BOSTON — Donald Trump stood on the red and blue draped steps of the US Capitol to give his inauguration address as the 45th President of the United States and declared, “From this day forward it’s going to be only America first.” He then paused and repeated with deliberation those last two words: “America First.”
Cheers rippled through the crowd below.
But the pithy slogan Trump has embraced to define his new foreign policy also served as the rallying cry in what is now considered a dark chapter in American history, when an isolationist movement of the same name blamed American Jews for conspiring to pressure the government to join World War II against the interests of America.
“The concept of standing up for American rights is a legitimate concept, but the words themselves have historical relevance because of what happened in the 1930s and 1940s,” said Kenneth Jacobson, the deputy national director of the Anti-defamation League. Jacobson has been with the ADL for 45 years and serves as something of its resident historian.
“The new president has every right to consider the direction of American policy but it’s better not to use this phrase,” said Jacobson. “Unfortunately, the emotional connections are there.”
The ADL went on record last spring when Trump first brought up the term to remind Americans, most of whom have no living memory of the term or movement, why there is a visceral reaction against it.
The isolationism embraced by some Americans following World War I that helped birth the America First Committee was not unique in American history. Opposition to American involvement in overseas conflict dates to the colonial era and continues to the present day.
Founded by a group of Yale University students in the fall of 1940, the America First Committee arose as the country was steeped in intense dispute over whether to join the British in fighting Nazi Germany. By then Germany had already rolled its way over Poland and into Western Europe including France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and persecution of the Jews had begun with some already being arrested and shipped to concentration camps.
At the time the movement arose, it tapped into the unhappiness many Americans felt about the United States’ entry into World War I.
Professor James Kloppenberg, a professor of American history at Harvard University an author of the recent “Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought,” said that with this discontent came, “a great deal of animosity towards those who were considered to have been war profiteers. And as has been true since the Middle Ages, Jews became targets for their associations with banking and loans.”
What began as an anti-war profiteering movement, he said, “morphed into alliances that were pretty ugly between the Nazi movement and anti-war sentiment.”
Meanwhile, the America First Committee gained in membership and popularity, especially in the Midwest.
As Susan Dunn, a professor of humanities at Williams College and author of “1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler — The Election Amid the Storm” noted in an essay published by CNN, among America First’s executive committee members were initially two powerful men and known anti-Semites — Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, and Avery Brundage.
Ford was responsible for printing and distributing half a million copies of the anti-Semitic propaganda text “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
As chairman of the US Olympic Committee, Brundage prevented two Jews on the 1936 US Olympic team from running in the finals of the 400-meter relay race in Berlin.
Brundage and Ford were later removed from the committee as the movement tried to distance itself from charges of anti-Semitism.
But cementing America First Committee’s anti-Semitic association for the ages was Charles Lindbergh, a member of the executive committee who was prized as the dashing American pilot-turned-national hero, celebrated for making the first solo Transatlantic flight.
Lindbergh had become enamored with Nazi Germany during visits in the late 1930s, even briefly planning to move there. He lobbied the US government to remain neutral, arguing that Germany’s victory in Europe was inevitable.
On September 11, 1941, he made a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, that revealed the extent of his anti-Semitism.
“The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt Administration,” he said. Lindbergh continued that “Instead of agitating for war, Jews in this country should be opposing it in every way, for they will be the first to feel its consequences. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”
His comments were widely condemned. Just three months later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the debate over whether or not to enter the war was over.
Laurel Leff, a professor with a joint appointment in Journalism and Jewish Studies at Northeastern University has written about this period in her book, “Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper.”
“To embrace this movement,” she said of Trump’s embrace of the America First slogan, “is either ahistorical or, more frighteningly, is picking up on anti-Semitic sentiment.”
Whether intentional or not, the new president’s continued use of this slogan — and what it represents — remains to be seen.