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The Last Word on America First

1940 was a fateful year. War loomed large in the American future. Yet no debate was heard from the two major party presidential candidates who were both interventionists. The campaign “was conducted,” wrote Saturday Evening Post editorialist Garet Garrett, wonderingly, “as if for more than a year isolationists and interventionists had not been locked in mortal struggle. To intervene or not to intervene? Did the people vote on that? No. That question”—among many others—“was avoided.”

The parallels are haunting. Does anyone remember voting on whether to invade Iraq and take charge of 25 million new dependents? No doubt all too many readers voted for a “humble” foreign policy, as George W. Bush promised during the presidential debates. Instead, they got one born of hubris.

Roosevelt, many Republicans were convinced, was using the war scare to divert attention from the failure of the New Deal and to increase the power of the executive branch beyond anything yet dreamed. Yet the GOP was oddly quiescent. This lack of an effective opposition party led to the creation, in a very short time, of the biggest antiwar movement in American history.

The America First Committee was founded, too, because of the abdication of the Left, which joined the War Party when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. In the face of these serial betrayals, the job of keeping us out of the biggest mass slaughter in human history was left to a group of anti-New-Deal businessmen, retired military officers, and college students of a conservative disposition.

The AFC was founded on Sept. 4, 1940, two days after Garrett’s electioneve lament saw print. For years its true history has been buried beneath a mound of interventionist propaganda, but now we have an inside account from the woman who served as the AFC’s congressional liaison. A Story of America First, by Ruth Sarles, with an invaluable introduction by Bill Kauffman, recaptures a lost chapter in the history of the American Right, one that teaches conservatives important lessons for today.

Kauffman’s introduction is full of information, anecdotes, and local color: it also sent me running to my dictionary a few times then racing back to read more. He defends the America Firsters from the smear artists, then and now, who tried to tar the committee and its leaders with the stain of racial and religious bigotry. With deft strokes of biographical color, he highlights the broad ideological diversity of a group that could encompass Socialist Party presiential candidate Norman Thomas and Gen. Thomas E. Wood, chief executive of Sears and Roebuck.

Kauffman, author of a previous volume entitled America First!, a biographical compendium of Old Right contrarians and undeservedly obscure literary figures, shines brightest in the Appendix, entitled “Who Were the America Firsters?” These concise portraits of individuals who campaigned for the cause—including Kathleen Norris, the popular San Francisco novelist who was the Danielle Steele of her era—are Kauffman at his best. Particularly fascinating is his analysis of the novels of AFC activist Janet Ayer Fairbank as emblematic of the Middle American populist spirit. The profiles of Frederick J. Libby, head of the mainstream peace group of the time, the National Council for the Prevention of War, along with Jeanette Rankin, representing the Left, and the “warriors for peace” such as Gen. Wood, a West Pointer, and Col. Hanford MacNider, former American Legion national commander and Hoover’s assistant secretary of war, are studies in contrast and unexpected comity.

The latter group definitely predominated in the leadership of America First, whose official creed, which prefaces this volume, started out, “I believe in an impregnable national defense.” There is also a definitely Buchananesque lilt to “I believe we should keep our country out of the Old World’s everlasting family quarrels. Our fathers came to America because they were sick of them. Let’s not stick our necks back into them.” We cannot expect Europe and Asia to fight our battles: “No nation will survive which depends on another to fight its battles.”

There is a certain subdued tone in Sarles’s work. Yet the reasons for her reticence are all too apparent in the opening words of her introduction, which overlay the rest of the book like a thin film of fear: “This story of the America First Committee has been written in the months immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor,” she writes. “When it will see the light of day in book form events will have to determine.” Publication, even in a limited edition, has been abandoned because “the Department of Justice and the Democratic Party have made it clear in the first nine months of the war that opposition to the administration foreign policy before the country went to war is now subject to charges of lack of patriotism and worse as [if] it had been expressed [in] wartime.”

Hollywood’s antiwar crowd, which is now complaining about being blacklisted, may find it consoling to know that Lillian Gish, the famous silent screen star, suffered the same fate when she agreed to speak from the America First platform. As Kauffman shows, the anti-isolationist blacklist extended throughout the artistic and literary world, ensnaring William Saroyan, Oswald Garrison Villard, and the poet Robinson Jeffers, among many others. The list included John T. Flynn, formerly a popular writer for the New Republic and Colliers, and Garrett, who was dismissed from the Post when war finally came.

Part of her aim, Sarles explains, is to recreate the “mental atmosphere” of the time, and this she does quite effectively, not by polemicizing but simply by reporting the long trail of contrived scandals, set-ups, and smear campaigns launched by a well-organized and lushly funded interventionist minority.

