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Thursday, June 16, 2005

The America First Anti-War Coalition

America First:
the Anti-War Movement, Charles Lindbergh
and the Second World War, 1940-1941

David Gordon

The America First Committee initially had seemed only the latest and most extreme example of isolationist opinion in the United States that had grown up in the 1920s, and which had become stronger during the Great Depression. There had been a widespread belief in America since 1919 that the country had gained nothing out of the First War. That this was not true had little effect. The earliest important anti-war organization, the Keep America Out of War Congress, had been created in 1938 by Socialist Norman Thomas with the help of liberals like John T. Flynn, Oswald Garrison Villard, the former editor of the Nation, and Harry Elmer Barnes, revisionist historian of the First World War.[9] Anti-war organizations on American campuses were similarly led by liberals, Socialists and Communists. The Committee itself had been created by two Yale students. (One, Robert Douglas Stuart Jr., a 24 year old Princeton graduate, and son of the senior vice president of the Quaker Oats Company, was a law student sympathetic with New Deal reforms.[10] The other was Kingman Brewster.[11]) America First therefore appeared neither particularly conservative, nor pro-German. It was not surprising that Thomas and Villard soon joined the executive board.[12]

However, most AFC supporters were neither liberal, nor Socialist. Many simply wanted to stay out of the war. Since many also came from the Midwest, an area never as sensitive to European problems as the east coast, isolationist arguments was soon buttressed by more traditional prejudices against eastern industrial and banking interests. (Almost two-thirds of the Committee’s 850,000 registered supporters would eventually come from the Midwest, mostly from a radius of three hundred miles around Chicago.)[13] Many AFC supporters were certain industry and the banks wanted war for their own profit.[14] Many other supporters were Republicans who flocked to the AFC for partisan political reasons. Still others were covertly pro-German. Some were German-Americans whose sentimental attachments had not been diminished by the crimes of the Nazi regime. Others, whether of German origin or not, were attracted to Hitler’s racism and anti-Semitism.

Midwestern voters had long been suspicious of eastern elites. The building of transcontinental railroads, organized by New York bankers and financed with British capital, had opened new markets for farm produce. Yet dependence on them had also created fear and hatred in many farming states.[15] By the 1890s, the struggle for a “cheap dollar” that would help farmers pay off mortgages, and which led them to support a silver and gold based currency, had brought them into open conflict with New York bankers anxious to preserve a gold standard. William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech had stirred many farming communities. It had done little to advance their cause. Farm fortunes had improved dramatically during the First World War, when J.P Morgan and Company, as official British purchasing agent, had paid inflated prices for Midwest produce. But it was the subsequent collapse of farm prices after 1920 (when the commodity price index fell from 205 that year to 116 in 1921) that was remembered in the decades before Pearl Harbor.[16] The enduring anger this created would provide fertile ground for anti-British and anti-eastern rhetoric.


The leaders of the AFC had different political beliefs, but once they decided to work together, they began to sound remarkably alike. Like their supporters in Congress, many believed war hysteria was being created to distract the public from the failures of the New Deal.[24] The second collapse of the economy in 1937, widely regarded as the “Roosevelt depression,” had certainly hurt the president. His prestige was at its lowest during the early part of 1939. Precedent, as well as his failed economic record, had suggested that his second term would be his last. Then came the war crisis, and the revival of his fortunes. Many believed, in the words of John Flynn, that Roosevelt wanted war because he found it a “glorious, magnificent escape from all the insoluble problems of America.”[25]

In order to defeat the president’s pro-British agenda, Committee members insisted the crimes of the western powers were as great as those of Germany. Their arguments usually began with a formulaic denunciation of Hitler, without any serious examination of his actions. This was followed by a detailed catalogue of the sins of the allies.[26] Since the war initially was assumed by AFC spokesmen to be for the preservation of the French and British colonial empires, and not for the democracies themselves, they could claim that Britain and France were as least as great oppressors as Hitler.[27] This argument, however, did not change even when the situation of the democracies became desperate. Thus, Norman Thomas had insisted in 1939 that “French imperialism is … a curse to mankind, and that the anti-German phobia of the French did much to create the Nazi movement.” Yet even after June 1940 he would continue to turn his fury against Britain. Senator Nye in the same period called the British empire “the very acme of reaction … and exploitation.”[28] As late as July of 1941, with the Nazi invasion of Russia already begun, Robert Maynard Hutchins could still write that there were more victims of aggression before1939 than after. These included “populations in Indochina, Africa, the Malay States, and especially, India.” General Hugh Johnson, former director of the National Recovery Act, also insisted that Britain’s sole war aim was “to maintain her dominant Empire position with her own kinsmen (as well as) over black, brown and yellow conquered and subject peoples in three continents.”[29] One AFC pamphlet asked “when Britain is going to release the 30,000 political prisoners in India?“[30] The verdict was clear. The European democracies, tainted by imperialism, were not worth saving. But it took a sly politician like Gerald Nye to strike the appropriate homely note. “The conflict in Europe,” he said, was not “worthy of the sacrifice of one American mule, much less one American son.”[31]

