Trump's 'America First' has ugly echoes from U.S. history

Story highlights

  • Susan Dunn: In speech Trump tagged his approach 'America First,' a name with ugly echoes in U.S.
  • America First was isolationist, anti-Semitic organization that urged U.S. to appease Adolf Hitler
  • Dunn: Why would Trump pollute his policy with the name?

Susan Dunn is a professor of Humanities at Williams College and the author of 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler -- The Election Amid the Storm, from which several passages in this essay are adapted. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)"My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else. That will be the foundation of every decision that I will make. America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration."

It is extremely unfortunate that in his speech Wednesday outlining his foreign policy goals, Donald Trump chose to brand his foreign policy with the noxious slogan "America First," the name of the isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler.
    Susan Dunn
    The America First Committee actually began at Yale University, where Douglas Stuart Jr., the son of a vice president of Quaker Oats, began organizing his fellow students in spring 1940. He and Gerald Ford, the future American president, and Potter Stewart, the future Supreme Court justice, drafted a petition stating, "We demand that Congress refrain from war, even if England is on the verge of defeat."
    Their solution to the international crisis lay in a negotiated peace with Hitler. Other Yale students -- including Sargent Shriver, who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and Kingman Brewster, the chairman of the Yale Daily News, future president of Yale and ambassador to the Court of St. James -- joined their isolationist crusade.
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    Robert Wood, the board chairman of Sears, Roebuck, agreed to act as their group's temporary chair. The growing organization soon included powerful men like Col. Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune; Minnesota meatpacker Jay Hormel; Sterling Morton, the president of Morton Salt Company; U.S. Rep. Bruce Barton of New York; and Lessing Rosenwald, the former chairman of Sears.
    There would soon be several hundred chapters and almost a million members, two-thirds of whom resided in the Midwest. Charles Lindbergh would officially join America First in April 1941, serving as the committee's principal spokesman and chief drawing card at its rallies.
    Seeking to brand itself as a mainstream organization, America First struggled with the problem of the anti-Semitism of some of its leaders and many of its members. It had to remove from its executive committee not only the notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford but also Avery Brundage, the former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee who had prevented two Jewish runners from the American track team in Berlin in 1936 from running in the finals of the 4x100 relay.
    Still, the problem of anti-Semitism remained; a Kansas chapter leader pronounced President Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt "Jewish" and Winston Churchill a "half-Jew."
    After Pearl Harbor, the America First Committee closed its doors, but not before Lindbergh made his infamous speech at an America First rally in Des Moines, Iowa, in September 1941. After charging that President Roosevelt had manufactured "incidents" to propel the country into war, Lindbergh proceeded to blurt out his true thoughts.
    "The British and the Jewish races," he declared, "for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war." The nation's enemy was an internal one, a Jewish one. "Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government," he contended. Booing began to drown out the cheers, forcing him again and again to stop, wait out the catcalls, and start his sentences over.
    Lindbergh's unambiguous message was that Jews living in the United States constituted a wealthy, influential, conspiratorial foreign "race" that had seized "our" media and infiltrated "our" political institutions. They were the alien out-group, hostile to "us."
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    He put American Jews on notice that America's "tolerance" for them rested upon a fragile foundation.
    "Lindbergh ought to be shipped back to Germany to live with his own people!" shouted a Texas state representative before the House of Representatives in Austin passed a resolution informing the aviator that he was not welcome in the Lone Star State. Across the country, newspapers, columnists, politicians and religious leaders lashed out at Lindbergh.
    "The voice is the voice of Lindbergh, but the words are the words of Hitler," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. "I am absolutely certain that Lindbergh is pro-Nazi," wrote New York Herald Tribune columnist Dorothy Thompson.
    Donald Trump did not give an irrational speech on foreign policy Wednesday. Why then did he poison it with the sulfurous expression "America First," reminiscent of one of the ugliest chapters in recent American history?