America First Committee

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Official America First Committee logo

The America First Committee (AFC) was the foremost non-interventionist pressure group against the American entry into World War II. Peaking at 800,000 paid members in 450 chapters, it was one of the largest anti-war organizations in American history.[1][2] Started in 1940, it shut down after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 7, 1941.

Membership[edit]

The AFC was established on September 4, 1940, by Yale Law School student R. Douglas Stuart, Jr. (heir to the Quaker Oats fortune), along with other students, including future President Gerald Ford, future Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, and future U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart.[3] At its peak, America First claimed 800,000 dues-paying members in 650 chapters, located mostly in a 300-mile radius of Chicago.[1]

The AFC gained much of its early strength by merging with the more left-wing Keep America Out of War Committee, whose leaders had included such mainstays of America First as Norman Thomas and John T. Flynn.

It claimed 135,000 members in 60 chapters in Illinois, its strongest state.[4] Fundraising drives produced about $370,000 from some 25,000 contributors. Nearly half came from a few millionaires such as William H. Regnery, H. Smith Richardson of the Vick Chemical Company, General Robert E. Wood of Sears-Roebuck, Sterling Morton of Morton Salt Company, publisher Joseph M. Patterson (New York Daily News) and his cousin, publisher Robert R. McCormick (Chicago Tribune). Future President John F. Kennedy sent a contribution, with a note saying "What you are doing is vital."

The AFC was never able to get funding for its own public opinion poll. The New York chapter received slightly more than $190,000, most of it from its 47,000 contributors. Since it never had a national membership form or national dues, and local chapters were quite autonomous, historians suggest that the organization's leaders had no idea how many "members" it had.[5]

Serious organizing of the America First Committee took place in Chicago not long after the September 1940 establishment. Chicago was to remain the national headquarters of the committee. To preside over their committee, America First chose General Robert E. Wood, the 61 year-old chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Co.. While Wood would accept only an interim position, he remained at the head of the committee until it was disbanded in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The America First Committee had its share of prominent businessmen as well as the sympathies of political figures including Democratic Senators Burton K. Wheeler of Montana and David I. Walsh of Massachusetts, Republican Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota, and Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, with its most prominent spokesman being aviator Charles A. Lindbergh.

Other celebrities supporting America First were novelist Sinclair Lewis, poet E. E. Cummings, Washington socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth, film producer Walt Disney, and actress Lillian Gish. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright attempted to join, but he was rejected when the local board decided that he had a "reputation for immorality". The many student chapters included future celebrities, such as author Gore Vidal (as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy), and the future President Gerald Ford, at Yale Law School.

Issues[edit]

When the war began in September 1939, most Americans (and Congressmen) demanded neutrality regarding Europe.[6] Although most Americans supported strong measures against Japan, Europe was the focus of the America First Committee. The public mood was changing, however, especially after the fall of France in spring 1940.[7]

The America First Committee launched a petition aimed at enforcing the 1939 Neutrality Act and forcing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to keep his pledge to keep America out of the war. They profoundly distrusted Roosevelt, arguing that he was lying to the American people.

On the day after Roosevelt's lend-lease bill was submitted to the United States Congress, Wood promised AFC opposition "with all the vigor it can exert." America First staunchly opposed the convoying of ships, the Atlantic Charter, and the placing of economic pressure on Japan. In order to achieve the defeat of lend-lease and the perpetuation of American neutrality, the AFC advocated four basic principles:

  • The United States must build an impregnable defense for America.
  • No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America.
  • American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war.
  • "Aid short of war" weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.
Charles Lindbergh speaking at an AFC rally

Charles Lindbergh had been actively involved in questioning the motives of the Roosevelt administration well before the formation of the AFC. Lindbergh adopted an anti-war stance even before the Battle of Britain and before the advent of the lend-lease bill. His first radio speech was broadcast on September 15, 1939 over all three of the major radio networks (Mutual, National, and Columbia). Lindbergh urged listeners to look beyond the speeches and propaganda they were being fed and instead look at who was writing the speeches and reports, who owned the papers and who influenced the speakers.

On June 20, 1941 Lindbergh spoke to a rally in Los Angeles billed as "Peace and Preparedness Mass Meeting". In his speech of that day, Lindbergh criticized those movements which he perceived were leading America into the war. He proclaimed that the United States was in a position that made it virtually impregnable and he pointed out that when interventionists said "the defense of England" they really meant "defeat of Germany." Lindbergh's presence at the Hollywood Bowl rally was overshadowed, however, by the presence of fringe elements in the crowd.

Nothing did more to escalate the tensions than the speech he delivered to a rally in Des Moines, Iowa on September 11, 1941. In that speech he identified the forces pulling America into the war as the British, the Roosevelt administration, and the Jews. While he expressed sympathy for the plight of the Jews in Germany, he argued that America's entry into the war would serve them little better. He said in part:

It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race. No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution the Jewish race suffered in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy, both for us and for them.

Instead of agitating for war the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few farsighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.[8]

With the formal declaration of war against Japan following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Committee chose to disband. On December 11 the committee leaders met and voted for dissolution. In the statement which they released to the press was the following:

Our principles were right. Had they been followed, war could have been avoided. No good purpose can now be served by considering what might have been, had our objectives been attained.

We are at war. Today, though there may be many important subsidiary considerations, the primary objective is not difficult to state. It can be completely defined in one word: Victory.[9]

Communists were antiwar until June 1941 and tried to infiltrate or take it over.[10] After Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941 they reversed positions and denounced the AFC as a Nazi front (or infiltrated by German agents).[11]

Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan has praised America First and used its name as a slogan. "The achievements of that organization are monumental," writes Buchanan, "By keeping America out of World War II until Hitler attacked Stalin in June 1941, Soviet Russia, not America, bore the brunt of the fighting, bleeding and dying to defeat Nazi Germany."[12]

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Wayne S. Cole, America First: The Battle against Intervention, 1940-41 (1953)
  2. ^ Bill Kauffman, Ain't My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism (2008)
  3. ^ Kauffman, Bill; Sarles, Ruth (2003). A story of America First: the men and women who opposed U. S. intervention in World War II. New York: Praeger. p. xvii. ISBN 0-275-97512-6. 
  4. ^ Schneider p 198
  5. ^ Cole 1953, 25-33; Schneider 201-2
  6. ^ Leroy N. Rieselbach (1966). The roots of isolationism: congressional voting and presidential leadership in foreign policy. Bobbs-Merrill. p. 13. 
  7. ^ James Gilbert Ryan; Leonard C. Schlup (2006). Historical Dictionary of The 1940s. M.E. Sharpe. p. 415. 
  8. ^ Cole 1953, p 144
  9. ^ "America First Group to Quit". The Telegraph-Herald (Dubuque, Iowa). United Press International. 1941-12-12. p. 13. Retrieved November 16, 2011. 
  10. ^ Selig Adler (1957). The isolationist impulse: its twentieth-century reaction. pp. 269–70, 274. 
  11. ^ Kahn, A. E., and M. Sayers. The Great Conspiracy: The Secret War Against Soviet Russia. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1946, chap. XXIII (American Anti-Comintern), part 5: Lone Eagle, pp. 365-378. Kahn, A.E., and M. Sayers. The Plot against the Peace: A Warning to the Nation!. 1st ed. New York: Dial Press, 1945, chap. X (In the Name of Peace), pp. 187-209.
  12. ^ Pat Buchanan (October 13, 2004). The Resurrection of 'America First!'. The American Cause. Retrieved 2008-02-03 

Bibliography[edit]

Historiography[edit]

Primary sources[edit]

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