How ‘America First’ got its nationalistic edge

Eric Rauchway writes: When Donald Trump declared,⁠ “‘America First’ will be the overriding theme of my administration,” he invoked the America First Committee, which opposed U.S. aid to the opponents of Nazi Germany before December 1941. This legacy sparked critiques⁠ and defenses⁠ alike of Trump’s appeal to nationalism. Nervous⁠ U.S. allies even worried the phrase heralded a new isolationism. One of Trump’s advisers, however, insisted the phrase was a coincidental echo that didn’t “go back to negative aspects at all.” Apparently, it was merely quaint⁠ in today’s relatively Nazi-free era. But the slogan actually predates the anti-interventionist committee, and it has a lot more to do with the proto-fascist politics of the publishing magnate and sometime politician William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst did not invent the slogan “America First”; he borrowed it from Woodrow Wilson — so he could hurl it back at the president. After World War I broke out, Wilson used the “motto” of “America First” to define his version of neutrality: The United States should bide its time and husband its resources until the warring powers had “carried the thing so far” that they “must be disposed of” — then America would wade in and sort Europe out. In keeping with this view, after the Germans declared unrestricted submarine warfare against transatlantic shipping, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war in April 1917.

Before the United States entered World War I, Hearst’s sympathies lay with Germany. He used his publishing empire to gather pro-German editors and writers around him, did a deal with a German agent for newsreel footage, and used a paid agent of the German government as his newspaper correspondent for German matters. But once the United States declared war on Germany, Hearst could no longer maintain this stance, so he took up a new one. With American flags decorating his newspapers’ masthead, he declared that the freshly belligerent Americans should tender no aid to the Allies also fighting Germany: “[K]eep every dollar and every man and every weapon and all our supplies and stores AT HOME, for the defense of our own land, our own people, our own freedom, until that defense has been made ABSOLUTELY secure. After that we can think of other nations’ troubles. But till then, America first!” [Continue reading…]

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