David Smith claims that the slogan “America first” “originated with Nazi sympathisers” (Trump plans huge increase in US military, 28 February). This was very far from the case, although the America First founders were certainly determined to keep the US out of the European war.
The organisation America First was the 1940 brainchild of Yale student Robert Douglas Stuart, the son of the vice-chairman of the Quaker Oats Company of Chicago. Among Stuart’s fellow students on the original committee were Gerald Ford (later president of the US) and Potter Stewart (who later became a distinguished jurist). Another member, although not one of the founders, was John F Kennedy.
This student organisation was quickly taken up by the isolationists in the Congress and Senate, and grew into a very considerable national organisation. It certainly attracted many people from the Republican right, but there were probably as many Democrats in its ranks. The movement was at its strongest in and around Chicago and in New York, where it was run by the leftwing journalist John T Flynn, famous for his attacks on the excesses of Wall Street and corruption in the gambling industry.
From the outset, America First made it plain that Nazis and antisemites were unwelcome. Henry Ford, for example, was kicked off the board for his hostility to Jews. The movement barred American fascist organisations such as the Silver Shirts, the Ku Klux Klan and other such groups. Most of the US’s Nazis were to be found in the ranks of the noisy German-American Bund, who proved an embarrassment to the millions of their German-American countrymen.
By far the biggest mistake America First made was to appoint the aviator Charles Lindbergh as one of its major spokesmen. Lindbergh’s contacts with Nazi Germany and his criticism of Jewish interests did the organisation no good at all. But America First did survive until December 1941, when it was wound up after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war on the US.
In an interview in 2000, the America First founder Robert Stuart was asked if the America First activists had ever held a reunion. “No, we did not,” he replied. “We may be a little sensitive to the fact that the world still thinks we’re the bad guys.” It seems that the world still does.
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