The America First Committee emerged nationwide in the summer of 1940 from the initial efforts of Gerald Ford, Potter Stewart, and other Yale Law School students, seconded by law professor Edwin Borchard. It evolved amid the American political cataclysm following Franklin Roosevelt’s landslide election to a second term in November 1936. The mandate to institute a social revolution in America was seized by the New Dealers. The overwhelming Democratic majority in the Senate and House was checked only by the “nine old men” of the Supreme Court. Having struck down as unconstitutional a number of key New Deal acts, this last obstacle to radical change needed to be reformed.
Roosevelt presented his court-packing bill to the new Congress in 1937. After a grueling struggle the bill was rejected when a number of Democratic senators defected from the administration. Traditionalist Democratic senators joined Western Progressive Republicans in defeating the bill. A new majority emerged in Congress in opposition to the New Deal from these former supporters among Democrats and Progressive Republicans. In the 1938 primaries, Roosevelt unsuccessfully campaigned to defeat the defecting Democrats. A new generation of Republicans, as exemplified by Robert A. Taft, defeated the New Deal Democrats, and along with those who defeated the attack on the Supreme Court formed the coalition that opposed Roosevelt’s interventionist foreign policy.
Opposition to the court-packing bill was led by Lewis Gannett, publisher of the Rochester Union-Democrat. Gannett organized the Committee for Constitutional Government in New York City and launched a mass campaign to encourage citizens to write to their congressmen regarding the court-packing bill. The mass campaign encouraged the congressmen to challenge a President who had won the largest landslide in history.
In the wake of the court-packing controversy the President found that the bill for his pump-priming, tax-and-spend measures to win his reelection had come due. The 1937 Depression was sharp and deep, and the Congress would not buckle under to new New Deal measures that avoided the actions necessary to move out of the Depression. As assistant secretary of the navy during World War I and Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1920 (defeated by the Harding-Coolidge repudiation of the Wilsonian crusade to save the world), Roosevelt had learned how foreign policy could be manipulated to achieve partisan political goals.
Realizing that domestic Keynesianism no longer would move Congress, Roosevelt turned to military Keynesianism. He would create the conditions in foreign policy that would coax the Congress to vote pump-priming government employment schemes through the military budget. Naval shipbuilding would provide lots of government jobs, and Japan’s wrongheaded search for stability in China against communist and nationalist movements would provide the excuse.
Roosevelt’s greatest loss had been the defection over his court-packing scheme of the pre-New Deal Progressives in the Republican and Democratic parties. Whatever mild government interventions they had advocated, they found abhorrent and un-American the measures proposed by the President’s Brain Trust. Their proposals for government aid to farmers were met with New Deal controls and bureaucracy. By opposing the packing of the Supreme Court, the press now called them “right-wingers.” Once called agrarian reformers, they were now accused of being more interested in protecting individual rights than in giving the “people” a new agenda.
The Old Progressives were Roosevelt’s major opponents. They had been the diehard opponents of foreign interventionism and militarism, such as William Jennings Bryan, who had resigned as Secretary of State in the face of Wilson’s lying about neutrality, and the Democratic majority leader of the House, Representative Claude Kitchin of North Carolina, who had led the opposition to U.S. entry into World War I. Republican Progressives had been even stronger opponents of Wilsonianism. Senators Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin and William E. Borah of Idaho, along with Representative (and gubernatorial candidate of Minnesota) Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr., all withstood the withering attacks (sometimes physical) of the national security hounds.
The Old Progressives, especially if they were Republicans, had begun to reassess their former populist domestic agenda. Though onetime supporters of early New Deal legislation, they began to agree with the economic arguments for fiscal and budgetary limitations recommended by Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio and Harry F. Byrd of Virginia. There was a growing recognition that government intervention in either foreign or domestic affairs merely caused greater problems and encouraged further legislation.
The most important legacy of the America First movement was its critical attitude toward change. The Progressive movement of the early 20th century exhibited a dual attitude toward change, seeking both to contain and to control it so as to maintain familiar aspects of the past. For example, the Progressives tended to use government power to limit the effects of agricultural technology that made farming less labor intensive. They saw the farm as necessary for the social and political stability of the country. At the same time, they recognized that change would involve the movement toward a nonagricultural society. The policy was to delay by legislation the change away from farming and to control by political regulation the change to a modern society.
