America First — 1940s Style

Charles Lindbergh joining the America First Committee in 1940
Charles Lindbergh Joining America First Committee. Bettmann / Getty Images

More than 75 years before President Donald Trump declared “Make America Great Again” as a key part of his election campaign, the doctrine of “America First” was on the minds of so many prominent Americans that they formed a special committee to make it happen.

Key Takeaways: America First Committee

  • The America First Committee (AFC) was organized in 1940 for the expressed purpose of preventing the United States from entering World War II.
  • The AFC was headed by prominent U.S. citizens, including record-setting aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, and some members of Congress.
  • The AFC opposed President Franklin Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease plan to send U.S. arms and war materials to Britain, France, China, and the Soviet Union.
  • Once reaching a membership of over 800,000, the AFC disbanded on December 11, 1941, four days after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
  • After the AFC disbanded, Charles Lindbergh joined the war effort, flying more than 50 combat missions as a civilian.

An outgrowth of the American isolationist movement, the America First Committee first convened on September 4, 1940, with a primary goal of keeping America out of World War II being fought at the time mainly in Europe and Asia. With a peak paid membership of 800,000 people, the America First Committee (AFC) became one of the largest organized anti-war groups in American history. The AFC disbanded on December 10, 1941, three days after the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, thrust America into the war.

Events Leading to the America First Committee

In September 1939, Germany, under Adolph Hitler, invaded Poland, precipitating war in Europe. By 1940, only Great Britain possessed a large enough military and enough money to resist the Nazi conquest. Most of the smaller European nations had been overrun. France had been occupied by German forces and the Soviet Union was taking advantage of a nonaggression agreement with Germany to expand its interests in Finland. 

While a majority of Americans felt the entire world would be a safer place if Great Britain defeated Germany, they were hesitant to enter the war and repeat the loss of American lives they had so recently experienced by taking part in the last European conflict – World War I.

The AFC Goes to War With Roosevelt

This hesitancy to enter another European war inspired the U.S. Congress to enact the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s, greatly restricting the U.S. federal government’s ability to provide assistance in the form of troops, arms, or war materials to any of the nations involved in the war. President Franklin Roosevelt, who had opposed, but signed, the Neutrality Acts, employed non-legislative tactics like his “Destroyers for Bases” plan to support the British war effort without actually violating the letter of the Neutrality Acts.

The America First Committee fought President Roosevelt at every turn. By 1941, the AFC’s membership had exceeded 800,000 and boasted charismatic and influential leaders including national hero Charles A. Lindbergh. Joining Lindbergh were conservatives, like Colonel Robert McCormick, owner of the Chicago Tribune; liberals, like socialist Norman Thomas; and staunch isolationists, like Senator Burton Wheeler of Kansas and the anti-Semitic Father Edward Coughlin.

In late 1941, the AFC fiercely opposed President Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease amendment authorizing the president to send arms and war materials to Britain, France, China, the Soviet Union, and other threatened nations without payment.

In speeches delivered across the nation, Charles A. Lindbergh argued that Roosevelt’s support of England was sentimental in nature, driven to some extent by Roosevelt’s long friendship with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Lindbergh argued that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Britain alone to defeat Germany without at least a million soldiers and that America’s participation in the effort would be disastrous. 

"The doctrine that we must enter the wars of Europe in order to defend America will be fatal to our nation if we follow it," said Lindbergh in 1941.

As War Swells, Support for AFC Shrinks

Despite the AFC’s opposition and lobbying effort, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, giving Roosevelt broad powers to supply the Allies with arms and war materials without committing U.S. troops.

Public and congressional support for the AFC eroded even further in June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. By late 1941, with no sign of the Allies being able to stop the Axis advances and the perceived threat of an invasion of the U.S. growing, the influence of the AFC was fading rapidly.

Pearl Harbor Spells the End for the AFC

The last traces of support for U.S. neutrality and the America First Committee dissolved with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Just four days after the attack, the AFC disbanded. In a final statement issued on December 11, 1941, the Committee stated that while its policies might have prevented the Japanese attack, the war had come to America and it had thus become the duty of America to work for the united goal of defeating the Axis powers.

Following the demise of the AFC, Charles Lindbergh joined the war effort. While remaining a civilian, Lindbergh flew more than 50 combat missions in the Pacific theater with the 433rd Fighter Squadron. After the war, Lindbergh often traveled to Europe to assist with the U.S. effort to rebuild and revitalize the continent.

America First Returns

“America First” returned in 2017 when it became the official foreign policy doctrine of President Donald Trump’s administration. After making it a key theme of his inaugural address, a Politico/Morning Consult poll showed that 65% of Americans responded positively to Trump's "America First" message, with 39% reacting to the concept negatively. In his subsequent “America First” policies, Trump embraced American unilateralism abroad while undermining transnational organizations such as the European Union, often criticizing them on economic terms. 

In 2017, the administration proposed a federal budget for 2018 with both “Make America Great Again” and “America First” in its title, with the latter referencing its increases to military, homeland security, and veteran spending, cuts to spending for foreign assistance, and achieving a balanced federal budget by 2028. Calling it a “reaffirmation” of his commitment to “America First,” Trump issued an executive order in December 2018 virtually banning the export of American-made COVID-19 vaccine to foreign countries. 

Trump's use of the slogan was criticized by some for carrying comparisons to the America First Committee. However, Trump denied being an isolationist, stating simply, "I like the expression." Several Jewish organizations criticized Trump's use of the slogan because of its historical association with nativism and antisemitism. Others have argued that Trump was never opposed to productive U.S. interventionism. Columnist Daniel Larison from The American Conservative wrote that “Trump was quick to denounce previous wars as disasters, but his complaint about these wars was that the U.S. wasn't ‘getting’ anything tangible from them.”

Describing Trump’s policy as “America Alone” rather than “America First,” some critics described it as a major factor in the perceived increase in the international economic isolation of the United States in the late 2010s.

While President Joe Biden discontinued many of President Donald Trump's "America First" policies at the beginning of his presidency in January 2021, he initially kept the Trump administration's COVID-19 vaccine export ban in place. In May 2021, the United States began conditionally exporting vaccines out of its borders.

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Longley, Robert. "America First — 1940s Style." ThoughtCo, Dec. 1, 2022, thoughtco.com/america-first-1940s-style-4126686. Longley, Robert. (2022, December 1). America First — 1940s Style. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/america-first-1940s-style-4126686 Longley, Robert. "America First — 1940s Style." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/america-first-1940s-style-4126686 (accessed February 6, 2023).