Like most of the humanities, history is often an underrated subject that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Sure it may not lead to a lucrative career, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful or necessary. But historical knowledge is often essential when it comes to understanding our world and even ourselves, especially in the realm of politics and government. Though many people might think history class is a waste of time, they are sorely mistaken. To know history is an essential part of being a good citizen in any democratic society because whatever happens in the past doesn’t really go away. What happens in the past affects us in the present as well as becomes part of our heritage. By showing us how we came to be, history also tells us who we are and what we could be. Past events can give us answers on why things happened the way they did. And they can sometimes help us find solutions, especially on what not to do. Yet, though great moments in our history are worth remembering, there are also moments of great sin and shame we shouldn’t forget, especially if their impact persists to this day. Because it’s often said that those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it. Or at least make terrible decisions that might lead to history repeating itself. Those who don’t care to know about history and see no value in it are prone to disrespect the greater humanity. And if a historically illiterate person has political power, then they pose a serious danger to us all.
Even before Donald Trump became president, it’s very clear he doesn’t know much about American history nor does he see the value in knowing it. Sure his campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again” but the kind of past he’s referring to is one of nostalgia for a time in which the United States really wasn’t that great. Nor was it a time that most of us would want to live. At the same time, Trump embodies the absolute worst in our country’s past with his rhetoric of fear and division, his message of racism and xenophobia, his decades long history of corrupt business practices, his disregard for decency, his consummate lying, and his petty vindictiveness. His presidential victory was made possible by the fact Americans are embarrassingly ignorant in civics and history, as statistics widely support this claim. History will not look kindly on the Trump supporters who elected one of the most deplorable individuals of our time to the White House and will in time be deemed morally reprehensible and ultimately forced to explain themselves to their grandchildren. I know these words seem harsh and hard to swallow for many. But as a history major, I know far too well of what happens whenever people support leaders on the wrong side of history. It’s no question that Trump certainly is and that his presidency will be an absolute disaster. And there is no way I can sugar coat it.
Nevertheless, Donald Trump’s historical illiteracy and apathy can be better demonstrated than in his use of the phrase of “America First” that he used as a centerpiece in his campaign. At first, this saying may seem innocent on the surface. But what does “America First” mean exactly? According to Trump, “America First” is just a catchphrase for prioritizing American interests as in, “My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else. That will be the foundation of every decision that I will make. America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.” He likens it to an original slogan, telling David Sanger, “To me, America First is a brand-new modern term. I never related it to the past.” In many ways he wants to make it seem like it’s a patriotic affirmation like putting the US first above all else which certainly resonate to the over 60 million Americans who elected him president.
However, contrary to what Trump may say, the phrase “America First” is actually not a brand-new modern term but one that dates all the way to the early 20th century. The phrase was originally a political slogan for Woodrow Wilson’s reelection campaign in 1915 to echo the isolationist policies he’d later abandon for good reason and is also the name of a credit union based in Utah.And William Randolph Hearst often used the phrase in the 1930s as a nationalistic enthusiasm for crushing the left by hyperbole in his anti-FDR crusade. But the term would become best associated with the America First Committee, an organization whose legacy remarks upon one of the ugliest chapters in modern American history. Originally established by a group of Yale Law students including Quaker Oats heir R. Douglas Stuart Jr., future president Gerald Ford, future Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, and future US Supreme Court justice Potter Stuart, the America First Committee was the foremost non-interventionist pressure group against the American entry into World War II. At its peak, it boasted over 800,000 paid members in 450 chapters and was one of the largest anti-war organizations in American history. It also claimed a lot of prominent members from all across the political spectrum and all walks of life. Some were millionaire financial backers like Henry Ford, General Robert E. Wood of Sears-Roebuck, meatpacker Jay Hormel, banker William J. Grace, Sterling Morton of Morton Salt, textile manufacturer William Regnery, publisher Joseph M. Patterson of the New York Daily News, and publishers Robert R. McCormick of the Chicago Tribune. Political supporters of the AFC included US Senate Democrats Burton K. Wheeler of Montana and David I. Walsh of Massachusetts, North Dakota Republican Senator Gerald P. Nye, and Socialist leader Norman Thomas. Another was Washington socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth who was also a former president’s daughter, the then-current First Lady’s cousin, the then-president’s distant cousin, widow to a Speaker of the House, a former mistress and baby mama to a US Senator, and sister to a future Medal of Honor recipient. Oh, and her baby daddy Republican Senator William A. Borah of Idaho supported the AFC, too. The American First Committee even had celebrity allies such as novelist Sinclair Lewis, poet E. E. Cummings, Walt Disney, silent-screen icon and actress Lillian Gish, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, WWI flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, novelist Kathleen Norris, and most importantly famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. Future president John F. Kennedy and author Gore Vidal were also AFC members.
