The dark history of ‘America First’

If more Americans were aware of the history of the phrase, they would urge Trump to reject it

In his inaugural address, President Trump made a big point of describing his foreign policy approach as “America First.” The problem with the phrase is that Trump and his supporters are tone-deaf to its history. “America First” was the slogan used by Nazi-friendly Americans in the 1930s.

Before Pearl Harbor, the America First Committee advocated neutrality toward the Germans, arguing that they were unlikely to invade the United States. Harshly critical of President Roosevelt, America First was blatantly anti-Semitic and promoted appeasing Hitler.

It is unclear how much Trump knows about the history of the phrase, although he told The New York Times he was familiar with it. The Anti-Defamation League has asked Trump to refrain from using the slogan.

If Americans were more aware of the history of America First, I believe they would urge Trump to reject it. Superficially this slogan sounds good, but the history is toxic. That is true not just for Jewish Americans but for all Americans who are opposed to fascism, racism and authoritarianism.

Knowing what we know now about the Holocaust, the actions of America First can be seen as what they were: appalling collaboration with the German fascists.

The history deserves review. Starting in the early 1930s, media kingpin William Randolph Hearst began using the slogan “America First.” Hearst hated Roosevelt’s New Deal and saw it as “un-American to the core.” He hailed the Nazis as winning great victories for “liberty-loving people” everywhere.

At its peak, the America First Committee had 800,000 members across the country, including a number of famous people. Future President Gerald Ford, future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and industrialist Henry Ford were all members. Aviator Charles Lindbergh was perhaps the most famous member and became the committee’s principal spokesman.

In 1938, Lindbergh received the Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, Germany’s highest honor, from Hermann Goering. The award was given “in the name of the Fuhrer.” The only other American to receive the award was Ford.

Ford, who sat on the executive committee of America First, was a vicious anti-Semite who financially supported the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous anti-Semitic tract. In the early 1920s he wrote a four-volume set of pamphlets titled “The International Jew.” Every week for 91 issues he exposed what he saw as some Jewish-inspired evil. He later wrote a regular newspaper column obsessively focused on attacking Jews called “The International Jew: The World’s Problem.” Ford is the only American mentioned, and mentioned positively, in Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Avery Brundage, another member of the executive committee and a former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, opposed a boycott of Germany in 1936 because he believed there was a Jewish-Communist conspiracy to keep the United States out of the Berlin Games. When the Games were held, Brundage prevented the only two Jews on the U.S. Olympic team from competing in the 400-meter relay. He did not want to offend the Nazis.

In a speech Lindbergh gave in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 11, 1941, he warned that Jews were a dangerous enemy. He pointed to Jews’ “large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”

Nazi supporters like Lindbergh argued that Jews in the United States spread falsehoods about Germany to push America into a war of revenge from which they would benefit financially.

America First folded only after the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s engagement against the Axis powers.

Many made fun of Trump’s lack of awareness that Frederick Douglass is no longer with us, but the deeper tragedy is that he is profoundly ignorant of American history. People can argue about it, but Frederick Douglass is one of the most outstanding Americans ever. It is beyond sad that we have a president who is clueless about such an important figure in our own history.

I do not see the fact that Trump has a Jewish son-in-law as inoculation against anti-Semitism and bigotry. Considering his own racism and his support from white supremacists, Trump’s insensitivity to anti-Semitism is not surprising.

Still, he should not be using the slogan “America First.” The historical echo is very bad karma. 

Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot works at the Social Security Administration. His column reflects his own views and not those of his employer.

Categories: Opinion