America First

From Academic Kids

The America First movement was an isolationalist group that opposed United States involvement in World War II. Many prominent Americans were members, including aviator Charles Lindbergh. At its peak, America First had 800,000 members.

The organization disbanded shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The America First Committee (AFC) was founded in September of 1939 not long after Germany's invasion of Poland. In the spring of 1940, Yale law student R. Douglas Stuart, Jr., along with other students including future President Gerald Ford, Sargent Shriver and future Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, launched a petition aimed at enforcing the 1939 Neutrality Act.

More serious organizing of the America First Committee took place in Chicago, Illinois, not long after. Chicago was to remain the national headquarters of the committee.

To preside over their committee, America First chose General Robert E. Wood, the 61 year-old chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Co.. While Wood would accept only an interim position, he remained at the head of the committee until it was disbanded in the days after Pearl Harbor. On the day after Franklin D. Roosevelt's lend-lease bill was submitted to Congress, Wood promised AFC opposition "with all the vigor it can exert." America First staunchly opposed the convoying of ships, the Atlantic Charter, and the placing of economic pressure on Japan. In order to achieve the defeat of lend-lease and the perpetuation of American neutrality, the AFC advocated four basic 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.

While the America First Committee had its share of prominent businessmen as well as the sympathies of political figures like Senator Burton K. Wheeler or Senator Gerald P. Nye, no one figure was more representative of the movement than Charles A. Lindbergh. However, Lindbergh had been actively involved in questioning the motives of the Roosevelt administration well before the formation of the AFC. Lindbergh adopted an anti-war stance even before the Battle of Britain and before the advent of the lend-lease bill. His first radio speech was broadcast on September 15, 1939 over all three of the major radio networks (Mutual, National, and Columbia). Lindbergh urged listeners to look beyond the speeches and propaganda they were being fed and instead look at who was writing the speeches and reports, who owned the papers and who influenced the speakers.

The heart of Lindbergh's arguments, as it would be in his America First speeches, was his advocacy of a hemispheric defense. He was convinced that the barriers posed by the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans would keep any potential attacker at bay. He urged the strengthening of American air power and the establishment of coastal defenses for good measure. The best hope for preserving America's peace was a strong American defense in its own hemisphere. He also routinely pointed out that Americans had not been able to vote on the issues at hand and that they were being asked to become involved in issues that were not their own but Europe's.

Throughout 1940 and 1941 Lindbergh emerged as the most recognizable of America First's spokesmen. However, while his personal fame brought a measure of potency to the movement, there were shadows of his past that served, along with other elements, to marginalize the movement's message. On June 20, 1940 Lindbergh spoke to a rally at Los Angeles's Hollywood Bowl, a rally billed as "Peace and Preparedness Mass Meeting". In his speech of that day, Lindbergh criticized those movements he perceived as leading America into the war. He proclaimed that the United States was in a position that made it virtually impregnable and he pointed out that when interventionists said "the defense of England" they really meant "defeat of Germany." Lindbergh's presence at the Hollywood Bowl rally was overshadowed, however, by the presence of fringe elements in the crowd. Members of Congress noted the newspaper headlines stating "L.A. NAZI'S PREPARE FOR LINDBERGH RALLY." It was the Achilles heel of the America First Committee that they were unable to disassociate themselves from such fringe elements as pro-German American Nazis and the radical Catholic followers of Father Coughlin.

Perhaps more important than perceptions of the committee at large were perceptions of Lindbergh. As the most prominent spokesman of the committee, Lindbergh held unfortunate ties to the Nazi regime in Germany in the form of an medal awarded by Hermann Göring, ties that he obstinately refused to disavow.

However, no one speech - and no possession of medals - did more to tarnish Lindbergh's reputation or that of America First than the speech he delivered to a rally in Des Moines, Iowa on September 11, 1941. In that speech he blamed the British, the Roosevelt administration, and the Jews for drawing America into the war, proclaiming that they were all agitators. While he admitted sympathy for the plight of the Jews in Germany, he pointed out that America's entry into the war would serve them little better. An outcry quickly arose after the speech.

For a group that had relied on Lindbergh's appeal to offset its perceived association with fringe elements, the Des Moines speech was devastating to America First. While Lindbergh was forced onto the defensive, claiming that his words had been misunderstood and that he was not anti-Semitic, the AFC was rendered largely ineffective because it had never really moved beyond the radio and rally format in getting its message across. Still, despite their ultimate ineffectiveness, the America First committee had been potent enough to delay the passage of lend-lease and keep the Roosevelt administration from obtaining its goals without opposition for almost two years.

With the formal declaration of war against Japan following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Committee chose to disband. On December 11 the committee leaders met and voted for dissolution. In the statement they released to the press was the following:

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...

Other individuals associated with America First were novelist Sinclair Lewis, poet E. E. Cummings, author Gore Vidal (as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy), Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and actress Lillian Gish. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright attempted to join, but the board thought he had a "reputation for immorality".

See also

Further reading

  • Roth, Philip, The Plot Against America: A Novel, Houghton Mifflin 2004. ISBN 0618509283. A fictional "alternate history" hypothesizing the events following an election victory by America First in 1940, told from the perspective of a Jewish American family.
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