Of course, you should know that Adolf Hitler had already invaded Poland by this point and posed a significant threat to European nations who stood in his way as Great Britain was experiencing its shittiest year of the war while France and Belgium fell to the Nazis. Oh, and a militarist Japan was causing all kinds of hell for Asian countries and/or European colonial possessions in the Pacific but their front won’t be the main focus for awhile. The standard rationale for the American First Committee was that the United States was protected by 2 oceans and its vast land mass, and that intervention in Europe would turn out no better than it had in WWI. While most Americans rooted for the Allies in 1940 (85% according to a Fortune poll), they didn’t want to do anything that would help them win either. After all, the US already did that in 1917 during World War I which strongly divided the American public and didn’t seem like a conflict the country should’ve gotten involved in. Yet, after the British found Germany trying to provoke a Mexican reconquista on the American southwest, maintaining neutrality was impossible. Then there’s the fact the US was home to so many European immigrants who didn’t want to support a country they didn’t like or be thoroughly demonized as the enemy. Not to mention, the US lost about 110,000 troops during this time, including 43,000 to the influenza pandemic and they were only in the war for a little more than a year while isolationism was such a powerful influence that the US Senate refused US entry into the League of Nations despite it being among Wilson’s Fourteen Points or at least on his terms. Though Gary Gerstle would prefer the term unilateralism in which the US should be free act in the world to preserve its own interests like it had in Latin America and the Pacific. And since WWI seems like a meaningless bloodbath provoked by an archduke assassination, well, you can see why Americans wouldn’t want to be entangled in another European conflict. Then there’s the fact Britain and France participated in imperialism with colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific which comes with the usual human rights violations.
Even before World War II kicked off with Hitler’s Polish invasion, most Americans demanded US neutrality on Europe that Congress passed a series of neutrality acts to keep the government from supporting either side. Though in practice, it was to keep FDR from corresponding with Winston Churchill and sending support to Britain. Because the Axis powers were widely disliked in the country, anyway. Yet, though FDR promised to keep the US out of the war, he attempted to maximize support for the Allies on the side while skirting if not actually violating the principle of neutrality. The America First Committee profoundly distrusted him for this and harshly accused FDR of lying to the American people. Sure FDR probably acted dishonestly but to be fair, he understood that many of these Allied European nations were fighting for their lives. And he realized if Americans wanted the Allies to win, then the US government would have to help them. But the AFC criticized and opposed him at every step, especially when he decided to seek a third term and proposed Lend-Lease in early 1941 both of which most Americans supported anyway. Besides, though most Americans might not be happy with intervention, they’d be willing to so if US involvement was necessary to defeat fascism which only became increasingly apparent as 1941 went on particularly when Hitler stabbed Stalin in the back by invading Russia.
So where does the historical baggage come in? Because all you say about the American First Committee was that it was a bipartisan anti-war group opposing US entry into WWII for pretty justifiable reasons. However, not everyone in the America First Committee opposed US intervention over the catastrophes of World War I or in the name of general pacifism. Nor was it just a group for FDR haters either. Though the AFC was harshly critical toward him and many of his opponents joined up as a way of primarily attacking the guy for his New Deal. The AFC also included more than its fair share of people whose views had more to do with their anti-Semitism, pro-fascism, and xenophobia. Some members were even said to be Nazi sympathizers. Such facts weren’t helped from the fact that the AFC so staunchly wanted to preserve American neutrality even if it meant urging the government to be nice to Hitler. Nor that it counted prominent anti-Semites of the day among its ranks. Or that several prominent AFC members believed that old-fashioned democracy was in decline and that a modern, energetic fascism represented a The Wave of the Future as Anne Morrow Lindbergh titled her 1940 booklet. She even took her pro-fascist position one step further in her book by calling US sign a pact with Germany similar to Hitler’s Non-Aggression Treaty with Josef Stalin. Naturally, the Roosevelt administration attacked the book as “the bible of every American Nazi, Fascist, Bundist and Appeaser” and it was among the most despised books of the period. She also called Hitler “a very great man, like an inspired religious leader—and as such rather fanatical—but not scheming, not selfish, not greedy for power” in a letter. As America First tried to brand itself as a mainstream organization, the anti-Semitic attitudes and Nazi sympathies of some of its leaders and many of its members began to emerge. And their refusal to disown their ugliest supporters would be its fatal flaw. According to historian Susan Dunn in a CNN article from last April, “It had to remove from its executive committee not only the notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford but also Avery Brundage, the former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee who had prevented two Jewish runners from the American track team in Berlin in 1936 from running in the finals of the 4×100 relay.” And America First’s anti-Semitic problems only became worse when Charles Lindbergh was recruited as their spokesman.
