President Donald Trump embraced the term “America First” on the campaign trail as part of his promise to “Make America Great Again.” The Trump White House has continued prominently featuring the phrase, promoting an “America First” foreign policy and an “America First” energy plan on its website. In American history, however, “America First” has long and deep roots in anti-Semitism, isolationism, and appeasement of Nazi Germany.
President Woodrow Wilson first employed the phrase “America First” during World War 1 to outline his view of American neutrality. At the beginning of the war, Wilson promised to keep America out of the conflict and presented the United States as superior to the warring nations of Europe. Wilson’s American exceptionalism stressed how the United States could serve as a broker of peace and not become embroiled in the secret alliances and backdoor politics that had triggered the war. Wilson remained devoted to his neutrality policy until American entry into World War 1 in 1917. (He never abandoned his view of American exceptionalism.)
“America First” took on a new life in the 1930s thanks to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. At the turn of the 20th century, Hearst had pioneered “yellow journalism,” the use of sensationalist headlines and stories to sell papers and helped draw the United States into the Spanish American War. By the 1930s, Hearst’s politics had taken a dramatic turn to the right and he, in the words of historian Eric Rauchway, adopted “proto-fascist politics.” Under headlines extolling the virtues of placing “America First,” Hearst attacked the Roosevelt administration—which he believed had been infiltrated by communists—labor unions, and foreign moneyed interests (code for Jews). Hearst admired Hitler for promoting a pro-German nationalism and his outspoken opposition to communism. He even published articles written by Hitler in his newspapers. Thanks to his popularization of the term, “America First” became code for anti-Semitism, isolationism, and support of German fascism.
In September 1940, a group of Yale University law school students organized the America First Committee. These students included R. Douglas Stuart Jr., whose father was the co-founder of Quaker Oats; Gerald Ford, future president of the United States; future Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart; and Sargent Shriver, who would direct the Peace Corps in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. In the following months, several hundred chapters formed up across the country and membership swelled to almost a million members (primarily based in the Midwest). The Committee established its headquarters in Chicago under the leadership of General Robert E. Wood, the chairman of Sears-Roebuck. The Committee’s most prominent supporters included major figures from the political left and right including Walt Disney, Sterling Morton of Morton’s Salt, Jay Hormel of Hormel Foods, socialist leader Norman Thomas, and novelist Sinclair Lewis.
The America First Committee advocated that America stay out of the war in Europe and instead seek a negotiated peace with Hitler and Nazi Germany. The organization, however, could never shake its anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi roots, especially when Charles Lindbergh became its primary spokesman in April 1941. In September 1941, Lindbergh addressed an America First rally in Des Moines, Iowa. In his speech, Lindbergh claimed that “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.” He then lamented that “Their [the Jews] greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” While Lindbergh claimed that he was not attacking Jews, his meaning was clear. Jewish Americans were not real Americans. As he put it, “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.” Lindbergh portrayed American Jews as foreigners seeking to draw the United States into a war to advance their own interests.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the America First Committee ceased its operations. In a public statement, they lamented that “Our principles were right. Had they been followed, war could have been avoided. No good purpose can now be served by considering what might have been, had our objectives been attained.” While the America First Committee disbanded at the beginning of American involvement in World War 2, President Donald Trump has given new life to the term “America First” and its legacy of isolationism, appeasement, and anti-Semitism.
Charles Lindbergh, Des Moines Speech, September 11, 1941
Here’s a video from the Council on Foreign Relations detailing the history of the America First Committee: