On Monday, the 79th anniversary of Pearl Harbor passed with little notice or fanfare. The generation that remembers this day of infamy is dying off and will not too far from now will have left living memory completely. All we will have are what was written, recorded, filmed, and photographed. I take this time to examine the America First Committee, the central organization that tried to keep us out of World War II.
Throughout the 1930s the world was becoming an increasingly dangerous place as the Great Depression took its toll globally. As Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, and Tojo in Japan grew ever more aggressive, the American people and their elected officials wanted to stay out of the conflicts as they didn’t view it as in their interests to send American soldiers to die in foreign battlefields. On April 12, 1934, the Nye Committee was formed, chaired by Senator Gerald Nye (R-N.D.), who attacked what he called the “Merchants of Death”. In 1935, as the committee was still ongoing, Congress passed the first of its Neutrality Acts, which imposed an embargo on trade of arms with all parties engaging in war. The two subsequent acts strengthened the original act, but the pressure was increasing on the international front for action from the United States and other actors to counter aggression. The committee issued its final report in 1936, which found that profits for arms dealers was a major contributor to World War I. Nye himself called for the abolition of war profits. However, with the invasion of Poland, President Roosevelt sought to weaken the Neutrality Acts, which he did late in 1939 by lifting the arms embargo. He would go further in the next year.
On September 2, 1940, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed to a “Destroyers-for-bases deal” that violated the Neutrality Acts and arguably the Constitution as this monumental agreement bypassed the Senate, whose authority it is to approve treaties. The administration traded 50 naval destroyers for 99-year rent free leases on seven naval or air bases and rights on two more. Despite the violation of the Neutrality Acts, impeachment was not coming as it was right before an election and the deal was overwhelmingly favorable to the US. Two days later, the America First Committee was founded by R. Douglas Stuart Jr., a 24-year old student at Yale Law School. Future President Gerald Ford, future vice presidential candidate Sargent Shriver, and future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart were among the Yale students who joined him. Future President John F. Kennedy also supported the America First Committee and contributed $100 to it. Robert E. Wood, chair of Sears-Roebuck and retired brigadier general, became the organization’s chair and certain other prominent people joined it as well including Nye Committee advisor and author John T. Flynn, Chicago Tribune head Robert R. McCormick, businessman William H. Regnery, and silent film star Lillian Gish.
The America First Committee listed four guiding principles:
The United States must build an impregnable defense for America. No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America. American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war. “Aid short of war” weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad (Simkin).
The AFC publicly opposed the peacetime draft of 1940 and especially the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, the latter which made it clear beyond any doubt that the US was no longer neutral in World War II as it allowed the United States to lend or lease war supplies to any nation regarded as in the interests of US defense (read: Britain). Interestingly, the CPUSA also initially sided with the America First Committee on the war and tried to infiltrate it and turn it into a communist front group. However, after Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, they did an about face and accused the committee of being a Nazi front. The Communist Party only supported American involvement in World War II right after the Nazis double-crossed the USSR.
Vox’s Libby Nelson (2016) wrote, “America First has become historical footnote partly because it was a lost cause — interventionists decisively won the debate about World War II after Pearl Harbor — but also because anti-Semitism in the US became much less socially acceptable after the scope of the Holocaust was fully known.”
This implies that AFC was an anti-Semitic group, which was a portrayal that the Roosevelt Administration was quite eager to go with and Vox quite eager to emphasize those smaller elements that tried to glom on to the wider non-interventionist movement. Indeed, the Roosevelt Administration’s officials could nut pick certain people who would show up at rallies who were indeed vocal anti-Semites such as Joe McWilliams, but people like McWilliams were not the bulk of the over 850,000 people who joined up. John T. Flynn said of him when he saw him in an America First crowd, “The America First Committee is not crazy enough to want the support of a handful of Bundists, Communists, and Christian Fronters who are without influence, without power, and without respect in this or any other community. Just because some misguided fool in Manhattan who happens to be a Nazi, gets a few tickets to this rally, this meeting of American citizens is called a Nazi meeting. And right here, not many places from me, is sitting a man named McWilliams. What he is doing here, how he gets in here, whose stooge he is, I do not know, but I know the photographers of these war-mongering newspapers can always find him when they want him” (Troy).
