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America First

Throughout American history, many Americans believed that the United States should stay out of wars in other parts of the world. This idea is called isolationism. In George Washington’s farewell address, he advised the United States to remain neutral in European conflicts. “Why,” he asked, “. . . entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition [rivalry]?” The United States was isolated on its own continent and prosperous with rich agricultural soils, minerals, and necessary manufactures. Why get into others’ arguments over land or ancient rivalries?

Abraham Lincoln wrote "At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? No! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with the treasures of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not, by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years."

Many Progressives, including US President Theodore Roosevelt, saw no conflict between imperialism and reform at home - to them, both were forms of uplift, reform and improvement, and so they saw in new colonies an opportunity to further the Progressive agenda around the world. However, especially after the violence of the Philippine-American War, other Progressives became increasingly vocal about their opposition to US foreign intervention and imperialism. Still others argued that foreign ventures would detract from much-needed domestic political and social reforms.

Under the leadership of US Senator Robert La Follette, Progressive opposition to foreign intervention further increased under the Dollar Diplomacy policies of Republican President William Howard Taft. The Progressive movement split over the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles. Congress ultimately rejected Wilson’s proposed League of Nations and the 1919 Versailles Treaty, ensuring the United States would continue isolationist policies until World War II. Progressive US Senator William Borah led the campaign against ratification, and he would increasingly become the champion of the isolationist movement until his death in 1940.

Robert Alphonso Taft spent his young years in Ohio and the Phillippines, where his father, William Howard Taft, served as the islands' civil governor. In 1921, Robert Taft was elected to the Republican-dominated Ohio state legislature. Financially conservative, he surprised some supporters by opposing Prohibition and taking a stand against the Ku Klux Klan. Like many Republicans, Taft lost his reelection campaign in the Democratic sweep of 1932, the year Franklin Roosevelt gained the White House and the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress. Disastrous to the Republican party, the 1932 elections sparked Taft's lifelong crusade against liberal economic policies.

In 1938, he won a race for the US Senate. As Roosevelt's most vocal congressional critic, he denounced the president's domestic and foreign policy. As a staunch isolationist, he fought against the increased military appropriations and international agreements that threatened to draw the US into war.

Republican Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota represented the foreign policy projections of agrarian interests and values, part of long-term patterns extending back through Nebraska's William Jennings Bryan at the turn of the century to Virginia's Thomas Jefferson at the beginning of the history of the United States.

Nye was one of America's leading and most controversial isolationists, opposing intervention in foreign wars and arguing against entanglement in alliances or the League of Nations. In 1934-1936 he led the Senate Committee Investigating the Munitions Industry that was both an expression of and a force for isolationism. He was a key figure in the enactment of neutrality laws in the I930s, helping in hundreds of speeches throughout the country to publicize and popularize noninterventionist views. He provided colorful leadership for oppo- nents of the increasingly internationalist andinterventionist policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Nye's agrarian perspectives were shared in some degree by most of the leading Senate isolationists, including William E. Borah of Idaho, Hiram Johnson of California, George W. Norris of Nebraska, Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, Arthur Capper of Kansas, Lynn J. Frazier of North Dakota, Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota, and Robert M. La Follette, Jr., of Wisconsin. Important midwestern business men, such as General Robert E. Wood of Sears, Roebuck and Company in Chicago and Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan, shared some of the perspectives that moved Nye to isolationism.

Wayne S. Cole woret that " ... agrarian considerations did not stop at the three-mile limit. When projected into foreign affairs, those same attitudes became variations of American isolationism. Most farmers (and most isolationists) were patriotic and favored building and maintaining military forces to defend American security and interests. ... They objected to being taxed to pay for expensive battleships whose purpose was not so much to defend America as to subsidize eastern steel manufacturers and shipbuilders. They opposed sending those high priced ships to distant lands to defend the investments and businesses of eastern financiers. They opposed imperialism that seemed not so much for spreading democracy and freedom as for guarding the investments and loans of Wall Street financiers. They opposed involvement in foreign wars that, in their judgment, were not essential for national security... "

The America First Committee (AFC) was the largest organization lobbying against the American entry into World War II. It began in September 1940, grew to about 800,000 members, and disbanded after the attack upon Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The AFC petitioned the government to enforce the 1939 Neutrality Act and tried to force Franklin Roosevelt to honor his pledge to keep America out of the war. The group opposed: lend-lease, ship convoys, the Atlantic Charter, and any economic pressure on Japan. The AFC was run by Robert Wood, the CEO of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Charles Lindbergh was its most famous spokesman and other notable members include: Gerald Ford, Norman Thomas, Sinclair Lewis, Walt Disney and both Democratic and Republican senators. Others included John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Kurt Vonnegut, Potter Stewart, Gore Vidal, Sargent Shriver, Kingman Brewster.