In making these arguments, America Firsters chose to ignore fundamental differences between the western empires and Nazi rule in Europe. Hitler in the first six months of 1940 had overrun six democratic states. He was determined to destroy democracy wherever he found it.[32] His rabid hatred of Jews and Slavs was already having affect in Poland. The Holocaust had not yet begun. But the Polish educated classes were already being systematically destroyed, and Polish schools and universities permanently closed. Jews were being ghettoized in horrific conditions. Anyone interested could have discovered these things. The French and British colonial empires were not democratic. But by the 1930s they had no central or consistent policy of slavery and mass murder. Created in a earlier age uninformed by Wilsonian principles, they were moving, however slowly, towards more democratic government and greater respect for individual human rights.

The most important difference, however, was between the governments of France and Britain themselves, and Nazi Germany. Britain and France (before Vichy) had both valued humanitarian ideals, which, however poorly honored at home and abroad, still assured the fundamental human rights of their citizens. These, combined with a free press, had also come by the 1930s to mitigate the worst excesses of colonialism. It was the British press that had made Gandhi a hero, and allowed his campaigns of passive resistance to succeed. The 1937 Government of India Act had hardly satisfied members of the Congress Party anxious for immediate independence. But it was a step towards democracy and self-government. Hitler’s dictatorship repudiated both democracy and human rights. The Nazi empire was the arena in which Hitler’s master race philosophy was to be put into practice. Censorship prevented the German press from exciting the conscience of the nation. There could never have been a successful passive resistance movement against the Nazis. The inability of members of the AFC to recognize this, especially men like Hutchins of Chicago, and Norman Thomas, is remarkable.


The effect of the invasion

[German invasion of the Soviet Union lauched on June 22, 1941 - Operation Barbarossa -- ending in a bloody armored stalemate at the gates of Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad -- partisans fighting and dying in droves in the German rear areas -- Jews rounded up and executed -- Chip]

was not what the Committee had hoped. Most Americans sympathized with the Soviet Union. German support in the country was further reduced by the desertion of their erstwhile Communist party allies. The Nazis more than ever appeared to most Americans the country’s most dangerous enemy. The invasion also had a bracing effect on Churchill. Up to the last the Soviet Union had supplied Germany with supplies that made the British blockade ineffectual. The invasion had thus not cost Britain a potential ally. It had cost Germany a real one. It also had given England its first major partner in the war since the fall of France. Despite the initial fears of many in Britain and America, Russia did not collapse. The result was that Hitler seemed more vulnerable than ever. American determination to oppose him increased.

The summer of 1941 was a curious time for the AFC. Pro-German elements in the country waited anxiously for Hitler’s blitzkrieg to succeed. The majority of Americans, sympathetic to Russians defending their own country, hoped for a German defeat. America Firsters continued to be troubled by the popular mood. American concern about Britain was now joined with that for Russia. This they feared could only strengthen interventionist forces. That realization, combined with the passage of Lend-Lease, inspired a new tactic. Previously, most AFC propaganda had been directed against Britain, its American friends, and the president. The largely Protestant banking establishment, from J.P. Morgan to the Rockefeller controlled Chase National Bank, had been attacked without charges of bigotry. Roosevelt had always been a legitimate target. The Committee would now attack Jews.[67]

The unstated charge was disloyalty. Since Americans of undivided loyalty, Committee members reasoned, had to see that neutrality was the only rational course for the nation, pro-interventionists had to be working for alien interests. Lindbergh had already suggested this.[68] America First itself had been careful to keep those of divided loyalties out of its own ranks. Neither members of the German-American Bund nor Communists, anxious to oppose war before June 22, had been welcome.[69] Father Charles Coughlin’s Christian Fronters were also discouraged from joining.[70] The Committee was now ready to apply its own high standards to its opponents.

