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Published:August 24th, 2008 18:48 EST
History Cafe - Episode 6: American First in WWII

History Cafe - Episode 6: American First in WWII

By Krzys Wasilewski

*Audio coming soon!

Not long time ago, we reviewed Patrick J. Buchanan`s book entitled Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War. In short, the author argues that both world wars were of Great Britain`s making purely to save its global domination. Far from revolutionary, Buchanan`s thesis harks back to the times of the America First Committee, the largest anti-war organization in United States history.


In the 1930s, America and Europe had drifted as far from each other as possible. While Nazi Germany was arming its people and threatening neighbors, the United States began to enjoy the first fruits of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt`s New Deal policies. From New York to Kansas to California there was a general consensus that, in case of another great conflict in Europe, America would not get involved. The Arsenal of Democracy, as the president dubbed his country, was closed.


But by the fall of 1940, the mood had changed. Hitler`s iron grip stretched from Poland to France while powerful Great Britain teetered on the brink of annihilation. German air fighters were bombing London and other cities day and night, and it seemed only a matter of time when England would call for an armistice. Not surprisingly, people in the United States felt insecure, asking themselves whether American boys would have to rescue Europe once again. Aviator Charles Lindbergh, World War I General Robert Wood, and Senator Gerald P. Nye had no doubts that their country would stay neutral.


A group of Yale students felt the same. On September 4, 1940, a law undergraduate, R. Douglas Stuart, Jr., founded the America First Committee (AFC), an organization that was to promote isolationism and warn the public against the horrors of Europe`s war. Soon he was joined by Lindbergh, Wood, Nye, and other experienced individuals who turned an obscure committee into a nationally recognized institution whose voice was heard all over the country.


America was not the policeman of the world, stated the AFC. Lindbergh, who became the organization`s most recognized member, said that the United States should invest its resources in defending itself, not other countries. "Shall we now give up the independence we have won, and crusade abroad in a utopian attempt to force our ideas on the rest of the world?" asked Lindbergh, "or shall we use air power, and the other advances of modern warfare, to guard and strengthen the independence of our nation?"


Lindbergh`s reasoning quickly won hearts and minds of many Americans. Sure, Adolf Hitler and his allies were criminals, claimed the AFC, but so were the British and French who treated Africans and Asians from their colonies no better than the Nazis treated Slavs and Jews in conquered countries. The United States had no business in fighting Germany in order to save the British Empire, especially since Hitler could be the only force to prevent the Soviets from dominating the world.


The America First Committee garnered people of all political affiliations and beliefs. The core was formed by conservatives in the mold of Senator Nye, but virulent anti-war and anti-British sentiments of the AFC attracted both Socialists and Fascists. At its peak, the committee boasted some 800,000 members scattered across the entire country although most of them were located in the Midwest. This rainbow coalition of farmers and millionaires, southerners and Yankees, became a cultural phenomenon previously unknown in US history.


Yet, not everyone appreciated this diversity. Commenting on the AFC, the Chicago Daily News wrote that "a crazier coalition was never assembled! Come lately German Nazis and Italian Fascists, Communists, pacifists, professional Anglophobes, Socialists, anti-Semites, rabid partisans who hate Roosevelt more than they hate Hitler, ostrich isolationists and a scattering of timid citizens afraid of they don`t know what - all rally around "to attack and calumniate the United States government in a moment of national crisis."


Perceived as aggressively anti-Semitic, the AFC was gradually marginalized by the national media. Lindbergh and other members were invited to some radio programs, as well as tour the country with their rousing speeches, but their message could not make it to the broader public. Faced with the wall of indifference from the mainstream media, Lindbergh accused Jews for the AFC`s misfortunes. "Their [Jews`] greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government," said the aviator in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11, 1941.


The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was a nail in the committee`s coffin. Until then, the AFC repeated that keeping America from the war would serve the country; now, no patriot could call for isolationism. Four days after the treacherous attack, the America First Committee met for the last time and voted to dissolve itself. The United States was in a state of war with the Axis Powers and everyone had to defend his or her country. Even Lindbergh asked for a military post, but President Roosevelt declined his request.


Although the AFC was no more, its former members still believed that the war could have been avoided. In its last statement, the committee wrote: "Our principles were right. Had they been followed, war could have been avoided. No good purpose can now be served by considering what might have been, had our objectives been attained." Until his last day, Senator Nye had no doubts that the war "was just what Britain had planned for us."


Was the America First Committee right? For Patrick J. Buchanan and his followers, both world wars could have been avoided if only Great Britain had respected the needs of Germany. Even though America`s losses were relatively small - 418,000 casualties compared to the Soviet Union`s 20 million and Poland`s 6 million - for those who lost their loved ones no statistics could relieve their pain. Yet, World War II was the conflict where neutrality gave the green light to the enslavement, and in some instances extermination, of hundreds of millions of people. It was the war where brave nations had to oppose the forces of evil, regardless of the price.



That`s all for this week edition of History Cafe. Let us know what you think about our podcast and don`t forget to visit us next week, when we will try to answer why World War II affected Greece and other countries of the region.


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