For as long as the cold war lasted, the history of the conservative movement before about 1955 the history of what I call the Old Right was for the most part ignored: when they talked about it at all, historians of both the left and the right invariably dismissed it as too politically incorrect to be discussed, let alone taken seriously. But the conservative response to the New Deal and the looming prospect of war produced a powerful and very well-organized movement whose active adherents numbered in the millions and who almost saved our Republic from taking a giant step on the road to Empire.
The Old Right was a coalition of conservative businessmen, progressive Republicans in Congress; and disillusioned liberals who were alarmed by the militaristic and corporatist direction the New Deal was taking. All of these elements had their grievances against FDR the court-packing controversy, the fascist-style of the National Recovery Act, the massive and unprecedented centralization of power in Washington but they all came together in the great antiwar movement of the late 1930s, the America First Committee.
In the winter of 1940, as Hitler’s armies were crashing through France, devouring the Low Countries, and threatening to invade England, the interventionist chorus became a deafening roar: every Anglophile, every left-wing “antifascist,” every friend of the Soviet Union was raising his or her voice America, they declared, must intervene and save the West from the dreaded Hun! American public opinion up until this point decidedly and overwhelmingly opposed to US entry into the war began to shift. In September of 1939 poll numbers revealed that Americans wanted to keep the peace above all: by November, 1940, however, they were telling the same pollsters that they preferred all-out war to a Nazi victory over England. It was time for the non-interventionists to speak, or forever hold their peace.
The America First Committee was the response of a disparate coalition to the propaganda blitz and the apparent desire of the American President to get us out of the depression by getting us into the war. The committee was founded on September 4, 1940, a mere 15 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The AFC grew out of a student antiwar organization, led by R. Douglas Stuart, Jr., son of the first vice president of the Quaker Oats Company. After linking up with general Robert E. Wood, chairman of the board of Sears, Roebuck & Co., the AFC went national, set up a Chicago headquarters, and began running newspaper ads attacking the warmongering policies of the Administration. With a speakers bureau, a variety of publications, local chapters, and rallies in cities and towns all across America, the AFC eventually grew to 850,000 dues-paying members organized in 450 chapters.
It was a grand coalition, encompassing conservative Republicans, such as William R. Castle, Undersecretary of State in the Hoover administration, the liberal Chester Bowles, and the populist progressive Senators Philip La Follette and Burton K. Wheeler, and the Socialist Norman Thomas. Conservatives saw Roosevelt’s determination to get us into the war as part of his domestic strategy to impose socialism on American industry. (The free enterprise system, as Americans had known it, would be the first casualty of the war: the economy would be militarized and a kind of NRA-plus created, in which wages and prices would be controlled.) The third point of the AFC’s 4-point program stated that “American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war.” The three other points underscored the essentially conservative cast of the organization’s founders and main supporters. Point number one was that “the United States must build an impregnable defense for America.” This was no gathering of sandal-wearing fruit-juice drinking pacifists although prominent pacifists, such as Frederick J. Libby, of the National Council for the Prevention of War, could be found among its fellow-travelers but a focal point for American nationalists who believed that we had nothing to gain and everything to lose by entering the war. Point two also stressed the need to defend American national security: “No foreign powers, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America.” The committee was officially launched on September 5th with a broadcast by General Hugh Johnson, who stressed themes that would recur through the AFC’s 15-month history. As Roosevelt proceeded to strip the US of its military assets and ship them off to Britain and the Soviet Union with lend lease and "aid short of war," the defense of the US was being undermined. This kind of provocation aimed at Germany was something we could ill afford at a time when the US military was seriously undermanned, under-equipped, and generally unready for combat. The fourth point of the AFC program elaborated on this symbiosis of preparedness and peace in declaring that “‘aid short of war weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America at war abroad.”