In 1933, Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany. Hitler fanatically believed in the superiority of the Aryan (white) “race.” He believed, and convinced many other Germans to believe, that all Jews, Rom (Gypsies), and homosexuals were enemies of the German people. While forcing Jews and Rom into concentration camps, Germany expanded into eastern Europe and then into France. In 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. The United States tried to remain neutral. Britain and France needed financial and military help, but the United States was not yet ready to enter the war. Most Americans favored neutrality in the 1930s, but President Franklin Roosevelt knew that the United States would eventually enter the war and made military preparations for that day.

In 1934, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst visited Nazi Germany and met with the German Fuhrer. It was following Hearst's trip to Nazi Germany that the Hearst press began to promote the theme of 'famine-genocide in Ukraine. Taking a soft line on the Nazis' activities in Germany, Hearst unleashed an all-out propaganda war against the USSR. He denigrated Soviet industrialization and collectivization achievements, at the same time eulogizing about Nazi Germany's economic developments. Hearst was by no means the only extreme right-wing news mogul in the US.

If naysayers had had their way, Franklin Roosevelt would never have come to the aid of Churchill's England prior to Pearl Harbor. Millions of Americans rallied against America's foreign policy -- even famous celebrities, such as Charles Lindbergh and the radio commentator Father Charles Coughlin. Roosevelt's own ambassador to England, Joseph P. Kennedy, prophesied that democracy was "finished" and Hitler unstoppable. He urged appeasement. isolationism was a comprehensive sentiment with deep roots in both parties. Joe Kennedy, Charles Lindbergh, and Alf Landon play featured roles as Roosevelt's foils. Lindbergh was an anti-Semitic fascist sympathizer whose authoritative overestimates of Nazi strength bolstered those who argued that resistance to Hitler was futile, and Kennedy was an articulate, principled proponent of this defeatism.

Kennedy was strident (and, of course, wrong) in his insistence that Britain could not continue to stand alone against Hitler. It is clear that Kennedy did have a grudge against the Jews, mostly because they interfered with what he wanted, be it getting a foothold in the movie industry or keeping the US out of WWII. Kennedy greatly admired British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain-they both wanted to avoid a devastating war-up to a point and made an impact on Hollywood as founder of RKO Pictures, absorbing in the process a distrust of Jews that affected the rest of his life. The father of Jack, Bobby, and Teddy (plus six others), his isolationism never really wavered. He believed that victory over Hitler had cost much and accomplished little. But FDR, after the Munich agreement, understood that the only question was how soon America should prepare itself to take part in a now-certain war.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt invited England’s King George VI for a visit to the United States, the significance of the invitation did not go unnoticed. No reigning British monarch had ever set foot on American soil, not even in colonial times.

FDR’s invitation to the King signified the dawn of a new era in American and British cooperation. With Europe poised on the brink of war, FDR realized the necessity of fostering closer ties between the two democracies. FDR believed so strongly in the need for cooperation that he pursued this change in foreign policy at the risk of losing domestic support from the very strong isolationist and anti-British segments of the electorate. FDR planned every minute detail of the visit to ensure the King’s success in winning over the sympathy and support of the American people.

At the state dinner held on June 8, 1939, a concert of American music was chosen for the entertainment including spirituals, cowboy ballads, and folk songs. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited African American opera singer Marian Anderson to perform in a program that included “Ava Maria” for the royal audience. George VI’s visit to the United States was a key component in developing a stronger political and social alliance between the United States and Great Britain.

In 1940, while attending Yale Law School, Robert Stuart, Jr. began to become politically active by joining a group of classmates that included future President Gerald Ford and future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, which became the founding of the America First Committee.

President Franklin Roosevelt on January 6, 1941, nearly a year before the United States entered the war, spoke of the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and the freedom from fear as worthy of protection by the American people.

In 1941, as Japanese aggression in China intensified, Senator Burton K. Wheeler, one of the leading Congressional isolationists and a spokesman for the America First Committee, stated publicly, "Japan is one of our best trading partners . . . and there is no reason why we should not live in peace with her."

