One of the most remarkable episodes in American history was the spontaneous and widespread opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s obvious attempts to embroil the United States in the European war that broke out in 1939. That opposition was centered in the America First Committee. In modern accounts of the war period, the committee is either ignored or maligned as a pro-fascist, anti-Semitic organization. It was nothing of the kind.
The America First Committee had its origins at Yale University Law School in 1940, where R. Douglas Stuart Jr. and other students began circulating a petition with the intention of establishing a national organization of college students opposed to intervention in the European war. (This account is based on historian Justus D. Doenecke’s highly valuable book, In Danger Undaunted: The Anti-Interventionist Movement of 1940-1941 as Revealed in the Papers of the America First Committee , Hoover Institution, 1990.) As an undergraduate student at Princeton, Stuart had concluded that America’s intervention in World War I had cost the nation dearly. He did not want the mistake repeated. In his initial organizing efforts, he was joined by Gerald R. Ford, who would become president of the United States in 1974, and Potter Stewart, who would be named to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1958. (Before long, Ford would resign from the committee for fear of losing his job as assistant football coach at Yale.) The petition was their response to President Roosevelt’s series of actions that violated America’s neutrality. “We demand that Congress refrain from war, even if England is on the verge of defeat,” the petition stated.
What had Roosevelt done to this point? When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939 and Britain and France declared war, Roosevelt affirmed America’s neutrality. “Within three weeks, however,” writes Doenecke, “he urged Congress to remove an arms embargo that had been one of the linchpins of U.S. neutrality legislation.” Congress acceded. That erosion of neutrality spurred the Yale students, who quickly sought supporters outside the ranks of college students.
Meetings with some Chicago businessmen led to plans for a large-scale organization. In July 1940, General Robert E. Wood, chairman of the board of Sears, Roebuck, agreed to become acting chairman. (Wood had earlier supported the New Deal, but then broke with Roosevelt. He was less anti-interventionist than others in the new committee.) In late August, the group adopted the name the America First Committee (AFC).
In its first public statement (September 4, 1940), the AFC enunciated four precepts:
1. The United States must build an impregnable defense for America; 2. No foreign powers, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America; 3. American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war; 4. “Aid short of war” weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.
The statement went on to specify four objectives. First, the AFC would “bring together all Americans, regardless of possible differences on other matters, who see eye-to-eye on these principles.” Parenthetically it added, “This does not include Nazis, Fascists, Communists, or members of other groups that place the interests of any other nation above those of our own.” Second, the AFC would “urge Americans to keep their heads amid the rising hysteria in times of crisis.” Third, it would “provide sane leadership” for the majority of Americans who were opposed to intervention. Fourth, it would “register this opinion with the President and the majority of Congress.”
The Committee attracted some prestigious members or sympathizers from business, journalism, politics, publishing, and the arts. Its best-known member was aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. (He was unfairly accused of anti-Semitism as a result.) They did not all agree on every issue. Some sympathizers would decline to join or were forced to resign, apparently under pressure from interventionists. AFC member and actress Lillian Gish said she was blacklisted from film and theater and offered a $65,000 movie contract if she resigned.
It seems that government snooping and the Hollywood blacklist did not begin as anticommunist tactics Roosevelt had the FBI investigate the AFC.
Not everyone was welcome in the AFC. Among the national committee members who were ousted were builder and American Olympic Association president Avery Brundage, who was suspected of having Nazi sympathies, and Henry Ford, who had previously espoused anti-Semitism.
One of the most important members was John T. Flynn, chairman of the New York chapter and a national committeeman. Flynn was a prominent muckraking journalist who exposed big business’s connections to the New Deal. For example, he demonstrated that the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (which began under Herbert Hoover) was little more than a bailout scheme for big banks and railroads. He was a columnist for the New Republic until it dropped him because of his anti-interventionist position. No one was more vigilant about keeping fascists out of the AFC than Flynn. At one huge public rally in New York City, he identified a local fascist in the crowd and told him he was not welcome.
The audience expressed such hostility to the man that the police surrounded him for his own protection. Despite Flynn’s efforts, some fascists and anti-Semites managed to participate in the committee. Flynn went on to write an extremely important book, As We Go Marching , one of the best discussions of the nature of German and Italian fascism and its similarity to the New Deal.
In its day-to-day business, the AFC challenged Roosevelt’s and the Congress’s war-related measures (Lend-Lease, the destroyers-for-bases exchange with Britain, the occupation of Iceland, the Atlantic Charter, aid to the Soviet Union, the extension of the draft) and rebutted each argument made for direct or indirect involvement in the war. In pamphlets, radio broadcasts, and public meetings, AFC spokesmen rejected the interventionists’ case that a German victory or Japan’s conquests would put the United States at an economic disadvantage or lead to war later.
The AFC issued a series of talking points for its speakers bureau short answers to common questions about America and the war. For example, to the question, “What, strictly on the basis of our own national interests, should our part [in the war] be?” AFC responded:
It is difficult, of course, to define our national interests, but it is always safe to assume that our chief national interest is the maintenance of our democracy and the well-being of our own American people. . . . Since experience has taught us that democracy vanishes in wartime, it would seem that the surest way to keep our form of government is to avoid involvement. We should also seek an adequate national defense to make sure that we can maintain our territorial integrity in the event we are attacked by a foreign power.
To the question (often asked today), “Isn’t it part of our responsibility as a world power to take a hand in settling problems that menace world peace and security?” the AFC said:
We have no responsibilities that our people do not wish to undertake. We have no international commitments, agreed to by the people or their representatives, outside this hemisphere. Even if we did, it would not be a signal for going to war everytime [ sic ] there was one. Americans naturally wish security and peace for the rest of the world, but it is not entirely within their powers to bring these things about.
Other publications refuted the claims that a victorious Hitler could fight a large-scale war against the United States in the Western Hemisphere and that the United States could be strangled by foreign control of raw materials. To that still often-heard allegation (consult the recent Persian Gulf War propaganda), the AFC noted that “since we are the greatest raw material market in the world, [Hitler] would only be cutting off his nose to spite his face if he successfully withheld raw materials from us.”
On December 7, 1941, after prolonged U.S. economic warfare, Japan attacked the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet at Hawaii. On December 8, Congress declared war on Japan. On December 11, the national committee of the America First Committee voted to disband the organization. The statement issued to the public stated:
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.
The national committee expressed hope that prosecution of the war would not interfere with “the fundamental rights of American citizens” and that “secret treaties committing America to imperialistic aims or vast burden in other parts of the world shall be scrupulously avoided.”
Its final words urged its followers to fully support the war effort: “The time for military action is here.”