On September 4, 1940, the America First Committee announced itself to the world. The committee’s founding came the day after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced that he had ordered the U.S. Navy to give Britain fifty old destroyers in exchange for extended leases on eight British bases. The committee’s founders feared that moves of this sort would inevitably and unnecessarily draw the United States into the war then raging in Europe. Though the movement gained great popularity, the America First Committee’s lobby against intervention largely failed, and with steps like the Lend-Lease Act, the United States slowly drew closer to Great Britain. While most Americans shared the committee’s desire to avoid war, they agreed with FDR that the United States could not sit idly by while the last European democracy was crushed.
James M. Lindsay, CFR’s senior vice president and director of studies, argues that "non-interventionist sentiment strikes a deep chord in American political life." Lindsay says that on the eve of World War II, the America First Committee’s arguments appealed to so many Americans because of "legitimate disagreement about how best to protect the national interest and because they reflected warnings dating back to the country’s founding about the perils of foreign entanglements." Lindsay discusses how the echoes of the non-interventionist argument persist today in the discussion of how the United States should respond to violence in Libya and Syria, and he invites his audience to consider when the United States should intervene in wars overseas.
This video is part of History Lessons, a series dedicated to exploring historical events and examining their meaning in the context of foreign relations today.