Information

America First Committee


The America First Committee (AFC) was established in September 1940. The America First National Committee included Robert E. Wood, John T. Flynn and Charles A. Lindbergh. Supporters of the organization included Elizabeth Dilling , Burton K. Wheeler, Robert R. McCormick, Hugh S. Johnson, Robert LaFollette Jr., Amos Pinchot, Hamilton Stuyvesan Fish, Harry Elmer Barnes and Gerald Nye.

The AFC soon became the most powerful isolationist group in the United States. The AFC had four main principles: (1) The United States must build an impregnable defense for America; (2) No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America; (3) American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European War; (4) "Aid short of war" weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad. John T. Flynn played a major role in the organization's publicity campaigns. This included one advertisement that read: "The Last War Brought: Communism to Russia, Fascism to Italy, Nazism to Germany. What Will Another War Bring To America?"

Hamilton Stuyvesan Fish later told Studs Terkel: "I'd led the fight for three years against Roosevelt getting us into war. I was on the radio every ten days.... That is the greatest thing I did do in my life.... We would have been fighting those Germans, plus probably the Russians, because they made a deal with them. Every American family owes an obligation to me because we would have lost a million or two million killed. That's the biggest thing I ever did, and nobody can take it away from me."

When Winston Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, he realised that it would be vitally important to enlist the Unoted States as Britain's ally. Churchill appointed William Stephenson as the head of the British Security Coordination (BSC). As William Boyd has pointed out: "The phrase is bland, almost defiantly ordinary, depicting perhaps some sub-committee of a minor department in a lowly Whitehall ministry. In fact BSC, as it was generally known, represented one of the largest covert operations in British spying history... With the US alongside Britain, Hitler would be defeated - eventually. Without the US (Russia was neutral at the time), the future looked unbearably bleak... polls in the US still showed that 80% of Americans were against joining the war in Europe. Anglophobia was widespread and the US Congress was violently opposed to any form of intervention."

Stephenson knew that with leading officials supporting isolationism he had to overcome these barriers. His main ally in this was another friend, William Donovan, who he had met in the First World War. "The procurement of certain supplies for Britain was high on my priority list and it was the burning urgency of this requirement that made me instinctively concentrate on the single individual who could help me. I turned to Bill Donovan." Donovan arranged meetings with Henry Stimson (Secretary of War), Cordell Hull (Secretary of State) and Frank Knox (Secretary of the Navy). The main topic was Britain's lack of destroyers and the possibility of finding a formula for transfer of fifty "over-age" destroyers to the Royal Navy without a legal breach of U.S. neutrality legislation.

It was decided to send Donovan to Britain on a fact-finding mission. He left on 14th July, 1940. When he heard the news, Joseph P. Kennedy complained: "Our staff, I think is getting all the information that possibility can be gathered, and to send a new man here at this time is to me the height of nonsense and a definite blow to good organization." He added that the trip would "simply result in causing confusion and misunderstanding on the part of the British". Andrew Lycett has argued: "Nothing was held back from the big American. British planners had decided to take him completely into their confidence and share their most prized military secrets in the hope that he would return home even more convinced of their resourcefulness and determination to win the war."

William Donovan arrived back in the United States in early August, 1940. In his report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt he argued: "(1) That the British would fight to the last ditch. (2) They could not hope to hold to hold the last ditch unless they got supplies at least from America. (3) That supplies were of no avail unless they were delivered to the fighting front - in short, that protecting the lines of communication was a sine qua non. (4) That Fifth Column activity was an important factor." Donovan also urged that the government should sack Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, who was predicting a German victory. Donovan also wrote a series of articles arguing that Nazi Germany posed a serious threat to the United States.

On 22nd August, William Stephenson reported to London that the destroyer deal was agreed upon. The agreement for transferring 50 aging American destroyers, in return for the rights to air and naval basis in Bermuda, Newfoundland, the Caribbean and British Guiana, was announced 3rd September, 1940. The bases were leased for 99 years and the destroyers were of great value as convey escorts. Supporters of the America First Committee in the Senate attempted to defeat this Lend Lease proposal. Gerald Nye, Burton K. Wheeler, Hugh Johnson, Robert LaFollette Jr., Henrik Shipstead, Homer T. Bone, James B. Clark, William Langer, and Arthur Capper, all voted against the measure but it was passed by 60 votes to 31.

Stephenson was very concerned with the growth of the American First Committee. by the spring of 1941, the British Security Coordination estimated that there were 700 chapters and nearly a million members of isolationist groups. Leading isolationists were monitored, targeted and harassed. When Gerald Nye spoke in Boston in September 1941, thousands of handbills were handed out attacking him as an appeaser and Nazi lover. Following a speech by Hamilton Stuyvesan Fish, a member of a group set-up by the BSC, the Fight for Freedom, delivered him a card which said, "Der Fuhrer thanks you for your loyalty" and photographs were taken.

A BSC agent approached Donald Chase Downes and told him that he was working under the direct orders of Winston Churchill. "Our primary directive from Churchill is that American participation in the war is the most important single objective for Britain. It is the only way, he feels, to victory over Nazism. Our best information is that the forces of isolationism, a front here for Nazism and Fascism, is gaining, not losing ground. How do you personally feel about these forces, for example, the America First movement." Downes replied: "I couldn't feel stronger. I can say further that I am quite honestly ashamed that my country is not a full-fledged, belligerent ally of Britain's"

Downes was asked if he was willing to spy on the American First Committee. "Do you feel strongly enough on these matters to work for us in your own country? To spy on your fellow Americans and report to us? For we feel there is German money and German direction behind the American First movement, though many of its followers may not know it and would in fact be shocked to know it. If we can pin a Nazi contact or Nazi money on the isolationists, they will lose many of their followers. It might be the deciding factor in America's entry in the war, if the American public knew the truth."

Donald Chase Downes later recalled in his autobiography, The Scarlett Thread (1953) that he received assistance in his work from the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, Congress for Industrial Organisation and U.S. army counter-intelligence. Bill Macdonald, the author of The True Intrepid: Sir William Stephenson and the Unknown Agents (2001), has pointed out: "Downes eventually discovered there was Nazi activity in New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Cleveland and Boston. In some cases they traced actual transfers of money from the Nazis to the America Firsters."

In April 1941, Father Charles Coughlin endorsed the America First Committee in his journal, Social Justice . Although Coughlin was one of America's most popular political figures at the time, his open Anti-Semitism made his endorsement a mixed blessing. In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, Charles A. Lindbergh claimed that the "three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration". Soon afterwards Gerald Nye argued "that the Jewish people are a large factor in our movement toward war." These speeches resulted in some people claiming that the America First Committee was anti-Semitic.

On 21st April, 1941, Rex Stout made a speech in New York City where he attacked the activities of Lindbergh: "I wish I could look you in the eye, Colonel Lindbergh, when I tell you that you simply don't know what it's all about.... A desperate war is being fought, and the winners of the war will win the oceans. No matter what we do, we shall be either one of the winners, or one of the losers; no shivering neutral will get a bite of anything but crow when the shooting stops. It would therefore seem to be plain imbecility not to go in with Britain and win.... Every fascist and pro-Nazi publication in America, without exception, applauds and approves of him.... Dozens of times in the past year he has been enthusiastically quoted in the newspapers of Germany and Italy and Japan."

Stout then went onto defend himself against the attacks he had received from America First Committee: "The America First Committee is calling people like me, who are convinced that we should go in with Britain now and win, a gang of warmongers.... If a 1941 warmonger is a man who advocates that we should immediately send warships and the men we have trained to sail them and shoot their guns, and airplanes and the boys we have trained to fly them and drop their bombs, send them to meet our acknowledged deadly enemy where he is, and attack him and defeat him, then count me in."

On 11th September, 1941, Charles Lindbergh made a controversial speech in Des Moines: "The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration. Behind these groups, but of lesser importance, are a number of capitalists, Anglophiles and intellectuals who believe that their future, and the future of mankind, depends upon the domination of the British Empire... These war agitators comprise only a small minority of our people; but they control a tremendous influence... It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany... But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy, both for us and for them. Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences."

Lindbergh speech resulted in some critics describing him as anti-Semitic. One of the senior members of the AFC, the journalist, Hugh S. Johnson, frightened that these views would "kill his column in the major eastern cities" left the AFC. Lindbergh recorded in his diary on 18th September that John T. Flynn, one of the leaders of the America First Committee paid him a visit: "John Flynn came at 11:00; and we talked the situation over for an hour. Flynn says he does not question the truth of what I said at Des Moines, but feels it was inadvisable to mention the Jewish problem. It is difficult for me to understand Flynn's attitude. He feels as strongly as I do that the Jews are among the major influences pushing this country toward war. He has said so frequently, and he says so now. He is perfectly willing to talk about it among a small group of people in private. But apparently he would rather see us get into the war than mention in public what the Jews are doing, no matter how tolerantly and moderately it is done."

Nicholas J. Cull, the author of Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against American Neutrality (1996), has argued: "During the summer of 1941, he (Ivar Bryce) became eager to awaken the United States to the Nazi threat in South America." It was especially important for the British Security Coordination to undermine the propaganda of the American First Committee that had over a million paid-up members. Ivar Bryce recalls in his autobiography, You Only Live Once (1975): "Sketching out trial maps of the possible changes, on my blotter, I came up with one showing the probable reallocation of territories that would appeal to Berlin. It was very convincing: the more I studied it the more sense it made... were a genuine German map of this kind to be discovered and publicised among... the American Firsters, what a commotion would be caused."

William Stephenson approved the idea and the project was handed over to Station M, the phony document factory in Toronto run by Eric Maschwitz, of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). It took them only 48 hours to produce "a map, slightly travel-stained with use, but on which the Reich's chief map makers... would be prepared to swear was made by them." Stephenson now arranged for the FBI to find the map during a raid on a German safe-house on the south coast of Cuba. J. Edgar Hoover handed the map over to William Donovan. His executive assistant, James R. Murphy, delivered the map to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The historian, Thomas E. Mahl argues that "as a result of this document Congress dismantled the last of the neutrality legislation."

