BY MARTIN KICH
The America First Committee was a loose confederation OF fairly autonomous local chapters that in some states gathered for statewide meetings. Emphatically isolationist, it was established in late 1939 in response to the start of the Second World War in Europe, and its members were committed to keeping the United States out of the war by developing such a strong defensive posture that the warring powers would hesitate to provoke any sort of armed response. A large portion of its members were young people, especially young college students, but it had support from several prominent corporate leaders. Both communists and fascists attempted to infiltrate its ranks and influence its public postures. Paradoxically, the communists, like the fascists, advocated for isolationism until the summer of 1941; then, with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the communists suddenly became staunch interventionists. The group probably received public attention much out of proportion to its political influence.
But that attention was considerably magnified when Charles Lindbergh became associated with it. Lindbergh was, of course, still fairly young but widely regarded as an iconic American hero, and the kidnapping and murder of his infant son had made him a figure of considerable sympathy as well. But his isolationism would even more quickly turn him into a sort of national embarrassment. To an America First gathering in Des Moines, he delivered a very controversial speech in which he basically advised American Jews to save themselves and ignore what the Nazis were doing to European Jews:
“’It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race. No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution the Jewish race suffered in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy, both for us and for them.
“’Instead of agitating for war the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few farsighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.’”
The attack on Pearl Harbor had such a profound effect on the American psyche that “America First disbanded three days later.
From that point on, “America First” has been adopted by a string of short-lived and very lunatic-fringe Far Right political parties that have been most notable for how little political impact they have had despite some media attention, driven largely by a sort of perverse curiosity about the rancidly reactionary positions taken by its members. Here is a succinct summary of those parties from Wikipedia:
“The America First Party was an isolationist political party which was founded on January 10, 1943. Its leader, Gerald L. K. Smith, was the party’s presidential candidate in the 1944 U.S. presidential election.
“The results of the 1944 presidential election were less than encouraging for America First Party members; Smith received 1,780 votes, mostly from the states of Texas and Michigan. This America First Party was renamed the Christian Nationalist Crusade in 1947.
“In 1948 the Christian Nationalist Party nominated Smith for President and Harry Romer for vice president; according to the website “ourcampaigns.com,” this ticket received just 42 votes nationwide.
“In 1952 a rump America First Party nominated Douglas MacArthur for President, and Harry F. Byrd for vice president, without their consent, while the Christian Nationalists nominated MacArthur and crusading anti-Communist California State Senator Jack B. Tenney. This election apparently marked the final time that candidates were fielded by the original Smith movement or its offspring.
“The name “America First Party” was used by several later campaigns unconnected to the original party:
“Perennial candidate Lar Daly used it in the 1960 presidential campaign, where he received 1,767 write-in votes.
“Justice Ralph Forbes of London, Arkansas, ran as the “America First Party” candidate in the 1996 presidential campaign with Pro-Life leader Andy Anderson as his running mate, winning 932 votes. He had tried unsuccessfully to file as the candidate of his own Freedom Party. Forbes had a reactionary hard-right past, having previously been a campaign manager for David Duke’s Populist Party run for the Presidency and had also been an officer in the American Nazi Party.
“In 2002 a new America First Party organization was formed by a group of Pat Buchanan supporters who left the Reform Party. They fielded eleven candidates for various local and federal offices in 2002, two candidates in 2004, and one in 2006.”