The growth, development, and public pronouncements of the ADC and the anti-interventionist movement reflected and expressed the three major themes of what Seliq Adler calls somewhat derisively “the isolationist impulse” as if it is a purely emotional reaction, a gut feeling and not a fully-thought-out or even rational program. First and foremost was its populism. Direct democracy, embodied in legislation allowing statewide referendums in much of the West, was a key element of progressivism. An enraged and newly empowered people rise up to smite a warmongering business and political elite it was an image that set the populist imagination ablaze with possibilities such as the Ludlow Amendment, which would have submitted the question of whether to go to war to a popular vote. Second, there was anti-statism, which was the chief distinguishing characteristic of the various and disparate individuals who made up the America First alliance. The merger of what was left of the populist and progressive movements with the emerging conservative Republican counterattack against FDR and the New Deal was a complex and drawn-out process, which ultimately culminated in the America First Committee, a movement where progressive Democratic Senator Burton K. Wheeler could find common cause with the conservative General Robert E. Wood, of Sears and Roebuck; where the Chicago-area businessman Henry Regnery could sit down with the liberal journalist John T. Flynn. The same people who opposed the President’s court-packing bill and called for the abolition of the National Recovery Administration wound up opposing Roosevelt’s drive to war. In the heat of battle, the differences between progressive isolationists and their conservative allies melted away, as they embraced a common critique of centralism, internationalism, and rampant militarism.
The third, and perhaps most important, theme of the America First movement was an acute consciousness of a raft of common enemies, first and foremost the British. By the time the America First Committee got off the ground, there were already two major interventionist groups going full blast with plenty of help from British intelligence, as Thomas E. Mahl revealed in his book, Desperate Deception. Now, this may be derided as the “conspiracy-minded” aspect of the America First movement, which just goes to prove how kooky it is. But, as Mr. Mahl puts it in his book, “How does the historian avoid the charge that he is indulging in conspiracy history when he explores the activities of a thousand people, occupying two floors of Rockefeller Center, in their efforts to involve the United States in a major war?” The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, headed by William Allen White, editor of the Kansas City Emporia Gazette, took a relatively moderate position: aid to England short of war. The “Fight for Freedom” group demanded an immediate declaration of war on the Axis powers. The White Committee served as a virtual propaganda arm of the US government, working openly and closely with the White House. Both groups, as Mahl has shown, were aided by the British.
The image of Perfidious Albion had considerable appeal in the ranks of America First for obvious reasons, and it is a theme with a long history, especially in the American Midwest. Many Americans remembered and resented the British default on their World War I debts. Writing in H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury, Judge Frederick Bausman, a prominent World War I revisionist asked:
“Was ever a country so bedeviled as ours? Has there ever been one in all history in which the class most powerful in controlling government and public opinion was determinedly bent on giving away enormous sums of the country’s money to nations already heavily armed and openly expressing contempt for [our] sacrifice which they would accept only as their due…? … It is an actual fact,” he continued, “that in many circles of wealth and fashion in this country one who takes his country’s side in these debates is put to shame at dinner tables.”
Of course, it all depended on whose dinner table you ate at. In the East, among Tory-loving would-be aristocrats, attended by liveried servants in their fake-Tudor mansions, this was no doubt true. But in the Midwest, a new Americanism had long been brewing. The general disillusionment that follows any war was, in these regions, particularly intense after World War I especially in view of the systematic repression and humiliation visited on German-American immigrants. This combined with resentment of British wartime propaganda and their attempt to get out of paying their war debts reached the boiling point in the late 1920s, when a wave of anti-British feeling swept the country. A coalition of groups, such as the VFW, joined forces to get rid of the Anglophilic bias in the nations school textbooks. In 1927, Chicago mayor Big Bill Thompson suspended school superintendent William McAndrew for authorizing textbooks thought to be too blatantly pro-British. And then there was the magnificent Chicago Tribune, whose publisher, Robert Rutherford McCormick, once wrote an editorial opposing the union of Britain and the US as advanced by the Union Now organization: “Certainly the handkissers and Tories in this country,” he wrote, “should welcome the closer relationship if only because it would strengthen their representation in congress. They should look forward pleasurably to more intimate social and political contacts with their English friends, particularly as the new relationship would be that of equals, living within the same political system.”
Another foreign power with a considerable US “amen corner” came into the picture after the Nazis betrayed their Communist allies and invaded the Soviet Union. The Communist Party in the US, and its large periphery among the American intelligentsia, immediately began calling for all-out war in order to save the “worker’s fatherland.” Once the Communists had done a complete about-face, the number and militancy of the interventionist groups would grow.
