America First and Charles Lindbergh: When Nativism Rocked the US Political Scene

Making America great again might have been the slogan of the Trump candidacy, but the underlying philosophy was ‘America First.’ As far back as March, Trump used the precise phrase “America First,” he used the phrase again in accepting the Republican nomination, and a variation of the phrase in his victory speech. Trump plans to rejuvenate America by turning his back on the internationalist policies followed by most US presidents over the last century. Instead, a new departure will explicitly promotes American interests.

Liberal critics have noted the similarity between Trump’s use of the phrase ‘America First’ and an earlier movement in the US, called the American First Committee, whose most celebrated spokesperson was the aviator Charles Lindbergh. The AFC was formed in the autumn of 1940 but reflected a deeper tradition in American politics that went back to the Founding Fathers and their distaste for getting the US involved in the wars and alliances of the ‘Old World.’ It was formed in the face of increasing US involvement in WWII (Roosevelt had promised neutrality in this war) and considerable pressure from the media and establishment to square up to fascism. After just over a year, it was disbanded almost immediately after Pearl Harbour.


Lindbergh was the most prominent voice of the AFC, but it attracted support from a variety of American notables. One JFK lent it his support, future President Gerald Ford was an activist, there were Justices, newspaper publishers, millionaires involved, even Walt Disney was an AFC champion.

Nevertheless, the movement will always be associated with Lindbergh. He, like Trump, reflected a powerful strain of American political thought. But Lindbergh, also like Trump, was prepared to broadcast his concerns despite the inevitable criticism he would face. Therefore, Lindbergh’s political views, his philosophy of global politics, and his motivations, are key to understanding the AFC.

Lindbergh, like many at the time, was an admirer of Nazism but not anti-Jewish. He had fled to Europe in 1935 because of over-weaning press coverage which affected his home life. While in Europe, he visited Germany. What struck Lindbergh was the order and direction of the Third Reich. He expressed dissatisfaction with the treatment of Jews and understood their agitation in America for the relief of their brethren from the Nazi excesses. At the same time, he saw Germany as a more natural ally for the US, particularly against the Soviet Union. Lindbergh thought in terms of race but also in terms of strategy. As the New Yorker said in an article about Lindbergh this year:

He condemned Kristallnacht, but he wrote … weeks after the war in Europe began, that Western nations “can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood.” [1]

In other words, Lindbergh did not believe that whites were superior to other races, but adopted what is essentially a realist position; birds of a feather flock together, whites will gravitate to whites, non-whites to non-whites. His views are fairly clear; he advocated a prudent policy by the US, dictated by realism, cognizant of human group psychology, and always having the long-term interests of America in mind. On the last point, Lindbergh conceptualized the US as a European nation albeit one whose geo-political situation rendered ventures into age-old European rivalries futile.

Lindbergh addressing an AFC rally in 1941

Lingering accusations of anti-Semitism dogged the AFC, however. This discredited the movement, somewhat, no matter how subtly Lindbergh tried to nuance his statements. In a speech given on September 11, 1941, Lindbergh sympathized with the Jewish persecution in Germany, appreciated the motivations of Jewish interests in American that were calling for the US to intervene, but also sounded a warning that American involvement in WWII would be against the national interest.

In spite of the humane tone he struck, Lindbergh’s speech was served on a platter of ‘soundbites’ and he stood accused of supporting fascism. His wife’s diary makes for interesting reading and records how Lindbergh was condemned, pilloried, harried, pressured to apologize and retract his statements, and how her own life was affected by the furore.[2]

So, what are the historical lessons to learn from Lindbergh and the AFC for today? A few facts have to be pointed out. It has to be stated out that the default position for the US in 1940 was that of isolationism, whereas nowadays US policy is far more aggressive. The military-industrial complex is far more powerful today than in 1940. Threats facing the US mainland were far more real in 1940 than nowadays. The Soviet Union posed far more of a challenge to the survival of the US than even the strongest Islamic majority nations or terrorist groups of today. US military hegemony is in another league compared to other nations’ today, whereas the US was not even the foremost military power in 1940.  Lastly, the US is locked into a globalized world that is far more complex internationally (although not on a European level) today than it was in 1940.


Therefore, in some respects an isolationist policy poses greater risks for the US now than in 1940, particularly economically. The American economy was struggling in 1940 and received a shot in the arm from the war, although this was an unforeseen consequence. By contrast, the US economy (despite Trump’s rhetoric) is in a far better shape today. An America First policy would thus be likely to damage the US economy, unless run on the very socialistic lines of the Third Reich or modern-day China, and this is unlikely to happen. The attitude of the military-industrial complex to a scaling back of military operations is also a live question. In many other respects, an America First policy is more viable now than in 1940. Muslim-majority states are weak economically and militarily, posing no real threat to the American mainland. Russia is not pursuing a policy of international revolution and is only interested in defending its traditional spheres of influence. Finally, the US has the same enviable geo-political position it had today as in 1940. There is no realistic prospect of a nation invading it or even launching a devastating military strike, whatever the rhetoric about North Korea or Iran.

Finally, and let’s dismiss questions about Lindbergh’s alleged racism, we ask: was Lindbergh right? In hindsight, Lindbergh must be seen as a prudent political activist. American intervention in WWII had the effect of strengthening the Soviet Union and facilitating the rise of Communist China. Despite the ultimate failure of isolationism, the opposition of groups like the AFC meant that far less US troops were killed or wounded because the burden of fighting Hitler fell on the USSR. And, ironically, the USSR began its own persecution of the Jews after WWII whereas during the 1920s and 1030s, it had been a beacon for Jewish integration throughout the world.* America effectively propped up Stalin and it is possible there would have been no Cold War if Lindbergh had been heeded. WWII drew the US into fighting in foreign lands and also created the conditions where this would be more possible. In sum, global interventions in the Middle East and other regions of the world have been counter-productive for the US and so Lindbergh’s controversial but prudent voice still has resonance for US foreign policy in 2016.


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* This is not to say that the USSR would have abstained from persecuting Jews post-WWII and, of course, some parts of the Soviet Union might have been under German control. It is merely to say that either way, the argument for entering the war to defeat anti-Semitism had weak grounds and from the US point of view, it makes a big difference in terms of casualties and strengthening the position of the USSR. Therefore, Lindbergh’s arguments were more rational than those of his opponents.