Dear Commons Community,
Last Wednesday, Donald Trump gave a foreign policy speech during which he referred several times to his proposed “America First” position:
“My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else. That will be the foundation of every decision that I will make. America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”
During the Sunday morning television news shows, several commentators mentioned briefly the history of another America First theme, used in the United States in the 1930s to maintain an isolationist position in the days leading up to World War II. Susan Dunn, a professor of Humanities at Willaims College, in a CNN op-ed, summarized the earlier America First as:
“It is extremely unfortunate that in his speech Wednesday outlining his foreign policy goals, Donald Trump chose to brand his foreign policy with the noxious slogan “America First,” the name of the isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler.
The America First Committee began at Yale University, where Douglas Stuart Jr., the son of a vice president of Quaker Oats, began organizing his fellow students in spring 1940. He and Gerald Ford, the future American president, and Potter Stewart, the future Supreme Court justice, drafted a petition stating, “We demand that Congress refrain from war, even if England is on the verge of defeat.”
The American First Committee became fairly popular and was supported by a number of prominent businessmen and government officials.
“Seeking to brand itself as a mainstream organization, America First struggled with the problem of the anti-Semitism of some of its leaders and many of its members. It had to remove from its executive committee not only the notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford but also Avery Brundage, the former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee who had prevented two Jewish runners from the American track team in Berlin in 1936 from running in the finals of the 4×100 relay.”
America First came to an end with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the War. I doubt that Trump’s speech writers deliberately selected the theme as a throwback to the 1930s. However, as Eleanor Clift of CBS’s McLaughlin Group commented, they would be wise to check their history books more carefully in the future.