Then there were “the interests” the big financial combines, the banks and the Rockefeller and Morgan interests. As Murray N. Rothbard pointed out in Wall Street, Banks, and American Foreign Policy, the Rockefeller interests were pushing for war with Japan throughout the 1930s on account of competition for rubber and oil resources in Southeast Asia and “the Rockefellers’ cherished dreams of a mass ‘China market’ for petroleum products." The Morgan group, on the other hand, “as usual, deeply committed to their financial ties with Britain and France, once again plumbed early for war with Germany, while their interest in the Far East had become minimal.” World War II, says Rothbard, “might therefore be considered, from one point of view, as a coalition war: the Morgans got their war in Europe, the Rockefellers theirs in Asia.”
And so the enemies of all these groups were banded together in the America First coalition. The enemies of the Anglophiles Colonel McCormick and the Chicago Tribune prominent among them were an essential part of the antiwar alliance: not only the Germans but the Irish immigrants were the mass base of the organized isolationist movement. The anti-Communist aspect of the AFC, especially among American Catholics, reinforced the ethnic basis of the alliance, but also added an ideological element that attracted conservatives. The machinations of the Rockefeller-Morgan combine attracted the ire and suspicion of the progressives, such as Senator Burton K. Wheeler, who would sooner England fell than fight for Wall Street.
Unlike the liberals who were in theory internationalists, the progressives, primarily from the Midwest, were natural isolationists who emphasized war as the natural consequence of a foreign policy put in the service of big business. They spoke of the “war trust,” and the responsibility of the bankers, whose European investments had been the real cause of World War I: it was, they said, a war for markets.
This new antiwar coalition made up of disaffected liberals, conservative nationalists, Midwestern progressives, and a few scattered libertarians faced opposition from two powerful groups. First there were what Selig Adler calls “the spiritual heirs of Theodore Roosevelt,” who, “in league with the generals and admirals, fought for large military budgets.” These Eastern internationalist Republicans, epitomized by Wendell Wilkie, made sure that the GOP would fail to provide any real critique of FDR’s warmongering foreign policy. Secondly, there was opposition from the Left, not only from the White House and the dominant Roosevelt wing of the Democratic party, but from the Communists and their fellow travelers, who accounted for a small but influential and increasingly vocal minority. These were really the shock troops of the War Party, who did the dirty work and the hand-to-hand fighting in the battle for hearts and minds.
It is no exaggeration to say that, during the heyday of the Popular Front, an entire mini-industry grew up around the Communist-inspired campaign to link the anti-interventionist movement and specifically the America First Committee to the Nazis. This was the strategy of Roosevelt and his far-left allies, as the battle for the soul of a nation commenced, and it is why the great America First leader and writer John T. Flynn called them “The Smear Bund” in a pamphlet of the same name. Certainly the most odious and unsavory of this bunch was “John Roy Carlson,” a professional sneak and agent provocateur, whose real name was Avedis Derounian. His book, Under Cover, purported to be an expose of the anti-interventionist movement, and quoted obscure cranks, anti-Semites and American Nazis as if they represented America First. Juxtaposing the rantings of (for example) the almost completely unknown George Deatherage whose American Nationalist Confederation had only one member, himself with a mention of General Wood or John T. Flynn, the Carlson technique was crude but effective. Carlson was in the employ of the “Friends of Democracy,” a fellow-traveling front organization headed up by the Reverend Leon Birkhead, a liberal clergyman who never had a bad word to say for the Soviet Union but was quick to label anyone who questioned the need for war as an agent of Hitler. Carlson also worked for the FBI on a freelance basis at a time when Roosevelt’s secret political police were ordered by the White House to find something anything on the America First Committee.
I fear, the subject I am supposed to cover here is more appropriate to a multi-volume book than to a single article, and so I am going to resort to the technique of exemplifying the subject at hand. And no better exemplar than John T. Flynn could be found as the symbolic America Firster.
Flynn is a case study in the general political realignment that occasioned our entry into World War II. In the course of the struggle against war and militarism, the view of the progressives and old style liberals underwent a transformation. Or perhaps one could say that their views matured under the pressure of events. For the populist-progressive critique of bigness and centralization was a natural complement to the conservative critique of the New Deal as the first (and second) step on the road to state socialism. It was the fight against the war that convinced them that, while big business (the so-called “war trust”) often manipulated the state to its own advantage, big government was the source of the problem and the real threat to our liberties.
