One Page: America First–Then and Now

Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.~Mark Twain

It’s tempting to think that our societies are continually evolving.  But history tells us that there are issues which simmer “underground” for a while and then rise to the surface.  One of them is how a society handles the question of immigration.  Are its borders more open or more restrictive?  Another is the degree to which the society is inward-focused–on its own concerns and people–or outward-focused–on issues beyond its national borders.

The current American president uses the slogan “America First” to describe his outlook on immigration (restrictive) and his inward-focused agenda on protecting Americans and America’s interests.  But was he the first person to use this term?  If he wasn’t the first, who was the originator?

Take this quick quiz to find out.  Some of the answers will surprise you!

1.  When was slogan “America First” initially used in American politics?

  • In the 2016 presidential campaign
  • In the 1940’s by an anti-war group
  • In 1930 by President Herbert Hoover

Answer:  A group of Yale students, including the future president Gerald Ford, and Potter Stewart, the future Supreme Court Justice, started America First in the 1940’s.  They believed for various reasons that a second world war would be disastrous.  Their group gained in popularity and notariety throughout the  early 1940’s and included a wide range of supporters–pacifists, xenophobes, industrialists who sympathized with Nazi Germany, as well as isolationists who wanted to focus on America’s economic recovery from the Depression.

Source: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

2.  What famous Americans were members of America First?

  • Norman Thomas, the Socialist
  • Gerald Ford, the future American president
  • Charles Lindbergh, the aviator
  • Sergeant Shriver, future Peace Corps director
  • John F. Kennedy, the future American president

Answer:  All of these people were members.  Some left the organization when it became politically volatile.

3.  Why was the group so controversial?

Answer:  The group’s spokesman was Charles A. Lindbergh, the famous aviator.  He made an inflammatory speech in Des Moines, Iowa on September 11, 1941, in which he characterized the 3 groups advocating for the U.S. to enter the war in Europe: the British, the government, and “the Jewish race.”  He believed that Jews posed a great danger to this country because of ” … their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.”  He elaborated on this: “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.”

After the public outcry about Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic comments, a number of notable members of America First left the group.  Ultimately, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the committee disbanded.

Then and Now

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.~Groucho Marx

It’s tempting to draw parallels between the 2 leaders of the America First Movement in the 1940’s and today.  No doubt both Lindbergh and Trump have very different political beliefs and agendas and are responding to different political events.  Still, there are some similarities.  I’ll quote Louisa Thomas in her article in The New Yorker, who describes both men as sharing:  “a suspicion that the nation is under threat from alien elements; a narrow definition of what it means to be an American; and an expressed belief that they speak the impolitic truth on behalf of those who are suppressed by political correctness.” (Source: The New Yorker.)

I think the more pertinent question is how Americans will respond to the shift to restrictive immigration and the focus on America’s internal issues and people, rather than on wider global concerns.  Back in the 1940’s there was a political battle to convince Americans to look beyond their internal issues and go to war.  We know how they responded.  They were also asked whether America would open its doors to immigrants fleeing the Nazis or slam them shut.  That was a very different answer.

Illustration by Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss). Digital object made available by Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego, La Jolla, 92093-0175 (

This begs the question of how Americans will respond today.  What do you think?  What will their answers be?

To read more about the history of America First:

This is the fourth post in a series called One Page, which highlights events from the past that resonate in today’s political climate.  To see other posts in this series, follow the links below.

Whispers, Lies and the Truth

A Quiz:  Do You Know These Fascists?

An Anti-Fascist Hero You Probably Don’t Know

13 replies »

  1. We stayed out of the office war until Pearl Harbor. Whether we would have otherwise entered the war in Europe is an unknown question. The implication that we responded to pleas from England and Russia to enter the war is not really founded in fact.

    I don’t know the answer to the immigration issue. We need to answer the question based on our on interest. We opened up to immigrants in the 1800’s to populate the Midwest and West. A lot of that was pressure from the railroads. They had made large investments in the west and needed people living there to recover their investment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great feedback, “Old Guy”! You made my day. You must be a history “buff” like me. I have found similar contradictory information about why we entered the war. As for immigration, we’ve opened our borders when it has met our employment needs. There has certainly been evidence of discrimination against waves of new immigrants throughout our history as well as varying immigrant quotas based on world events and the political “temperature” in America. I appreciate your thoughtful reply!


  2. Trump was elected because voters in Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania who voted for Obama in the two prior elections changed their votes to Trump. To say they did so because they suddenly became racist just for me stretches reality. I fon’t believe their switch was based on anything other than economic issues.

    Liked by 1 person

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