The Resurrection of ‘America First!’

Two years ago, when The American Conservative magazine was launched, Franklin Foer of The New Republic accorded us a gracious welcome. “Buchanan’s Surefire Flop,” he titled his essay.

It began, “Buchanan and his rich friends could not have chosen a worse time to start a journal of the isolationist right.”

Foer went on: “9/11 hasn’t boosted the isolationist right, it has extinguished it. … Sept. 11 has virtually ended conservative qualms about spending blood and treasure abroad.” He explained how trade and immigration were dead issues and neoconservatives were “no longer a wing of the conservative movement, they are the conservative movement.”

That Foer got it spectacularly wrong – Bush is in trouble on trade and immigration, and the neocons are headed for Tora Bora – is attested to by an astonishing piece in The New York Times Book Review, “Once Again, America First.” The author writes of a revival of “isolationism” in the conservative movement and GOP.

Author of the Times piece? You guessed it: Franklin Foer.

Noting that George Will, Tucker Carlson, Henry Hyde, William F. Buckley and other conservatives are having second thoughts about Iraq, Foer predicts, “With the war … hitting a rough patch, this anti-interventionist tradition is suddenly poised for revival.”

How Foer, who knows the history of the Old Right and postwar conservatism, could have gotten it so wrong, two years ago, seems odd.

For the foreign policy routinely disparaged as “isolationism” is always on the table. It is the foreign policy most deeply rooted in America’s history, heart and vital interests. It is no more going to be “extinguished” than is Christianity. It is our oldest tradition.

Though that tradition may be dismissed by our foreign policy elites as antiquated, selfish and un-idealistic, it is the elites who are out of touch. They do not know the country they live in. They do not know the American people. They never have.

No sooner was our Revolutionary War ended at Yorktown, than U.S. diplomats sent to Paris to negotiate the peace were trying to wangle their way out of the French alliance. Adams finally ended the alliance in 1800 and thus kept us out of the Napoleonic wars.

In 1812, Madison took us to war against Britain for national interests. War hawks coveted Canada. But that unwise war almost cost us our country, had it not been for Jackson at New Orleans. Not for a hundred years would we again engage in a war with any great European power.

While the 1898 war on Spain was wildly popular, Americans quickly tired of the postwar campaign to consolidate U.S. control of the Philippines, which we had foolishly annexed. As with Iraq, Americans wanted an end to the wastage of blood and treasure to democratize recalcitrant natives.

Wilson won re-election in 1916 on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” After the U-boat sinking of U.S. merchant ships in early 1917, however, America went to war, again wildly enthusiastic.

By November 1918, though, reaction had set in. Voters threw Wilson’s party out, and all Henry Cabot Lodge had to do was delay for a few months before taking up the Versailles Treaty and League of Nations to kill both.

For 20 years, Americans felt we had been had by the Brits and had been suckered into war “only to pull England’s chestnuts out of the fire.” This sentiment fueled the greatest of all antiwar movements in U.S. history, America First.

The achievements of that organization are monumental. By keeping America out of World War II until Hitler attacked Stalin in June of 1941, Soviet Russia, not America, bore the brunt of the fighting, bleeding and dying to defeat Nazi Germany. Thanks to America First, no nation suffered less in the world’s worst war.

Pearl Harbor, which FDR cynically provoked after assuring Americans he was doing his best to keep us out of war, finished the America First movement. But, four years later, with victory won, America demanded that Truman “Bring the Boys Home.”

He complied, and Americans did not go back to Europe until the nation was persuaded – by the Berlin Blockade, the communist coup in Prague, the fall of China to Mao, the news that Stalin had gotten the atom bomb through treason and the invasion of South Korea – that our own country and Western civilization were imperiled.

With the end of the Cold War, anti-interventionism, as Foer writes, made a comeback in the GOP, until 9/11. Now, with the mess in Iraq and the cost of nation-building rising in blood and treasure, America is looking for a foreign policy that defends the nation but does not entail utopian schemes for remaking the world in America’s image. Either the party that wins in November gives us such a policy, or it will be thrown out of office in 2008.

Rely upon it. America First is back.

Author: Patrick J. Buchanan

Patrick Buchanan is the author of Churchill, Hitler, and "The Unnecessary War."