The career of John T. Flynn, head of the AFC’s vitally important New York City chapter, and a member of its national committee, is dramatic evidence of this political and ideological evolution from left to right. As a columnist for that paragon of enlightened liberalism, the New Republic, Flynn backed FDR in 1932 and devoted his journalistic energies to exposing the fraud and abuses then endemic in the financial markets. Like many progressives, he was shocked at the corporatist initiatives coming out of the Administration, especially the National Recovery Act. The blizzard of alphabet soup agencies created by unprecedented government spending led him to the conclusion that the New Deal would have to culminate in war. It would be politically impossible to maintain the level of spending the President required, and he would need conservatives the internationalist wing of the Republican party to get his program through Congress. By combining national defense with the need to employ and otherwise subsidize large numbers of people, the President could solve his political and economic troubles in one blow.
As the liberals gave up their noninterventionist principles and joined with the Stalinists in the Popular Front and FDR’s drive to war, Flynn’s New Republic column became controversial and was eventually discontinued after much public haggling. When Flynn attacked the President and his aide, Harry Hopkins, in an article for the Yale Review, FDR responded with a note to the editor in which he declared that Flynn had become “a destructive rather than a constructive force.” The President opined that, in his opinion, Flynn “should be barred hereafter from the columns of any presentable daily paper, monthly magazine or national quarterly, such as the Yale Review.”
That is precisely what happened, not only to Flynn but to a whole generation of old-fashioned liberals, assorted progressives, and conservatives who were victimized by the Smear Bund, their careers ruined or else seriously compromised. Garet Garrett, an editor at the Saturday Evening Post, was fired and exiled to the margins: Albert J. Nock, H. L. Mencken, Oswald Garrison Villard, and others met a similar fate. We often hear of the alleged terrors of the McCarthy period, especially in Hollywood: a veritable army of second rate screenwriters, actors, and movie colony sycophants has for years been whining about the persecution of red subversives during the cold war. But the treatment they had to endure was a Sunday school picnic compared to the blacklisting of isolationist writers, journalists, politicians, and, yes, actors, during the previous decade. The actress Lillian Gish, who was a member of the national committee of America First and a frequent speaker at their rallies, privately told General Wood that she had been blacklisted by movie studios in Hollywood and the New York theater world and couldn’t find an acting job anywhere. After much effort on her behalf, her agent had finally gotten a commitment from a studio for a contract, but it came with the proviso that she must first resign from America First. Furthermore, she was forbidden from telling the truth about her resignation, on pain of losing the much-needed contract. While never wavering in her opposition to US intervention, Miss Gish resigned from the committee, stopped giving speeches, and never said a word in public about the reasons for her sudden and seemingly inexplicable retreat.
Flynn suffered much, both financially and professionally, from the blacklisting. On the other hand, persecution only seemed to clarify his thought. His best book, As We Go Marching, written during the war, integrates the progressive abhorrence of war and militarism with the conservative analysis of the dangers of socialism and economic centralization. Flynn saw the growth of state power under FDR and the President’s drive to war as dual aspects of a unitary system: war and preparations for war fueled the economic engine of the emerging welfare state, and provided the necessary political backing from conservatives.
Flynn’s postwar political evolution is instructive. As a radio commentator and author of many books attacking socialism and all its works, he moved decisively and formally to the right, becoming associated with the Committee for Constitutional Government and other conservative and anti-Communist organizations. Unlike many on the right, he remained a noninterventionist during the Cold War years, opposing the Korean War, warning against the Vietnam quagmire, and predicting that the Communist empire would ultimately be impaled on its own sword. He ended his public career in 1960, at the age of 79: when he died in 1964, his work was largely forgotten, and the legacy of America First was disdained or ignored by the new right of William F. Buckley, Jr., and the ex-Commie intellectuals grouped around National Review, who were embarked on an interventionist crusade of their own.
The course of Flynn’s development as a writer and ideologue illustrates perfectly the primacy of foreign policy views in determining the evolution of a given individual or political movement. From the time he served as an advisor to Senator Nye’s committee to investigate war profits in World War I, to his radio broadcast of July 30, 1950, when he warned against defending French colonialism in Indochina, his views on domestic matters changed while non-interventionism in foreign affairs was a constant. So it was with most of the Midwestern progressives in Congress, such as Senators Wheeler, Nye, Hiram Johnson, and others.
