Graphic Illustration by DOUG DOBEY
by Jack R. Johnson
The term ‘American First’ did not originate with Donald Trump. In fact, it has a long (and tarnished) history that has its roots in an isolationist strain running through this country since its inception. Our first President, George Washington had a farewell address that famously warned against foreign entanglements. That was back in the glory days of 1796. Pacifists tried to keep us out of World War I, and after the war, then President Woodrow Wilson urged the U.S. to join the nascent League of Nations, but he was rebuffed by an isolationist U.S. Senate.
In the late twenties this isolationist concept was captured in a phrase coined by the Mayor of Chicago, William Thompson. His campaign anthem was “America First, Last and Always”; and when war broke out in Europe, a Yale graduate hooked up with some wealthy businessmen and a retired General to form what would come to be known as the America First Committee.
Charles Lindbergh who made the first solo manned flight across the Atlantic and was hailed as a hero by both continents, became the legendary spokesperson for this committee. He, along with 800,000 or so Americans, wanted nothing to do with rescuing Europe from its self-destructive tendencies.
“I have been forced to the conclusion that we cannot win this war for England regardless of how much assistance we send. That is why the America First Committee has been formed.” Lindbergh said this in 1941, just months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. “The doctrine that we must enter the wars of Europe in order to defend America will be fatal to our nation if we follow it.”
But the America First movement had a nasty anti-Semitic streak. The notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford had to be removed from its executive committee as well as Avery Brundage, the former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee who had prevented two Jewish runners from participating in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. A Kansas chapter leader pronounced President Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt “Jewish” and Winston Churchill a “half-Jew.” According to Time Magazine, Lindbergh was not shy about his views of the Jewish people, either. He blamed Jews for “pushing the U.S. toward war and for manipulating the narrative through what he saw as their control of the media.” As “America First” became associated with those views “more moderate isolationists dropped out of the committee.” Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the America First committee fell permanently out of favor.
To give some idea of how far they fell, Dr. Seuss penned a scathing political cartoon of an elderly woman with the label ‘America First’ on her blouse reading a children’s book entitled ‘Adolf and the Wolf’ to two youngsters. The caption read:
“And the wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones. …But those were foreign children and it really didn’t matter.”
Ominously, copies of this original cartoon have been making the rounds on social media lately, as the Trump Presidency bans refugees from Muslim majority countries and threatens to build a border wall with Mexico, revisiting the volatile language and racist undertones of the original America First crowd.