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'America First' has a toxic past

Interview: Michael KniggeApril 29, 2016

US history scholar Gary Gerstle tells DW why he is stunned that Donald Trump chose "America First" as his foreign policy motto. He also details why Trump's effort to make the discredited slogan sound innocent will fail.

USA Wahlkampf TV Debatte South Carolina Republikaner - Donald Trump Schatten
Image: Reuters/J. Ernst

DW: Donald Trump's foreign policy slogan "America First" harkens back to the pernicious America First Committee formed in 1940 with the goal to keep the United States out of World War II. Can you shed some more light on the America First Committee and its history?

Gary Gerstle: It was a very popular organization for a brief period of time, and initially its reputation was not pernicious. It drew support from different parts of the political spectrum, not just conservatives, but liberals and leftists as well. It reflected two things: First, a deep disillusionment with World War I and the feeling that American involvement had been a mistake, which led to a deep anti-war sentiment. And that then fed into an older sentiment in America, which goes back to the country's beginning, and that's a fear of European entanglement. This is the fear that America would get involved in European affairs, which would not be good for the United States.

This sentiment is burned deeply into American consciousness. The word often used to describe this is "isolationism." But that's not quite the right word, because it's not as though the US wanted to isolate itself from world affairs. A better word would be unilateralism, namely that the US should be free to act in the world to preserve its interests. This feeling informed the formation of the America First Committee. And there were few more popular sentiments in American society than keeping America out of another European war.

So how then did this anti-war movement develop its anti-Semitic and pro-Hitler bent it became infamous for?

What happened with America First is that some sympathies with Hitler and the Nazis, as well as some anti-Semitic tendencies, became to emerge with prominent supporters of America First, most notoriously in the figure of the aviator Charles Lindbergh, one of the most famous men in America at the time.

Cambride University Historiker Gary Gerstle
Gary Gerstle is professor of American History at the University of Cambridge.Image: privat

Lindbergh had met Hitler and the Nazis in the late 1930s. He admired what they had done, and he had some anti-Semitic tendencies of his own. Lindbergh wanted the US to settle and make a peace deal with Hitler. And he became the mouthpiece and the most prominent member of America First when he joined in 1941. Lindbergh gave speeches in which he warned America not to intervene in World War II and he claimed that there were certain groups in American society, sympathizers with the British and Jewish business interests, who were advocating for the US to enter the war. Lindbergh's singling out the Jews as being the key force driving America towards war had no basis in fact.

When the affinities between Lindbergh and the Nazis were revealed, this began to discredit America First. This gave the America First Committee its very bad name and its pernicious reputation. It also ruined Lindbergh's reputation for all time. And there has been almost no politician since then that has wanted to draw close to America First, with the exception of an outlier here or there. So, it is stunning to see a likely presidential candidate of the Republican Party deliberately choosing to draw close to the America First slogan.

Given the dark background of this group, what does it say about Trump that he has made "America First" the motto of his foreign policy now?

I don't think he is a Nazi sympathizer. I don't think he is soft on Hitler the way Lindbergh was. I think it is to be understood as a combination of his ignorance and his cleverness at choosing slogans deliberately meant to provoke people. I don't think he knows that much about the America First Committee, I don't think he knows much about Lindbergh, I don't think he understands how 1940s opposition to American entanglement in the world became polluted by anti-Semitism. And so he settled on a slogan that to him sounds tremendously popular and resonates with his economic nationalism.

Do you think American voters are cognizant of the toxic past of Trump's America First slogan?

I think a lot of Americans don't know about America First in 1940 and 1941. American historical consciousness does not run that deep. However, the news media is making the connections to that time, so more and more news about this is going to come out. It will be understood in the United States that this was once a very toxic organization. And Trump's efforts to make "America First" sound simply like an innocent affirmation of patriotism will fail.

The interview was conducted by Michael Knigge.