I want to turn, now, to another aspect of this subject, and that is the question of why the America First movement failed in spite of its popular support. The majority of the American people didn’t want war: the elites wanted war, and they got it. Why? There were three main reasons for the defeat of the non-interventionists, three areas of weakness in a movement which otherwise had the resources and the level of organization to win.
The first reason for their failure is that America First failed to even mount a credible effort to take over the Republican party. The analysis of the Midwestern progressives that the “war trust,” an Anglophilic cabal of bankers and mandarins of high finance, was behind the war drive was vividly dramatized by the victory of Wendell Wilkie at the 1939 Republican national convention, when Wall Street packed the convention with their bought-and-paid-for delegates. The defeat of the antiwar Senator Robert A. Taft meant that the America Firsters had lost their last chance to take the White House and cut off the head of the interventionist monster. Americans still wanted to stay out of the war, if it was at all possible, but there was no way for them to express this politically, faced as they were with two internationalist candidates. The America First Committee, at one of its last national committee meetings before Pearl Harbor, had planned to enter candidates in the upcoming primary elections of both parties, but the turn toward electoral politics came too late.
The second reason for the failure of America First was that they failed to guard the “back door” to war. Even if the AFC had turned to electoral politics earlier, the method by which Roosevelt finally dragged us, kicking and screaming, into the conflict was a strategy the AFC was woefully unprepared for. That strategy entailed provoking the Japanese into attacking the United States in response to an American economic blockade. As Wayne G. Cole, the author of the first and only history of the America First movement, points out: “Isolationism took shape as Americans looked across the Atlantic toward Europe: those patterns blurred a bit when they looked westward across the Pacific toward Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan, and China.”
While isolationists in Congress opposed any attempt to get us into war on behalf of China during the Sino-Japanese conflict, some anti-interventionists, says Cole, “unintentionally played into the hands of those whose hard-line approaches eventually provoked Japan into striking against the United States. Some nationalistic isolationists, particularly from the Far West, took hard-line views in opposition to the Japanese. That was the case with Senator Hiram Johnson in California.”
The populist movement from which Senator Johnson built his political base was openly anti-Japanese. Prominent among Johnson’s California supporters were members of the Asian Exclusion League, which advocated legislation keeping Japanese out of the state and forbidding them to own property. Anti-Japanese racism was undoubtedly a major factor in the America Firsters’ lack of response to the President’s war moves in Asia and this ultimately proved their undoing.
The third major reason for the failure of the America First Committee was that the isolationists fell victim to the Smear Bund and government repression. The campaign against the isolationist movement, coordinated out of the White House and conducted by a plethora of government agencies and private groups working in tandem, was an exercise in character assassination unparalleled in the history of this country. At the head of the Smear Bund was the President himself, who did not lose any opportunity to link the AFC with the Nazis and their agents in America. Before Pearl Harbor, this campaign was conducted by the professional smear artists, such as John Roy Carlson, the newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, the pro-communist front groups, such as the “Friends of Democracy,” along with the interventionist organizations such as William Allen White’s committee and the Fight for Freedom group. Supplementing these efforts were covert operations carried out by British intelligence against the AFC and designed to aid the interventionists. The President was eager to get something on the AFC, and he badgered J. Edgar Hoover to investigate the committee’s income in an attempt to link them to the Nazis. FBI agents infiltrated the AFC, attended meetings, examined Committee records, and came up with nothing much to the President’s chagrin.
The lesson of history is there to be learned, if and when we are ready and willing to learn it. The AFC was smeared relentlessly by the opposition, and yet its chief spokesman and most famous partisan, Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh, was allowed to make a widely publicized address in which he singled out “the Jews” as one of the main organized groups pushing us into war. John T. Flynn was outraged, he had done it without anyone vetting the speech in advance, and Norman Thomas quit the committee as a result: the interventionists, for their part, were delighted, and they took full advantage of the opening provided by Lindbergh. The AFC was smeared as being pro-Nazi, and its effectiveness considerably reduced.
If we can learn from the mistakes of the past, we can build for the future. For the legacy of America First is our legacy: it is the heritage of all those who see war as the health of the state, and our policy of global intervention as the main obstacle to the restoration of our old Republic. We must know where we’ve been so that we know where we are going: and that is why any study of the AFC is not just an interesting bit of history, but a subject we must master in order to make sense out of what is happening today.