Defining Ideas

"America First" Then And Now

Thursday, May 11, 2017
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The ideas of liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, laissez faire, and democracy constitute the creed upon which the United States was founded. Of course, these were not new ideas when the American Revolution took place; political theorists, statesmen, and politicians had been attempting to infuse them into government for centuries. The ideas were new, however, as the fundamental basis for government and governance. Thus, speaking non-normatively, Seymour Martin Lipset declared the United States the first new nation precisely because it was the first modern nation to be born of a set of ideas drawn from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberalism, now called classical liberalism. The issue is not that the United States is better than other societies; rather, it got there first.

If we agree that the American creed is the doctrinal embodiment of a set of ideas that unify Western societies, then we are on safe ground in saying that at least since the post-World War II era, the United States has been the main defender of Western civilization. The existence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an objective demonstration of America’s leadership of the West. NATO is an enduring mutual security pact for Western protection. Article five remains the organization’s touchstone because it is the clearest statement available of Western societies adhering to collective defense—“an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” It goes on to say that force may be used by the signatories “to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” The United States has been at the helm of NATO since it was formed in 1949.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump talked about NATO as a problem for the United States because only four or five of the 28 member states have lived up to the pledge of committing two percent of GDP for defense. He also said, “I’m not isolationist, but I am ‘America First.’” Trump laid out what he meant by "America First" in a speech in April 2016:

It’s time to shake the rust off America’s foreign policy. It’s time to invite new voices and new visions into the fold, something we have to do. The direction I will outline today will also return us to a timeless principle. My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else. It has to be first. Has to be. That will be the foundation of every single decision that I will make. America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”

He echoed those words in his inaugural address: “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First. America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” During his first 100 days in office, President Trump continued to advocate for greater military spending by NATO countries but reaffirmed America’s commitment to the organization.

In asking how much Western societies are willing to pay to defend their freedom and way of life, President Trump has encouraged a discussion on the future of the West. The debate takes on different forms from one Western nation to the next, and is based on domestic political culture, historical experiences with war and peace, and geography. Internal American debates about war and peace have salient global implications because along political, economic, and military dimensions, the United States is the leader and key defender of the West. Trump’s campaign rhetoric has brought into the public discourse an issue that has been urgent for a long time. 

It is worth reviewing President Trump’s ideas about the future of the West (whether the western alliance should be binding and how to organize foreign policy around making America come first) from the standpoint of an earlier foreign policy movement that was also called America First. The America Firsters of World War II lost their isolationist fight on December 7, 1941, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Many joined the Allied cause. They left a legacy that Trump disavows, declaring that he has a new America First doctrine. Yet elements of the America First movement of the 1940s have reared their heads again, despite his disapproval.

The America First Committee (AFC) was founded on September 4, 1940, by R. Douglas Stuart Jr. and other students, as well as business and political leaders. The membership list included future president Gerald Ford, future US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, future head of the Peace Corps Sargent Shriver, the owners of the Chicago Tribune and of Sears-Roebuck, as well as many national thought leaders in business, politics, and culture – including Jewish Americans. AFC was particularly strong in the Midwest, where there was suspicion of the political and financial motives of liberals and easterners.

Keeping America out of the European war – neutrality – was AFC's main goal. For instance, AFC strongly opposed the Lend-Lease bill of March 1941 on the grounds that providing arms in the war effort was moving the United States closer to joining the war. They contended that military efforts to make the United States a protected fortress were undermined by using resources for allies engaged in battle. AFC members also held that domestic reforms would be hampered if the United States joined the war. In other words, AFC was isolationist and nationalist.

They were not the first nor the only group at the time to espouse anti-war views tinged with isolationism and nationalism. They stood out, however, because of their sheer size. They had more than 800,000 members, and they attracted luminaries such as Charles Lindbergh, the first aviator to successfully complete a solo flight across the Atlantic. A popular speaker who drew large crowds at AFC rallies, Lindbergh diminished the organization’s political standing and reputation when he delivered a speech in Des Moines on September 11, 1941. In it, he blamed the British, the Roosevelt administration, and Jewish Americans for putting the country on the path to war. It was this statement that exposed the darker side of the AFC:

It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race.

No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy both for us and for them....

Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastations. A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not.

Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.

If indeed the American creed guides decision-making in Washington, then there is a particular responsibility to the political discourse of national thought leaders. In 1941, Lindbergh was a national thought leader and America was well on its way to being the leader of the West. The isolationists and anti-interventionists were a diverse group of Americans, but some of the prominent ones exhibited an appalling lack of appreciation of the tenuous balance upon which Western culture depends. They said: Why should we fight to save Asians and Africans?; Jews are trafficking in warmongering for financial gain; why save the Slavs?; the United States should not consider entering a fight against Nazi Germany because it is still waiting for the Europeans to pay their debt from the first World War; Nazi Germany is to be admired for its orderly progress, engineering prowess, and military might.

These perspectives and pronouncements are allowed in a free society. Suppose, though, that they had prevailed. The Neutrality Acts would not have been repealed. The Lend-Lease policy would not have been signed into law. The US military would not have escorted convoys in the Battle of the Atlantic. The outcome in the Atlantic and Pacific could have been very different, and perhaps impossible to reverse later. Had the discussion been about not just a narrow version of American nationalism but a wider dialogue about Western civilization, AFC and other movements – including those desperately advocating for America’s entry into war – may have taken different positions based on something other than the false dichotomy of non-intervention versus intervention.

The organization had already suffered a major defeat with Lindbergh’s words. An editorial in the Detroit Free Press reflected responses throughout the nation: “Colonel Lindbergh at Des Moines let his mask slip long enough to charge that the Jews are responsible for our entry into the World war. No more need be said. He should not only keep that Nazi medal Goring pinned on him. He should use it as a decoration for a Ku Klux Klan nightshirt when he is also given that ‘honorary’ decoration.” Many AFC supported the Allies, but some supported the Axis powers. Lindbergh was a German sympathizer. Had AFC prevailed, efforts to combat racism and bigotry would have been dealt a serious blow.

Herein lies the problem with internal American debates about war and foreign entanglements. The Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the intellectual debate about freedom in the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers, and the U.S. Constitution itself place the United States in a unique historical cauldron. It has its own political ideology of Americanism – a sort of nationalism – but due to its historic pathway to existence and its status as the world’s only superpower, its debates about war and peace and everything in between are not so internal; they are heard around the world. We saw that with Trump’s presidential campaign, and it may have contributed to a softening of his rhetoric and policies during his first 100 days.

President Trump’s America First ideas are not those of AFC and Lindbergh. He has made that known in his earliest foreign policy decisions, which are all about strengthening alliances and clarifying US commitments abroad. The American president seems to be quickly learning that globally there is a premium placed on what America says and does. Among other things, that means the West is worth defending. The political discourse ought to catch up to the geopolitical reality.