Nicholas J. Cull has argued that Roosevelt should not have realised it was a forgery. He points out that Adolf A. Berle, the Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, had already warned Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State that "British intelligence has been very active in making things appear dangerous in South America. We have to be a little on our guard against false scares."

Fight for Freedom group monitored the activities of the leading isolationist organization, the America First Committee. Leading isolationists were also targeted and harassed. Following a speech by Hamilton Stuyvesan Fish, a member of a group set-up by the BSC, the Fight for Freedom, delivered him a card which said, "Der Fuhrer thanks you for your loyalty" and photographs were taken.

In October 1941, the British Security Coordination attempted to disrupt a rally at Madison Square Garden by issuing counterfeit tickets. H. Montgomery Hyde has argued that the plan backfired as the AFC got a lot of publicity from the meeting with 20,000 people inside and the same number supporting the cause outside. The only opposition was an obvious agent provocateur shouting "Hang Roosevelt".

Another BSC agent, Sanford Griffith, established a company Market Analysts Incorporated and was initially commissioned to carry out polls for the anti-isolationist Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies and Fight for Freedom group. Griffith's assistant, Francis Adams Henson, a long time activist against the Nazi Germany government, later recalled: "My job was to use the results of our polls, taken among their constituents, to convince on-the-fence Congressmen and Senators that they should favor more aid to Britain."

As Richard W. Steele has pointed out: "public opinion polls had become a political weapon that could be used to inform the views of the doubtful, weaken the commitment of opponents, and strengthen the conviction of supporters." William Stephenson later admitted: "Great care was taken beforehand to make certain the poll results would turn out as desired. The questions were to steer opinion toward the support of Britain and the war... Public Opinion was manipulated through what seemed an objective poll."

Michael Wheeler, the author of Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: The Manipulation of Public Opinion in America (2007): "Proving that a given poll is rigged is difficult because there are so many subtle ways to fake data... a clever pollster can just as easily favor one candidate or the other by making less conspicuous adjustments, such as allocating the undecided voters as suits his needs, throwing out certain interviews on the grounds that they were non-voters, or manipulating the sequence and context within which the questions are asked... Polls can even be rigged without the pollster knowing it.... Most major polling organizations keep their sampling lists under lock and key."

The main target of these polls concerned the political views of leading politicians opposed to Lend-Lease. This included Hamilton Stuyvesan Fish. In February 1941, a poll of Fish's constituents said that 70 percent of them favored the passage of Lend-Lease. James H. Causey, president of the Foundation for the Advancement of Social Sciences, was highly suspicious of this poll and called for a congressional investigation.

The AFC influenced public opinion through publications and speeches and within a year the organization had 450 local chapters and over 800,000 members. The AFC was dissolved four days after the Japanese Air Force attacked Pearl Harbor on 7th December, 1941. Hamilton Stuyvesan Fish later recalled: "Franklin Roosevelt took us into a war without telling the people anything about it. He served an ultimatum which we knew nothing about. We were forced into the war. It was the biggest cover-up ever perpetrated in the United States of America. But in 1941, December 8, the day after the Japanese. I made the first speech ever made in the halls of Congress over the radio. I'd been speaking every week to keep us out of war. The day after the attack, as ranking member of the rules committee, it was my duty to speak first. I damned the Japs and upheld Roosevelt's day of infamy. I called on all noninterventionists to go into the army until we defeated the Japs. For fifteen minutes I talked to twenty-five million people. People told me they cried after. I made the only speech because I took up the whole time allotted."

England and France reason to believe that if they would declare war on Germany, help would be forthcoming. Some day history will show, as one of the blackest marks of our time, that we sold out, by deliberate falsification, the two European nations with which we had the closest ties. We sent France to her death and have brought England perilously close to it. Had they stalled Hitler for a while, while they prepared to meet him, the story might have been different.

We Americans have naturally wished to keep out of this war - to take no steps which might lead us in. But - We now know that every step the French and British fall back brings war and world revolutions closer to US - our country, our institutions, our homes, our hopes for peace.

Hitler is striking with all the terrible force at his command. His is a desperate gamble, and the stakes are nothing less than domination of the whole human race.

If Hitler wins in Europe - if the strength of the British and French armies and navies is forever broken - the United States will find itself alone in a barbaric world - a world ruled by Nazis, with "spheres of influence" assigned to their totalitarian allies. However different the dictatorships may be, racially, they all agree on one primary objective: "Democracy must be wiped from the face of the earth."

Whatever our feelings about the tragic mistakes of statesmanship in England and France we know now that the free people of those nations are willing to fight with inspiring heroism to defend their freedom. We know now that such men will die rather than surrender. But the stoutest hearts can not survive forever in the face of superior numbers and infinitely superior weapons.

There is nothing shameful in our desire to stay out of war, to save our youth from the dive bombers and the flame throwing tanks in the unutterable hell of modern warfare. But is there not an evidence of suicidal insanity in our failure to help those who now stand between us and the creators of this hell?

We can help by sending planes, guns, munitions, food. We can help to end the fear that American boys will fight and die in another Flanders, closer to home.

The lend-lease policy translated into legislative form, stunned a Congress and a nation wholly sympathetic to the cause of Great Britain. The Kaiser's blank check to Austria-Hungary in the First World War was a piker compared to the Roosevelt blank check of World War II. It warranted my worst fears for the future of America, and it definitely stamps the President as war-minded.

The lend-lease-give program is the New Deal's triple-A foreign policy; it will plow under every fourth American boy. Never before have the American people been asked or compelled to give so bounteously and so completely of their tax dollars to any foreign nation. Never before has the Congress of the United States been asked by any President to violate international law. Never before has this nation resorted to duplicity in the conduct of its foreign affairs. Never before has the United States given to one man the power to strip this nation of its defenses. Never before has a Congress coldly and flatly been asked to abdicate.

If the American people want a dictatorship - if they want a totalitarian form of government and if they want war - this bill should be steam-rollered through Congress, as is the wont of President Roosevelt.

Approval of this legislation means war, open and complete warfare. I, therefore, ask the American people before they supinely accept it - Was the last World War worthwhile?

If it were, then we should lend and lease war materials. If it were, then we should lend and lease American boys. President Roosevelt has said we would be repaid by England. We will be. We will be repaid, just as England repaid her war debts of the First World War - repaid those dollars wrung from the sweat of labor and the toil of farmers with cries of "Uncle Shylock." Our boys will be returned - returned in caskets, maybe; returned with bodies maimed; returned with minds warped and twisted by sights of horrors and the scream and shriek of high-powered shells.

It is impossible to listen to Mr. Roosevelt's recent speeches, to study the Lease-Lend Bill, and to read the testimony of

Cabinet officers upon it without coming to the conclusion that the President now requires us to underwrite a British victory, and apparently a Chinese and a Greek victory, too. We are going to try to produce the victory by supplying our friends with the materials of war. But what if this is not enough? We have abandoned all pretense of neutrality. We are to turn our ports into British naval bases. But what if this is not enough? Then we must send the navy, the air force, and, if Mr. Churchill wants it, the army. We must guarantee the victory.

If we stay out of war, we may perhaps some day understand and practise freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. We may even be able to comprehend and support justice, democracy, the moral order, and the supremacy of human rights. Today we have barely begun to grasp the meaning of the words.

Those beginnings are important. They place us ahead of where we were at the end of the last century. They raise us, in accomplishment as well as in ideals, far above the accomplishment and ideals of totalitarian powers. They leave us, however, a good deal short of that level of excellence which entitles us to convert the world by force of arms.

Have we freedom of speech and freedom of worship in this country? We do have freedom to say what everybody else is saying and freedom of worship if we do not take our religion too seriously. But teachers who do not conform to the established canons of social thought lose their jobs. People who are called "radicals" have mysterious difficulties in renting halls. Labor organizers sometimes get beaten up and ridden out of town on a rail. Norman Thomas had some troubles in Jersey City. And the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let Marian Anderson sing in the national capital in a building called Constitution Hall.

If we regard these exceptions as minor, reflecting the attitude of the more backward and illiterate parts of the country, what are we to say of freedom from want and freedom from fear? What of the moral order and justice and the supremacy of human rights? What of democracy in the United States?

Words like these have no meaning unless we believe in human dignity. Human dignity means that every man is an end in himself. No man can be exploited by another. Think of these things and then think of the sharecroppers, the Okies, the Negroes, the slumdwellers, downtrodden and oppressed for gain. They have neither freedom from want nor freedom from fear. They hardly know they are living in a moral order or in a democracy where justice and human rights are supreme.

We have it on the highest authority that one-third of the nation is ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-housed. The latest figures of the National Resources Board show that almost precisely 55 percent of our people are living on family incomes of less than $1,25O a year. This sum, says Fortune magazine, will not support a family of four. On this basis more than half our people are living below the minimum level of subsistence. More than half the army which will defend democracy will be drawn from those who have had this experience of the economic benefits of "the American way of life."

We know that we have had till lately 9 million unemployed and that we should have them still if it were not for our military preparations. When our military preparations cease, we shall, for all we know, have 9 million unemployed again. In his speech on December 29, Mr. Roosevelt said, "After the present needs of our defense are past, a proper handling of the country's peacetime needs will require all of the new productive capacity - if not still more." For ten years we have not known how to use the productive capacity we had. Now suddenly we are to believe that by some miracle, after the war is over, we shall know what to do with our old productive capacity and what to do in addition with the tremendous increases which are now being made. We have want and fear today. We shall have want and fear "when the present needs of our defense are past."

As for democracy, we know that millions of men and women are disfranchised in this country because of their race, color, or condition of economic servitude. We know that many municipal governments are models of corruption. Some state governments are merely the shadows of big city machines. Our national government is a government by pressure groups. Almost the last question an American is expected to ask about a proposal is whether it is just. The question is how much pressure is there behind it or how strong are the interests against it. On this basis are settled such great issues as monopoly, the organization of agriculture, the relation of labor and capital, whether bonuses should be paid to veterans, and whether a tariff policy based on greed should be modified by reciprocal trade agreements.

