Some have said that the historical associations are meaningless to the average American. They are, nonetheless, chilling
On April 27, 2016 Presidential Candidate Donald J. Trump gave what was billed as a major foreign policy speech. He chose to make the rallying cry of this speech “America First.” Those of us who read a lot about World War 2 immediately recognized the phrase, which was the name of the largest and most influential isolation group in the early years of the European war. Unfortunately, this group was also associated with anti-Semitism and pro-Nazism. Though some have said that the historical associations are meaningless to the average American, they are, nonetheless, chilling, and their use ill-advised.
The America First Committee (AFC) was the foremost non-interventionist pressure group against the American entry into World War II. Peaking at 800,000 paid members in 450 chapters, it was one of the largest anti-war organizations in American history.
When the war began in September 1939, most Americans, including politicians, demanded neutrality regarding Europe. Although most Americans supported strong measures against Japan, Europe was the focus of the America First Committee. The public mood was changing, however, especially after the fall of France in spring 1940.
The America First Committee launched a petition aimed at enforcing the 1939 Neutrality Act and forcing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to keep his pledge to keep America out of the war. They profoundly distrusted Roosevelt and argued that he was lying to the American people.
America First staunchly opposed Lend-Lease and other programs which helped the Allied cause. In order to defeat lend-lease and perpetuate American neutrality, the AFC advocated four basic principles:
The United States must build an impregnable defense for America.
No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America.
American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war.
“Aid short of war” weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.
Trump’s speech began with the assertion that “America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.” This was followed, almost inevitably, by rhetoric that sounded the same themes of isolationism. For example, Trump says “Our moments of greatest strength came when politics ended at the water’s edge,” and, “The world is most peaceful, and most prosperous, when America is strongest.” He concluded by saying “Americans must know that we are putting the American people first again. On trade, on immigration, on foreign policy – the jobs, incomes and security of the American worker will always be my first priority.”
The problem with modeling foreign policy after the America First Committee is that the organization was rife with pro-Nazism and anti-Semitism. The most famous spokesman for the Committee was the blunt, media-savvy celebrity, Charles Lindbergh:
Charles Lindbergh was admired in Germany and allowed to see the buildup of the Nazi air force, the Luftwaffe in 1937. He was impressed with its strength and secretly reported his findings to the General Staff of the U.S. Army, warning that the U.S. had fallen behind and must urgently build up its aviation. He had feuded with the Roosevelt administration for years. His first radio speech was broadcast on September 15, 1939, over all three of the major radio networks.
Nothing did more to escalate the tensions than the speech Lindbergh delivered to a rally in Des Moines, Iowa on September 11, 1941. In that speech he identified the forces pulling America into the war as the British, the Roosevelt administration, and American Jews. While he expressed sympathy for the plight of the Jews in Germany, he argued that America’s entry into the war would serve them little better.
He said in part: “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. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few farsighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.”
Do you see the veiled threat in that paragraph? Do you see the echo of Nazi propaganda? History teaches us to be cautious with men who combine plain speech and veiled threats.