History Lessons: The America First Committee Forms

September 6, 2012
10:41 am (EST)

History Lessons: The America First Committee Forms
Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.
from The Water's Edge

A new installment of “History Lessons" (formerly “Lessons Learned”) is now out. This time I examine the formation of the America First Committee on September 4, 1940. (Yes, it would have been more fitting if the video and this post had gone up on Tuesday, the actual anniversary of the committee’s formation. Oh, well.) In the video, I discuss the committee’s meteoric rise, its claim that the war in Europe did not threaten American security, and its ultimate failure to prevent FDR from moving the United States closer to Great Britain through steps like the Lend-Lease Act.

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Polls and Public Opinion

Some of America’s leading figures joined the America First cause. Its chairman was General Robert E. Wood, the head of Sears Roebuck and a former acting quartermaster general for the U.S. Army. Other prominent supporters included: Col. Charles Lindbergh, the famed aviator; Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter; Robert Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago, and Lillian Gish, the actress. Some young Americans who supported America First would later rise to prominence. They included President Gerald Ford, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, novelist Gore Vidal, and Yale president Kingman Brewster.

One reason that the America First Committee failed on the legislative front was that other lobbying groups were arguing that America’s security depended on stopping Nazi Germany from conquering all of Europe. The most prominent of these groups was the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies (CDAAA), which was led by the Kansas publisher and staunch Republican, William Allen White. The CDAAA’s supporters did not necessarily want the United States to join the war in Europe, though some did, especially as 1941 dragged on and Britain endured a horrific German bombing campaign. What they did believe—contrary to what the America First Committee argued—was that sending aid to Great Britain would diminish the chances that the United States would be dragged into war. And, again unlike the America First Committee, they believed that a British defeat would imperil American security.

The United States fortunately does not face the threat of a world war today as it did seven decades ago. But we can hear echoes of the debate Americans had then in current discussions about whether the United States should intervene in fighting in places like Libya and Syria. Americans disagree about the consequences of acting versus not acting in these conflicts, dispute the merits of contending courses of action, and debate what obligations they have to the citizens of other nations.

So here’s a question to consider when thinking about American foreign policy: When should the United States intervene in conflicts abroad? Weigh in with you answer in the comments section below.

If you are interested in learning more about the America First Committee or the political battles in the United States over foreign policy in the eighteen months before Pearl Harbor, here are some books worth reading:

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Polls and Public Opinion

Cole, Wayne S. America First: the Battle Against Intervention 1940-1941 (1953)

Cole, Wayne S. Charles A. Lindbergh and the Battle Against American Intervention in World War II (1974)

Cole, Wayne S. Roosevelt and the Isolationists (1983)

Doenecke, Justus D.  In Danger Undaunted: The Anti-Interventionist Movement of 1940-1941 as Revealed in the Papers of the America First Committee (1990)

Kauffman, Bill. America First!: Its History, Culture, and Politics (1995)

Langer, William L., and S. Everett Gleason, The Challenge to Isolation (1952)