Some Remedial History on “America First”

Leftists and neocons (but I repeat myself) are apoplectic over Donald Trump’s “America First” comment in his Inaugural Address. MSNBC commentators labeled it Hitler-esque, while Bill Kristol labeled himself “old fashioned” in decrying the terminology.

These groups, as usual, have gotten their history wrong. So here’s a remedial crash course on the history of “America First.”

The America First movement was a collection of people who opposed American entry into World War II before the Pearl Harbor attack. They held a traditionally American perspective on foreign policy, one that stressed defense of the continent and non-intervention in other countries’ wars. This formula had been in place since George Washington’s farewell address and it was the Progressives’ departure from it beginning in the late nineteenth century that was radical.

In other words, Bill, if you want to be “old fashioned,” you have to be an America Firster.

Between 1939 and 1941, the America Firsters, a group largely comprised of conservatives, opposed FDR’s attempts to get the U.S. involved in World War II, believing that American foreign policy should –  you guessed it – defend America first. The group included major figures in American business, culture, and politics, including aviator Charles Lindbergh and later president John F. Kennedy. Former President Herbert Hoover was sympathetic to the cause.

Leftists at the time did what leftists always do: they called the America Firsters names. Foreshadowing modern events, non-interventionists like John T. Flynn had their speaking engagements on college campuses protested and canceled. Liberals called people like Lindbergh and Flynn racists, fascists and Nazi sympathizers. These accusations are apparently what clueless commentators today are referring to in their denigration of Trump’s America First rhetoric.

The accusations were, however, total nonsense. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Lindbergh criticized the Nazi regime for its aggression. Of course, non-interventionists also criticized Soviet Russia and FDR’s BFF, Joseph Stalin, when he invaded Poland from the east a couple of weeks later. For the next two years, the non-interventionists would argue that the war in Europe was a tragedy, but that it was not a threat to America’s security. They further argued that entering the war would endanger American liberty. When Germany turned against Russia in June of 1941, the non-interventionists made the point that to enter the war on the side of authoritarian Russia would undermine American security and principles, even if it meant the defeat of authoritarian Germany. Later events would prove them right on all these counts.

Modern commentators who see in America First terminology some latent fascist tendencies have their history all wrong. Just like their leftist forefathers, they refuse to acknowledge that the beneficial nature of globalism isn’t as obvious to everybody else in the country as it is to them. And the fact that Progressive attitudes on war and culture have brought Western Civilization to the brink of chaos has no visible effect on their self-confidence.

The original America Firsters were right, and a return to the idea of putting and keeping our own house in order would be a substantial improvement in the country’s politics.