It is true that Father Charles Coughlin supported the AFC and urged listeners to become members and that Henry Ford was a supporter, but they didn’t define the movement nor were they allowed to be members of the AFC. The AFC itself in fact sought caution with the issue of anti-Semitism and did so in their refusal to associate with the professional anti-Semite Minister Gerald L.K. Smith, who at the time was attracting some support for his non-interventionist views and even testified before Congress against Lend Lease. In April 1941, however, they brought on famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, as he was a talented speaker who attracted crowds and membership. However, Lindbergh wrote his own speeches and did so without editorial oversight. Additionally, he had already had some public image baggage surrounding the Nazi regime. In 1936, he and his wife were special guests of Hermann Goering at the Berlin Olympics and he twice more visited Germany to inspect the Luftwaffe (while secretly submitting reports to the US government). Lindbergh was impressed by the militarization of the Nazis and reached the conclusion that no country could stand against them. In 1938, he was awarded the Service Cross of the German Eagle by Goering for aviation. Lindbergh viewed this as just another award, while many viewed it as an endorsement of the Nazi regime. He and his wife even planned to move to Germany before Kristallnacht occurred.
The worst PR moment for the America First Committee came on September 11, 1941, when their spokesman, Charles Lindbergh, said the following in his speech, “Who are the war agitators?” in Des Moines, Iowa (I have bolded the troubling parts):
The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.
Behind these groups, but of lesser importance, are a number of capitalists, Anglophiles, and intellectuals who believe that the future of mankind depends upon the domination of the British empire. Add to these the Communistic groups who were opposed to intervention until a few weeks ago, and I believe I have named the major war agitators in this country.
I am speaking here only of war agitators, not of those sincere but misguided men and women who, confused by misinformation and frightened by propaganda, follow the lead of the war agitators.
As I have said, these war agitators comprise only a small minority of our people; but they control a tremendous influence. Against the determination of the American people to stay out of war, they have marshaled the power of their propaganda, their money, their patronage.
Let us consider these groups, one at a time.
First, the British: It is obvious and perfectly understandable that Great Britain wants the United States in the war on her side. England is now in a desperate position. Her population is not large enough and her armies are not strong enough to invade the continent of Europe and win the war she declared against Germany.
Her geographical position is such that she cannot win the war by the use of aviation alone, regardless of how many planes we send her. Even if America entered the war, it is improbable that the Allied armies could invade Europe and overwhelm the Axis powers. But one thing is certain. If England can draw this country into the war, she can shift to our shoulders a large portion of the responsibility for waging it and for paying its cost.
As you all know, we were left with the debts of the last European war; and unless we are more cautious in the future than we have been in the past, we will be left with the debts of the present case. If it were not for her hope that she can make us responsible for the war financially, as well as militarily, I believe England would have negotiated a peace in Europe many months ago, and be better off for doing so.
England has devoted, and will continue to devote every effort to get us into the war. We know that she spent huge sums of money in this country during the last war in order to involve us. Englishmen have written books about the cleverness of its use.
We know that England is spending great sums of money for propaganda in America during the present war. If we were Englishmen, we would do the same. But our interest is first in America; and as Americans, it is essential for us to realize the effort that British interests are making to draw us into their war.
The second major group I mentioned is the Jewish.
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. Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.
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.
I am not attacking either the Jewish or the British people. Both races, I admire. But I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war.
We cannot blame them for looking out for what they believe to be their own interests, but we also must look out for ours. We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction.
The Roosevelt administration is the third powerful group which has been carrying this country toward war. Its members have used the war emergency to obtain a third presidential term for the first time in American history. They have used the war to add unlimited billions to a debt which was already the highest we have ever known. And they have just used the war to justify the restriction of congressional power, and the assumption of dictatorial procedures on the part of the president and his appointees.