To have a community men must work together. They must have common principles and purposes. If some men are tearing down a house while others are building it, we do not say they are working together. If some men are robbing, cheating, and oppressing others, we should not say they are a community. The aims of a democratic community are moral. United by devotion to law, equality, and justice, the democratic community works together for the happiness of all the citizens. I leave to you the decision whether we have yet achieved a democratic community in the United States.

Roosevelt's task became even more urgent when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and the principal democracies, France and Britain, declared war. His first act was to affirm US neutrality. His second, just weeks later, was to ask Congress to remove the arms embargo, his obvious intention being to regain the ability to supply Britain and France. Congress agreed. The game now was for Roosevelt to edge America further towards standing alongside the democracies while simultaneously presenting this as the best strategy for preventing direct US involvement in a European war. By mid-1940, with the crushing German victories in Scandinavia and France, public sentiment - sympathetic to Britain but unwilling to fight - was supportive of this dubious compromise. Such feelings helped Roosevelt to win his third term in the presidential election that autumn. Soon after reelection, in one of his broadcast "fireside chats", Roosevelt, while describing America's role as the arsenal of democracy, further elaborated his idea of the trade-off: "This is not a fireside chat on war. It is a talk on national security, because the nub of the whole purpose of your president is to keep you now, and your children later, and your grandchildren much later, out of a last-ditch war for the preservation of American independence and all of the things that American independence means to you and to me and to ours."

Meanwhile, John T. Flynn was becoming one of the most strident advocates of American neutrality His experience on the Munitions Investigating Committee with Nye had helped turn him from a financial journalist to an anti-war campaigner. In 1938 he had participated in the formation of the Keep America Out of War Congress (KAOWC) alongside the socialist leader Norman Thomas, former editor of the Nation Oswald Garrison Vilard, and a historian of rising reputation called Harry Elmer Barnes. Many well-known left-of-centre intellectuals, social activists and union leaders also signed up. Flynn warned his countrymen that fighting a war would wreck America. "Our economic system will be broken," he wrote, "our financial burdens will be insupportable... The streets will be filled with idle men and women. The once independent farmer will become a government charge ... and amidst these disorders we will have the perfect climate for some Hitler on the American model to rise to power."

I wish I could look you in the eye, Colonel Lindbergh, when I tell you that you simply don't know what it's all about.... It would therefore seem to be plain imbecility not to go in with Britain and win....

If we do not see to it that our ships and planes and guns get across the Atlantic where they can

fulfill the purpose they were made for, we are saying for all the world to hear, "You've got our number, Mr. Hitler, you were perfectly correct when you said years ago that Americans were too soft and decadent and timid ever to stop you on your way to world conquest."

Every fascist and pro-Nazi publication in America, without exception, applauds and approves of him.... Dozens of times in the past year he has been enthusiastically quoted in the newspapers of Germany and Italy and Japan....

Charles Lindbergh is one of the minor tragedies of America. In 1927, twenty-five years old, he was the blue-eyed darling of a hundred million of us, the flaming and indomitable knight of the new element we were conquering, the air. In 1941, thirty-nine years old, he is a middle-aged sourpuss who apparently thinks that we scattered that thousand tons of confetti on him in those glorious days of May because we had found a hero who played it safe, who refused to confront danger like a man.

The America First Committee is calling people like me, who are convinced that we should go in with Britain now and win, a gang of warmongers.... If a 1941 warmonger is a man who advocates that we should immediately send warships and the men we have trained to sail them and shoot their guns, and airplanes and the boys we have trained to fly them and drop their bombs, send them to meet our acknowledged deadly enemy where he is, and attack him and defeat him, then count me in.

I have said before and I will say again that I believe it will be a tragedy to the entire world if the British Empire collapses. That is one of the main reasons why I opposed this war before it was declared and why I have constantly advocated a negotiated peace. I did not feel that England and France had a reasonable chance of winning.

France has now been defeated; and despite the propaganda and confusion of recent months, it is now obvious that England is losing the war. I believe this is realized even by the British government. But they have one last desperate plan remaining. They hope that they may be able to persuade us to send another American Expeditionary Force to Europe and to share with England militarily as well as financially the fiasco of this war.

I do not blame England for this hope, or for asking for our assistance. But we now know that she declared a war under circumstances which led to the defeat of every nation that sided with her, from Poland to Greece. We know that in the desperation of war England promised to all those nations armed assistance that she could not send. We know that she misinformed them, as she has misinformed us, concerning her state of preparation, her military strength, and the progress of the war.

In time of war, truth is always replaced by propaganda. I do not believe we should be too quick to criticize the actions of a belligerent nation. There is always the question whether we, ourselves, would do better under similar circumstances. But we in this country have a right to think of the welfare of America first, just as the people in England thought first of their own country when they encouraged the smaller nations of Europe to fight against hopeless odds. When England asks us to enter this war, she is considering her own future and that of her Empire. In making our reply, I believe we should consider the future of the United States and that of the Western Hemisphere.

It is not only our right but it is our obligation as American citizens to look at this war objectively and to weigh our chances for success if we should enter it. I have attempted to do this, especially from the standpoint of aviation; and I have been forced to the conclusion that we cannot win this war for England, regardless of how much assistance we extend.

I ask you to look at the map of Europe today and see if you can suggest any way in which we could win this war if we entered it. Suppose we had a large army in America, trained and equipped. Where would we send it to fight? The campaigns of the war . show only too clearly how difficult it is to force a landing, or to maintain an army, on a hostile coast.

Suppose we took our Navy from the Pacific and used it to convoy British shipping. That would not win the war for England. It would, at best, permit her to exist under the constant bombing of the German air fleet. Suppose we had an air force that we could send to Europe. Where could it operate? Some of our squadrons might be based in the British Isles, but it is physically impossible to base enough aircraft in the British Isles alone to equal in strength the aircraft that can be based on the continent of Europe.

The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration. Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences....

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.

John Flynn came at 11:00; and we talked the situation over for an hour. But apparently he would rather see us get into the war than mention in public what the Jews are doing, no matter how tolerantly and moderately it is done.

The one thing an American can want to do - win the war and win it with the greatest possible dispatch and decisiveness. It is not time to quibble over what might have been done or how we got where we are. We know only that the enemy chose to make war against us. To give our Commander in Chief unqualified and unprejudicial backing in his prosecution of the war is an obligation which I shall gladly fulfill. Differences over matters of foreign policy up to this hour are abandoned and unity should be accorded in every particular.

Fascism will come at the hands of perfectly authentic Americans who have been working to commit this country to the rule of the bureaucratic state; interfering in the affairs of the states and cities; taking part in the management of industry and finance and agriculture; assuming the role of great national banker and investor, borrowing billions every year and spending them on all sorts of projects through which such a government can paralyze opposition and command public support; marshalling great armies and navies at crushing costs to support the industry of war and preparation for war which will become our nation’s greatest industry; and adding to all this the most romantic adventures in global planning, regeneration, and domination, all to be done under the authority of a powerfully centralized government in which the executive will hold in effect all the powers, with Congress reduced to the role of a debating society.

John Flynn and other America Firsters believed that government should regulate business by preventing monopolies and cartels from controlling large sectors of the economy. However, Flynn and his colleagues did not think that government itself should become a large economic power. This condition would restrict individual freedom, which was the essence of their definition of liberalism.... Flynn and his colleagues rejected Franklin D. Roosevelt’s brand of liberalism, in which government entered the economic community as a large employer and customer.

This is the complete negation of liberalism. It is, in fact, the essence of fascism... When you can put your finger on the men or the groups that urge for America the debt-supported state, the autarchial corporative state, the state bent on the socialization of investment and the bureaucratic government of industry and society, the establishment of the institution of militarism as the great glamorous public-works project of the nation and the institution of imperialism under which it proposes to regulate and rule the world and, along with this, proposes to alter the forms of our government to approach as closely as possible the unrestrained, absolute government - then you will know you have located the authentic fascist.

By January 1, 1941. Roosevelt had decided to go to war with Japan. But he had solemnly pledged the people he would nor take their sons to foreign wars unless attacked. Hence he dared not attack and so decided to provoke the Japanese to do so.

He kept all this a secret from the Army and Navy. He felt the moment to provoke the attack had come by November. He ended negotiations abruptly November 26 by handing the Japanese an ultimatum which he knew they dared not comply with. Immediately he knew his ruse would succeed, that the Japanese looked upon relations as ended and were preparing for the assault. He knew this from the intercepted messages....

A gift from the gods had been put into Roosevelt's hands. The British government had broken one Japanese code. It proceeded to hand over to the State Department the messages between Tokyo and various foreign representatives which it intercepted... Therefore on November 6, Roosevelt knew that the Japanese were playing their last card; that they would make no further concession and he knew also the very date they had set for action - November 25...

All this information was in the hands of Hull and Roosevelt. Nothing that could happen could surprise them - save undoubtedly the point of the first assault... Roosevelt, the Commander-in-chief, who was now assured of the attack which would bring him safely into the war, went off to Warm Springs to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday.

In early 1940 a petition was circulated in Yale University Law School, demanding that "Congress refrain from war, even if England (sic) is on the verge of defeat". The idea of the petition's sponsors was to set up a national organisation of students to oppose involvement in the European Conflict; instead they created something that became much bigger and endlessly controversial. By the end of July 1940 the movement had been backed by several Chicago businessmen, and was being presided over by the respected chairman of Sears Roebuck, General Robert E. Wood. In August the organisation became the America First Committee (AFC).

