WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEENnby Wayne S. ColenThe America First Committee was part of democracy innaction during one of the most terrifying times innhuman history. It was the leading pressure group appealingnfor mass support in opposition to involvement in World WarnII before Pearl Harbor.nWhen America First saw the light of day in Septembern1940, Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, and the LownCountries had already fallen before Nazi Cermany’s blitzkrieg.nFascist Italy had joined the fray. Winston Churchillnhad replaced Chamberlain at the helm of the Britishngovernment. The “Battle of Britain” was raging in the skiesnand seas of that island kingdom. Though the holocaust laynbeyond horizons of the future, Hider’s Nazi persecution ofnJews was known to all. Immobilized by the Russo-GermannPact, Stalin’s Soviet Union waited in the wings to takenadvantage of opportunities the conflagration might provide.nIn Asia militarist Japan had overrun much of China, wasnsoon to join in the Tripartite Pact, and was poised to seizennorthern Indochina. It was a terrible and terrifying time. Nonone could sensibly make light of the realities at that momentnor of the horrors the future might hold. There were no easynanswers to the question of what policies the United Statesnought to pursue toward those ominous developments.nFew Americans felt any sympathy for Hider’s Nazis,nMussolini’s Fascists, Hirohito’s militarists, or Stalin’s Communists.nAmerica’s charismatic President Franklin D. Rooseveltnhad proclaimed American neutrality. He pressednexpansion of the sea, air, and land forces of the UnitednStates, culminating with enactment of the first peacetimenselective service law in American history. Never neutral innthought or policies, FDR concluded the deal exchangingnoverage destroyers for bases in British possessions in thenWestern Hemisphere. His “aid-short-of-war” policies hopednto sustain resistance to Axis aggression. Millions of Americans,nhowever, worried that those steps “short of war” couldnprove, instead, to be “steps to war.” Therein lay the core ofnthe divisions among the American people.nDuring its harried 15-month existence the America FirstnCommittee organized local chapters in most states, enrollednmore than 800,000 members, attracted thousands to hugenrallies addressed by leading noninterventionists, distributednmillions of pamphlets and leaflets, and inundated congressmennand the White House with letters and telegramsnopposing involvement in the war.nThe committee’s leaders rejected rioting and violence.nThey barred Nazis, Fascists, and anh-Semites from membership,nand tried to enforce those bans. The committeenused orderly democratic methods in desperate efforts tonkeep the United States out of the wars raging abroad. Thencommittee’s position on foreign affairs was consistent withnWayne S. Cole is a professor of history at the Universitynof Maryland at College Park and author of, amongnothers, America First: The Battle Against Intervention,n1940-1941 (19S3}, Charies A. Lindbergh and the BattlenAgainst American Intervention in Worid War II (1974),nand Roosevelt and the Isolationists (J 985).n20/CHRONICLESnnntraditions extending back to the beginnings of America’snindependent history and before. When war burst on Americanwith the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the committeenceased its noninterventionist activities, pledged support tonthe war effort, and dismanded its organization. Most of itsnmembers loyally supported the war against the Axis, andnmany, including some of its prominent leaders, served innAmerica’s Armed Forces. The America First Committeenwas a patriotic and honorable exercise of democracy innaction at a critical time in American history.nNonetheless, the committee, its leaders, and many of itsnmembers took a terrible beating. They failed to keep thenUnited States out of the war. They could not evennsuccessfully block specific Roosevelt actions moving thenUnited States closer to war. More troubling, they werentarred by charges that they were pro-Nazi; or serving thenNazi cause:. One widely distributed pamphlet called AmericanFirst “The Nazi Transmission Belt.” Senator JosephnMcCarthy did not invent “guilt-by-association” methods;nPresident Roosevelt and many of his supporters used thosenmethods with great effectiveness against opponents of hisnforeign policies. Most leading noninterventionists who heldnelective office were defeated in later bids for reelection.nProminent leaders of America First carried the stigma ofntheir noninterventionist efforts with them to their graves.nThe committee remains tarnished and suspect in the eyes ofnmost—including historians who ought to know better.nThough he was a member of America First only half of itsnhistory, the famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh was both itsnmost acclaimed and most vilified spokesman. He had hisnown independent thoughts and chose his words carefully,nbut he infuriated his critics. He enraged them when hencalled for “new leadership” in America — though he nevernintended the use of any but legal democratic methods tonaccomplish that leadership. And he brought down the fullnfury of his opponents when, at an America First rally in DesnMoines, Iowa, on September II, 1941, he charged thatn”The three most important groups who have been pressingnthis country toward war are the British, the Jewish, and thenRoosevelt administration.” Though denying charges ofnanti-Semitism, neither Lindbergh nor America First evernrecovered from the staggering blow that statement broughtnupon them. One might have thought that Lindbergh hadnpersonally ordered the holocaust.nIt has now been a half century since the America FirstnCommittee waged its losing battle to stay out of WorldnWar II. I began doing research on the committee inn1947 — two years after the death of Roosevelt and the endnof World War II. In the decades since then I have researchednevery document and letter I have been able to locate on thencommittee, its leaders and members, and its critics. Inresearched the papers of the organization and of many of itsnleaders — including Lindbergh. I gained research access tonJustice Department and FBI records.nFrom the beginning I took the charges against thencommittee very seriously. I analyzed them with great care.n