was leaking to the press about Roosevelt’s meddling in his attempts to prepare America’s AAC for war and “courting isolationist congressmen,” Lindbergh is not mentioned, nor the America First Committee.
Our modern day Leftists are reaching for straws to blow out of proportion, I think.

#12 Comment By Dimitri Cavalli On January 26, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

In response to Collin, I think Fr. Coughlin’s popularity has been greatly exaggerated.

The third party candidate he supported in the 1936 election, William Lemke, got less than two percent of the popular vote. Most Catholics (and nearly all Catholic bishops) supported FDR for election.

There was another powerful antiwar organization, the Keep America Out of War Congress (KAOWC), composed of socialists, union activists, liberals, and progressive Christians. It was the full leftist counterpart to the AFC (who welcomed socialist Norman Thomas and then-liberal John Thomas Flynn).

KAOWC has been forgotten since some historians and activists like to focus on the AFC and thus associate conservatism (and Big Business capitalism) with appeasing Nazism and fascism. Unlike the Keep America Out of War Congress, the America First Committee favored immediate rearmament.

While “isolationism” remains a dirty word, “antiwar” isn’t.

#13 Comment By Chris T. On January 26, 2017 @ 6:59 pm

A. Young has it right.
What makes Lindbergh’s speech shameful?
Is it because he was lying about the facts?
(ie that certain influence groups were trying to enlist the US in WWII not for the benefit of the US but for themselves?)
He wasn’t! Both Britain and World Jewry, of which the American organized religion was a part, were doing this.
Joseph Kennedy amply showed how he was aware that Churchill was trying to, by hook or crook, trying to bring the US in on Britan’s side.
As to World Organized Jewry, refer to the official declaration of War against Germany issued shortly atfter 1/30/33, and the many communications between its supporters and Roosevelt.
Ditto the relationship laid out by Buchanan about Peal Harbor, and Roosevelt’s real motivation for accepting this attack unopposed.

John Toland long ago pointed out that Roosevelvt took great pains in making sure to portray the US’ entry into WWII as NOT being in the interest of Jewry, because he knew full well that this, his real motivating factor, was unpopular throughout the US, and would prevent him from pursuing his entry into the war.
Or is Lindbergh shameful if he points this out even when it’s true?
That would fit the SPLC definition of anti-semitism, which is criticising anything done by Jewish people or organizations period.

A. young is right to, that this leveraging of influence on the part of the influencer is understandable, but it is NOT so from the part of the one being influenced into doing something not in their own interest.

#14 Comment By Eileen Kuch On January 26, 2017 @ 8:48 pm

Alex couldn’t be more wrong with regard to Jewish influence in US politics in the mid to late 1930’s than he is. Isn’t he aware that the Rothschild Central Bank aka “Federal Reserve” in that era was Jewish-owned? That the media and academia were Jewish-owned? That the FDR Administration was riddled with Bolshevik Jews?
Charles Lindbergh was right when he stated that Bolshevik Jews were pushing FDR into war against both Germany and Japan – especially, Germany.
Nothing much has changed since then. The Jews are still exhibiting influence in our politics, albeit, much more. Organizations such as AIPAC, ADL, etc. have a stranglehold on Congress.

#15 Comment By Dimitri Cavalli On January 27, 2017 @ 5:04 am

Related: George Takei of “Star Trek” noted, in a tweet attacking Trump, how he and his family were interned in concentration camps during World War II.

Several Twitter users responded to Takei by noting his refusal to name the official responsible for the internment: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose name still means a lot to many progressives. It seems Takei is afraid that his progressive friends will shun him and take away his secret decoder ring.

A few months ago, an article on the dysfunctional liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal warned that no Catholic could ever vote for a racist, meaning Trump. I left a comment asking how many of their dwindling but regular readers would have voted against FDR in 1944 in response to his very racist internment of Japanese Americans. They were not amused.

#16 Comment By PAXNOW On January 27, 2017 @ 7:31 am

An interesting debate. Lots of good information. I am sure if Catholics agitated aggressively to have Italy return the six-papal states lost in the 1870 war that they would be identified by name.