It is interesting that these days membership of America First is consistently left out of obituaries, curricula vitae and accounts of regional religious and peace organisations. In 1940, however, commitment must have been enormous, because the organisation grew with tremendous rapidity. Its early supporters included novelists and poets like Sinclair Lewis, William Saroyan, John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson and E.E. Cummings. There was the First World War air ace Eddie Rickenbacker, actress Lilian Gish, architect, Frank Lloyd Wright and American flying hero Charles Lindbergh, possibly the most celebrated American then alive. Among its student partisans were two future presidents, Gerald R. Ford and John F. Kennedy (who donated a hundred dollars to the cause), and future novelist Gore Vidal. In Congress it could number among its supporters a large number of Midwest progressives, men like Senators Burton Wheeler of Montana, Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, Robert Taft of Ohio, William Borah of Idaho and Gerald Nye. The New York branch, which at its height was to claim a membership of 135,000, was chaired by John T. Flynn.

The APCs public position was that America should build up its defences at home so that it would be impregnable, while desisting from offering any kind of aid to the belligerents - the implication being that the US would then be able to contemplate in safety whatever kind of world emerged from the ashes of Empire. What was needed in the short term was that Americans "keep their, heads amid the rising hysteria in times of crisis.''

Through the second half of 1940 and most of 1941 a public struggle of predictable bitterness ensued between isolationists and interventionists. Seen from London, the AFC and its supporters were in many ways as much of an existential threat as Hitler. Essentially a coalition which included friends of Germany as well as enemies of war. America First was open to accusations of appeasement and Pro Nazism. In retaliation, the rhetoric of` AFC campaigners was just as impassioned in its claims that the administration and its financier friends were attempting to manipulate the American people into war.

Franklin Roosevelt took us into a war without telling the people anything about it. I made the only speech because I took up the whole time allotted.

I'd led the fight for three years against Roosevelt getting us into war. I was on the radio every ten days. I stopped him until he issued this ultimatum. That is the greatest thing I did do in my life. He would have gotten us into the war six months or a year before Pearl Harbor. That's the biggest thing I ever did, and nobody can take it away from me.

Russia is our enemy and always will be because of jealousy of power. They wouldn't think one minute about pressing the button to kill one hundred million Americans.

His obsession with the defeat of Roosevelt led Johnson to link himself with groups he otherwise would have avoided. In September 1940, he made a national broadcast to help launch the America First Committee, which quickly emerged as the nation's most powerful anti-interventionist group. By itself the address contained little that Johnson had not said previously. But it associated him with what would prove to be an extremely controversial organization and put him in league with a disparate group of anti-Roosevelt people. Drawing its strength from the so-called Chicago Tribune belt, the America First Committee was chaired by one of the old Purchase, Storage and Transportation gang from World War I, Robert Wood, now of Sears, Roebuck and Company. It included other such respectable people as Mrs. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Chester Bowles, Philip Jessup, and John T. Flynn, who had regularly scathed Johnson and NRA in his column in the New Republic. However, America First also attracted Coughlinites and pro-German elements with whom Johnson felt extremely uncomfortable. He first rationalized his involvement on the grounds that the defeat of Roosevelt was the paramount issue, but in late 1941 he changed his mind. The Coughlinites and pro-German elements in America First evidenced sufficient anti-Semitism to spark a rush by the more respectable members to repudiate them and keep their organization from being totally discredited. Johnson went a step further. Judging that any association with these elements would kill his column in the major eastern cities, he severed his ties with America First with a blast at the anti-Semites.


America First Committee

The America First Committee (AFC) was organized in September 1940 to oppose America`s potential intervention in World War II. Hitler`s invasion of Poland had precipitated war in September 1939. A year later, the only major military force resisting the Nazis was Britain. The smaller nations had been quickly overrun, France had capitulated, and the Soviet Union was using its nonagression pact with Germany to pursue its own interests in Finland and elsewhere. At the time, a majority of Americans felt that while the world would be a better place if Britain prevailed over Germany, they were not inclined to declare war and repeat the earlier experience of American soldiers fighting on European soil. This reluctance had inspired Congress to pass neutrality acts in the late 1930`s which restricted the American government`s ability to support either party in the conflict, which in practice meant the Allies since the Axis powers were widely regarded with distaste. Roosevelt, who had been corresponding with Churchill for years before Churchill was even part of the Tory government, clearly identified American interests with the hope for British victory. Using tactics like the "bases for destroyers" deal, he attempted to maximize his support for the British while skirting if not actually violating the principle of neutrality. The AFC opposed him at every step. Its membership, which grew to around 800,000 by early 1941, was national in character while especially strong in the Midwest. Its best known leader was Charles A. Lindbergh, who was accompanied by an amazing array that included critics of Roosevelt from the right (Col. McCormick of the Chicago Tribune) and the left (the socialist Norman Thomas), along with stolid isolationists (senators Burton Wheeler of Kansas and William A. Borah of Idaho) and the anti-semitic Father Edward Coughlin. When Lend-Lease was proposed by Roosevelt in the winter of 1941, the AFC was strongly opposed. Lindbergh gave speeches across the country, emphasizing that support for Britain was sentimental and misguided. His main points were that geographically, it was impossible to imagine Britain defeating Germany from its island air bases or for an invasion of the European continent with the million men that would be required for victory. He argued that while fighting a war in Europe would be a disaster for the United States, geography greatly favored a defensive position that would allow it to hold the entire Western Hemisphere against any aggressor. The AFC and its supporters lost the debate on Lend-Lease, which Congress passed, giving Roosevelt broad powers to provide material support to the Allies. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Communist support for the AFC evaporated. By the fall, with war coming ever closer, the AFC`s influence was dwindling. The end came quickly. Four days after the Japanesee attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the AFC dissolved itself. In its final statement, the committee declared that while its policies might have prevented war, that war was now a reality and it had become the duty of American to work for the united goal of victory. The AFC`s stance demonstrated the limits and perils of "realism" in foreign policy. Lindbergh`s analysis of the military situation in 1940 was largely correct, but had his ideas prevailed, Britain might not have survived long enough to benefit from Hitler`s rash and ultimately disastrous decision to invade Russia.


AMERICA FIRST COMMITTEE

AMERICA FIRST COMMITTEE (AFC). Founded in 1940 to fight against U.S. participation in World War II, the AFC initially enjoyed the backing of Henry Ford and the historian Charles A. Beard. Isolationists in all parts of the United States were involved, but the committee was especially active in Chicago. Indeed, the entire American Midwest stood as one of the strongholds of isolationist feeling. After Charles Lindbergh, an AFC leader, made what was widely considered an anti-Semitic speech in September 1941, the organization began to decline. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 only further eroded support for the America First Committee and similar isolationist pressure groups.


The Long History Behind Donald Trump's 'America First' Foreign Policy

I n the course of an interview with the New York Times, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump had his foreign policy boiled down to two words: “America First.” In an exchange prompted by the Times‘ David E. Sanger, who was the first to use the phrase in the course of the interview, Trump said that he was “not isolationist” but that he was, in fact, “America First.”

“I like the expression,” the candidate said. “I&rsquom ‘America First.'”

Trump explained that what he meant by the idea was that his administration would prevent other nations from taking advantage of the United States. But whatever he meant, those words come with nearly a century’s worth of political baggage.

Though the nation has a long history of vowing to stay out of the problems of other countries&mdashGeorge Washington’s farewell address famously warned against foreign entanglements in 1796&mdashbut it was after World War I, as the U.S. was in a position of power and wealth compared to its once-stronger allies, that the modern version of that sentiment came to the forefront. At the war’s close, President Wilson had urged the nation to join the new League of Nations, to ensure peace through international cooperation in the precursor to the United Nations. In 1919, however, the Senate had rejected the idea of participating in such an organization.

In the years that followed, it appeared to some that the isolationist instinct in the U.S. had been a good one. As Europe faltered and once-supreme nations struggled to recover, the U.S. seemed by contrast healthy and wealthy&mdasha fact that at least some observers attributed to having left the rest of the world to fend for itself. “The United States has achieved prosperity by the wise policy of America first,” declared London’s Daily Express in 1923. In 1927, the slogan got another boost when Chicago elected a headline-hungry mayor, William Hale Thompson, whose campaign anthem was “America First, Last and Always.” He pledged to support the establishment of America First Associations around the country, and said he would show English leaders who asked for economic help “where to get off.”

That “America First” attitude would be put to the test soon enough.

As war broke out once again in the 1930s, isolation-minded Americans confronted the possibility that the U.S. would become entangled in another international campaign. As TIME recounted in December of 1940, the previous summer a Yale law student named Robert Douglas Stuart Jr. had joined forces with business executive and famed veteran Gen. Robert E. Wood, and together they had started the America First Committee. The committee espoused the view that since Germany was unlikely to invade the U.S. directly, the best response to the war was for the U.S. to remain neutral in all respects, even if that meant doing business with the Nazis. By that December, the committee boasted 60,000 members.

In April of 1941, after the Lend-Lease Act was passed over America First objections, Charles Lindbergh&mdashthe most famous face of U.S. isolationism and the America First Committee&mdashspoke to a Manhattan rally, laying out the America First take on the global situation. As he saw it, England was losing the war and it was too late to fix that. He believed the U.S. shouldn’t fight a war it couldn’t win, helping England was depleting America’s defenses, and the U.S. was better off alone:

[The America First policy] is based upon the belief that the security of a nation lies in the strength and character of its own people. It recommends the maintenance of armed forces sufficient to defend this hemisphere from attack by any combination of foreign powers. It demands faith in an independent American destiny. This is the policy of the America First Committee today. It is a policy not of isolation, but of independence not of defeat, but of courage. It is a policy that led this nation to success during the most trying years of our history, and it is a policy that will lead us to success again. We have weakened ourselves for many months, and still worse, we have divided our own people by this dabbling in Europe’s wars. While we should have been concentrating on American defense we have been forced to argue over foreign quarrels. We must turn our eyes and our faith back to our own country before it is too late.

