From the December 1991 issue of Chronicles.
To the degree that it is remembered at all, the America First Committee (AFC) has gone down in history as an organization most suspect, at best composed of good people serving a bad cause, at worst riddled with conscious agents of a Nazi transmission belt. During its heyday in the years 1940-1941, some of the most influential agents of public opinion made no secret of their contempt for the organization. For example, the October 6, 1941, issue of Time spoke for many AFC foes in accusing America First of being ridden with “Jew-haters, Roosevelt-haters, Coughlinites, politicians, demagogues.”
Moreover, the Roosevelt administration was quite open in its hostility. Speaking with full knowledge that he had the support of the President, in April 1941 Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes found America First composed of “anti-democrats, appeasers, labor baiters, and anti-Semites.” Such opposition went beyond the realm of mere rhetoric, involving secret efforts at suppression. The Roosevelt administration engaged in efforts at censorship and political intimidation. The President secretly ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation to examine America First activities, hired a private investigator, and put a grand jury to work.
Anti-interventionists always claimed that their organization was slandered. Only, however, with the publication of Wayne S. Cole’s dispassionate treatment of the AFC, written at the University of Wisconsin under the direction of the distinguished diplomatic historian Fred Harvey Harrington, has a scholarly and dispassionate analysis been made available to the public. Cole’s America First: The Battle Against Intervention, 1940-1941 (1953) revealed that the AFC was a group very much in the mainstream of American political life, offering rational arguments against involvement in what was then called the “European war.” Cole gave much attention to the military and strategic arguments behind the position branded “isolationist” by its foes, and any fair-minded reader could see that within AFC ranks, tightly reasoned arguments were advanced. Furthermore, in challenging accusations that the AFC coddled pro-fascists and extreme rightists, Cole wrote that it sought to keep unsavory elements out of leadership positions and local chapters. Admittedly followers of the demagogic radio priest Father Charles E. Coughlin, members of the German-American Bund, and anti-Semites backed the AFC, particularly in Queens, New York, and San Francisco. America First, however, tried to purge its ranks of outright pro-fascists—and was more successful in this endeavor than its critics have ever conceded.
But what really was America First? To understand the organization, a bit of background is necessary. When World War II broke out in September 1939, anti-interventionist sentiment was diffuse and unorganized. The only real anti-interventionist group was a pacifist body, the National Council for the Prevention of War. Founded in 1921 by Quaker educator Frederick J. Libby as a clearinghouse for disarmament efforts, the NCPW served as an umbrella organization for a host of leading religious and peace groups that ranged from the National League of Women Voters to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. It reached the peak of its influence in the mid-1930’s, when it promoted both the neutrality acts (successfully) and a constitutional amendment to conduct a popular referendum before the United States entered any war (unsuccessfully). By the time Hitler’s panzers were crossing Poland, it had lost much ground to Roosevelt’s interventionist policies and a host of affiliated bodies had withdrawn, including the American Association of University Women.
In September 1939, Roosevelt asked Congress to revise the existing neutrality law, one that prohibited all sales of munitions overseas. Belligerents, said the President, should be permitted to purchase arms manufactured in the United States provided that they pay cash and carried them in their foreign vessels. Roosevelt’s critics, fully aware that such legislation benefited Europe’s two leading maritime powers—France and Britain—protested strongly against what was popularly called “cash-and-carry.” But such anti-interventionists could carry neither public opinion (if the polls be accurate) nor the Congress with them. The only pressure group of any strength was an interventionist one, headed by Kansas editor William Allen White and named the Nonpartisan Committee for Peace through the Revision of the Neutrality Law.
By the summer of 1940, France, the Low Countries, and two Scandinavian nations—Denmark and Norway—had fallen to Germany. A huge air battle was being waged over English skies, which has gone down in history as “the Battle of Britain,” and there was much talk that Hitler would soon launch a ground invasion of that embattled isle.
Moreover, the interventionists had established another pressure group, this one even better organized and financed. Again headed by editor White, it was called the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. The CDAAA endorsed the destroyer-bases deal of September 1940, an executive agreement by which Roosevelt exchanged 50 destroyers for 90-year leases on British bases in North America and the Caribbean. More militant voices within the CDAAA, who were soon to form the Fight for Freedom Committee, were proposing the sending of major American weapons to Britain, including pursuit planes, tanks, the top secret Norden bomb sight, high-speed torpedo craft (called mosquito boats), and four-engine bombers (called Flying Fortresses).
