As Winston Churchill famously said, history is written by the victors. This was particularly true of the Second World War. For instance, few Americans living today realize that Hitler declared war on the U.S. Japan's attack at Pearl Harbor plunged us into a war in the Pacific, but that did not trigger U.S. involvement in the war in Europe. Until Hitler's unilateral declaration of war, and as late as December 11, 1941 – after more than two years of war in Europe between Churchill's Great Britain and Hitler's Germany – tens of millions of Americans opposed our involvement on Churchill's side. These loyal Americans remained content to sit out the war in Europe – to let the Europeans sort it out – even as we fought an unrelated battle to the death with the Japanese.
Though they remained confident in public, both Roosevelt and Churchill were quietly terrified that Hitler would not provide America with the excuse needed to enter the European war. Those Americans who wanted to put America's best interests ahead of those of Britain, France, and the Soviet Union had good reason for opposing joining a land war in Europe. That reason was twofold: first, the horrific cost of our involvement in the Great War, and second, our European allies' refusal to pay their war debts. The memory of the Great War's hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed Americans, as well as an unpaid war debt worth nearly $200 billion dollars in today's currency were reason enough for those patriots to choose to put "America First."
In the late '30s, the America First movement was all about keeping America out of yet another ruinous European war. It had nothing to do with the Nazis, though British propaganda tried to persuade America otherwise. This British effort was supported by President Roosevelt, who – for good motives, primarily because he believed in Great Britain and feared for the fate of Europe – was as eager in 1939 as Wilson had been in 1917 to drag America into another European land war.
In 2017, Trump's America First movement is all about creating jobs for Americans – it has no more to do with Hitlerian motives than did the original America Firsters of two generations before.
One critical reason – overlooked by MSNBC's Chris Matthews and his ilk – that Trump's "America First" has nothing to do with Hitler's Nazis is that the original "America First" had nothing to do with Nazis, either. As a historical analogy, this one is particularly flawed, reflecting the partisan bias of people like Chris Matthews, who are eagerly trying to uncover any way to link President Trump to der Führer, Adolf Hitler.
However, it's not enough just to say they are unconnected – if we are to properly put the left's latest scurrilous assaults on Donald Trump into perspective, we need to explain the original America First moment. Once you understand what was going on in the U.S. in 1939, it will become apparent that the two America First movements have nothing in common.
Here's the inside skinny on the original America First movement.
The first America First movement owes its origins to the November 1916 presidential election. This election took place two years into the Great War, which began in August of 1914. Woodrow Wilson won re-election on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War." But just weeks after being sworn in for his second term, Wilson all but strong-armed America's Congress into joining the British and French in fighting Germany.
Wilson was a master of propaganda. He had made this election-winning campaign claim, "He Kept Us Out of War," even while he was putting the finishing touches on his plan to drag us into that war. Less than a generation later, Joseph Goebbels – Hitler's evil propaganda mastermind – leaned heavily on two books written by Wilson's wartime propaganda chieftain, Edward Bernays. These remarkably candid books – Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) andPropaganda (1928) – explained Wilson's use of propaganda in dragging America into war. Goebbels credited Wilson's campaign as the basis for creating the Nazis' own propaganda efforts.
Despite what our bowdlerized, politically correct history of the 20th century suggests, while Wilson eventually talked and pressured Congress into entering the Great War, it was never a popular war. Millions of Americans questioned our involvement in what was a quintessentially European war, a war fought between kings and emperors for control of the European land mass.
Less than a generation later, tens of millions of Americans still resented our involvement in Europe's war. In part, this legacy of bitterness stemmed from the Selective Service draft that dragged millions of Americans into that war against their will. In just 19 months, this war became responsible for killing or maiming well over 300,000 Americans, most of them draftees.
Specifically, in that war, 117,465 American soldiers and civilians lost their lives, while another 204,002 were maimed or wounded. This latter statistic is particularly onerous because, tragically, far too many of those wounds were caused by poison gas, which had lifelong consequences on their surviving victims, consequences unseen in any other war, before, or since.