As Donald Trump has done, Lindbergh advanced the idea that the majority of Americans were on his side, but that their opinions were drowned out by the powerful voices of the interventionist press. Poll results from the time, however, indicated that most respondents agreed that the U.S. should go to war if that were what was necessary to defeat fascism. And as the summer ended and it was clear that the committee had failed in its mission to change the tide, Lindbergh’s views were widely protested as un-American&mdashand worse.

That autumn, the America First Committee, as TIME put it in a cover story, “touched the pitch of anti-Semitism, and its fingers were tarred.” The story came after Lindbergh publicly revealed his views about Jewish people, whom he faulted for pushing the U.S. toward war and for manipulating the narrative through what he saw as their control of the media. As “America First” became associated with those views&mdashdespite its protestations that it was not an anti-Semitic group and that it was looking out for the interests of American Jews&mdashmore moderate isolationists dropped out of the committee.

With fewer tactics left at its disposal, America First asked President Roosevelt to submit to Congress a declaration of war, for an up or down vote. The gambit never had a chance to pan out. The attack on Pearl Harbor of Dec. 7, 1941, removed the possibility of isolation. America was at war, like it or not. &ldquoThe period of democratic debate on the issue of entering the war is over,” announced America First Committee chair Robert E. Wood. “[The committee] urges all those who have followed its lead to give their full support to the war effort of the nation, until peace is attained.&rdquo

The America First Committee was done for. The idea of putting America First, however, clearly lived on.


“America First”

Charles Lindbergh became one of the most famous men in America when he completed the first-ever solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927. By the late thirties, Lindbergh had evolved into a more controversial figure, after he expressed admiration for Nazi Germany. He also served as a prominent spokesman for the America First Committee, a group that formed in September 1940 to oppose intervention in the European War. Lindbergh delivered this address at an America First Committee meeting in New York City on April 23, 1941.

Source: The text of Colonel Lindbergh’s Address at a Rally of the America First Committee, New York Times (1923-Current file) Apr 24, 1941 ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times, p. 12. https://goo.gl/EAbntf

Originally published as The text of Colonel Lindbergh’s Address at a Rally of the America First Committee, New York Times, April 24, 1941, © 1941 by Charles Lindbergh. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Yale University.

. . . I have said before, and I will say again, that I believe it will be a tragedy to the entire world if the British Empire collapses. That is one of the main reasons why I opposed this war before it was declared, and why I have constantly advocated a negotiated peace. I did not feel that England and France had a reasonable chance of winning. France has now been defeated and, despite the propaganda and confusion of recent months, it is now obvious that England is losing the war. I believe this is realized even by the British government. But they have one last desperate plan remaining. They hope that they may be able to persuade us to send another American Expeditionary Force 1 to Europe, and to share with England militarily, as well as financially, the fiasco of this war.

I do not blame England for this hope, or for asking for our assistance. But we now know that she declared a war under circumstances [that] led to the defeat of every nation that sided with her from Poland to Greece. We know that in the desperation of war England promised to all these nations armed assistance that she could not send. We know that she misinformed them, as she has misinformed us, concerning her state of preparation, her military strength, and the progress of the war.

In time of war, truth is always replaced by propaganda. I do not believe we should be too quick to criticize the actions of a belligerent nation. There is always the question whether we, ourselves, would do better under similar circumstances. But we in this country have a right to think of the welfare of America first, just as the people in England thought first of their own country when they encouraged the smaller nations of Europe to fight against hopeless odds. When England asks us to enter this war, she is considering her own future, and that of her Empire. In making our reply, I believe we should consider the future of the United States and that of the Western Hemisphere.

It is not only our right, but it is our obligation as American citizens to look at this war objectively, and to weigh our chances for success if we should enter it. I have attempted to do this, especially from the standpoint of aviation and I have been forced to the conclusion that we cannot win this war for England, regardless of how much assistance we extend.

I ask you to look at the map of Europe today and see if you can suggest any way in which we could win this war if we entered it. Suppose we had a large army in America, trained and equipped. Where would we send it to fight? The campaigns of the war show only too clearly how difficult it is to force a landing, or to maintain an army, on a hostile coast. Suppose we took our navy from the Pacific, and used it to convoy British shipping. That would not win the war for England. It would, at best, permit her to exist under the constant bombing of the German air fleet. Suppose we had an air force that we could send to Europe. Where could it operate? Some of our squadrons might be based in the British Isles but it is physically impossible to base enough aircraft in the British Isles alone to equal in strength the aircraft that can be based on the continent of Europe.

I have asked these questions on the supposition that we had in existence an army and an air force large enough and well enough equipped to send to Europe and that we would dare to remove our navy from the Pacific. Even on this basis, I do not see how we could invade the continent of Europe successfully as long as all of that continent and most of Asia is under Axis 2 domination. But the fact is that none of these suppositions are correct. We have only a one-ocean navy. Our army is still untrained and inadequately equipped for foreign war. Our air force is deplorably lacking in modern fighting planes.

When these facts are cited, the interventionists shout that we are defeatists, that we are undermining the principles of Democracy, and that we are giving comfort to Germany by talking about our military weakness. But everything I mention here has been published in our newspapers, and in the reports of congressional hearings in Washington. Our military position is well known to the governments of Europe and Asia. Why, then, should it not be brought to the attention of our own people? . . .

When history is written, the responsibility for the downfall of the democracies of Europe will rest squarely upon the shoulders of the interventionists who led their nations into war uninformed and unprepared. . . .

There are many such interventionists in America, but there are more people among us of a different type. That is why you and I are assembled here tonight. There is a policy open to this nation that will lead to success – a policy that leaves us free to follow our own way of life, and to develop our own civilization. It is not a new and untried idea. It was advocated by Washington. It was incorporated in the Monroe Doctrine. 3 Under its guidance, the United States became the greatest nation in the world. It is based upon the belief that the security of a nation lies in the strength and character of its own people. It recommends the maintenance of armed forces sufficient to defend this hemisphere from attack by any combination of foreign powers. It demands faith in an independent American destiny. This is the policy of the America First Committee today. It is a policy not of isolation, but of independence not of defeat, but of courage. It is a policy that led this nation to success during the most trying years of our history, and it is a policy that will lead us to success again.

We have weakened ourselves for many months, and still worse, we have divided our own people by this dabbling in Europe’s wars. While we should have been concentrating on American defense, we have been forced to argue over foreign quarrels. We must turn our eyes and our faith back to our own country before it is too late. And when we do this, a different vista opens before us. Practically every difficulty we would face in invading Europe becomes an asset to us in defending America. Our enemy, and not we, would then have the problem of transporting millions of troops across the ocean and landing them on a hostile shore. They, and not we, would have to furnish the convoys to transport guns and trucks and munitions and fuel across three thousand miles of water. Our battleships and submarines would then be fighting close to their home bases. We would then do the bombing from the air, and the torpedoing at sea. And if any part of an enemy convoy should ever pass our navy and our air force, they would still be faced with the guns of our coast artillery, and behind them, the divisions of our army.

The United States is better situated from a military standpoint than any other nation in the world. Even in our present condition of unpreparedness, no foreign power is in a position to invade us today. If we concentrate on our own and build the strength that this nation should maintain, no foreign army will ever attempt to land on American shores. . . .

During the last several years, I have travelled over this country, from one end to the other. I have talked to many hundreds of men and women, and I have had letters from tens of thousands more, who feel the same way as you and I. Most of these people have no influence or power. Most of them have no means of expressing their convictions, except by their vote which has always been against this war. They are the citizens who have had to work too hard at their daily jobs to organize political meetings. Hitherto, they have relied upon their vote to express their feelings but now they find that it is hardly remembered except in the oratory of a political campaign. These people – the majority of hard-working American citizens – are with us. They are the true strength of our country. And they are beginning to realize, as you and I, that there are times when we must sacrifice our normal interests in life in order to insure the safety and the welfare of our nation.

Such a time has come. Such a crisis is here. That is why the America First Committee has been formed – to give voice to the people who have no newspaper, or news reel, or radio station at their command to the people who must do the paying, and the fighting, and the dying, if this country enters the war. . . .

Whether or not we do enter the war, rests upon the shoulders of you in this audience, upon us here on this platform, upon meetings of this kind that are being held by Americans in every section of the United States today. It depends upon the action we take, and the courage we show at this time. If you believe in an independent destiny for America, if you believe that this country should not enter the war in Europe, we ask you to join the America First Committee in its stand. We ask you to share our faith in the ability of this nation to defend itself, to develop its own civilization, and to contribute to the progress of mankind in a more constructive and intelligent way than has yet been found by the warring nations of Europe. We need your support, and we need it now. The time to act is here.

Study Questions

A. Why did Lindbergh believe that the United States would lose if it decided to enter the European War? Why did he call his recommendation a policy of independence, not isolationism? What did Lindbergh mean when he said, “Practically every difficulty we would face in invading Europe becomes an asset to us in defending America.”

B. Compare this speech to Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy” speech. How does Lindbergh’s view of how oceans impact national security differ from Roosevelt’s perspective? What actions did each speaker encourage on the part of the general public? Is there something especially “democratic” about either or both appeals?


The Original Meanings of the “American Dream” and “America First” Were Starkly Different From How We Use Them Today

Stop any American on the street and they’ll have a definition of the “American Dream” for you, and they’ll probably have a strong opinion about the slogan “America First,” too.

But how did Americans develop their understanding of these slogans? What did they mean when coined and how do the meanings today reflect those histories? That’s the subject of Sarah Churchwell’s upcoming book, Behold, America, out October 9. Introduced more than a century ago, the concepts of “American Dream” and “America First” quickly became intertwined with race, capitalism, democracy, and with each other. Through extensive research, Churchwell traces the evolution of the phrases to show how the history has morphed the meaning of the “American Dream” and how different figures and groups appropriated “America First.”

A Chicago native now living in the United Kingdom, Churchwell is a professor of American literature and public understanding of the humanities at the University of London. She spoke with Smithsonian.com about the unfamiliar origins of two familiar phrases.

