Why Use of the Slogan “America First” is Tone-Deaf to History – posted 2/13/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 2/22/2017
In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump made a big point of describing his foreign policy approach as “America First”.
“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power, from this day forward, a new vision will govern our land, from this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.”
The problem I have 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 1930’s. In the period immediately before World War II, the America First Committee opposed fighting Nazism.
America First has a sordid history. Before Pearl Harbor, the movement resisted America’s entry into World War II. It advocated neutrality toward the Germans, arguing that they were unlikely to invade the United States. Harshly critical of President Franklin Roosevelt, America First was blatantly anti-semitic and promoted appeasing Hitler.
When asked about his use of the phrase by the New York Times’ David Sanger, Trump brushed off any historical parallel. He said,
” To me, America First is a brand-new modern term. I never related it to the past.”
It remains 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.
I do believe that if Americans were more aware of the history around America First, 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.
America First blamed Jews for conspiring to pressure the government to join World War II against the interests of America. 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 1930’s, media kingpin William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, began using the slogan “America First”. Hearst hated President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Hearst saw the New Deal as “un-American to the core”. He hailed the Nazis as winning great victories for “liberty-loving people” everywhere.
In America, before World War II, there was a surprising amount of support and good will toward the Nazis. In part, that reflected popular acceptance of anti-semitism in American life.
At its peak, the American First Committee had 800,000 members across the country, including a number of very famous people. Future President Gerald Ford, future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and industrialist Henry Ford were all part of the America First Committee.
Probably the most famous member was the aviator Charles Lindbergh. He 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 Herman Goering. The award was given “in the name of the Fuehrer”. The only other American to receive the award was Henry Ford.
The American First Committee was dogged by charges of anti-semitism. Henry Ford and Avery Brundage sat on its executive committee. The auto magnate was a vicious anti-semite. Ford financially supported the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous anti-semitic tract. In the early 1920’s 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 that was called The International Jew: The World’s Problem. Ford is the only American mentioned, and mentioned positively, in Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Brundage, 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 Olympic team from competing in the 400-meter relay. He did not want to offend the Nazis.
While other leaders of America First denied they were anti-semitic, Lindbergh laid his cards on the table. In a speech he gave in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 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 only folded after the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s engagement against the Axis powers.
If he had an awareness of history, Trump would understand that use of the slogan “America First” is offensive. America First has a history laced with anti-semitism.
For someone who always reminds us what a great mind he has, Trump has not demonstrated an appreciation of history. Many made fun of his 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.