“It is by building our own strength and character at home—not by crusading abroad—that we can contribute most to civilization throughout the world.”

—Col. Charles Lindbergh

The America First Committee of 1940-41 was the largest antiwar organization (800,000 members) in American history.  Although it was founded by a group of Yale law students in the summer of 1940 and never lost its patrician character, it was headquartered in Chicago and found its greatest support among Midwesterners.  It was also strong in the Mountain states but weakest in the bellicose, Roosevelt-worshiping South.  (Of 54 congressmen and senators who spoke under AFC auspices, 33 were from the Midwest; 12, from the West; 8, from the Northeast; and only 1 from the South.)  Although anti-New Deal Republicans predominated, the committee included many Democrats, progressives, populists, and socialists.  What united them was their desire to frustrate the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to join the war in Europe as a full belligerent on the side of, first, the British Empire and, then, communist Russia.  Their heroic efforts remind us that there was a time when ordinary Americans believed, still with some reason, that they had the right to decide whether their country should remain at peace or go to war; still more of a time when most Americans even cared, one way or the other.

A Story of America First was written by Ruth Sarles (the head of the research bureau and chief congressional liaison for the AFC) in the months following the dissolution of the committee after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  It was never published.  Now, thanks to the initiative and financial support of Bill Regnery (grandson of William H. Regnery, the Chicago businessman who was perhaps the largest financial backer of the AFC) and the editorial labors of Bill Kauffman, the manuscript is now available in a superb edition that students and historians of the period will find invaluable.  Not only does Sarles’ account benefit from her personal participation in the AFC’s efforts, it includes primary sources—excerpts from speeches, key letters, and documents and the results of opinion polls taken in the two years before the United States entered the war.  Kauffman has made the book better still by including an editorial introduction, a biographical essay on prominent anti-interventionists, a list of speakers and national committee members of America First, valuable footnotes, and an interview with the founder of the committee, Robert Douglas Stuart, Jr.  (The volume also includes a photo essay and editorial cartoons from the Chicago Tribune.)

Unlike the Roosevelt administration, whose real foreign objectives were hidden from the American people and whose methods involved smear tactics, deception, subterfuge, and propaganda, America First was open, candid, and truthful.  As Lindbergh himself noted during a speech, “those of us who oppose intervention have constantly tried to clarify facts and issues; while the interventionists have tried to hide facts and confuse issues.”  In a draft of a speech he was to give in Boston, he declared that 

it is time to define exactly what we mean by democracy and freedom.  These are qualities too sacred to our country, to our traditions, and to our hopes, to be left to the irresponsible use of slogans and propaganda.

This dichotomy has been present from the beginning of the republic.  The dominant ruling class has always relied on cant, flattery, and empty promises to stay in power, while ignoring consequences, long-term effects, or the need to make choices.  Their opponents (Antifeder-alists, Old Republicans, the followers of Calhoun, Copperheads, Grover Cleveland Democrats, and America First members), scorning such popular methods, have found themselves on the losing side of history.

America First leaders were on solid ground when they charged the Roosevelt administration with deception and deceit for trying to maneuver the country into the European war while professing peaceful intentions.  The poll results from 1940 and 1941 show that a consistent 80-percent majority opposed going to war against Germany.  Charles Lindbergh thundered,

If we can be forced into a foreign war against the opposition of more than four-fifths of our people, then the idea of representative government and democracy will be proved such a failure at home that there will be little use fighting for it abroad.

The Roosevelt administration was well aware of this overwhelming antiwar majority.  When his poll numbers began falling in the weeks before the presidential election, Roosevelt uttered his famous pledge to “the mothers and fathers” of America that “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war.”  Moreover, the Democratic platform pledged the party to a policy of peace; hence the necessity of “maneuvering” the Germans or Japanese into “firing the first shot” (to paraphrase Secretary of War Henry Stimson).  According to Lindbergh, “they believed the country could be enticed into the war in very much the same way we were enticed into the last one”: by “involving us in the war step by step” and by creating “a series of incidents which would force us into the actual conflict.”

The polls do reveal that the American public was far from favoring strict neutrality.  They overwhelmingly favored a British victory and believed it essential to American security.  Although no more than 20 percent wanted to send an American expeditionary force to England and only 24 percent wanted to send the air corps, a small majority favored lending or leasing armaments and even using the Navy to convoy shipments.  When asked if they would approve of going to war if England were on the verge of losing to Germany, an astonishing 68 percent said “Yes”; roughly the same percentage also thought that it was more important to help England win, even at the risk of war, than to keep out of it.  In short, Roosevelt’s policies of aid “short of war” had majority support.  However, the administration sold these policies by promising that they would help keep the country out of the war raging in Europe.

