Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump boils down his foreign policy agenda to two words: “America First.”
For students of U.S. history, that slogan harkens back to the tumultuous presidential election of 1940, when hundreds of thousands of Americans joined the anti-war America First Committee.
That isolationist group’s primary goal was to keep the United States from joining Britain in the fight against Nazi Germany, which by then had overrun nearly all of Europe. But the committee is also remembered for the unvarnished anti-Semitism of some of its most prominent members and praise for the economic policies of Adolf Hitler.
The America First Committee was founded in spring 1940 at Yale University by students that included future U.S. president Gerald Ford and future Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart. Future President John F. Kennedy contributed $100. Within months, France had capitulated to the Germans and England appeared on the verge of collapse. The committee was soon the largest anti-war organization in U.S. history, with more than 800,000 dues-paying members.
As the committee grew, it attracted celebrities, politicians and business leaders opposed President Franklin Roosevelt’s lend-lease aid to the British. Among them was the admired aviator Charles Lindbergh, who was the first man to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean more than a decade earlier.
Lindbergh, whose family was of Germanic heritage, made multiple high-profile visits to the Fatherland, including to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin as a special guest of Field Marshal Hermann Goering, head of the German air force. Lindbergh grew to admire Hitler’s revitalization of the German economy at a time the United States was still mired in the Great Depression. He also marveled at the advanced fighters and bombers of the Luftwaffe.
Upon his return to the United States, Lindbergh spoke favorably of the Nazis and published widely read opinion pieces saying the German military conquest of Europe was inevitable and that America should stay out of the war. He joined the executive committee of America First and became the public face of the group, traveling the country to speak at massive anti-war rallies.
America First championed the belief that two vast oceans would insulate the United States from foreign invasion. The group also opposed the acceptance of shiploads of Jewish refugees then-fleeing Nazi persecution. In addition to Lindbergh, the executive committee of America First included the automaker Henry Ford, who had paid to publish a series of anti-Semitic pamphlets called The International Jew, and Avery Brundage, the former U.S. Olympic Committee chairman who had barred two American Jewish runners from competing at the Berlin Olympics.
Lindbergh espoused anti-Semitic views in his speeches, including a September 1941 America First rally in Des Moines, Iowa.
“The British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the 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.”
Within days of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war on the United States. America First quickly disbanded.
During his first major foreign policy speech in April, Trump said “America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”
He has repeatedly used the slogan on the campaign trail, including in a speech this week.
“We are going to put America First, and we are going to Make America Great Again,” Trump said last week in another speech. “We need to reform our economic system so that, once again, we can all succeed together, and America can become rich again. That’s what we mean by America First.”
Trump has proposed building a “big, beautiful wall” along the U.S. border with Mexico to keep out Latino immigrants and opposes the admittance of Muslim war refugees from Syria. He has also called for “tearing up” international trade deals.
Historians told The Associated Press there are some ideological parallels between Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail and the positions taken 75 years ago by members of the American First Committee. Then as now, an economic downturn fanned popular resentment toward immigration, especially by those who were not perceived as traditional Americans.
“Building a wall is about the illusion that there can be a physical safeguard to prevent intrusion from alien forces,” said Bruce Miroff, a professor who teaches on American politics and the presidency at the State University of New York at Albany. “America First was tapping into suspicion of an ominous other who threatened the American way of life. At that time, it was about Jews. With Trump, it’s Muslims and fear of terrorism.”
Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks did not respond to messages this week seeking comment about the America First slogan.
The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization, sent Trump a letter two months ago urging him to refrain from using “America First.” The group also took $56,000 that Trump and his family foundation had donated to it over the years and redirected the money to new anti-bias and anti-bullying education programs.
“For many Americans, the term ‘America First’ will always be associated with and tainted by this history,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the group’s chief executive. “In a political season that already has prompted a national conversation about civility and tolerance, choosing a call to action historically associated with incivility and intolerance seems ill-advised.”
The group received no response to its letter, but Trump has continued to use the slogan.