Now Charles Lindbergh was a natural choice to represent the America First Committee. For one, he was a major celebrity who was universally loved for his nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic. He was also relatively handsome and had a lovely family that would eventually include 5-6 children. Of course, his oldest child had already been kidnapped and murdered which was reported so exhaustively and sensationally by the press that it became known as “The Crime of the Century.” Second, he had no interest in exploiting his celebrity and was a very private man for very good reasons. Nor did he have higher ambitions of any kind, political or otherwise. Third, he came from the Midwest, which was home to the bulk of the AFC’s registered members and he was certainly one of the most famous celebrities from that area at the time. Fourth, he was no fan of FDR and had feuded with him for years which satisfied some of the haters. Fifth, he was a charismatic man whose words can sound just as good on paper as they would coming from his mouth. And finally, compared to a lot of celebrities at the time, he had a rather wholesome reputation. It’s no surprise that the famed aviator from Minnesota would become the AFC’s highest profile spokesman whose speeches were heard by hundreds of thousands within the movement and millions outside.
Yet, behind that boyish face, was a man with very whacked out political views though they were not unusual or socially unacceptable for the time among the American people. Lindbergh believed in eugenics as he expressed his ideal woman as having a keen intellect, good health and strong genes because “experience in breeding animals on our farm had taught me the importance of good heredity.” To be fair, he was raised at a time when eugenics was espoused across the political spectrum even though it led to some of the worst known human rights abuses known to man and was based on junk science. In the mid to late 1930s, Lindbergh made several trips to Nazi Germany to tour the Luftwaffe which made a great impression on him that he became convinced that no power in Europe or the US could defeat it. He believed that a war between Germany and the US would be bad and it would be especially for the “white race.” So much so that Lindbergh stated that he believed the survival of the white race was more important than the survival of European democracy. “We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races,” he wrote in his infamous 1939 article for Reader’s Digest. It didn’t help that he publicly and privately spoke of Hitler in admiring terms as having “far more character and vision than I thought existed in the German leader who has been painted in so many different ways by the accounts in America and England. He is undoubtedly a great man.” As an ardent anticommunist, Lindbergh considered Russia a “semi-Asiatic” country and saw Communism as an ideology that would destroy the West’s “racial strength” and replace everyone of European descent with “a pressing sea of Yellow, Black, and Brown.” And if Lindbergh had to choose, he’d rather see the US allied with Nazi Germany than Soviet Russia. Oh, and he was an anti-Semite who subscribed to conspiracy theories. In his reaction to anti-Jewish pogrom Kristallnacht (which consisted of the Nazis destroying over 100 synagogues along with thousands of Jewish businesses while imprisoning thousands of Jews), Lindbergh wrote, “I do not understand these riots on the part of the Germans. It seems so contrary to their sense of order and intelligence. They have undoubtedly had a difficult ‘Jewish problem’, but why is it necessary to handle it so unreasonably?” Because Hitler wanted to do terrible stuff to the Jews, asshole. And it didn’t help that he received the Commander Cross of the Order of the German Eagle from Hermann Goering on Hitler’s behalf a few weeks before which caused controversy, which he refused to return. “It seems to me that the returning of decorations, which were given in times of peace and as a gesture of friendship, can have no constructive effect,” Lindbergh wrote making excuses for Nazi Germany. “If I were to return the German medal, it seems to me that it would be an unnecessary insult. Even if war develops between us, I can see no gain in indulging in a spitting contest before that war begins.” Yes, but it would’ve at least absolved him from suspicion. Because in 1941, Lindbergh resigned his Air Force commission as colonel at FDR’s demand after proposing that the US negotiate a neutrality pact with Germany during his testimony opposing the Lend-Lease bill before House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Charles Lindbergh’s political ideas on race, the Jewish people, and foreign policy might seem morally reprehensible and extreme today, but they were hardly fringe in the early 1940s and he had voiced them without serious public outcry at this point. If anything, resigning his Air Force commission may have worked in his favor as far as some non-interventionists were concerned. However, he would play a critical role in why “America First” has become the noxious slogan that continues to echo isolationist, defeatist, fascist, and anti-Semitic sentiments to this day. On September 11, 1941, Lindbergh would deliver a speech to a huge crowd during an America First rally in Des Moines, Iowa. In it, he identified forces pulling the US into the war as the British, the Roosevelt administration, and American Jews. And it’s what he said about the third group where he made his true thoughts known. At first, he expressed sympathy for the persecution the Jews in Germany suffered and remarked on how he understood why any