Only as these events were in the offing did critics of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s foreign policy undertake a concerted opposition, one that would soon center on the establishment of the America First Committee. Late in the spring of 1940, Yale law student R. Douglas Stuart and four of his colleagues launched a petition aimed at organizing college students into a nationwide anti-interventionist organization. Among the petition’s five drafters were Gerald S. Ford and Potter Stewart, later President of the United States and associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, respectively. Their efforts centered on enforcing the key provisions of the “cash-and-carry” law, officially called the Neutrality Act of 1939: banning loans to belligerents and blocking American shipment of war goods abroad. Insisting on the retention of “cash-and-carry,” the law students said, “We demand that Congress refrain from war, even if England is on the verge of defeat.” America’s very survival, so the Yale law students believed, could only be jeopardized if valuable weapons were sent overseas.
The law students soon enlarged their focus, seeking supporters not only in university ranks but in all areas of national life. General Robert E. Wood, 61-year-old board chairman of Sears, Roebuck, volunteered to lead a national organization and immediately became its acting chairman. One of America’s leading businessmen. Wood had originally backed the New Deal, supporting in particular federal relief to agriculture and the abandonment of the gold standard. He started to veer away from Roosevelt with the advent of the Wagner Labor Relations Act of 1935, which encouraged the formation of trade unions in major industries; FDR’s Supreme Court “packing” proposal of 1937; and the wages-and-hours bill of 1938. Less “isolationist” than many of Roosevelt’s critics. Wood supported “cash-and-carry,” conscription, and massive rearmament in the air.
The group originally called itself the Emergency Committee to Defend America First, but by late August it had renamed itself the America First Committee. The committee, formally organized that September, immediately took preeminence as America’s leading anti-interventionist body. In its brief history, it centered its activity on two of Roosevelt’s major foreign policy proposals: the passing of the Lend-Lease bill early in 1941 and the arming of merchant ships and escorting of war supplies to Allied ports in the late autumn of that year. The AFC also criticized other administration moves, such as the occupation of Iceland in July 1941, the drafting of the Atlantic Charter in August, and the placing of economic pressures on Japan throughout 1940 and 1941. Although it took no stand on extending the term of military service for draftees beyond the original one-year limit, something proposed by Roosevelt in July 1941, its research bureau argued that such a conscription policy was not needed for U.S. defense. The AFC remained in existence until Germany declared war on the United States, which was four days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and it formally disbanded on December 11, 1941.
By the time it folded, the AFC had 450 units and at least a quarter of a million members. During the 15 months of its existence, it had held massive rallies, distributed tons of literature, sponsored national radio speakers, and supplied research data to members of Congress. Unquestionably, for most of its life, it had mobilized the maximum amount of opposition possible to Roosevelt’s policies.
Prominent supporters included retired diplomat William R. Castle, once U.S. ambassador to Japan; Hugh Johnson, Scripps-Howard columnist and reserve general, who had directed Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration; attorney Clay Judson, who had headed the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations; Kathryn Lewis, who undoubtedly represented her father John L. Lewis, by far the most powerful labor leader in America; Al Williams, another Scripps-Howard columnist and leading advocate of air power; investor Sterling Morton, long a staunch conservative; and advertising executive Chester Bowles, later one of the more idealistic of President Kennedy’s New Frontiersmen. Liberal columnist John T. Flynn, who had long written a financial column for the New Republic, directed the New York Chapter, a particularly activist unit holding rallies on city street corners. R. Douglas Stuart took a leave of absence from Yale, first becoming national director, then executive secretary.
Some minor backers were later to win fame. For example, a personal friend of Stuart’s, young John F. Kennedy, contributed a hundred dollars to the organization, writing, “What you are doing is vital.” In his reply, Stuart asked Kennedy to work full time for his organization.
The participation of aviator Charles A. Lindbergh was particularly controversial. Flying solo across the Atlantic in 1927, “Lucky Lindy” had become the foremost hero of an entire generation. Certainly he was the only public figure whose popular appeal might match the President’s. He drew by far the greatest audiences at AFC rallies, which were broadcast coast-to-coast, though he was also the AFC leader most subject to vehement attack.
