This week, Donald Trump gave an interview to The New York Times that exposed, once again, his lack of knowledge about the world in which he may, next January, become the leading man. This was the interview in which he essentially handed the Baltics to Vladimir Putin. And as the Q&A wrapped up, the Republican nominee also revealed how little curiosity he has about the history of his own country. When the Times reporters pressed him to explain why he embraced the term “America First,” despite its link to a controversial group that opposed U.S. entry into World War II, Trump responded, “To me, ‘America First’ is a brand-new, modern term… I never related it to the past.”
If the orange-maned tycoon-turned-politician did take the time to learn something about his predecessors, he might find as much to admire about them (from his perspective) as to avoid. Founded in early September 1940, the America First Committee (AFC) was the largest anti-war organization in U.S. history, one of remarkable ideological and partisan diversity. It claimed over 800,000 members—no one was required to pay dues—who met in hundreds of autonomous chapters across the nation.
Although Republican millionaires like the chairman of Sears-Roebuck and the publisher of the Chicago Tribune funded most of its activities, the AFC included in its ranks both Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party, and several prominent Democratic senators. The left-wing novelist Sinclair Lewis, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and Walt Disney signed up too—as did Charles Lindbergh, the celebrated aviator whose renown rivaled that of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Joseph P. Kennedy declined to join but did tell the chairman of the AFC he would “do everything I possibly can to help you.”
What united this disparate throng was a resolve to stay out of a war in which the United Kingdom was fighting nearly alone against the Axis Powers, led by Hitler’s Germany, which had already conquered much of Europe. Like many citizens, America Firsters believed that Woodrow Wilson had made a terrible mistake back in 1917 when he convinced Congress to declare war on Germany, then ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Instead of a world “made safe for democracy” as Wilson promised, totalitarian leaders had seized power amid economic distress plaguing nations from Spain to Russia to Japan.
During the mid-1930s, Congress had enacted several strict Neutrality Acts, and large majorities in opinion surveys backed a constitutional amendment to require a national referendum before sending young men into combat. The same month in 1940 when America First was founded, the Gallup Poll reported an almost even split on the question of whether “to keep out of war ourselves or to help England win, even at the risk of getting into the war.” FDR, who wanted to send warships and other kinds of aid to Winston Churchill’s government to hold back the Nazis, knew he had a battle for public opinion to wage at home.
But the AFC’s very inclusiveness and lack of discipline from the top sped its downfall. No one barred open anti-Semites from taking an active part. Committee leaders welcomed followers of Charles Coughlin, the pro-fascist Catholic priest who ranted against “international bankers” each week to a radio audience in the tens of millions. Roosevelt and his political allies who wanted to aid Great Britain lambasted the group as a haven for bigots and forced its spokesmen to deny this truth.
Then, on Sept. 11, 1941, just weeks after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and made U.S. intervention more likely, the AFC’s biggest star decided he had to deliver an urgent warning about the enemy within. Lindbergh, whose congressman father had spoken out against the First World War, told a crowd in Des Moines in a nationally broadcast address that Jews were particularly “responsible for changing our national policy from one of neutrality and independence to one of entanglement in European affairs.” He went on, “The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration.” Lindbergh did concede that “no person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution the Jewish race suffered in Germany” (notice the past tense). But, he quickly added, “Their greatest danger in this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.”
The backlash was severe. Some in the Des Moines crowd booed loudly, and journalists across the political spectrum agreed that the erstwhile national hero sounded as if he were translating a message from Berlin. “The voice is the voice of Lindbergh,” editorialized the San Francisco Chronicle, a Republican paper, “but the words are the words of Hitler.” The AFC was already losing the battle; the draft had been re-instituted, and clear majorities of Americans now favored FDR’s policy of giving substantial aid to both Great Britain and the Soviet Union. But the group declined rapidly after Lindbergh’s speech and disbanded after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Donald Trump doesn’t know this history—just as he may not know that there’s a current U.S. Senate candidate using “America First” as his slogan, and his name is David Duke. But he does have a knack for repeating errors similar to those that doomed the AFC. His “plan,” he told the GOP convention in his acceptance speech on Thursday night, “will put America first. Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.” Yet, as Americans discovered 75 years ago, the world has a way of entangling us in its problems—be they climate change, terrorism, or refugees from war. A candidate who traffics in angry, mendacious stereotypes about people who are fleeing violence and poverty cannot help us build a saner, more tolerant, or safer society.