American Jew would want to see the Nazi regime pay. But then he went on putting American Jews on notice, saying that America’s “tolerance” for them rested upon a fragile foundation but most somehow most still don’t seem to understand that and want the US to intervene in a war that would endanger everybody but especially them. Then Lindbergh let the Jews know what he really thought about them, “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.” In other words, Lindbergh saw American Jews constituting of a wealthy, influential, and conspiratorial foreign, “race” that controls “our” media and has infiltrated “our” political institutions. And that they were an internal alien out-group, hostile to “us.” In short, he blames the Jews for pushing the US into war and manipulating the narrative through the media. Such sentiment reeks classic anti-Semitism which had no basis in fact. Though Lindbergh claimed he wasn’t “attacking either the Jewish or the British people,” he went on 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.” So fighting an enemy that’s either bombing the shit out of you on a regular basis or persecuting (if not exterminating) people from your ethnoreligious group and possibly your loved ones from the old country aren’t American reasons? Also, their interests weren’t exactly based on “natural passions and prejudices of other peoples” either. Though Lindbergh uses such words to make British and Jewish seem like they want to drag the US into a needless war that could lead to its destruction.
Somewhere in his speech Lindbergh crossed a line because public reception was not kind to him or the American First Committee from this point on. Lindbergh was strongly and swiftly condemned for his anti-Semitic and divisive words. Reporting from Europe, New York Herald Tribune columnist Dorothy Thompson wrote, “I am absolutely certain that Lindbergh is pro-Nazi. I am absolutely certain that Lindbergh foresees a new party along Nazi lines.” The San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “The voice is the voice of Lindbergh, but the words are the words of Hitler.” And those sentiments of outrage echoed widely among newspapers, columnists, politicians, and religious leaders. Interventionists opposed to America First created pamphlets indicating how Nazi Germany praised his efforts and included quotations like “Racial strength is vital; politics, a luxury.” The pamphlets also included pictures of Lindbergh and other American Firsters using the stiff-armed Bellamy Salute (a hand gesture described by Francis Bellamy to accompany his Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag that fell out of favor during the 1920s and 1930s because totalitarian regimes adopted salutes of similar form). Though the photos were taken at an angle not showing the flag, observers still found such gestures indistinguishable from the better known Heil Hitler. But Lindbergh’s detractors weren’t the only ones bashing him for his Des Moines speech. His fans who lionized him also had harsh words to say. The Des Moines Register called his speech, “so intemperate, so unfair, so dangerous in its implications that it cannot but turn many spadefuls in the digging of the grave of his influence in this country.” The anti-Roosevelt and non-interventionist loving Hearst papers condemned Lindbergh as “un-American.” His mother-in-law and sister-in-law publicly opposed his views while civic and corporate organizations cut all ties with him. Hell, his hometown of Little Falls, Minnesota took his name off their water tower. And I’m sure millions of kids probably took down their pictures of him that they put in the trash like he was a disgraced sports hero. In the public’s view, the once beloved aviator was now disgraced and his tarnished reputation would never fully recover.
In turn the America First Committee was as TIME put it on a cover story, “touched the pitch of anti-Semitism, and its fingers were tarred.” Despite its protestations that it wasn’t an anti-Semitic group and that it was looking out for American Jewish interests, America First would become associated with such anti-Semitic rhetoric Lindbergh had voiced in that infamous speech in Des Moines. So much so that more moderate isolationists started dropping out and it acquired its very bad name and pernicious reputation. And after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor that December, the America First Committee disbanded since there was no possibility of isolation by that point. But echoes of “America First” have persisted in the years and decades since. Before Trump decided to make it a campaign slogan, Pat Buchanan used it for his presidential campaign to run in 2000 on the Reform ticket. Of course, Buchanan believes that World War II as an “unnecessary war.” In his book A Republic, Not an Empire: Reclaiming America’s Destiny, he’s depicted Lindbergh and other pre-war isolationists as American patriots smeared by interventionists during the months leading up to Pearl Harbor. And Buchanan suggests such backlash of Lindbergh highlights “the explosiveness of mixing ethnic politics with foreign policy.” He also campaigned against free trade. Ironically, it was Trump who seeking the Reform Party nomination at the time, called Buchanan “a Hitler lover.” So it’s possible he might know something about where “America First” came from even if he doesn’t care about the implications from employing it. Because Buchanan certainly does. But as far as political figures go, Buchanan is an exception since his views on history are outside mainstream conservatism. Since the 1940s, there has almost been no politician who’s wanted to draw close to America First.
