How The Original “America First” Movement Came To An Abrupt End

Published February 18, 2017
Updated October 15, 2019

An entire movement formed around the idea of "America First," but it quickly died — and with good reason.

America First

Wikimedia CommonsCharles Lindbergh (center), 1932.

Donald Trump was not the first leader to rally crowds behind the slogan “America First,” nor was he the only person to ever support it. In fact, at one point in the 20th century, nearly one million Americans were paying members of an organization by that very name.

Founded in 1940 by a group of Yale law students, the America First Committee quickly amassed members spanning a spectrum of political ideologies. Early rallies brought socialist leaders, pacifist hippies, and staunch communists out in droves; well-known names such as Frank Lloyd Wright, E.E. Cummings, Henry Ford, and Walt Disney held membership.

Given the potpourri of participants, it makes sense that one single cause united them: Keep America out of World War II. It likewise makes sense that the most commonly remembered of the movement’s supporters were vocal anti-Semites.

“The British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war,” said Charles Lindbergh, the group’s spokesman who had initially gained fame for piloting the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic. “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.”

This anti-Semitic sentiment was by no means echoed by the majority of committee members. In fact, Lindbergh’s speech was met with loud boos.

“The voice is the voice of Lindbergh, but the words are the words of Hitler,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote.

“I am absolutely certain that Lindbergh is pro-Nazi,” a New York Herald Tribune columnist declared.

Texas passed a resolution banning the pilot from the state.

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UC San Diego LibraryDr. Seuss was not a fan of the original America First movement.

Isolationism Comes First — And Fails

Most anti-war Americans did not promote — or at least they did not admit to — harboring any ill-will against Jewish people. Rather, they echoed an argument with roots stretching back to George Washington: America is not the world’s police or caretaker.

But as the atrocities being committed by the German state became more well-known, the number of anti-interventionists — who had always been in the minority — began to shrink even smaller.

Within that dwindling populace, the America First Committee had to contend with the additional PR problem of being continuously associated with its most radical anti-Semitic members. And on top of all of that, the logic of the group’s founding principles began to look shaky.

Avoiding the war was the safest option for protecting Americans, they had argued. But as Nazi Germany knocked out ally after ally, it became increasingly clear that the United States would never be able to defend itself should it ever have gotten to the point where it was facing Hitler alone.

Unwilling to bend to this increasingly obvious fact, the group lost nearly all of its moderate supporters and, along with them, its political leverage.

Still — and in ways similar to Donald Trump — Lindbergh persisted in the face of negative coverage, citing false statistics that most Americans were on his side.

That is, of course, until Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941, the attack on American soil made it indisputably clear that America was a part of World War II, whether it wanted to be or not.

Even the America First Committee was ready to give their support to the cause.

“The period of democratic debate on the issue of entering the war is over,” the committee chair announced shortly after the attack. “(The committee) urges all of those who have followed its lead to give their full support to the war effort of the nation, until peace is attained.”

Lindbergh was no exception.

“I can see nothing to do under these circumstances except to fight,” he wrote in his diary a few days after Pearl Harbor. “If I had been in Congress, I certainly would have voted for a declaration of war.”

He went on to fly more than 50 combat missions in the Pacific.

In America, the war triggered a sharp ideological shift away from isolationism. The U.S. played pivotal roles in forming NATO along with the United Nations. It also established open trade agreements which ushered in an era of globalization that propelled the world forward at a previously unimaginable rate.

Still — in spite of the past — the pendulum continues to swing. And the United States, along with many of its allies, have begun to question the value of these once-treasured, America-saving bonds.

After reading about the America First movement, learn about the life of George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party. Then, read these true stories from Japanese-American internment camps.