One of the more extreme anti-interventionists, Lindbergh said that he wanted neither Germany nor Britain to win the war; rather he sought a negotiated peace. He refused to return a Nazi decoration unexpectedly bestowed upon him in 1938, would not condemn German atrocities publicly, and—writing for the Reader’s Digest in 1939—called for building “our White ramparts.” A “Western wall of race and arms,” he said in the November issue, could hold back “either a Genghis Khan or the infiltration of inferior blood,” and he spoke of the common role that could be played by “an English fleet, a German air force, a French army, an American nation.” In late August 1941, Lindbergh warned that Great Britain itself might turn against the United States.
Then, on September 11, Lindbergh spoke at an AFC rally held at Des Moines. In his broadcast, carried by radio throughout the nation, he condemned Hitler’s persecution of the Jews but labeled Jews, along with the British and the Roosevelt administration, as among the three major elements leading the nation to war. “Their greatest danger,” he continued, “lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our Government.” Immediately, he—and the AFC—were called pro-Nazi, anti-British, and anti-Semitic. Within a month he denied such accusations, but his address dealt the AFC a blow from which it never recovered.
The AFC did include adherents to the domestic New Deal as well as its foes. Its two leading drawing cards from the U.S. Senate, Gerald P. Nye (Republican-North Dakota) and Burton K. Wheeler (Democrat-Montana), had originally been to the left of the New Deal on many issues. (Nye and Wheeler were also among the most vehemently anti-British of the major AFC speakers.) The AFC research division was staffed by liberals, socialists, and pacifists, and in examining the AFC position papers one finds that almost all the authors were liberals, that is people more in tune with the domestic, as well as the foreign policy, views of Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas than with the Liberty League.
Yet politically the AFC had an anti-New Deal cast. While it was officially neutral on the matter of party politics, it contained far more rank-and-file Republicans than Democrats. Moreover, as noted by historian Cole, many speakers at AFC rallies attacked both the President as a man and his domestic policies. Certainly the AFC executive committee—composed of leaders of the Chicago business community—was representative of the brand of business conservatism predominant in the 1930’s, and major parts of Midwestern business bankrolled the organization. Though about 25,000 people contributed $370,000 to the national headquarters, eight businessmen alone supplied over $100,000, among them Chicago textile manufacturer William H. Regnery, Chicago investment banker Harold L. Stuart, and the board chairman of Vick Chemical, H. Smith Richardson. Obviously among the anxieties of such individuals, there was the fear that war would accelerate higher taxes and promote “radical” trade unions in heavy industry. In the wake of an overheated economy, depression would inevitably follow any wartime boom.
If the AFC had an ideology, it was reflected in materials distributed by its speakers bureau. Here one found the anti-interventionist position at its most absolutist, going far beyond the restrained pro-British views of General Wood and nearly all committee leaders. In the eyes of the bureau, the war simply was “another chapter in the series of conflicts between European states that have been going on in war and peace for hundreds of years.” A new German empire was attempting to compete with well-established ones, and when Britain learned that Germany would be expanding at Britain’s expense, not that of the Soviet Union, it declared war on the Third Reich. Fortunately, the bureau went on, if only the United States preserved its democracy, it could insulate itself from National Socialism.
Even if Britain were victorious, so claimed the speakers bureau, it would be unable to restore the governments destroyed by Germany. Moreover, any reestablished states would be too small to defend themselves, and the unstable political order created by the Versailles peace would simply continue. To the AFC, one thing remained clear: neither the survival of democracy nor the preservation of the global balance of power was at stake in the current conflict.
Economic arguments came from another AFC division, its research bureau. A ravaged Europe, it claimed, would need so much food that Germany would simply be unable to exclude American goods. In fact, without U.S. raw materials, the industries of occupied Europe would be crippled.
Strategic arguments were given as well. In opposing a mass army, America Firsters claimed that a new American Expeditionary Force would simply prolong the struggle overseas, help prevent needed negotiation between England and Germany, and ensure Soviet domination of Europe. Furthermore, as both Germany and Russia were totalitarian states, the AFC claimed that there was no longer—if there ever had been—any moral issue at stake. Lindbergh went so far as to tell an AFC rally, “I would a hundred times rather see my country ally herself with England, or even with Germany, with all her faults, than the cruelty, the godlessness, and the barbarism that exists in Soviet Russia.”