But why would Trump employ such a phrase like “America First” in his rhetoric despite that those words echoing such an ugly chapter in America’s recent past? Sure he may like the expression, but he may even enjoy more the kind of applause and provocation he gets from uttering those words by the very supporters who have absolutely no clue where that awful phrase came from nor care to find out. And he probably doesn’t care that such catchphrase makes some people hear disturbing echoes that the Anti-Defamation League has asked him to stop using “America First” and redirected fifty-six thousand dollars in donations from the Trump family to anti-bullying and anti-bias causes. But Trump won’t stop saying that phrase anytime soon. Because to him, it’s a tremendously popular slogan that resonates with his economic nationalism. And he’s denied the phrase’s existence as a historical term whenever reporters have pointed it out for him. For instance, when asked whether he meant isolationism last April, Trump replied, “Not isolationist, I’m not isolationist, but I am ‘America First.’ So I like the expression. I’m ‘America First. We have been disrespected, mocked and ripped off for many, many years by people that were smarter, shrewder, tougher.” In some ways, it’s possible Trump wants “America First” to mean “we will not be ripped off anymore.” And since American historical consciousness doesn’t run deep, it’s possible that Trump supporters see “America First” as an innocent affirmation of patriotism that it’s not.
As NPR’s Ron Elving put it, “assuming he is aware of at least some of that history, Trump is demonstrating his confidence that his adoption of a phrase can supersede its past.” But is it even possible for him to shake off that phrase’s toxic past? The Atlantic states such endeavor could prove difficult especially since Trump’s inauguration speech offered little to no outreach to the millions of Americans who fear what his presidency may bring. However, I think this assumption is a bit too optimistic. I say this because many of those Trump supporters who see “America First” as an innocent patriotic affirmation also see the Confederate flag as a sacred emblem of their Southern heritage. In the summer of 2015, I wrote a post arguing why the flag should be removed due to being a symbol of white supremacy that’s been used to justify decades of subjugating, discrimination, and violence against black people, which apparently angered a lot of people who tried to tell me otherwise. The Confederate flag is often associated with very ugly chapter in American history in which a bunch of powerful white guys started a war after splitting off from the US in order to form a country where they can subjugate black people to a lifetime of involuntary servitude. It is very clear that many Southern whites still haven’t gotten over that the North won that war which outlawed slavery that they went to great lengths to make sure black people could never gain any social, economic, or political power. And despite the Civil Rights Movement and the election of Barack Obama, these people show no sign of stopping any time soon.
That being said, I think “American First” will continue to emanate how opposition to American entanglement in the world became polluted by anti-Semitism regardless of what Trump, his supporters, or Republicans may think. They may claim they don’t hate Jewish people nor embrace a 1940s isolationism. They may not be Nazi sympathizers or be soft on Hitler the way Charles Lindbergh was or how the America First Committee might’ve been. But however they use “America First” regardless of what meaning attached to it, none of their personal biases change that phrase’s toxic isolationist, defeatist, nationalistic, fascist, and anti-Semitic evocations. And just because such people don’t believe such stuff anymore doesn’t mean such interpretations go away. I also don’t think Trump helps his case by having a noted anti-Semite and white nationalist to write his speeches on his White House along with plenty of anti-Semitic supporters (i.e. white supremacists). As Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said, “For many Americans, the term ‘America First’ will always be associated with and tainted by this history.” Conservative editor of The Weekly Standard Bill Kristol would say the same adding on Twitter, “I’ll be unembarrassedly old-fashioned here: It is profoundly depressing and vulgar to hear an American president proclaim ‘America First.’” Greenblatt and Kristol may not always agree with everything, but when it comes to “America First,” both these men see such phrase evokes a shameful chapter in our history. And one Jewish woman wrote on Facebook, “That America First part brought me to tears and anyone who doesn’t understand why can unfriend me right now.” Despite what anyone would say, such connotations pertaining to “America First” still persist in the historical contexts, especially among American Jews. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon. So if you’re a proud patriot who wants to make America great, you should stop saying “America First” and not support politicians who use that as a catchphrase, especially if they have no idea to what it really means.
I can see why “America first” is not a slogan we should be using. It has quite a history!
It has become apparent that Trump’s use of the phrase is no accident, and that it, and its connotations, are embraced by much of his base.
That old train is a’rolling and democracy’s head is on the tracks.