Monday, June 5, 2017
“America First” – A Phrase with a Very Dark Past
This is a long blog today, but it is important. Stay with me! The above quoted words sound good when artfully uttered by a savvy politician. There’s touch of patriotism laced with some “take care of the issues here at home before you use our money on overseas issues.” Particularly effective where the middle and working class are losing hope, where upward mobility and the common view of the “American Dream” have been relegated to the history books, where income inequality and political polarization redefine modern America, and where infrastructure crumbles, globalization and automation decimate opportunity and earning power. We aren’t even feeling safe in our own cities and towns. These are issues that elected Donald Trump that the Democrats have yet to address in any significant way.
But those words are hardly original with the Trump campaign. They have been used by American politicians, including several successful presidential candidates, throughout our history. They also have a rather clear and distinct meaning to those who understand the connotation that history attached to those two words… a sinister darkness appears… consistently. In short, those words rapidly shed their positive meanings and slide into a world of xenophobia, isolationism, racial/ethnic/cultural discrimination, white protestant supremacy, unachievable false promises, and devastating economic chaos.
The “America First” mantra was the theme of that 1915 deeply racist silent motion picture, Birth of a Nation, which advocated Northern and Southern whites unite to confront and oppress the post-emancipation generations of African Americans, considered a scourge on society by those growing numbers of extremists. The Ku Klux Klan, then almost extinct, was elevated in that film to hero status… and was powerfully resurrected. Lynchings and beatings of blacks escalated. Thus, the subtext of “America First” became a buzzword for “white supremacy,” a fact not lost on today’s rising alt-right movement. They really do understand that phrase in precisely that context. Thank you Steve Bannon, alt-right spokesman. But this political vector was a growing trend that even got a U.S. president elected almost a century ago.
Our 29th President (former GOP Senator from Ohio), Warren G. Harding, picked up on these sensibilities in his 1920 presidential campaign, where “America First” was a cornerstone of his platform. Wink, wink! Here is an excerpt from one of his many speeches on this new “Americanism”: “It's time to idealize, but it's very practical to make sure our own house is in perfect order before we attempt the miracle of Old World stabilization. Call it the selfishness of nationality if you will. I think it's an inspiration to patriotic devotion to safeguard America first, to stabilize America first, to prosper America first, to think of America first, to exalt America first, to live for and revere America first. Let the internationalist dream, and the Bolshevist destroy. God pity him for whom no [minstrel raptures dwell.] In the spirit of the Republic we proclaim Americanism and acclaim America.”
Like the present day, the Harding-era stock market soared even as lynchings and Jim Crow laws proliferated. “Foreigners” were distrusted, and immigration laws were revised to close the door, even to immigrants from places like Germany and Ireland. It was the roaring 20s, and such policies fueled a bubble that would cause the worst economic crisis in American history just a few short years later: the Great Depression. But America did not learn the lesson that “America First” was really an unrealistic and unsustainable slippery slope. The concept did not die with that Depression.
The pre-WWII roiling discontent in the United States – where displaced working and middle class Americans struggled to survive that depression – pitted white traditionalists with psychological/cultural ties to Britain (the “true Americans”) against “Irish” Americans who harbored nothing but hatred for the U.K. (Ireland stayed neutral during WWII) and “German” Americans who saw no reason for the U.S. to entwine itself in the simmering conflict in Europe. There was even growing sympathy with Germany against a purported “Jewish cabal” that many felt had too much power in the American financial world. Anti-Semitism was rising fast. Again, those two words were used in this deeply troubled time.
As senior editor Krishnadev Calamur explains in the January 27th theAtlantic.com: “[The] phrase ‘America first’ also has a darker recent history and… was associated with opponents of the U.S. entering World War II.
“The America First Committee (AFC), which was founded in 1940, opposed any U.S. involvement in World War II, and was harshly critical of the Roosevelt administration, which it accused of pressing the U.S. toward war. At its peak, it had 800,000 members across the country, included socialists, conservatives, and some of the most prominent Americans from some of the most prominent families. There was future President [Gerald] Ford; Sargent Shriver, who’d go on to lead the Peace Corps; and Potter Stewart, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice. It was funded by the families who owned Sears-Roebuck and the Chicago Tribune, but also counted among its ranks prominent anti-Semites of the day.
“‘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,’ Susan Dunn, the historian, wrote on CNN last April.
“But charges of anti-Semitism persisted, and were compounded with perhaps one of the most infamous speeches given by one of AFC’s most famous spokesmen, Charles Lindbergh. In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11, 1941, Lindbergh expressed sympathy for the persecution Jews faced in Germany, but suggested Jews were advocating the U.S. to enter a war that was not in the national interest.