On one level, the America First was a failure. Congress passed every bill the committee opposed, and public opinion polls seldom comforted the foes of intervention. More important, ultimately the United States entered World War II as a full-scale belligerent. America First, however, felt no guilt over its stance. In its closing statement, the AFC national committee said, “Our principles were right. Had they been followed, war could have been avoided.”
But America First cannot be dismissed so quickly. Despite its limitations, both internal and external, it did surprisingly well. It helped generate a public sentiment that forced Roosevelt to be more circumspect in such demands on Congress as draft renewal as well as more secretive moves, such as escorting British vessels. The AFC took credit for a number of things: an amendment to the Lend-Lease bill preventing actual delivery of war goods to Britain; Roosevelt’s failure to announce the sending of American convoys to Britain in his “national emergency” address of late May 1941, something long expected by both friend and foe of the President; and elimination of a clause—sponsored by the Roosevelt administration—in the original selective service extension bill of July 1941 explicitly permitting American troops to be stationed outside the hemisphere. It is, of course, hard to trace specific influence, but obviously the AFC helped generate enough public sentiment to make Roosevelt more cautious. In addition, as Cole notes, anti-interventionist strength in Congress increased throughout 1941, in large part because of America First efforts.
In one sense, committee strategy was quite successful. The AFC ignored or sought to discredit public opinion polls that consistently showed Americans more desirous of defeating Germany than of keeping out of war. Instead, it stressed that the public, by and large, always opposed entering the conflict as a full-fledged belligerent. What it quite naturally did not stress was that the polls favored Roosevelt’s specific interventionist moves. By defining the issue solely as war or peace, the committee could make strategic retreats after each defeat. If the Pearl Harbor attack had not taken place and if Hitler had restrained from attacking American shipping in the Atlantic, the America First Committee might well have won the major battle.
It is hardly surprising that anti-interventionism as a general political posture has been discredited decade after decade. As Professor Cole has written in another work (Richard S. Kirkendall, ed. The Harry S. Truman Encyclopedia, 1989), “The challenges to peace and security from the Axis states and then from Communist Russia, the development of nuclear weapons and effective delivery systems, the growth of cities and their accompanying industrial and financial capabilities, the further erosion of rural and small-town America, talented leadership by the foreign policy establishment, and the power of the presidency under Truman—all combined to weaken and discredit isolationism.”
Only in Vietnam has the United States withdrawn from a major commitment, and here the opposition to war had a radically different social and economic base than did America First. From the Greek-Turkish crisis of 1947 to the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the interventionists have won all the major battles. Even in Vietnam the opponents of war had little impact until the Tet Offensive that began in late January 1968, just a little less than five years after the first U.S. ground forces arrived in that land.
To talk seriously about such movements as America First, rather than to use its history as a political weapon for any contemporary foreign policy, one task is primary: to understand the full position of anti-intervention in the various decades of American history and the roots from which it sprang. Far too often, the anti-interventionists, including those involved in America First, are simplistically portrayed as prophets par excellence or as evil incarnate. They either foresaw Cold War involvements with perception and accuracy or they were cold-blooded appeasers, naive believers in peace-at-any-price, or sheer lunatics. In neither case is the complexity and richness of their position taken on its own ground.
Yet one can no more validate a contemporary position by separating the prophetic from the foolish than one can clip a person’s thought in mid-sentence. Both the rational arguments and the frenzied ones, the points of perception and the points of hysteria, reveal people caught in the most severe sorts of social stress. Of course, though this is far less emphasized, interventionists in all periods were subject to the same internal tensions, and one wishes for more historians possessing the subtlety of Richard Hofstadter and Otis L. Graham, Jr. to do justice to both sides in any such momentous debates.
To its foes, intervention could only mean further erosion of the America they most treasured. Fiscal responsibility, a village culture, individual economic opportunity, economic self-sufficiency, a totally autonomous foreign policy—all were linked together in anti-interventionist eyes, and for many years all have appeared beyond recall. Even now, 50 years later, we all remain—in our very different ways—haunted by the odyssey of America First.
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