Behold, America

In "Behold, America," Sarah Churchwell offers a surprising account of twentieth-century Americans' fierce battle for the nation's soul. It follows the stories of two phrases—the "American dream" and "America First"—that once embodied opposing visions for America.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump used the slogan “America First,” which many people traced to Charles Lindbergh in the 1940s. But you trace its origin even further back.

I found the earliest use of the phrase as a Republican slogan in the 1880s, but it didn’t enter the national discussion until 1915, when Woodrow Wilson used it in a speech arguing for neutrality in World War I. That isn’t the same as isolationism, but the phrase got taken up by isolationists.

Wilson was treading a very fine line, where there were genuine and legitimate conflicting interests. He said he thought America would be first, not in the selfish spirit, but first to be in Europe to help whichever side won. Not to take sides, but to be there to promote justice and to help rebuild after the conflict. That was what he was trying to say in 1915.

“America First” was the campaign slogan not only of Wilson in 1916, but also of his Republican opponent. They both ran on an “America First” platform. Harding [a Republican] ran on an “America First” platform in 1920. When [Republican President Calvin] Coolidge ran, one of his slogans was “America First” in 1924. These were presidential slogans, it was really prominent, and it was everywhere in the political conversation.

How did “America First” become appropriated to have a racist connotation?

When Mussolini took power in November 1922, the word “fascism” entered the American political conversation. People were trying to understand what this new thing “fascism” was. Around the same time, between 1915 and the mid 1920s, the Second Klan was on the rise.

Across the country, people explained the Klan, “America First” and fascism in terms of each other. If they were trying to explain what Mussolini was up to, they would say, “It's basically ‘America First,’ but in Italy.”

The Klan instantly declared “America First” one of its most prominent slogans. They would march with [it on] banners, they would carry it in parades, they ran advertisements saying they were the only “America First” society. They even claimed to hold the copyright. (That wasn’t true.)

By the 1930s, “America First” stopped being a presidential slogan, and it began to be claimed by extremist, far-right groups and who were self-styled American Fascist groups, like the German American Bund and the Klan. When the America First Committee was formed in 1940, it became a magnet that attracted all of these far-right groups that had already affiliated themselves with the idea. The story about Lindbergh and the Committee suggests that the phrase cropped out of nowhere, but that just isn't the case.

You found that the backstory of “the American Dream” is also misunderstood.

“The American Dream” has always been about the prospect of success, but 100 years ago, the phrase meant the opposite of what it does now. The original “American Dream” was not a dream of individual wealth it was a dream of equality, justice and democracy for the nation. The phrase was repurposed by each generation, until the Cold War, when it became an argument for a consumer capitalist version of democracy. Our ideas about the “American Dream” froze in the 1950s. Today, it doesn’t occur to anybody that it could mean anything else.

How did wealth go from being seen as a threat to the “American Dream” to being an integral part of it?

The “American Dream” really starts off with the Progressive Era. It takes hold as people are talking about reacting to the first Gilded Age when the robber barons are consolidating all this power. You see people saying that a millionaire was a fundamentally un-American concept. It was seen as anti-democratic because it was seen as inherently unequal.

1931 was when it became a national catch phrase. That was thanks to the historian James Truslow Adams who wrote The Epic of America, in which he was trying to diagnose what had gone wrong with America in the depths of the Great Depression. He said that America had gone wrong in becoming too concerned with material well-being and forgetting the higher dreams and the higher aspiration that the country had been founded on.

[The phrase] was redefined in the 1950s, and seen as a strategy for soft power and for [commercializing] the “American Dream” abroad. It was certainly an “American Dream” of democracy, but it was a very specifically consumerist version that said “this is what the ‘American Dream’ will look like.” By contrast with the earlier version, which was focused on the principles of liberal democracy, this was very much a free market version of that.

How do the two phrases fit together?

When I began this research, I didn’t think of them as related. They both started to gain traction in the American political and cultural conversation discernibly around 1915. They then came into direct conflict in the late 1930s and early 1940s in the fight over entering World War II. In that debate, both phrases were prominent enough that they could become shorthand, where basically the “American Dream” was shorthand for liberal democracy and for those values of equality, justice, democracy, and “America First” was shorthand for appeasement, for complicity, and for being either an outright fascist or a Hitler sympathizer.

The echoes between 100 years ago and now are in many ways as powerful, if not more powerful, than the echoes between now and the post-war situation.

Author Sarah Churchwell (Pete Huggins)

Why is the history of political slogans and clichés, like the “American Dream,” so important? What happens when we don't understand the nuances of these phrases?

We find ourselves accepting received wisdoms, and those received wisdoms can be distorting and flat-out inaccurate. At best, they're reductive and oversimplifying. It's like the telephone game, the more it gets transmitted, the more information gets lost along the way and more you get a garbled version of, in this case, important understandings of the historical evolution and the debates surrounding our national value system.

Will these phrases continue to evolve?

“The American Dream” has long belonged to people on the right, but those on the left who are arguing for things like universal health care have a historical claim to the phrase, too. I hope that this history can be liberating to discover that these ideas that you think are so constricting, that they can only ever mean one thing—to realize that 100 years ago it meant the exact opposite.

About Anna Diamond

Anna Diamond is the former assistant editor for Smithsonian magazine.


The Christian History of &ldquoAmerica First&rdquo

Ever since Donald Trump&rsquos inaugural address, Christian writers have hastened to argue that &ldquoAmerica First&rdquo is not consistent with our faith. &ldquo&lsquoAmerica First&rsquo is a perilous policy,&rdquo Griffin Jackson told readers of Relevant, &ldquobecause it is rooted in self and selfish egoism. It is built on the premise that our needs are more important than your needs, that we&rsquore right to value our own lives more than yours.&rdquo&rdquoChrist, Not America, First,&rdquo insisted a Sojourners headline. And it&rsquos not just progressive evangelicals. Here&rsquos the pro-life Catholic ethicist Charlie Camosy:

President Donald Trump exudes an ideology of &ldquoAmerica first.&rdquo There&rsquos only one problem for orthodox Christians, however &mdash the nation may never come first, because in first place must always be Jesus Christ and his Gospel. In that sense, &ldquoTrumpism&rdquo is actually a heresy.

I made that argument last month on this very blog. But while I continue to believe that &ldquoAmerica First&rdquo as our president seems to mean it is inconsistent with Christian belief and witness, it&rsquos also worth noting that the pre-World War II isolationist movement that pioneered that phrase actually had considerable support from a wide range of Christians.

Glen Jeansonne prefer the broader term &ldquomothers&rsquo movement&rdquo to describe the aforementioned women&rsquos group, partly to avoid confusion with the AFC. Jeansonne also wrote a biography of Gerald Smith.

There were actually two such groups. The first, more explicitly Christian America First (founded 1939) was a right-wing women&rsquos movement affiliated with Gerald L. K. Smith, a firebrand preacher who entered politics via his association with Huey Long and published the conservative magazine, The Cross and the Flag. In a 1994 article for the journal Diplomatic History, Laura McEnaney argued that the self-styled &ldquoChristian mothers&rdquo of that America First fused religion, patriotism, and isolationism into &ldquoa defense of the nuclear family structure and the conventional gender roles that made this movement&rsquos vision of social and sexual purity possible and sustainable.&rdquo

More famous is the America First Committee (AFC), an ideologically diverse group founded in September 1940 by law student R. Douglas Stuart. (You can learn more about AFC from Philip, who posted about it last month at The American Conservative.) A member of the anti-war Yale Christian Association, Stuart&rsquos father and grandfather were both executives at Quaker Oats, a company that plays a key role in Tim Gloege&rsquos history of &ldquocorporate evangelicalism.&rdquo

Ideologically and religiously diverse, the committee&rsquos membership included several Christian clergymen, including the Methodist bishop and temperance advocate Wilbur Hammaker and Catholic priest-scholar John A. O&rsquoBrien. While AFC historian Wayne Cole says that Hammaker was largely inactive, O&rsquoBrien served as one of the committee&rsquos spokesmen, as in this August 1941 radio address:

I have abhorrence for Hitlerism, loathing for Stalinism, sympathy for the valiant people of Britain and for the victims of aggression everywhere. I have sympathy, likewise, for the common masses in every land including those of Germany, Italy and Soviet Russia because they are the helpless victims of the tragedy of war. But I have devotion to America and to our own people first of all. I believe that patriotism, like charity, begins at home.

O&rsquoBrien insisted that he was not speaking for the Catholic Church (or his Catholic employer, the University of Notre Dame), but he freely invoked the teachings of that hierarchy: e.g., &ldquo&lsquoNothing,&rsquo declares the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII, &lsquois gained by war that cannot be achieved by peace in war all is lost.&rsquo Time after time, His Holiness has set forth the ideals of peace which we all cherish. &lsquoI shall not relax either my efforts or my prayers,&rsquo he declares, &lsquofor the cause of peace.&rsquo Every day he is praying and struggling to bring peace to a war-torn world.&rdquo

More problematic was AFC&rsquos connection with another Catholic priest, Charles Coughlin. Via his radio pulpit and his anti-Semitic newspaper, Social Justice, Father Coughlin opposed American participation in a war that he blamed on an &ldquoanti-Christian conspiracy&rdquo of Jews, Communists, and the Roosevelt administration. (He too founded a women&rsquos group in 1939: the National League of Mothers.) Committee leaders like Ruth Sarles warned supporters against having anything to do with Father Coughlin, and the Washington chapter banned members of his Christian Front. At the head of the AFC&rsquos New York chapter the Georgetown-educated journalist John T. Flynn fought off an attempted coup by the Coughlinite priest Edward Lodge Curran. But for Lynne Olson, author of an excellent book on the debate over U.S. entry in the war, &ldquothe fact remains that many local chapters happily accepted Coughlin supporters and other extremists as members, with Coughlin himself urging his followers to join the anti-interventionist crusade.&rdquo

In the end, the person who did the most to associate the America First Committee with anti-Semitism was its most famous spokesman. Charles Lindbergh had little use for organized religion himself, but like many in the America First movement, he saw his homeland as a bastion of &ldquoChristian civilization&rdquo &mdash one whose chief threat was Communism. While the Wehrmacht overran the Red Army in early July 1941, he told an America First audience in San Francisco that he would

a hundred times rather see my country ally itself with England, or even with Germany with all her faults, than with the cruelty, godlessness, and the barbarism that exist in Soviet Russia. An alliance between the United States and Russia should be opposed by every American, by every Christian, and by every humanitarian in this country.