“‘Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences,’ Lindbergh said. ‘Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastations. A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not.
“‘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 insisted he was not ‘attacking either the Jewish or the British people,’ 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.’”
“The America First movement had these four core values: 1) The United States must build an impregnable defense for America. 2) No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America. 3) American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war. 4) ‘Aid short of war’ weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.” Tom Westfall writing for the January 27th Journal-Advocate.com.
A little more on this pre-WWII political conflict: “Starting in the early 1930s, media kingpin William Randolph Hearst began using the slogan ‘America First.’ Hearst hated Roosevelt’s New Deal and saw it as ‘un-American to the core.’ He hailed the Nazis as winning great victories for ‘liberty-loving people’ everywhere… In 1938, Lindbergh received the Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, Germany’s highest honor, from Hermann Goering. The award was given ‘in the name of the Fuhrer.’ The only other American to receive the award was [Gerald] Ford.” NH Business Review, March 3rd.
“Needless to say, the vessel called ‘America First’ crashed on the rocky shoals of Pearl Harbor, and America entered the war, liberating Europe and defeating the evil that was Nazi Germany.
“That the current administration would channel the slogan ‘America First’ is troubling to me. One might conclude that since President Trump is not a voracious reader (he recently said that his favorite book was ‘The Art of the Deal’) he was unaware of the association of America First with its shadowy past. Fair enough. Personally, I would prefer a leader who was steeped in our country's rich history, but that's just me, and only time will tell whether or not President Trump is successful in his attempts to reshape America into what he would describe as a ‘great nation (again).’
“Even if we accept that President Trump wasn't tuned-in to the history of the phrase, ‘America First’ I find it inconceivable that Steve Bannon, Trump's chief White House strategist and senior counselor, wasn't aware of the history of this phrase. Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, is by all accounts a brilliant man, well versed in America history. This is the same Breitbart news that promotes white supremacy, and is largely considered anti-Semitic.
“Let's assume for a moment that Bannon is as intelligent as he appears to be and that he was well aware of the isolationist, anti-Semitic history of the phrase, ‘America First.’ What are the implications for our country moving forward now that he is in a position of power and authority?” Tom Westfall.
All over the world, politicians are discovering that fanning the flames of anti-Americanism are a necessary part of getting elected. It is now embedded in the psyche of voters all over the world. Trump’s “America First” mantra is the hook that has mandated this massive negative movement.
On a personal note, a large financial effort to raise money for an entertainment company in Los Angeles – very optimistically begun – went down in flames when our broker in Germany informed us that there was no longer any appetite in Germany for American investments. International tourism to the United States since Trump’s election is down 16% and continues to fall. Here’s a hard example of how this neo-anti-Americanism works even in what used to be our closest allies.
“The U.S. president and his ‘America first’ policies have turned into the hot-button campaign issue in Germany in advance of its Sept. 24 election , with increasingly critical comments coming both from [Angela] Merkel, the conservative incumbent, and her center-left challenger, [Martin] Schulz.
“The Trump-bashing is striking in a country that has for decades considered it-self one of the United States’ closest allies. But it reflects deep concerns throughout much of Europe over Trump’s foreign policy, especially his less-than-full-throated endorsement of NATO and his decision to back out of the Paris agreement on climate change.
“That could be seen in recent days in France, where newly elected President Emmanuel Macron responded to Trump’s exit from the climate accord by issuing a video statement in English, calling on global leaders to ‘make our planet great again.’ In Britain, Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn accused Prime Minister Theresa May of a ‘dereliction of duty’ for merely expressing ‘disappointment’ in Trump’s decision, rather than a stronger response.
“But nowhere has reaction been stronger than in Germany, Trump’s ancestral homeland, where opinion polls suggest that more than 90% of the population disapproves of the American president. And now, the election campaign threatens to become a referendum of sorts on which candidate is most likely to stand up to Trump.” Los Angeles Times, June 4th. Strange when you remember that “America First” pre-WWII “German” controversy note above,
We have become a pariah, a selfish, arrogant and clearly ignorant nation in the eyes of the rest of the world. The world is standing aside as we withdraw into our “America first” cocoon. All part of Trump’s very intentional masterplan to disconnect the United States from the rest of the world and any associated responsibilities, along with healthcare, one of the most internally polarizing impact of his presidency. Very much a part of prioritizing white American evangelical values at the expense of everybody else. The rest of the planet is prepared to watch us battle against each other and slowly unravel. We have managed to make America grate again.
I’m Peter Dekom, and exactly what do you think will happen – in a world where those who do not study history are condemned to repeat its mistakes – to a world power where its chief executive does not study or read and relies on clearly false assumptions about the world?