Another pain – less narrowly focused but more widely felt – was the issue of the cost of that war, including our "war debt." A 2010 report by Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service reports that World War I cost America – in addition to sending nearly 2,000,000 men into harm's way – $20 billion in 1918 dollars on the war. That comes to $334 billion U.S. dollars in today's currency. Half of that astronomical cost funded loans to bail out England, France, and other "allied" countries, loans to the tune of $10 billion. Given a century of inflation, that $10 billion is today worth $167-plus billion.
Ten billion dollars was a lot of money in 1918.
In the face of the Great Depression of the 1930s – which is when the America First movement was born – $10 billion was still a lot of money to an America staggering on the edge of national bankruptcy. Worse, the countries who'd so solemnly pledged to repay America's generosity in 1918 had –following the crash of 1929 – written off their debt of honor to America in order to deal with their own repercussions from the Great Depression.
As a result, tens of millions of Americans felt that we'd not only bailed the Europeans out of a war not of our making, but also wound up bailing Europe out of the Great Depression, even as we struggled to keep our collective fiscal head above water.
The original America First movement was all about avoiding being dragged into another European land war. More particularly, those America Firsters sought to avoid losing hundreds of thousands of young Americans and hundreds of billions of dollars. That movement had nothing to do with Nazis – it was all about the cost of any war in terms of blood and gold. Specifically, the America First movement had everything to do with a widespread feeling – especially in America's heartland – that a generation earlier, we'd already done more than enough for Europe.
We'd bailed them out of one massive war, paying a bitter price in terms of both blood and gold. Those tens of millions of Americans had no particular desire to do it all over again.
There were some Americans who – buying into Nazi propaganda – feared that Germany had become so strong that it would be a disaster for America to engage in a war with Hitler's Wehrmacht. Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh was one of those timorous, gullible victims of Nazi propaganda. As a guest of German aviators who'd become international heroes while flying with the Red Baron over France in the Great War, Lindbergh had toured German aircraft production factories. While still in Germany, he swallowed the Nazi "Big Lie" – hook, line, and sinker. Lindbergh wasn't a Nazi – he wasn't even a Nazi sympathizer – but he was clearly afraid of the Nazis. Considering how close to defeat we came in 1942, his fear wasn't totally irrational.
In addition to suborning the opinions of patriotic Americans such as Lindbergh, the Nazis formed organizations called the "Bund," then made use of another wave of masterful Nazi propaganda to capitalized on the influence wielded by some Germans living in America – as well as some Americans of German descent. These pro-Nazi Germans did their best to insinuate themselves into the America First movement's mission to keep our country from declaring war on Hitler.
However, supporting Nazis and protecting Germany from America's involvement in World War II was not what the America First movement was all about. It was not a Nazi front organization. All that America Firsters cared about was sparing American lives and America's wealth from the cost of another European land war.
While history tells us – rightly – that our war against Hitler was both worthwhile and necessary, those two particular facts were not obvious in the late 1930s. What was obvious even then was that a war with Germany would be ruinously expensive. We already knew that the Great War had cost America the equivalent of more than $330 billion – along with 300,000-plus casualties. It was obvious, even before the war began, that our participation in World War II would be far more ruinously expensive, in terms of both blood and money.
This included 419,400 U.S. deaths and 671,846 U.S. service personnel wounded or maimed for life. According to that same 2010 report by Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service, World War II cost America $296 billion – a sum worth $4.1 trillion in today's currency.
Bottom line: America Firsters, while ultimately proved by history to have been mistaken, were patriotic Americans who had our country's best interests at heart. It was not a Nazi front organization – not even close. Today, President Trump's America First movement has even less to do with Nazis (Chris Matthews and his fellow travelers notwithstanding).
Chris, if you're going to cite history, at least take the time to understand the history you're going to cite. That's one more mistake President Donald J. Trump won't make.