Thousands packed arenas to hear the famous pilot, but two months later he dealt a critical blow to the committee. In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, Lindbergh criticized the Jewish people for seeking war and warned that &ldquo[t]heir greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.&rdquo

Though he insisted that his friend &ldquowas not as anti-Semitic as some who seize the opportunity to criticize him,&rdquo Presbyterian pastor and Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas had to cut his ties with the AFC in the wake of Lindbergh&rsquos controversial remarks. At the other end of the political and theological spectrum from Coughlin, Thomas had previously founded the Keep America Out of War Congress, but his Christian pacifism never fit well with the AFC&rsquos calls for rearmament (albeit for hemispheric defense, not intervention).

The AFC was also a poor match for Christian Century editor Charles Clayton Morrison, who was too much of an internationalist to link his name with that of avowed isolationists. But in a May 1941 letter he had assured America First co-founder Robert Wood, &ldquoI am heart-whole in my agreement with the committee on the matter of keeping America out of the war, and will go to any length to further the great work which the committee is doing on this score&hellip I adopt as my own the slogan of your committee, which I take to be in its fullest expression, Defend America First.&rdquo As late as October 23 of that year (in an editorial that Sarles included in her 1942 history of AFC), Morrison continued to argue that

America&rsquos moral responsibility to humanity, as well as her own national interest, demands that this country be kept out of the war. In the face of an incalculable future, the United States should make herself strong enough within her own boundaries to defend the treasures of her civilization against whatever shapeless uncertainties lie hidden from her present view.

Morrison&rsquos opposition to intervention helped prompt the neo-orthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to found a new Protestant magazine in 1941. In the pages of Christianity and Crisis, he and other contributors articulated a Christian case against a neutrality predicated on either national self-interest or religious idealism. For example, in an early issue (June 16, 1941) he attacked the America First Committee &mdash and the Christian pacifists who gave it moral cover:

One of the main planks in the &ldquoAmerica First&rdquo platform is that we must rely purely upon our own resources&hellip. We know of no religion which throws any light upon such strategic questions. In so far as there are moral implications in this problem of strategy we should have thought that a policy which emphasizes that we are &ldquomembers of one another&rdquo would be a little nearer to a gospel ethic than one which rests upon American pride&hellip.

A religious perfectionism which shuns the realities of politics in one moment and embraces the sorriest political relativities in the next is the natural fruit of decades of sentimentality in which religious absolutes were regarded as easily achieved goals of political justice&hellip

It is necessary for us who do not agree with this program not only to express our opinion that it represents bad politics, but also that it is derived from bad religion. The political confusions in it arise from religious illusions. This is the final fruit of a theological movement which thinks that the Kingdom of God is a simple extension of human history and that men may progress from the one to the other at any time if they have become sufficiently courageous, pure and self-less. All such illusions finally end in disaster. Communist utopianism ends in the sorry realities of Stalinism and this liberal-Christian utopianism ends by giving the dubious politics of &ldquoAmerica First&rdquo the sanctity of the Sermon on the Mount.


America First Committee | History Lessons

On September 4, 1940, the America First Committee announced itself to the world. The committee’s founding came the day after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced that he had ordered the U.S. Navy to give Britain fifty old destroyers in exchange for extended leases on eight British bases. The committee’s founders feared that moves of this sort would inevitably and unnecessarily draw the United States into the war then raging in Europe. Though the movement gained great popularity, the America First Committee’s lobby against intervention largely failed, and with steps like the Lend-Lease Act, the United States slowly drew closer to Great Britain. While most Americans shared the committee’s desire to avoid war, they agreed with FDR that the United States could not sit idly by while the last European democracy was crushed.

James M. Lindsay, CFR’s senior vice president and director of studies, argues that "non-interventionist sentiment strikes a deep chord in American political life." Lindsay says that on the eve of World War II, the America First Committee’s arguments appealed to so many Americans because of "legitimate disagreement about how best to protect the national interest and because they reflected warnings dating back to the country’s founding about the perils of foreign entanglements." Lindsay discusses how the echoes of the non-interventionist argument persist today in the discussion of how the United States should respond to violence in Libya and Syria, and he invites his audience to consider when the United States should intervene in wars overseas.

This video is part of History Lessons, a series dedicated to exploring historical events and examining their meaning in the context of foreign relations today.


The Truth about the America First Movement

Charles Lindbergh was no slave to 'isolationist' doctrine.

Only days after America’s entry into World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill offered his new American allies some advice. “War is a constant struggle and must be waged day to day,” Churchill counseled. “It is only with some difficulty and within limits that provisions for the future can be made.”

It was an axiom that Charles A. Lindbergh, the famed-aviator and the most recognizable spokesperson of the America First Committee would have agreed with.

Right up until the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh, the America First Committee and a cadre of noninterventionist leaders in the Congress spearheaded the political opposition to efforts to trim the official U.S. stance of neutrality in the war.

Although the term “America First” has been resurrected in the 2016 presidential campaign, its historical origins have been buried under years of American politics and sketchy history. The America First movement has been described as isolationist, anti-interventionist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, and a bunch of know-nothings. That narrative fails on several levels.

Like any mass political movement, America First was an amalgamation of groups and fellow travelers who sometimes shared little more in common than an opposition to America’s entry into the war. The ranks of the antiwar movement included pacifists and communists (at least until Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941), wild-haired liberals, straight-laced conservatives and everything in between.

The antiwar movement was far from homogenous. For instance, in January 1941 Lindbergh issued a press statement distancing himself from the No Foreign Wars Committee headed by the journalist Verne Marshall and pro-Nazi businessman William Rhodes Davis. Lindbergh had helped the group get started, but then cut ties over Marshall’s volatile leadership and vitriolic attacks, including swipes at Lindbergh and other leaders in the America First Committee.

Further, while the America first crowd could be fractious, it was hardly a fringe political movement. Right up to the US entry into World War II, the majority of Americans supported the group’s basic aim. Even as war looked more likely, Lindbergh argued it was not what Americans wanted. “The pall of the war seems to hang over us today. More and more people are simply giving in to it. Many say we are as good as in already. The attitude of the country seems to waver back and forth,” he wrote in his diary on January 6, 1941. “Our greatest hope lies in the fact [that] eighty-five percent of the people in the United States (according to the latest polls) are against intervention.” Right up until the day of Pearl Harbor, many Americans sided with Lindbergh.

Most importantly, the core of the America First movement was not ideologically isolationist or antimilitary. Lindbergh, in particular, based his opposition to the war on a strategic assessment of how best to weather the great storm. In fact, he wanted a significant American military build-up. An expert in airpower, he believed that a combination of beefed-up air defense and a robust strategic bomber force could keep the enemy at bay.

There was an honest debate to be had about whether America should fight at all. Not surprising, though, it became—like many policy debates through the ages—highly partisan, bitter and personal. Lindbergh was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. Meanwhile, some Congressional leaders like Sen. Gerald Nye (R-N.D.), an avid America Firster, charged “the Jews in Hollywood” with being hell-bent on dragging America into the war by making films like Sergeant York.

But the biggest problem with the anti-interventionists’ case wasn’t the vitriolic rhetoric, but that way the war evolved it undercut the strategic rationale of Lindbergh’s vision of continental defense. By 1941, Lindbergh argument was on demonstrably shaky ground. Months before Pearl Harbor, it was becoming quite apparent that, if the United States had to fight against multiple foes without any major allies, even just defending the Western hemisphere or the continental United States (options favored by anti-interventionists like Lindbergh) was increasingly impractical. Serious military planners in the services had already discounted such options.

On reflection, considering the global visions of Axis Powers, that was the right call. The Japanese high command land-disposal plan alone called for Tokyo to control East Asia, the Pacific Ocean and parts of the Western Hemisphere including lands in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is difficult to imagine how the United States could have endured as a free and independent nation surrounded by hostile powers that controlled most of the earth’s population, productive resources and major trade routes.

That said, it is worth remembering that Lindbergh’s arguments were, at their core, strategic ones—not a fixed formula for what America should always do. Lindbergh was just interested in determining a course of action that put the interests of Americans first. Arguably, he did what good strategic leaders should do—try to do the right thing for the right reasons. The opposite of Lindbergh was not President Roosevelt or Prime Minister Churchill, both of whom shared Lindbergh’s passion for determining how to guide their nations in weathering the great storm of war, but “strategists” like Obama who have a fixed course for how to deal with the world, regardless of the actions of adversaries, the input of allies or what conditions on the ground might dictate.

Lindbergh was no slave to doctrine. Days after Pearl Harbor, he wrote in his diary, “I can see nothing to do under these circumstances except to fight. If I had been in Congress, I certainly would have voted for a declaration of war.” Many of the leaders of the America First Committee volunteered to serve in the armed forces. Lindbergh managed to find ways to contribute to the war effort, even flying combat missions in the South Pacific.

In some ways, Lindbergh’s anti-interventionism was of a piece with George Washington’s warning in his farewell presidential address of the need to avoid “entangling alliances.” Each man was arguing for the strategic option that he thought right for the time, not an immutable rule of foreign-policy law.

America’s next president will face daunting challenges—particularly in the three parts of the world that impact US vital interests most—Asia, Europe and the Greater Middle East. He or she will need a serious plan to reassert American influence in all three regions.