In the course of a narrative that often seems purely descriptive, Sarles develops a between-the-lines critique of her own: “If those who were against the war because they were anti-New Deal, anti-big taxes, or even plain anti-Democratic Party … had used their prestige, influence, and money to organize, while there was yet time, a strong public opinion without which a real antiwar congressional bloc could not function, there might have been no occasion for this story.” The liberals, for their part, “assumed a virtual monopoly on expression of the antiwar view,” she writes, “yet for the most part they were far more interested in keeping their records ‘clean’ on a wide range of social questions than in an expedient compromise for the sake of a strategic gain on the antiwar front.” Like liberals of today, who hate SUVs more than imperialism, and who love Mumia more than world peace, the lefties of yesteryear helped to marginalize antiwar sentiment.

Then as now, the whole strategy of the War Party was to tar the anti-interventionist movement as an anti-Semitic fifth column. In this context, Kauffman’s unconditional defense of the famous Des Moines speech made by America First leader Charles Lindbergh, in which he said, “The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration,” is inadequate. “Greatly confusing the matter,” Kauffman writes, “was the minor detail that Lindbergh was right: Jewish groups were solidly behind the push for war.” [Emphasis in original.]

But so what? The question is what sort of social and political weight did such groups bring to bear on the debate? The answer is far less than, say, the Communist Party, which Lindbergh neglected to mention. He instead trained his fire on warmongers of “lesser importance,” including “a number of capitalists” and Anglophile intellectuals.

Kauffman says that Flynn, who headed up the New York City chapter, “castigated” Lindbergh, but Flynn’s critique is worth detailing. In a letter to Lindbergh, Flynn agreed that some Jewish leaders had crudely equated opposition to the war with anti-Semitism, and that making the war an ethnic issue was unwise—but he went on to point out that Lindbergh had done precisely that. Surely such people should be taken to task, said Flynn, “But this is a far different matter from going out upon the public platform and denouncing ‘the Jews’ as the war-makers. No man can do that without incurring the guilt of religious and racial intolerance.”

Sarles, in her account of the Des Moines disaster, dutifully recorded the defense of Lindbergh that the National Committee elaborated to its own satisfaction, and then ruefully reports that the group issued a statement that had been “diluted to the point of weakness”—and far too late to do any good.

In editing down a 750-page manuscript left moldering for half a century, Kauffman notes his deletion of a chapter on the interventionist organizations, an omission that makes me wonder if they realized what they were up against. They thought that if they just got a lot of prominent people together, and wrapped themselves in the flag as tightly as possible, they would be shielded from charges of disloyalty. But character assassination came naturally to the Smear Bund, in John T. Flynn’s apt phrase, as most of them were Stalinist sympathizers who believed in assassination as a matter of high principle. The inclusion of this omitted material might have helped us to understand, perhaps, why America First failed.

Sarles describes the philosophy, the organization, and the day-to-day workings of the broadest, most ideologically diverse movement in American history, one that spanned economic classes and philosophies, united in the traditional American aversion to foreign entanglements. She gives an overview of the AFC’s dogged lobbying efforts, the fight against Lend-Lease, and the story of the Committee’s origins in a small student group at Yale led by R. Douglas Stuart Jr., whose father was president of the Quaker Oats Company. Subsidized by such anti-interventionist stalwarts as Henry H. Regnery, father of Henry Regnery, the pioneer conservative book publisher, and friends of Gen. Woods, the AFC grew exponentially, until it was some 800,000-strong. Sarles puts major emphasis on the mass support for the AFC position on the war: Americans were as little persuaded then as they are now by the principle of pre-emptive war.

Sarles details the relentless attempt to associate the AFC with pro-Nazi sympathies, including a grand jury investigation involving the distribution of franked speeches by antiwar members of Congress and endless efforts to set the Committee up on phony charges of anti-Semitism.

In reviewing the record of this battle, in which John Flynn played a role that can only be described as heroic, the lesson one carries away is that the America Firsters were far too restrained and noble for their own good. When a pro-Communist group put out a scurrilous pamphlet labeling the AFC “the Nazi transmission belt,” Gen. Woods decided to maintain a dignified silence. The War Party knew how to fight dirty, but America First took the high road—to certain defeat.

The timely publication of this book underscores the absurdity of the claim that the heirs of the Old Right, who oppose the creation of an American empire in the Middle East, “aspire to reinvent conservative ideology,” as one critic of the neoconservative persuasion recently put it. The conservative heroes of the America First generation, men and women such as Garrett, Flynn, and Sarles, are being rediscovered, and the authentic traditions of the American Right are becoming too well known to be denied.

Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com and author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.

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