In defense of America First

America First was a young, politically diverse, and surprisingly well-lettered movement that wanted to keep America neutral (like Switzerland or Ireland) as Europe descended into World War II. Though it started on the East Coast, it was concentrated in the Midwest and had over two million members nationwide. It counted major American political figures, Democrat and Republican, in its ranks, as well as many men of letters.

You probably remember the Clinton years. The America Firsters remembered World War I. Members of the AFC over 30 would recall that the last European bloodbath had some deforming effects on liberty at home. These included America’s experiments in mass wartime censorship, stirred up-hatred of German-Americans, and the legal suppression of the German language that was used commonly in the Midwest and Great Plains. The governor of Iowa told reporters, “There is no use in anyone wasting his time praying in other languages than English. God is listening only to the English tongue.”

America Firsters also remembered British intelligence planting false and insane stories in the American press during World War I, accusing the German army of marching with Belgian babies impaled on their bayonets. They remembered that Woodrow Wilson’s government had employed a small army of government-licensed demagogues, the Four Minute Men, who got their speeches from the proto-fascist Committee on Public Information. They also recalled that the peace imposed at Versailles had been vengeful and its reparation schemes so entangled that they contributed to a global economic depression just a few years earlier. Naturally, some of them wanted to restore America’s foreign policy of maintaining the Monroe Doctrine in our hemisphere and not intervening in others.