Anti-Semitism was the most inflammatory issue in the isolationist debate. Jews had good reason to hate Hitler. Their loyalty was suspect by some for that very reason. Since most Americans assumed the country was safe from German invasion, American Jews, they concluded, were also safe. Jewish interventionists could therefore be motivated only by a desire to help co-religionists in Europe. To save them, Jews appeared willing to sacrifice American lives. This to many seemed more than just a case of divided loyalties. It was pernicious. The fact that interventionist sentiment was strongest in the traditionally conservative south and southwest, areas of small Jewish population, had done little to change popular belief that Jews were leading the drive for war.[71] (So great was the antipathy for America First in the south, and so complete the consensus in favor of support for Britain, that its few sympathizers had been intimidated into silence.)[72] Interventionist organizations, fearful of being labeled the tools of Jews, had been careful to keep Jewish membership on their governing boards small.[73] The AFC, which since its creation had been careful to avoid appearing anti-Semitic, had the opposite policy. General Wood had been very pleased when Lessing Rosenwald, a member of the Sears, Roebuck board, had joined the executive committee. But Rosenwald had resigned to protest the presence of Henry Ford, and no Jews had been found to take his place.[74] At a time when the Committee was being attacked in much of the press as a tool of Hitler, charges of bigotry had to avoided at all cost.[75] That many American anti-Semites, anxious to avoid fighting Germany, had joined the AFC, made this task more difficult. AFC chapters in the east from the beginning had struggled to keep out Christian Fronters.[76] The Committee leadership was painfully aware they had not always succeeded.[77] Jews in much of the world had become by 1940 a beleaguered minority threatened with mass murder. Most Committee members, as people of conscience, did not want to add to Jewish tribulations. Some AFC supporters had in the past occasionally expressed hostility to Jews.[78] But they had kept these views private. This reticence would now come to an end.


Some AFC supporters had been motivated by humanitarian ideals. Not all interventionists were. Yet in the end those who supported intervention also supported the preservation of democracy and human rights in Europe. Those who opposed war did not. This obvious fact had long troubled some Committee members, including Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas. Although anti-fascist, his Party had never been able to explain how fascism could be eliminated without war.[127] The argument that war would only bring fascism to America had been neither entirely convincing, nor satisfying. It was a problem anti-war supporters of democracy never succeeded in solving.

This moral dilemma was the AFC’s most serious weakness. The Committee’s enemies had been quick to see their advantage. The Chicago Daily News observed that “a crazier coalition was never assembled! Come lately German Nazis and Italian Fascists, Communists, pacifists, professional Anglophobes, Socialists, anti-Semites, rabid partisans who hate Roosevelt more than they hate Hitler, ostrich isolationists and a scattering of timid citizens afraid of they don’t know what - all rally around …to attack and calumniate the United States government in a moment of national crisis. These people, whether they know it or not - and some of them do - are performing Hitler’s work in America.”[128]

It was optimism that fundamentally separated interventionists from America First and its allies. Roosevelt and his supporters believed the safety of the American Republic could only be assured by the destruction of Nazi Germany.[129] They were also certain they could reestablish democracy in Europe. In the end, they would be proven right. But at the end of 1941, they had still failed to convince the American public. America First had been unable to prevent aid to Britain or Russia. Interventionist failure was more serious. By the beginning of December Hitler was at the gates of Moscow. Most Americans were concerned. They were also not going to do anything more about it.

This natural reluctance to go to war without first being attacked prevailed right until Pearl Harbor. Most Americans refused to the last to enter the battle, even against as brutal an enemy as Hitler, if it was primarily for the benefit of others. Even after the Japanese attack, it was only the German declaration of war that brought the United States into the European conflict.

It was only then that America’s moral purpose was fully restored. The nation with few exceptions supported a conflict that began as a struggle against military aggression, and ended as a battle against mass murder. Professor Maynard Kreuger of the University of Chicago had earlier told an anti-war rally that the issues in Europe were more complex than many would admit. “The image of a madman loose on the peaceful world oversimplified the realities of international rivalries and competition for resources.”[130] The professor was wrong. The Committee had always claimed the war was about rival imperialisms, and not simply about Hitler and his Nazi ideology. But it was. The German dictator was a madman, and the empire he hoped to create in Europe would have meant the destruction of all of those political ideals upon which American democracy was based. Interventionists understood this. America Firsters did not.

The optimism and moral vision of interventionists and the Roosevelt administration produced great achievements. The mounting of a massive invasion of Europe was followed by the political and economic reconstruction of much of the continent. It took years, and billions of Marshall Plan dollars, but in the end western Europe emerged solidly democratic and more prosperous than any time in the past. Victory in 1945 had not been complete. It would be almost another fifty years before Communist dictatorship disappeared from the continent. But the war and post-war reconstruction had been a good start. It helped subvert the Soviet Empire by placing successful democratic, capitalist regimes on its border. The Chicago Tribune in 1939 had proclaimed “the frontiers of American democracy are not in Europe, Asia or Africa.”[131] . Interventionists had a more generous vision. In the end, they liberated half a continent.

Any of this seem like deja vu all over again?

1 comment:

Rancher said...

I noticed today that your link on my blog led to an archived post, so every time I checked out your blog I thought “he’s quit posting”. Now that that’s fixed, yes the similarities are striking. Now we’re hearing of a “quick exit” strategy being called for from Congress