Donald Trump may be a bigot who has promoted inflammatory and often contradictory statements with regards to foreign policy, but his embrace of America First is not part of his bigotry.
In recent statements, Trump has echoed many on the left including Bernie Sanders in suggesting that America should stop policing the world which has been a recipe for cataclysm, stating: "we were the big bully but not smartly led." Trump went on to claim that Americans have gotten relatively little in return for underwriting the security of many foreign countries except trade deficits, saying that "we won't be ripped off anymore because we don't have the money." When asked about America First, a pacifist organization founded on the eve of World War II, he said, "I like the expression. Not isolationist, but America first."
Trump's comments tapped into deep underlying unease with America's status as an empire garrisoning the globe which carries out covert operations and assassination missions in an estimated 135 countries. Many now sense that the main beneficiaries of the U.S. empire are large corporate interests who have off-shored thousands of manufacturing jobs and saddled the U.S. with extensive debt.
The Republican establishment and defenders of the status quo including New York Times columnists were quick to attack Trump for invoking the slogan America First. Roger Cohen in an editorial "New World Disorder" claims the global Pax Americana has underwritten "global security and averted nuclear war for over seven decades" and that cataclysm would unfold if the U.S. would stop policing the world. Cohen's argument was ironically undermined eight pages earlier by a Times article quoting a speech by Fidel Castro, "Brother Obama," in which the 89-year-old revolutionary recounted a long history of American aggression against Cuba including the Bay of Pigs invasion and Mongoose attacks of the early 1960s, which were designed to bring "the terrors of the earth" to quote Robert Kennedy and nearly brought the world to the brink in precipitating the Cuban missile crisis.
Susan Dunn, a professor of history at Williams College and author of the book 1940: FDR, Wilkie, Lindergh, Hitler - The Election Amid the Storm, wrote a pointed letter to the Times stating that Trump's invocation of "the toxic name America First" is a "reminder of his arrogance, gullibility and bigotry." Dunn equates America First with Charles Lindbergh, the famed aviator with pro-Germany sensibilities who stated that "the U.S. protected by two vast oceans, was safe from attack and should not meddle in European wars." Lindbergh went on to tell Congress, "between Britain and Nazi Germany, there is not much difference in philosophy as we have been led to believe" and that British and Jewish leaders "want to involve us in World War II for reasons that are not American" warning against "Jewish ownership and influence in Motion Pictures, the press, radio and government."
Lindbergh was an anti-semite as these comments suggest and thus may have had nefarious reasons for opposing U.S. intervention in World War II. However, it is wrong to have him define America First. Believing that "in an effort to destroy totalitarianism we shall become totalitarian ourselves," the America First Committee was founded by Yale law school students in the late 1930s and evolved as the largest antiwar organization in American history, with support from dozens of congressmen and celebrities, writers like e.e. Cumings and Gore Vidal and even former and future presidents. Backed by prairie populists, mid-western socialists and anti-New Deal Republicans, America First drew off the wide-scale pacifist and isolationist sentiment during the Great Depression and disillusionment with U.S. involvement in World War I, which had not lived up to its moniker as a "war to end all wars," but fueled the rise of Nazism in its aftermath. President Woodrow Wilson had lied and deceived the public, establishing a propaganda agency to whip up war hysteria and curtailed domestic liberties with the passage of alien and sedition laws.
The Nye committee of 1934 (led by America Firster Gerald Nye) subsequently uncovered the role played by big bankers and arms manufacturers, the so-called merchants of death in shaping Wilson's decision to intervene in a conflict people legitimately did not want to see repeated. Dalton Trumbo's novel Johnny Got His Gun about a soldier who returns without arms or legs and with his face blown off, voiced the anguish of a generation who felt the waste in human life had been in vain.
A product of its time, America First drew on a strain of anti-imperialism in American politics dating back to Henry David Thoreau and the anti-imperialist league founded in opposition to the U.S. occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. While the organization may have been wrong to oppose war against Nazism in hindsight, Roosevelt was deceitful in certain practices, the U.S. and Great Britain had adopted imperialistic policies in Asia which America Firsters pointed attention to, and the organization disbanded after Pearl Harbor. A prescient volume edited by historian Harry E. Barnes, a close colleague of America Firster Charles A. Beard, warned that Roosevelt had ushered in a new age straight out of a George Orwell novel in which perpetual wars would be fought for perpetual peace, which has indeed come to pass.
Ruth Sarles' posthumously published study A Story of America First: The Men and Women Who Opposed U.S. Intervention in World War II along with Wayne Cole's book America First demolish the myth advanced by Susan Dunn that America First consisted primarily of Nazi sympathizers and reactionaries. None of the leaders were in fact anti-semites and the organization included many liberal progressives and socialists like Norman Thomas and luminaries like Jeannette Rankin, the first female in Congress, and many others who went on to high positions. Some America Firsters were provincial in their thinking but many were internationalists who promoted global leadership through international bodies like the League of Nations and were in favor of foreign trade and aid. Members faced FBI surveillance and harassment in a precursor to McCarthyism, and "revisionist" historians associated with their views were intimidated and attacked and then ignored.
Donald Trump may be a crude bigot and opportunist, however, his invocation of the conservative isolationist tradition and America First is not part of his bigotry. For all its buffoonery, Trump's campaign has tapped into some deep grievance and disaffection with politics which is also driving support for Bernie Sanders on the left. Those who ignore the sources of Trump's appeal and cannot see through the hypocrisy of some of the anti-Trump forces may themselves be out of touch with reality, and wedded to a naïve view of history and a political order which cannot over time be sustained.
Instead of mocking their candidate and sugarcoating the events of recent history, the challenge for progressive forces is to reach out to Trump supporters and try and promote a campaign of public education that can help explain the reality of American world power and the connection between wasteful military spending and domestic ills. This would be a key step in channeling the popular animosity brought out by Trump into a broad movement for peace and change that draws on American traditions, including dare I say, the anti-militarism of America First, fitted for today's age.
Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches history at the University of Tulsa and is author of Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012) among other works.