The AFC denied that the Third Reich threatened North America and that—even if such was its intention—it could ever achieve world domination.  On the contrary, they argued that Hitler’s territorial and strategic ambitions were toward Russia and the East (for which there is ample historical evidence) and that, in any event, Germany would have her hands full finishing off the Bolsheviks and policing her conquests for years to come.  They argued that it was in England’s best interest to make peace (a judgment now corroborated by revisionist historian John Charmley) with Germany, and that Nazism, which was opposed both to Christianity and to the Western love of freedom, would dissolve from within.

The excerpts from America First speeches reveal the committee’s leaders to have been political prophets of a high order.  John Cudahy predicted that American intervention would prolong and deepen the war, and thus lead to the physical and cultural devastation of Europe.  Sixty years later, Europe has yet to recover her self-confidence as a distinct civilization and independent world power.  John T. Flynn predicted that fighting another European war would give birth to a “new order in America,” the characteristics of which would be distinctly “fascist.”  He had in mind not only the ascendancy of “militarism” but a vast and permanent expansion of government power at home, including “vast taxation,” massive government “borrowing,” monetary inflation, and “minute bureaucratic control” of social and economic life.  Today, we have all of these things.  Others, such as President Henry MacCracken of Vassar College, foresaw an “American world-empire” with permanent “garrisons in Germany, Japan, and Italy.”  They are still there.  President Robert M. Hutchins of the University of Chicago denounced Roosevelt’s desire to “fight on till the four freedoms ring everywhere” as a “program for perpetual war, war in Latin America, war in the Far East, war in the South Seas.”  He pointed out that FDR’s wish “to force the four freedoms upon people who might prefer to do without them” was simply a “revised conception of the White Man’s burden” and a “modern version [of] America’s Manifest Destiny.”  Col. Hanford MacNider foresaw “America’s sons . . . policing the rest of the world.”  Sen. Robert Taft predicted that “we will be in war the rest of our lives.  We will be assuming the position the English had to take for many years.  We will have to maintain the balance of power in Europe.”  Before Orwell’s 1984, Lindbergh perceived how the government, not the people, was now deciding the crucial distinction between friend and foe: “One year Russia is a totalitarian monster, and the next year she is a democratic friend.”  Everything these men predicted has come true.

Lindbergh joined the AFC in the spring of 1941.  As the only American who could rival President Roosevelt in prestige or popularity, he was a huge asset to the committee and quickly became its most sought-after speaker.  He also quickly became a lighting rod for charges that the AFC was pro-Nazi and antisemitic.  Lindbergh was neither, but he did refuse to return a German medal (the Order of the German Eagle) he had received from Hermann Goering at the American embassy in Berlin in 1938.  (Lindbergh had been invited by the U.S. ambassador to a dinner in honor of Goering and was told his presence would be useful in helping to improve German-American relations.)  Certainly, Lindbergh cannot be faulted for accepting the medal, and no honorable man would have bowed to the sanctimonious and insistent demands that he later return it.

Lindbergh’s Des Moines speech, in which he charged that “the three most important groups who have been pressing this country to war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration,” was another matter.  His claim was substantially true, but it was impolitic.  It provided ammunition for the interventionists, and it put the national committee on the defensive.  The AFC responded that the interventionists were the ones who had introduced the Jewish race issue into the debate over war and peace.  It did not help matters, however, to take the bait.

The charges made against Lindbergh should be turned on his accusers.  Why was Roosevelt never accused of being pro-Soviet and procommunist?  His administration was riddled with Soviet spies and communists (including his close advisor Harry Hopkins); he had great affection for Joseph Stalin and believed the Soviet Union was on the “progressive” side of history; he extended the Lend-Lease Act to that totalitarian dictatorship; and he formed a military and political alliance with a murderous regime.  Lindbergh, by contrast, advocated strict neutrality and noninvolvement.

This is the classic left-wing double standard at work.  Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes could denounce Lindbergh and Oswald Garrison Villard (a pacifist and a former editor of the Nation) for being “Nazi fellow travelers” when a much stronger case could be made that Ickes and Roosevelt were communist fellow travelers.  Ickes even had the nerve to accuse Lindbergh “and those like him” of being a “menace . . . to this country and its free institutions”—this from an administration whose economic policies involved drastic infringements on fundamental economic freedoms and whose chief foreign-policy objective was opposed by eight out of ten Americans.  The contrast between the vile character of Ickes, a bureaucrat with “the mind of a commissar” (according to Clare Boothe Luce), and Lindbergh, “the best that we are ever apt to produce in the hero line, American style” and a “true white knight through and through” (according to novelist Gore Vidal), could not be greater. 

The AFC represented those Americans who believed that their country should tend her own garden instead of attempting to manage the affairs of other peoples, practice democracy at home instead of imposing it abroad, and shun all wars except those waged in self-defense.  The War Party, representing the gunfighter and crusader impulses in the American mind, prevailed, and it continues to rule.  


[A Story of America First: The Men and Women Who Opposed U.S. Intervention in World War II, by Ruth Sarles (Westport, CT: Praeger) 238 pp., $69.95]