What the next president will find is that there are few axiomatic answers for any strategic problem from dealing with dictators to managing civil-military relations. America needs a president who is a principled strategist first—one who does the right things for the right reasons—and does put America first. No president can succeed by dogmatically dealing with the world as he or she envisions it might be. The Commander in Chief and the National Security Council must deal with the world as it is.

A Heritage Foundation vice president, James Jay Carafano directs the think tank’s research on national security and foreign policy issues.

Image: An American flag. Photo by Elljay, public domain.


End of the American dream? The dark history of ɺmerica first'

“S adly, the American dream is dead,” Donald Trump proclaimed when he announced his candidacy for president of the United States. It seemed an astonishing thing for a candidate to say people campaigning for president usually glorify the nation they hope to lead, flattering voters into choosing them. But this reversal was just a taste of what was to come, as he revealed an unnerving skill at twisting what would be negative for anyone else into a positive for himself.

By the time he won the election, Trump had flipped much of what many people thought they knew about the US on its head. In his acceptance speech he again pronounced the American dream dead, but promised to revive it. We were told that this dream of prosperity was under threat, so much so that a platform of “economic nationalism” carried the presidency.

Reading last rites over the American dream was disquieting enough. But throughout the campaign, Trump also promised to put America first, a pledge renewed – twice – in his inaugural address. It was a disturbing phrase think pieces on the slogan’s history began to sprout up, explaining that it stretches back to efforts to keep the US out of the second world war.

In fact, “America first” has a much longer and darker history than that, one deeply entangled with the country’s brutal legacy of slavery and white nationalism, its conflicted relationship to immigration, nativism and xenophobia. Gradually, the complex and often terrible tale this slogan represents was lost to mainstream history – but kept alive by underground fascist movements. “America first” is, to put it plainly, a dog whistle. The expression’s backstory seems at first to uncannily anticipate Trump and (at least some of) his supporters, but the truth is that eruptions of American conservative populism are nothing new – and “America first” has been associated with them for well over a century. This is merely the latest iteration of a powerful strain of populist demagoguery in American history, from president Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) to Louisiana senator Huey Long a century later one that now extends to Trump.

The slogan appears at least as early as 1884, when a California paper ran “America First and Always” as the headline of an article about fighting trade wars with the British. The New York Times shared in 1891 “the idea that the Republican Party has always believed in”, namely: “America first the rest of the world afterward”. The Republican party agreed, adopting the phrase as a campaign slogan by 1894.

A few years later, “See America First” had become the ubiquitous slogan of the newly burgeoning American tourist industry, one that adapted easily as a political promise. This was recognised by an Ohio newspaper owner named Warren G Harding, who successfully campaigned for senator in 1914 under the banner “Prosper America First”. The expression did not become a national catchphrase, however, until April 1915, when President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech defending US neutrality during the first world war: “Our whole duty for the present, at any rate, is summed up in the motto: ‘America First’.”

American opinion was deeply divided over the war while many decried what was widely perceived as a baldly nationalist venture by Germany, there was plenty of anti-British sentiment, too, especially among Irish-Americans. American neutrality was by no means always motivated by pure isolationism it mingled pacifism, anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, nationalism and exceptionalism as well. Wilson was delivering the “America first” speech with his eye on a second presidential term: “America first” should not be understood “in a selfish spirit”, he insisted. “The basis of neutrality is sympathy for mankind.”

First in line … Republican national convention delegates in Cleveland, Ohio, 2016. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The phrase was rapidly taken up in the name of isolationism, however, and by 1916 “America first” had become so popular that both presidential candidates used it as a campaign slogan. When the US joined the war in 1917, “America first” was transposed into a jingoistic motto after the war, it slipped back into isolationism. In the summer of 1920, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge delivered a keynote speech at the Republican National Convention, denouncing the League of Nations in the name of “America first”. Harding secured the Republican nomination and promptly sailed to victory that November using the slogan, which his administration would invoke ceaselessly before it collapsed amid the ruins of the US’s greatest political bribery scandal to date.

By 1920, “America first” had joined forces with another popular expression of the time, “100% American”, and both soon functioned as clear codes for nativism and white nationalism. It is impossible to grasp the full meaning of “100% American” without recognising the legal and political force of eugenicist ideas about percentages in the United States. The so-called “one-drop rule” – which said that one drop of “Negro blood” made a person legally black – was the foundation of slavery and miscegenation laws in many states, used to determine whether an individual should be enslaved or free. The logic of the one-drop rule extended from the notorious three-fifths compromise in the constitution, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. Declaring someone 100% American was no mere metaphor in a country that measured people in percentages and fractions, in order to deny some of them full humanity.

In 1920 Upton Sinclair published a furiously satirical novel called 100%: The Story of a Patriot, inspired by the case of a radical, Tom Mooney, who was sentenced to hang for a 1916 bombing on charges widely viewed as spurious. Sinclair’s novel is told from the perspective of Peter, “a patriot of patriots, a super-patriot Peter was a red-blooded American and no mollycoddle Peter was a ‘he-American’, a 100% American . Peter was so much of an American that the very sight of a foreigner filled him with a fighting impulse.”

Peter fully believes that:

100% Americanism would find a way to preserve itself from the sophistries of European Bolshevism 100% Americanism had worked out its formula: “If they don’t like this country, let them go back where they come from.” But of course, knowing in their hearts that America was the best country in the world, they didn’t want to go back, and it was necessary to make them go.

But “100% American” was not only xenophobic and nativist. When Senator Knute Nelson died in 1923, he was hailed in obituaries across the US as “100% American” – despite having been born in Norway. Why? Because Nelson was descended from “the true Nordic line”, “from the race which set up strong gods and bred strong men”.

“Nordic” was yet another code, used in the same ways that the Nazis would use “Aryan”. “Nordicism” held that people of northern Europe were racially superior to those of southern Europe (and everywhere else), a theory espoused by white supremacists such as Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, whose The Passing of the Great Race: or The Racial Basis of European History (1916) became one of the most influential works of eugenicist scientific racism. But in practice, Nordic was used to describe anyone who was blond, white, Caucasian or Anglo-Saxon. Colloquially, “Nordic”, “100% American” and “America first” were used all but interchangeably.

A 1927 Ku Klux Klan parade in Washington DC. Photograph: Buyenlarge/Getty Images

It should come as little surprise, then, that the Ku Klux Klan also adopted “America first” as a motto. In 1919 a Klan leader gave a Fourth of July speech declaring: “I am for America, first, last and all the time, and I don’t want any foreign element telling us what to do.” The fantasy of a US once populated solely by the racially pure Nordic “common man” was the Klan’s genesis myth as well, the prelapsarian past to which they intended to force the country to return – by violence if necessary.

In January 1922, the Klan staged a parade in Alexandria, Louisiana, bearing two flaming red crosses and banners with slogans including “America First”, “100% American” and “White Supremacy”. That summer the Klan took out an advertisement in a Texas newspaper: “The Ku Klux Klan is the one and only organization composed absolutely and exclusively of ONE HUNDRED PER CENT AMERICANS who place AMERICA FIRST.”

Within months, Americans were watching the rise of fascism in Europe, as Mussolini took power in Rome. Explaining “fascists” to American readers that year, the press found an obvious example ready to hand. “In our own picturesque phrase,” wrote the New York World, “they might be known as the Ku Klux Klan.” It does not require hindsight to view the Klan as a crypto-fascist organisation: their contemporaries could instantly see the likeness, and the danger. In November 1922 a Montana paper noted that, in Italy, fascism meant “Italy for the Italians. The fascisti in this country call it ‘America first’.” There are plenty of the fascisti in the United States, it seems, but they have always gone under the proud banner of “100% Americans”.

The autumn of 1922 also saw the first mention of a rising German fringe politician called Adolf Hitler in the US press. At the time, a young American journalist named Dorothy Thompson was living in Vienna, where she was reporting on the rise of antisemitism. By November 1923, she was in Munich trying to interview Hitler following his abortive Beer Hall Putsch, filing articles on the way he had updated German nationalism thanks to “suggestions from Mussolini”.

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle warned its readers that the KKK was no different from “100 % patriotism in Europe”:

There should be no misunderstanding about the Klan. It represents in this country the same ideas that Mussolini represents in Italy that Primo Rivera represents in Spain. The Klan is the American Fascista, determined to rule in its own way, in utter disregard of the fundamental laws and principles of democratic government.

If such people were allowed to take over the US, it cautioned, “we shall have a dictatorship”.

By 1927, the Klan had spread across the country. That May, roughly 1,000 Klansmen gathered to march in the Memorial Day parade in Queens, New York, many in white robes and hoods, accompanied by 400 members of their women’s organisation, the Klavana. Some of the reported 20,000 spectators in Queens that day objected to the Klan’s presence in a civic parade fights broke out, and it turned into a riot. In the days that followed, the New York papers revealed the names of a total of seven men who had been arrested in Queens. Five of them were identified as “avowed Klansmen” who had been marching in the parade and were arrested for “refusing to disperse when ordered”. A sixth was a mistake – a car had run over his foot – and he was immediately released. The seventh, a 21-year-old German-American, was not identified in the press as a Klansman. The reports only stated that he was arrested, arraigned and discharged. No one knows why he was there. His name was Fred Trump.

Illustration: Nathalie Lees

I n September 1935, a month after announcing he would run for president, Senator Long of Louisiana was assassinated. Called “America’s first dictator”, Long had worried many observers with his blend of populism and authoritarianism. After his death, one writer referred to Long as “the Mississippi valley rendering of Il Duce”. Despite assurances from many Americans that it can’t happen here, Long’s rise to power had shown just how it could. Its growing presence was so clear that at the end of 1935 Sinclair Lewis published a novel inspired by Long’s career (but written before his murder), in which he imagined what American fascism would look like. The title of It Can’t Happen Here was “ironical”, Lewis told reporters: “I don’t say fascism will happen here,” he said, “only that it could.”


Watch the video: Φάρσα στον Τρύφωνα Σαμάρα από την εκπομπή Πάμε Δανάη (January 2022).