The History of America First

Cover of “Pic” magazine featuring tennis star Jean Martin and the headline, “What Lindbergh’s Home Town Thinks of Him,” September 30, 1941. MCHS collections #1981.8.3.

Cover of “Pic” magazine featuring tennis star
Jean Martin and the headline, “What Lindbergh’s Home Town Thinks of Him,” September 30, 1941.
MCHS collections #1981.8.3.

America First. When I initially heard the new White House administration’s slogan, I felt a prickle of recognition. Where had I heard this term before? As most of us are wont to do nowadays, I googled it and was surprised to find a local connection to an earlier use of America First.

The connection was none other than home-grown aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, Jr., with this year being the 90th anniversary of his historic New York to Paris non-stop solo flight, which he completed May 21, 1927. As it turns out, it was Lindbergh’s association with America First, in part, that tarnished his exalted reputation.

America First’s current incarnation serves as an umbrella for a number of White House policy positions, including energy, trade, and foreign policy, with the gist of such policies to put American interests ahead of those of other countries. (1) When Lindbergh was involved with America First, the primary thrust was anti-intervention. Those espousing America First did not want the United States dragged into World War II.

While the America First slogan originated with Woodrow Wilson during World War I and was amplified as a motto by publisher William Randolph Hearst in the 1930s, Lindbergh’s association was as spokesman for the America First Committee, an organization that existed a little more than a year. (2) It began September 4, 1940 at Yale University and lasted until December 10, 1941, disbanding after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At its peak, the America First Committee had around 800,000 dues paying members. The United States population in 1940 was 132.1 million, so 800,000 members was close to .6% of the population, not an inconsiderable amount for a new organization. It included such august supporters as Walt Disney, Lillian Gish, Frank Lloyd Wright, Sargent Shriver, and, of course, Charles Lindbergh. (3)

What sullied the America First Committee’s anti-war stance was Lindbergh’s open antisemitism, particularly during his Des Moines, Iowa, speech for the organization on September 11, 1941. In the speech, which was scheduled the same night as a major pro-war speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lindbergh stated, “The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.” (4) In detailing his argument against allowing the Jewish people to involve the country in war, he said, “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” (5)

He then followed up with, “I am not attacking either the Jewish or the British people. Both races, I admire. But I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war. We cannot blame them for looking out for what they believe to be their own interests, but we must also look out for ours. We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction.” (6)

Lindbergh was swiftly criticized by numerous sources for his remarks, including the Jewish Anti-Defamation Council of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Federation of Labor. (7, 8) The Jewish Telegraphic Agency compiled critiques from newspapers around the nation in a September 15, 1941, article. One sample from the compilation: “The Philadelphia Inquirer in its editorial on Lindbergh’s speech says: “Anti-Semitism [sic] is a cardinal Nazi doctrine. Without urging anti-Semitism [sic] in so many words, Lindbergh virtually accuses Jewish citizens in the United States of being dangerous to its peace and safety. Place the most striking passages from Lindbergh’s and Hitler’s speeches side by side and they are as alike as Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”” (9)

What was the local opinion of Lindbergh’s America First views? In August 1941, a month prior to Lindbergh’s incendiary September speech, Pic magazine paid a visit to Little Falls to find out. (10) Pic magazine was a large, photo-based publication “covering the entire field of entertainment.” In its September 30, 1941, issue it devoted six full pages to local public opinion in a piece called, “What Lindbergh’s Home Town Thinks of Him.”

The article features large, sharp black-and-white photos of scenes from Little Falls and portraits of residents who were quoted for the article, including Austin Grimes, county attorney, J.K. Michie, school superintendent, Roy Larson, boat builder, Ed LaFond, newspaper editor, “Slatz” Randall, hotel manager, and Carl Bolander, real estate broker, among others. Most struck a nuanced opinion, disagreeing with Lindbergh’s views while maintaining that he was “sincere,” “patriotic,” “has a lot of guts,” and “knows what he is talking about.” Two young men, brothers Al and Bud Mauer, didn’t mince words. They said, “Nuts to Lindbergh. We’re against him. He’d better not show his puss around here.” (11)

Whether the Des Moines speech altered the opinions of locals is unknown.

It remains to be seen how the current incarnation of America First will eventually play out, however, the demise of the America First Committee in 1941 came through an attack on U.S. soil, making its arguments against entering World War II moot. It would take time and effort, including flying combat missions during the war as a civilian, for Lindbergh to regain some of the reputation he had lost through his association with America First.

~ Mary Warner, MCHS Executive Director

This article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2017.

Citations:

(1) An America First Energy Plan – https://www.whitehouse.gov/america-first-energy
America First Foreign Policy – https://www.whitehouse.gov/america-first-foreign-policy, sites accessed May 6, 2017.

(2) Rauchway, Eric, “How ‘America First’ Got Its Nationalistic Edge,” The Atlantic, May 6, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/05/william-randolph-hearst-gave-america-first-its-nationalist-edge/481497/, site accessed May 6, 2017.

(3) America First Committee, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_First_Committee, site accessed May 6, 2017.

(4) The American Experience, Lindbergh – Des Moines Speech, TPT, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh//amex/lindbergh/filmmore/reference/primary/desmoinesspeech.html, site accessed April 25, 2017.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

(7) “Committee to Act on Talk,” Little Falls Daily Transcript, September 16, 1941.

(8) “AFL in Thrust at Lindbergh,” Little Falls Daily Transcript, September 18, 1941.

(9) “Lindbergh’s Anti-jewish Speech Meets with Severe Criticism in American Press,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, September 15, 1941, http://archive.jta.org/1941/09/15/archive/lindberghs-anti-jewish-speech-meets-with-severe-criticism-in-american-press, site accessed April 25, 2017.

(10) “City Key Point on Lindbergh War Policies,” Little Falls Daily Transcript, August 6, 1941.

(11) “What Lindbergh’s Home Town Thinks of Him,” Pic magazine, September 30, 1941.

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