At Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, he laid out his foreign policy plan for his next four years in office:
“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first — America first. “
This isn’t the first time the words “America First” have been used in a political context, most notably, and perhaps notoriously as the name of an isolationist, anti-war movement prior to World War II.*
Charles Lindbergh, the famous celebrity aviator accused by some of fascism, was at the forefront of a national debate that would become the isolationist “America First Committee” movement.
“I have been forced to the conclusion that we cannot win this war for England regardless of how much assistance we sent,” he said in one of his public speeches. “That is why the ‘America First Committee’ has been formed.”
Susan Dunn teaches American political history at Williams College in Massachusetts. In a piece for CNN.com, Dunn questions why Trump has chosen to brand his foreign policy direction with what she describes as a sulfurous label from America’s past.
“It is extremely unfortunate that in his speech Wednesday outlining his foreign policy goals, Donald Trump chose to brand his foreign policy with the noxious slogan ‘America First,’” she writes, “the name of the isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler.”
“America First Committee”, one of the largest anti-war movements in American history, was founded by a Yale Law School student in 1940. At that time, Hitler was crushing all of the democracies of western Europe. The movement supported keeping America isolated from World War II, Dunn says, which had devastating consequences.
Dunn says the movement, which peaked at 800,00 paid members across 450 chapters, was made up of many different groups of people.
She says some people were well-meaning and they simply were scarred by the memories of World War I and they didn’t want to go into another war.
“Then there were others, like Charles Lindbergh, who felt that the United States was so isolated and safe because we were surrounded by two vast oceans that we were in no danger of war or attack and we shouldn’t therefore participate,” Dunn says. “We were safe.”
Lindbergh was part of a group of defeatists, who believed that Germany was unstoppable. He was also part of a group of anti-Semites who felt like Jewish people were influencing American politicians to make America enter the war.
Others – like Joe Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s father – believed going to war would raise taxes. And yet others said the American democracy was so fragile it couldn’t survive another war.
But the most interesting members – which also included Lindbergh and his wife – were the ones who were pro-fascist, Dunn says. Lindbergh’s wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, published a book in 1940.
“She argues that the wave of the future is fascism,” Dunn says. “She says that democracy is old fashioned – it’s the past and the future is dynamic fascism. That it’s modern, it’s energetic and democracy is just an old-fashioned 18th-century invention and its time has passed.”
Charles Lindbergh also spent some time in Germany, Dunn says, and was very impressed by German modernism and technology.
The question then, Dunn asks is “Why then did [Trump] poison [his speech] with the sulfurous expression ‘America First,’ reminiscent of one of the ugliest chapters in recent American history?”
The phrase is tainted, Dunn says.
“One would only know that if one is acquainted with that history,” she says.
But American history should matter, Dunn says.
“Americans should be aware of their history and the reasons why we fought World War II against the Nazi gangsters who wanted to take over the whole planet and who represented the opposite of any semblance of Judeo-Christian morality and tolerance that America is founded on,” she says.
“I think we should be aware of American history and not use expressions that are so toxic and tainted by all kinds of prejudice and ignorance.”
*Editor’s note: This sentence has been updated.
Written by Beth Cortez-Neavel.