“American Dream” and “America First”

Behold AmericaOver at Smithsonian.com, University of London humanities professor Sara Churchwell talks with Anna Diamond about the history of these two phrases.

Churchwell is the author of the forthcoming Behold America: The Entangled History of “America First” and the “American Dream.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump used the slogan “America First,” which many people traced to Charles Lindbergh in the 1940s. But you trace its origin even further back.

I found the earliest use of the phrase as a Republican slogan in the 1880s, but it didn’t enter the national discussion until 1915, when Woodrow Wilson used it in a speech arguing for neutrality in World War I. That isn’t the same as isolationism, but the phrase got taken up by isolationists.

Wilson was treading a very fine line, where there were genuine and legitimate conflicting interests. He said he thought America would be first, not in the selfish spirit, but first to be in Europe to help whichever side won. Not to take sides, but to be there to promote justice and to help rebuild after the conflict. That was what he was trying to say in 1915.

“America First” was the campaign slogan not only of Wilson in 1916, but also of his Republican opponent. They both ran on an “America First” platform. Harding [a Republican] ran on an “America First” platform in 1920. When [Republican President Calvin] Coolidge ran, one of his slogans was “America First” in 1924. These were presidential slogans, it was really prominent, and it was everywhere in the political conversation.

Read the entire interview here.

The “America First Exhibit” at the Holocaust Museum

US Holocaust Museum in Washington

My forthcoming book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump devotes several pages to Trump’s use of the phrase “America First.”  The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s exhibit “Americans and the Holocaust” was not yet open when I was writing these pages, but if it had been open I am sure a quick trip to Washington D.C. would have inspired some of my writing on this topic.

Over at The Atlantic, Eliot Cohen reviews the new exhibit. Here is a taste:

This might all be an occasion for mere brooding about the past, were there not some jarring echoes for today. The isolationist organization America First gets its share of attention here, and deservedly so. Launched in September 1940, it soon built up a membership of over 800,000. Led by the retired general and business executive Robert Wood, its most charismatic spokesman was the heroic aviator Charles Lindbergh, a strange but inflammatory hero for the isolationists, who was not beyond the occasional Jew-baiting himself. America First opposed the Atlantic Charter issued by Roosevelt and Churchill in August 1941 after their meeting off Newfoundland, presumably including clauses like the pledge to respect the right to self-government. It captured the imaginations of some privileged young men, to include a couple of future presidents and assorted intellectual luminaries. It vanished into thin air after Pearl Harbor, and many of the young men who supported it, like John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford, changed their views in later years.

America First is, because of its discreditable history, a disreputable slogan, which has not prevented President Trump from embracing it and subordinates who know better from defending it. In so doing, they unwittingly undermine their other slogan, “Make America Great Again,” because the America of the 1930s was not all that great. There were—as we have been reminded by the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice—the pitiless murders of African Americans by lynch mobs. There were scores of such killings in the 1930s. There was casual and open bigotry and discrimination against Jews and other religious and ethnic groups. If Roosevelt proclaimed the Four Freedoms in his 1941 State of the Union address—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—the great objectives of the struggle that impended, it was not because America was contentedly enjoying them and wished to share in their bounty, but because he knew that they had to be fought for, at home and abroad simultaneously.

Read the entire review here.

Christians and “America First”

america-firstLast week I did a post titled “Can a Christian Embrace ‘America First’?”  The post called attention to Fordham theologian Charles Camosy’s argument that “Trumpism” is a heresy because it places the nation over the gospel.

Today, over at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gerhz of Bethel University historicizes Camosy’s claim.  In his post “The Christian History of ‘America First’,” Gehrz reminds us that the original “America First” campaign had a lot of Christian support.

Here is a small taste:

But while I continue to believe that “America First” as our president seems to mean it is inconsistent with Christian belief and witness, it’s also worth noting that the pre-World War II isolationist movement that pioneered that phrase actually had considerable support from a wide range of Christians.

There were actually two such groups. The first, more explicitly Christian America First (founded 1939) was a right-wing women’s movement affiliated with Gerald L. K. Smith, a firebrand preacher who entered politics via his association with Huey Long and published the conservative magazine, The Cross and the Flag. In a 1994 article for the journal Diplomatic History, Laura McEnaney argued that the self-styled “Christian mothers” of that America First fused religion, patriotism, and isolationism into “a defense of the nuclear family structure and the conventional gender roles that made this movement’s vision of social and sexual purity possible and sustainable.”

More famous is the America First Committee (AFC), an ideologically diverse group founded in September 1940 by law student R. Douglas Stuart. (You can learn more about AFC from Philip, who posted about it last month at The American Conservative.) A member of the anti-war Yale Christian Association, Stuart’s father and grandfather were both executives at Quaker Oats, a company that plays a key role in Tim Gloege’s history of “corporate evangelicalism.”

Read the entire piece here.

“America First” In Historical Context

seuss-5

Pundits are calling Donald Trump’s inaugural address the “America First Speech.”  Thanks to the work of historians, many Americans are now aware of the history behind this phrase.  But just in case you have not had a chance to get caught up on the meaning of “America First,” I want to call your attention to Krishnadev Calamur’s recent piece at The Atlantic.

Here is a taste:

The phrase in itself might provide comfort for those of Trump’s supporters who have long railed against what they see as lawmakers in Washington catering to special interests, corporations, and other countries at the expense of, in their view, the American worker. But the phrase “America first” also has a darker recent history and, as my colleague David Graham pointed out Friday, was associated with opponents of the U.S. entering World War II.

The America First Committee (AFC), which was founded in 1940, opposed any U.S. involvement in World War II, and was harshly critical of the Roosevelt administration, which it accused of pressing the U.S. toward war. At its peak, it had 800,000 members across the country, included socialists, conservatives, and some of the most prominent Americans from some of the most prominent families. There was future President Ford; Sargent Shriver, who’d go on to lead the Peace Corps; and Potter Stewart, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice. It was funded by the families who owned Sears-Roebuck and the Chicago Tribune,but also counted among its ranks prominent anti-Semites of the day.

“It had to remove from its executive committee not only the notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford but also Avery Brundage, the former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee who had prevented two Jewish runners from the American track team in Berlin in 1936 from running in the finals of the 4×100 relay,” Susan Dunn, the historian, wrote on CNN last April.

But charges of anti-Semitism persisted, and were compounded with perhaps one of the most infamous speeches given by one of AFC’s most famous spokesmen, Charles Lindbergh. In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11, 1941, Lindbergh expressed sympathy for the persecution Jews faced in Germany, but suggested Jews were advocating the U.S. to enter a war that was not in the national interest.

Read the entire piece here.

It is also worth noting that the cartoonist Theodore Geisel, aka “Dr. Seuss,” published several cartoons critical of “America First” in the pages of the left-leaning, interventionist New York newspaper PM.

Here are a few of those cartoons:

seuss-1

 

 

seuss-2

 

Seuss 3.jpg

 

seuss-6

 

 

This is Why We Need More Historians in the Newswroom

Chris Cilizza of The Washington Post tweeted this last night:

If I am understanding this tweet correctly, Cilizza is suggesting that the phrase “America First” was first coined by New York Times reporter David Sanger.

It did not take long before Princeton historian Kevin Kruse responded:

Learn more about the America First Committee here.