The power of the Roosevelt administration depends upon the maintenance of a wartime emergency. The prestige of the Roosevelt administration depends upon the success of Great Britain to whom the president attached his political future at a time when most people thought that England and France would easily win the war. The danger of the Roosevelt administration lies in its subterfuge. While its members have promised us peace, they have led us to war heedless of the platform upon which they were elected.
In selecting these three groups as the major agitators for war, I have included only those whose support is essential to the war party. If any one of these groups–the British, the Jewish, or the administration–stops agitating for war, I believe there will be little danger of our involvement.
I do not believe that any two of them are powerful enough to carry this country to war without the support of the third. And to these three, as I have said, all other war groups are of secondary importance. (Lindbergh)
The Roosevelt Administration was without doubt pushing for intervention on the side of Britain and one of the groups of Americans that supported it most were Jews, as most of them were supporters of Roosevelt. However, the same could have been said for Southern Democrats and they were not included as among the groups pushing for war, even though people and politicians from the South were among the Roosevelt Administration’s strongest supporters on foreign policy and were far larger in number than Jews in America or in Congress. Although Lindbergh clarified that he was not attacking the British or Jews, singling them out gives rise to anti-Semitism and makes them seem like a power that rivals the US and British governments in power and influence. He should have restricted his attacks to the Roosevelt Administration and Britain, although that would wreck the three-pronged approach of his speech. Worse yet was his bit that largely echoes the anti-Semitic canard about Jewish control of the media. Lindbergh’s speech was a gift to the Roosevelt Administration and was widely condemned by political and religious leaders in America. The America First Committee’s official response was defensive and weak, denying anti-Semitism on Lindbergh’s part and claiming that their critics had inserted the issue. This response can be seen in the light that the leaders were tired of being associated with the craziest people who sought to support them by the Roosevelt Administration and others.
By this point, however, AFC was already declining as more and more Americans were getting convinced that the events of the world were going to come to their doorstep. On December 7, 1941, they did with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
Although the America First Committee died on December 10, 1941, the committee and its supporters arguably did achieve something: the preservation of the lives of many American soldiers. Leading non-interventionist Representative Hamilton Fish III recounted to Studs Terkel in a 1985 interview, “I’d led the fight for three years against Roosevelt getting us into war. I was on the radio every ten days. I stopped him until he issued this ultimatum. That is the greatest thing I did do in my life. He would have gotten us into the war six months or a year before Pearl Harbor. We would have been fighting those Germans, plus probably the Russians, because they made a deal with them. Every American family owes an obligation to me because we would have lost a million or two million killed. That’s the biggest thing I ever did, and nobody can take it away from me” (Simkin, 1997).
Pat Buchanan (2004) echoed this defense thusly, “The achievements of that organization are monumental. By keeping America out of World War II until Hitler attacked Stalin in June of 1941, Soviet Russia, not America, bore the brunt of the fighting, bleeding and dying to defeat Nazi Germany. Thanks to America First, no nation suffered less in the world’s worst war”. We also were in a better starting position for the Cold War than the USSR, which suffered tremendous military casualties.
The truth is, that without Germany committing troops against the USSR first, US intervention in the war would have been quite unwise. By holding off until attacked first, the US gained indisputable moral legitimacy in entering the conflict while sparing our troops from the brunt of the casualties and the America First Committee played its part in delaying American entry into the war.
Arnold, L. (2014, May 12). Robert D. Stuart Jr., Quaker Oats chief and founder of America First, dies at 98. The Washington Post.
Buchanan, P.J. (2004, October 13). The Resurrection of ‘America First!’. The American Cause.
Carlson, C. (2013, September 12). This week in history: Lindbergh gives infamous ‘Who are the war agitators?’ speech. Deseret News.
Lindbergh, C. (1941, September 11). “Des Moines Speech”.
Nelson, L. (2016, September 1). “America First”: Donald Trump’s slogan has a deeply bigoted backstory. Vox.
Simkin, J. (1997). America First Committee. Spartacus Educational.
Troy, G. (2016, September 4). When America Rejected its Homegrown ‘Joe McNazi’. Daily Beast.