In his Inaugural Address, President Donald Trump repeated a theme from his Presidential Campaign, telling the world: “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.” Many Trump critics point to the fact that this was a watchword for those who opposed U.S. intervention in WWll before the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor. Actually, the phrase has a longer history.
President Woodrow Wilson, a hardened internationalist, ironically coined the term today associated with Nationalism. In 1916, Wilson was running for re-election by promising to remain neutral in WWl. His campaign slogan was: “He kept us out of War, America First.” Once Wilson was safely re-elected, he ordered troops into what was, at the time, called “The Great War.”
Once the U.S. was enveloped in the war, newspaper Publisher William Randolph Hearst, a vociferous critic of Wilson, used the slogan against the President. Hearst was sympathetic to Germany, and warned the U.S. not to aid the allies in the fight against Germany. Hearst exclaimed: “Keep every dollar and every man and every weapon and all our supplies and stores at home, for the defense of our own land, our own people, our own freedom, until that defense has been made absolutely secure. After that, we can think of other nations’ troubles. But until then, America first!”
This slogan soon became an imprimatur for non-interventionists in both major political parties. Once WWl ended, the Americans became weary of foreign intervention. Wilson had failed in his effort to garner the requisite two-thirds majority needed in the U.S. Senator to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which included allowing the U.S. to join a collective security alliance called “The League of Nations.” Some Senators would have supported the agreement if the President agreed to certain reservations. However, the bi-partisan group that steadfastly opposed the treaty came to be known as “the irreconcilables.”
After the War, the electorate harbored non-interventionist and nationalist sentiment. A first term U.S. Senator from Ohio named Warren G. Harding exploited this message and won the Presidency in 1920. He called for a scaled-back foreign policy and high tariffs on foreign imports. For Harding that meant “absolute control of the United States by the United States.” Harding often simply called for “Americanism.” In 1919, journalist Talcott Williams asked U.S. Senator Boise Penrose (R-PA): “What is going to be the great keynote of the Republican Party in the next presidential election?” Penrose replied: “Americanism.” Williams asked Penrose what that meant. Penrose responded: “Dam’d if I know, but I tell you Talcott, it is going to be a damn good word with which to carry an election.” Harding adopted the phrase, delivering an address surveying American history called: “Americanism.”
Harding is the clear ideological antecedent to Trump. In his 1921 inaugural address, Harding proclaimed: “America can be a party to no permanent military alliance. It can enter into no political commitments, nor assume any economic obligations which will subject our decisions to any other than our own authority.” Similarly, Trump averred at his Inauguration: “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”
Harding shared Trump’s belief in limited immigration. He signed the Emergency Quota Act into law, which limited immigration through the application of a quota system. Harding also shared Trump’s economic nationalism. He signed the Emergency Tariff Act, which increased tariffs on many agricultural products imported into the U.S.
This three-pronged nationalistic America First policy of limited intervention in the world coupled with limited immigration and high tariffs on foreign imports at home was the reigning ideological orthodoxy of the GOP throughout the 1920’s.
After Harding’s death in 1923, his Republican Successor, Calvin Coolidge, signed the all-encompassing Comprehensive Immigration Act, which leveled quotas on each nation based on its percentage of the population in 1890. Coolidge, after signing the legislation, vocalized: “America must remain American.” Like Trump, Coolidge was also an ardent economic nationalist who borrowed a catchphrase from Republican President William McKinley (1897-1901), calling for “the full dinner pail,: meaning that the effects of protective tariffs would be advantageous for the entire nation.
The term America First is also equated with a group formed in 1940 called “The America First Committee.” The group urged the U.S. to stay out of WWll. At its high water mark, the group included over 800,000 members. The group’s most prominent spokesman was the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. The assemblage disbanded after the Japanese attack on Peal Harbor.
One of the members of the America First Committee was U.S. Senator Robert A. Taft (R-OH) who was a successor in the Senate to Harding, and shared his America First Ideology. Taft sought the Republican Presidential nomination three times. He came the closest in 1952. Taft led the fight against the U.S. joining NATO. Today, Trump is a critic of the organization, pledging during the campaign to “aid NATO allies only if they fulfilled their obligation to us.” Taft lost the GOP Presidential nomination to internationalist Retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower. As the Cold War was proliferating, the Republican Party became unified in favoring U.S. intervention against Communism. Thus the America First ideology was marginalized within the party.
In 1991, as the Cold War was ending and the Soviet Union was splitting into 15 nations, the Republican Party split on foreign policy.
“Neoconservatives” supported a policy of “benevolent hegemony” where the U.S. leads a unipolar world based on “universal values and principles.”
Some Republicans, including President George H.W. Bush, subscribed to the “practical realist” school. This school takes the realpolitik view that each country pursues its own interests and that nations work together based on their common goals, not based upon a common ideology.
There were also “paleoconservatives,” who believed that with the Cold War over, the U.S. must bring its tentacles home and institute a “non-interventionist” foreign policy. A leader of this school of thought was conservative activist Pat Buchanan who ran for the GOP Presidential nomination in 1992. Buchanan revivified the term “America First,” declaring in his Presidential announcement speech: “We call for a new patriotism, where Americans begin to put the needs of Americans first, for a new nationalism where in every negotiation, be it arms control or trade, the American side seeks advantage and victory for the United States.” This is strikingly similar to Trump’s message today.
Buchanan ran again for the GOP nomination in 1996, declaring: “When I walk into that Oval Office, we start looking out for America first.” Buchanan lost both races, but in 2016 Trump won the nomination and the Presidency by declaring “America First.”
The internecine feud continues in the GOP. Today, members of the GOP establishment, including U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), are urging an alternative vision to Trump. They support multilateral trade agreements, including the Transpacific Partnership, which Trump withdrew the United States from in his first week in office. They also continue to call for U.S. interventions overseas.
Trump is the first President since Harding and Coolidge to pledge “America First.” He will now battle with members of the GOP establishment for the dominant ideological viewpoint of the Republican Party.