'America First' - A History Lesson

05/13/2016 03:10 pm ET Updated May 13, 2017

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's first serious foreign policy speech made clear that his approach will be based on the idea of putting "America First" in all his decisions. As the noted conservative columnist and Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer noted, on the surface, "America First" would seem to be a hard theme to argue with, but also an empty and even dangerous assertion:

"Classically populist and invariably popular, it is nonetheless quite fraught. On the one hand, it can be meaningless--isn't every president trying to advance American interests? Surely, Truman didn't enter the Korean War for the sake of Koreans, but from the conviction that intervention was essential for American security."

Other commentators found that the policy prescriptions Trump offered under the "America First" banner were so contradictory that it was hard to understand who or what, exactly, was really on "First" in the Trumpian world view. As they put it, the remarks "exposed a series of inconsistencies":

"Trump lambasted President Barack Obama for overextending U.S. military resources abroad without a clear-eyed purpose or strategy. He also said the Obama administration's fecklessness gave the Islamic State group the space to grow and prosper.

"But moments later, he sent conflicting signals about his own prescriptions for confronting the world's most notorious terrorist organization, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

"While he promised 'ISIS will be gone if I'm elected president,' he also said he was not inclined to deploy U.S. troops for combat."

Ordinarily, such contradictions would be enough to seriously undermine a serious presidential candidacy, but Trump is no ordinary candidate, so it is probably important also to examine more closely the overriding theme of his foreign policy approach to get to the roots of his thinking. We will find that "America First" has deep roots indeed in American foreign policy debates and thinking, and that it carries a meaning far beyond the simple two words.

As Charles Krauthammer observed, "America First does have a history. In 1940, when Britain was fighting for its life and Churchill was begging for U.S. help, it was the name of the group most virulently opposed to U.S. intervention. It disbanded--totally discredited--four days after Pearl Harbor. "

The original America First Movement began in the late 1930s as war broke out again in Europe, against the backdrop of the re-emergence of the strain of isolationism that initially held Wilsonian America back from engagement in World War I, until attacks on the high seas forced the country's hand.

Started at Yale University, the movement attracted contributions from the likes of future President Gerald Ford, future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, and even a young John F. Kennedy. Trusting that the Western Hemisphere would be virtually impregnable from attacks by the Axis powers, America First adherents argued that national energy should be focused on building a "Fortress America." The most famous advocate for the America First Movement was the aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, who argued that no successful attack on America from Europe could be carried out by air, and to the general public seemed to have the credibility to make that assertion.

Lindbergh gave several radio addresses in 1939-40 and two major nationally broadcast speeches in 1941 (after the European war had moved into France and England) promoting America First. His April 23 speech focused primarily on attacking England for its efforts to draw America into what, Lindbergh believed, was a "hopeless" struggle:

"I do not blame England for this hope, or for asking for our assistance. But we now know that she declared a war under circumstances which led to the defeat of every nation that sided with her, from Poland to Greece. We know that, in the desperation of war, England promised to all those nations armed assistance that she could not send. We know that she misinformed them, as she has misinformed us, concerning her state of preparation, her military strength, and the progress of the war."

Lindbergh went on to use language that strongly echoes Trump's current rhetoric about the state of the country and the views of what President Nixon used to call the "silent majority," a phrase borrowed early by Trump. For example:

"We have weakened ourselves for many months ... While we should have been concentrating on American defense we have been forced to argue over foreign quarrels. We must turn our eyes and our faith back to our own country before it is too late.

"During the last several years I have traveled over this country from one end to the other. I have talked to many hundreds of men and women, and I have letters from tens of thousands more who feel the same way as you and I. Most of these people have no influence or power. Most of them have no means of expressing their convictions except by their vote, which has always been against this war. They are the citizens who have had to work too hard at their daily jobs to organize political meetings. Hitherto, they have relied upon their vote to express their feelings; but now they find that it is hardly remembered except in the oratory of a political campaign."

It was Lindbergh's second major 1941 speech; however, it earned the America First cause disrepute and presaged its demise after the Pearl Harbor attack late that year. (Ironically, this speech was delivered on September 11, a day that would later prove the continental U.S. was not immune to foreign air power--although of a much different sort than even Lindbergh imagined).

In this Des Moines, Iowa, address, Lindbergh made a fateful reference to an unholy triad of forces he asserted were dragging America into war: "The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration."

He had already attacked the British and was a well-known opponent of the president, but in singling out Jewish interests, Lindbergh stepped over the line toward blatant anti-Semitism:

"No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy both for us and for them. Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.

"Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastations. A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not.

Trump, of course, has been a frequent critic of the media (which he has also exploited) and pointedly keeps reporters in fenced "pens" at his rallies, watched by security guards. But he has not, like Lindbergh, identified the press pejoratively as Jewish, but just as biased liberals (as does Ted Cruz). Trump's speech contained no anti-Semitism, although the Anti-Defamation League criticized its adoption of Lindbergh's "America First" theme because of is historic association, and called on him to stop using the new slogan.

The gist of Trump' address, however, did reflect the same critique of European allies (i.e., NATO) and strains of isolationism that Lindbergh frequently called upon. For example:

"It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a western democracy.

"First, our resources are totally over extended. Our manufacturing trade deficit with the world is now approaching $1 trillion a year.

"We're rebuilding other countries while weakening our own.

"Secondly, our allies are not paying their fair share, and I've been talking about this recently a lot. Our allies must contribute toward their financial, political, and human costs, have to do it, of our tremendous security burden. But many of them are simply not doing so.

"They look at the United States as weak and forgiving and feel no obligation to honor their agreements with us. In NATO, for instance, only 4 of 28 other member countries besides America, are spending the minimum required 2 percent of GDP on defense.

"The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves. We have no choice."

Trump went on to link his "America First" policy theme to his long-standing positions regarding deporting undocumented residents and stopping the flow of Muslim immigrants or visitors:

"There are scores of recent migrants inside our borders charged with terrorism. For every case known to the public, there are dozens and dozens more. We must stop importing extremism through senseless immigration policies. ... A pause for reassessment will help us to prevent the next San Bernardino or frankly, much worse."

Again, in the same vein as Lindbergh, Trump called for a rejection of policies favored by the established elites:

"Finally, we must develop a foreign policy based on American interests.

"We have to look to new people because many of the old people frankly don't know what they're doing, even though they may look awfully good writing in The New York Times or being watched on television. We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism. The nation-state remains the true foundation for peace and harmony."

Charles Krauthammer summed up Trump's remarks as continuing the underlying view of conservative isolationism from Lindbergh through Pat Buchanan and Rand Paul. But the columnist went on to raise a key question, even for conservative, isolationist voters:

"Trump's version, however, is inconsistent and often contradictory. After all, he pledged to bring stability to the Middle East. How do you do that without presence, risk, and expenditures (financial and military)? He attacked Obama for letting Iran become a 'great power.' But doesn't resisting that automatically imply engagement?"

Krauthammer's question deserves an answer: it is that the "America First" slogan is so dangerously seductive because all its contradictions can be justified by simple application of the slogan, regardless of whether they are inconsistent with one another! Going hard and strong after ISIS certainly sounds like putting American interest first; but so, in isolation, does keeping U.S. troops out of the Middle East. To make his "deal" with the American people, Trump is both "selling" isolationism, and counting on isolationism when it comes to coherent thought.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that the "test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." With respect to Trump's "America First" platform, maybe he was wrong just this once!