In a speech in August 1941, Lindbergh asked, “shall we now give up the independence we have won, and crusade abroad in a utopian attempt to force our ideas on the rest of the world; or shall we use air power, and other advances of modern warfare, to guard and strengthen the independence of our nation?”

On September 11, 1941, Charles Lindbergh appeared in Des Moines, Iowa, to speak on behalf of the isolationist America First Committee. The famous aviator criticized the groups he perceived were leading America into war for acting against the country's interests. He expressed doubt that the US military would achieve victory in a war against Germany, which he said had "armies stronger than our own." The Des Moines speech was met with outrage in many quarters, and Lindbergh was denounced as an anti-Semite. In his hometown of Little Falls, Minnesota, his name was even removed from the town's water tower.

[In letters to historian Wayne Cole in the early 1970s, Lindbergh described his concepts of racial superiority, arguing that white people were, in general, intellectually superior to blacks, while the sensate abilities of blacks were superior to those of Caucasians. By the same token, he believed that “certain races have demonstrated superior ability in the design, manufacture and operation of machines.”]

Roosevelt was a master of concealing his true objectives. Roosevelt promised "that he would never send American soldiers to fight beyond America's shores." Yet, on December 4, 1941, the Chicago Tribune revealed the existence of elaborate war plans [Rainbow Five] involving the landing of an American force 5 million strong in Europe by 1943. The revelation gave isolationists fits, but their criticism was effectively silenced three days later when Japanese forces attacked Hawaii.

German documents reveal the Amercian newspapers reports that the US was planning a ten million man army to invade Europe led Hitler to declare war on the US while it was still reeling from Pearl Harbor, rather than wait for a build up.

Unlike the familiar yet idealized FDR of Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time, the reader of "The New Dealers' War: Fdr And The War Within World War II" by Thomas Fleming encounters a Roosevelt in remorseless decline, battered by ideological forces and primitive hatreds which he could not handle-and frequently failed to understand-some of them leading to unimaginable catastrophe. Among FDR's most dismaying policies, Fleming argues, were an insistence on "unconditional surrender" for Germany (a policy that perhaps prolonged the war by as many as two years, leaving millions more dead) and his often uncritical embrace of and acquiescence to Stalin and the Soviets as an ally. For many Americans, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a beloved, heroic, almost mythic figure.

On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked the U.S. Navy fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Japanese planes destroyed 19 ships, 188 planes, and killed more than 2,000 American servicemen. The following day, Congress declared war on Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy, Japan’s allies, declared war on the United States. On 11 December 1941, America First was dissolved four days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Senator Robert Taft from Ohio, son of President William Howard Taft, was an adamant isolationist who also ran for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. Senator Taft opposed U.S. entry into World War II right up until the US lost 2,000 Americans at Pearl Harbor.

Gerald Ford stated that his experiences in World War II caused him to reject his previous isolationist leanings and adopt an internationalist outlook. With the encouragement of his stepfather, who was county Republican chairman, and Senator Arthur Vandenberg, Ford decided to challenge the isolationist incumbent Bartel Jonkman for the Republican nomination for the US House of Representatives in the 1948 election. He won nomination by a wide margin.

Many America Firsters who had been genuinely isolationist, and not just opposed to war with Germany, continued to oppose military commitments abroad even after the war. Senator Robert Taft agreed the United States had become embroiled in a world-wide conflict with Communism. But he also wrote in 1950 that “I do not believe it is at all clear that the Russians contemplate a military conquest of the world … I believe they know it is impossible. It would take them at least a hundred years to build up their sea power.” Joseph Kennedy had already labeled American foreign policy “suicidal” and “politically and morally bankrupt.” He called for a withdrawal from commitments in Berlin and Korea, and believed the country had little interest in, or responsibility for, the defense of Western Europe.

Taft opposed the creation of NATO because he thought it was too provocative towards the Soviet Union. And Taft opposed the Nuremburg Trials because he saw it as being fundamentally unfair and biased towards the Germans. Taft did not see Stalin’s Soviet Union as a threat to the United States in the 1950s. Eisenhower declared his candidacy in the spring of 1952, impelled less by personal ambition than his rejection of Senator Robert Taft's isolationist views on foreign policy. In 1952 Ike won the Republican presidential nomination based largely on the belief that he would be better for Cold War America with his focus on internationalism versus Taft’s isolationist stance.

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Page last modified: 09-12-2016 19:48:32 ZULU