America First: An Idea with Deep Roots

By Heather Marie Stur, University of Southern Mississippi

Isolationism before Pearl Harbor

American popular memory of the World War II homefront centers on the notion that U.S. citizens came together to support the war effort. Families planted victory gardens, bought war bonds, and delivered scrap metal to recycling sites. Housewives followed rationing guidelines, and young men answered their draft notices. There is truth in these images, but they depict a post-Pearl Harbor America. Prior to December 7, 1941, some Americans believed that the U.S. should stay out of the war, that involvement was not in America’s best interest.

The America First Committee was an organization that articulated the U.S. antiwar sentiment prior to Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. Founded in 1940, America First embodied the ideals that the U.S. Congress had already codified in the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s. In 1935, Congress passed a law prohibiting the U.S. from exporting arms and munitions to other countries, including allies. At its height, the America First Committee had 800,000 members, the aviator Charles Lindbergh the most famous. In a speech he delivered a few months before Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh asserted that England was trying to draw the U.S. into a war that it could not win. The U.S. should remain “isolationist,” Lindbergh declared. Focus inward on domestic issues, and let other countries solve their problems themselves.

President Trump’s America First Approach to COVID-19

U.S. President Donald Trump has articulated the ideas of the America First Committee in his responses to global efforts to develop a vaccine against COVID-19. The U.S. has established partnerships with pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccine for use first by American citizens. The governments of Germany, Italy, and China are also working on a vaccines for their constituents first. The World Health Organization, which Trump has said the U.S. will abandon, is working with a coalition of global health groups to create a vaccine it would distribute to poor and developing countries. At issue is the question of whether the U.S. should work with international partners on a COVID-19 vaccine that would be accessible globally or make a “nationalist” pact with drug companies for a vaccine that U.S. citizens would be the first to get.

History of Isolationism & of International Cooperation

The concept of America first, varying in meaning from keeping the U.S. out of a war on foreign soil to privileging domestic over global public health, predates the America First Committee of the 1930s and 1940s. We can trace it at least back to the aftermath of World War I, when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson emphasized the League of Nations as the way to prevent another global conflict. Congressional opponents of the league argued that it would hamstring U.S. policymakers who might need to make quick decisions regarding national security. The U.S. never joined the League of Nations as a result of Congressional resistance to it.

By the end of World War II, though, Americans had changed their minds about international cooperation, widely supporting the establishment of the United Nations in 1945. At that time, Americans saw an opportunity to lead in the crafting of a postwar order according to the needs and aspirations of U.S. security and economic primacy.

More Deaths Than Pearl Harbor

So far, the COVID-19 pandemic has not changed Trump’s mind regarding the potential value of international cooperation even though other countries have been more successful in containing it. Absent a vaccine, Taiwan, New Zealand, and South Korea have kept death rates low with strict enforcement of masking, quarantining, testing, and tracing. More than 2,000 Americans died at Pearl Harbor, the event that awakened the “sleeping giant” to enter World War II. COVID-19 has killed 140,000 Americans so far, yet in a July 19 interview with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, Trump dismissed the death toll with the words “it is what it is.” Trump’s America first approach to COVID-19 has involved ignoring international containment strategies that have worked while Americans continue to die.

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final post in a series of comparisons between the Covid-19 Pandemic and World War II. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Dale Center or the University of Southern Mississippi.

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a fellow in USM’s Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She is the author of three books, most recently Saigon at War: South Vietnam and the Global Sixties (Cambridge 2020) and co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexuality Since World War II (Johns Hopkins 2017). In 2013-14, Dr. Stur was a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam.

Photo Caption: Charles Lindbergh speaks at a rally of the America First Committee at Madison Square Garden in New York, on May 23, 1941. (Source: AP, NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/02/06/513240634/america-first-from-charles-lindbergh-to-president-trump)

About Douglas Bristol

Douglas Bristol is an Associate Professor of History and a Fellow of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society. In his teaching and research, he focuses on the beliefs, institutions, and strategies that ordinary Americans developed to exercise control over their lives. In his first book, Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom (reissued in paperback in 2015), Bristol examines the relationship between black barbers and the prosperous white men whose throats they shaved with straight-edged razors from the colonial period to the Great Migration. He co-edited Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexuality Since World War II, to which he contributed a chapter on understanding the resistance of black soldiers during World War II. His current book project, Khaki Globe Trotters, explores how black GIs used military service in World War II to claim the New Deal's promise of security. The Art of Manliness podcast and the PBS documentary, Boss: The Black Experience in Business, featured his work.
This entry was posted in American exceptionalism, Covid-19 Pandemic, diplomacy, Donald Trump, Foreign policy, international relations, Post-Cold War, war and society, World War II and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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