But the Old Progressives perceived change in a different light after Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme. Rather than the ideal of an economy based on self-sufficiency and, the family farm, they began to see alternative mechanisms of financial security and political independence that were possible in and from a market economy, such as insurance, annuities, and home-ownership (the suburban homeowner as the yeoman). In addition, the New Deal experience had warned them about the evils of central control. They began to see the homeowner and the consumer as the foundation of modern society, and government legislation, regulation, and bureaucracy as threats. It was not difficult for them to see that internationalist foreign policy, especially foreign military and economic aid, was the New Deal writ large around the world.
That the America First legacy involves the problem of modernization was expressed recently in a September book review in the New Republic. The reviewer was discussing conservative support for Moise Tshombe, who sought a confederation of autonomous provinces of the Congo rather than the CIA’s centralized military despotism:
The same shift and tension appeared in conservative responses to the Nigerian civil war. Huxleyish (Elspeth Huxley) sympathies for gallant Ibos were generally overridden by America-Firster “realism,” which perceived a strong American interest in preserving a pro-capitalist, pro-Western, and potentially oil-rich national government in Lagos.
This was preceded by the following insights into American attitudes on foreign policy:
The examples of 1776, and of Franklin Roosevelt’s construction of a powerful, centralized, capitalist-welfare state permitted many liberals to fantasize, in the characteristically teleological “modernization” discourse of that silver age, that independent Africa was following cheerfully if belatedly in American footsteps.
By 1970, however, this rosy consensus had largely broken down. Some intellectuals, working the individualist-moralist side of the liberal street, became upset over the plainly brutal treatment of oppositions and minorities by postcolonial authoritarian regimes. If African states had the right to self-determination, they were certainly not permitted the right to abandon “basic human values.” Such liberals sympathized with Biafra and denounced the “anti-Semitic” pogroms against the Ibos in 1966-67. Others, more enchanted with Keynesian welfare-capitalism, tended to accept the claim that “African nationalists” had the right to run their countries in accordance with local conditions and traditions, provided that the general trajectory of their regimes could be read in a “progressive” New Deal light. These people conjured up the dangers of tribalism and sectionalism, and Lincoln’s use of strong-arm methods to “save the Union,” to insist on the need to support the “nationalist” military regime of General Yakubu Gowon and its look-alikes elsewhere on the continent.
Despite the reviewer’s bizarre attribution of America First “realism” to military, diplomatic, and financial intervention by the U.S. government, to which America First “realism” would be totally opposed, there is an important recognition of the difference between true America First conservatism and the pseudo-conservatism of the State Department and White House that has adopted a Dag Hammarskjold-type of idealism that runs roughshod over local customs and autonomy. America First conservatism challenged these fantasies regarding “modernization” and saw the violations of human rights by U.S.-supported governments as proof of an essential corrupt foreign policy.
America First realism saw traditions and customs as evolving institutions that responded to new ideas and new challenges, some good and some bad. It opposed Western government conquests around the world, while remaining neutral about Western individual merchants, missionaries, sightseers who wish to bring trade, medicine, education, or tourism to foreign peoples who wished to accept them. America First realists were not surprised that the postcolonial leaders, who had been trained in the best ideas of Western interventionism, of Keynesianism and of the welfare state, violated human rights. Having been subjected to the human rights violations of Roosevelt, they were not surprised that Big Brother led to spying and prosecutions. The Keynesian welfare state cannot accept the traditional societies it encounters.
America First conservatism is the view of the ordinary American, the silent majority, who wishes to be left alone by’ the state. It is the view of the 19th-century American whose only contact with the state was with the postman, and it holds that the world is made up of human beings with the same nature but with varying customs and institutions. America First conservatism is cosmopolitan, but not interventionist.
It is possible that the cosmopolitanism of the America First legacy can include those who when visiting abroad feel a sense of American superiority. While accepting foreign cultures on their own terms, most would still prefer to return to their own home, street, and church. But it is contrary to this tradition to belittle American culture and to speak of the superiority of anything foreign. One is reminded of John Lukacs’ contention that American attitudes on foreign policy parallel the literary contrast between palefaces and redskins. The redskin authors—like Mark Twain, Willa Gather, H.L. Mencken—relished American attitudes, personalities, and characters, while the palefaces—like Henry James—preferred Europe (especially England) and Americans who acted English. There was no mistaking the redskin in Bob Taft, Barry Goldwater, and~ Ronald Reagan. When the New Left spoke of an abstract Prairie Power, it was the Republicans who produced the concrete voters for the Sage Brush Rebellion.
It is the paleface Americans who make up the Establishment and fill the bureaucracy, especially in the State Department and foreign aid and international information agencies. The American public—the redskins—tend to resent their hectoring and advocacy of financial and other involvement by the taxpayers in foreign affairs. We find the bullying of these palefaces annoying. Think how offensive they must be to other people around the world.