Donald Trump had already emerged as the likely presidential nominee of the Republican Party back in April when he gave a foreign policy speech pledging that “America First” would be “the major and overriding theme of my administration.”
It was a phrase guaranteed to prompt a reaction. Surely the two words sounded good together, but where had we heard them together before? And then, once again, the phrase stood out on Friday — front and center in President Trump’s inaugural address:
“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first — America first.”
As a businessman, Trump has been famous for nothing so much as his penchant for brand-building and promotion. As a candidate, he rediscovered a slogan others had used (Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign had buttons that said “Let’s Make America Great Again”) and made it his own.
He now appears to be doing something very similar with “America First,” a battle cry with more than a little history behind it. Assuming he is aware of at least some of that history, Trump is demonstrating his confidence that his adoption of a phrase can supersede its past.
The phrase made an appearance with an exclamation point (“America First!”) as the slogan of Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign in 2000. Buchanan had been an aide to Reagan and a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and sought the Republican nomination for himself twice in the 1990s. But in the millennial year, Buchanan shifted his attention to the Reform Party.
Along the way, Buchanan proposed pulling out of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in addition to opposing military intervention overseas.
Trump, too, briefly sought the 2000 Reform Party nomination. In an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Trump alluded to a book Buchanan had written arguing that the U.S. was beguiled by Great Britain into opposing Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany in World War II. (The book was titled: Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War.)
Trump told NBC’s Tim Russert that Buchanan was “a Hitler lover” and the choice of “the really staunch-right wacko vote.”
For many, Buchanan’s isolationism and revisionist views of World War II harked back to the America First Committee, the largest national organization opposing U.S. involvement in World War II prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Formally organized by students at Yale in 1940, it attracted a wide variety of activists and was bankrolled by several major corporate leaders. Automaker Henry Ford was on its board for a time.
Most in the AFC wanted to avoid seeing the U.S. drawn into the European war the way it had been dragged into World War I in 1917. But some of the group’s leading lights also saw efforts to involve the U.S. against Nazi Germany as a plot led by the British and by “the Jewish races” — a phrase used by the AFC’s most famous spokesman, Charles Lindbergh, the aviator-cum-national hero.
In April of this year, Williams College professor Susan Dunn wrote for CNN that it was “extremely unfortunate” that Trump “chose to brand his foreign policy with the noxious slogan ‘America First,’ the name of the isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler.”
The AFC, and opposition to entering World War II, all but vanished after Pearl Harbor, and Lindbergh retreated from public life. But some of the AFC’s other major figures later emerged as born-again internationalists, supporting the United Nations and other forms of global cooperation.
While the AFC was the most prominent promulgator of “America First” in memory, it was not the first: The phrase had gained political cachet during World War I as well.
In 1916, Woodrow Wilson was struggling to win a second term in the White House, and he was no better than an even bet against Republican challenger Charles Evans Hughes.
The Great War was raging on the Continent, and Wilson leaned toward helping Great Britain and France. But such an alliance was vigorously opposed by many Americans — especially German and Irish immigrants and their descendants.
Wilson ran on a platform of strict neutrality. His most famous slogan was “He kept us out of war,” a boast that would turn ironic when he asked Congress for a declaration of war just a month after his second inauguration. But the 1916 Wilson campaign also used the theme “America First” on printed flyers and posters, tapping into national pride as well as isolationist sentiment.