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At its height, the America First Committee had 800,000 members, with membership concentrated in the Midwest. Senators Nye (a founding member), Wheeler, and David Walsh (D-MA) were members, as were future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, and businessman and notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford. One of the chief spokesmen for AFC was famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. After the murder of his child, Lindbergh left the United States for Great Britain and made frequent visits to Nazi Germany. A stalwart isolationist, Lindbergh saw in Germany not only a military opponent that would be almost impossible to defeat, but a society in some ways superior to that of America.
Lindbergh wrote in his journal in 1938 that “I did not find real freedom until I came to Europe. The strange thing is that of all the European countries, I found the most personal freedom in Germany, with England next, and then France.” Lindbergh was unmoved by the plight of European Jews under the Nazis, even after Kristallnacht. While certainly anti-Semitism was not a belief of every isolationist, it became an unfortunate hallmark of the movement even as Nazi aggression towards civilians intensified. In September of 1941, Lindbergh went so far as to insinuate that American Jews in favor of European intervention had the best interest of Jewish Europeans rather than America in mind.
In 1941 Senator Nye, not yet tired of investigations and hearings, launched an inquiry into the role of Hollywood in agitating for war and producing pro-democracy films. At an AFC rally, Nye called Hollywood “the most gigantic engines of propaganda in existence to rouse war fever in America and plunge the nation to her destruction.” As he listed studio heads, in a dark moment of American history, the audience cried, “Jews!” Nye went on to claim Hollywood was comprised of refugees from occupied nations and British actors who agitated for American intervention. His committee called Wendell Willkie, 1940 pro-intervention Republican candidate, who asserted that anti-Nazi films actually reflected the sentiments of the American people and offered witnesses to the committee to testify on Nazi crimes. Nye’s committee declined, and after several weeks concluded without a report or ever reconvening. Rather than damage Hollywood, the hearings gave voice to a variety of pro-intervention anti-Nazi activists.
The battle over isolationism and interventionism largely culminated in the fight over Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program. 1940 saw Roosevelt achieve an unprecedented third term as president, a campaign in which he vowed to attempt to avoid war. By 1941 public opinion had shifted from isolationism to over 60% of Americans favoring aid to Great Britain. For isolationists, though, important questions hung around Lend-Lease. Would American ships transport goods? Would the American Navy protect them? For some, such as Burton Wheeler, the Lend-Lease act dripped with hypocrisy, “If it is our war we ought to have the courage to go over and fight it. But it is not our war…” Wheeler’s most blistering critique came later when he said of Lend-Lease “the New Deal’s ‘Triple A’ foreign policy [would] plow under every fourth American boy … Never before has the United States given to one man [Roosevelt] the power to strip this nation of its defenses. Never before has a Congress coldly and flatly been asked to abdicate.”
Wheeler wasn’t alone in his disdain for Lend-Lease and the potential excesses granted a single individual. Senator Arthur Vandenberg, known as an internationalist today, but an isolationist before the war called Lend-Lease “war by proxy.” Congressman Hamilton Fish (R-NY) who had received the Silver Star in WWI said in a speech in March of 1941 that “I do not believe the President has the right to order the convoying of ships into the war zones without the consent of Congress. The use of convoys, on the authority of the President, would be a deliberate attempt to drag us into war, and would make President Roosevelt the foremost repudiator of his word in American history. It would constitute a brazen betrayal of the millions of loyal Americans who had faith in his assurances and plighted word and voted for him. Somewhere between 83 and 90 per cent of the people, according to the various Gallup polls, are opposed to our entrance into war unless attacked.” Despite this, with public approval, Lend-Lease passed and military material flowed across the Atlantic to Great Britain (with a token amount of aid to Stalin).
On December 4 of 1941 the Chicago Tribune ran details of a leaked top secret war plan, code named Rainbow Five. Roosevelt, who had pledged not to send American boys to die, was exposed as having drafted a plan that to create aten-million-strong army to confront the Nazis in 1943. Massachusetts Republican Congressman George Holden Tinkham, who had compared Roosevelt to Hitler and Stalin over the Destroyers for Bases program in 1940 (“there is no difference between his [FDR’s] action from either Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin.”) stated Roosevelt “betrayed” the American people.
The America First Committee and its supporters, including Lindbergh, Kennedy, and Nye persisted though 1941. In an anecdote, reported by historian Richard Ketchum in American Heritage Magazine in 1989, Senator Nye was speaking at an America First event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on December 7, 1941. As Nye accused the Roosevelt administration of “picking a war” with Japan, he was handed a piece of paper that informed him the Empire of Japan had declared war on the United States, and that the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor had suffered a surprise strike from the Japanese Navy. Nye remarked to the crowd “I have the worst news that I have had in twenty years to report, the Japanese Imperial Government at four P.M. announced a state of war between it and the United States and Britain.” When asked about Pearl Harbor by reporters, Nye responded “It sounds terribly fishy to me.”
On December 10, 1941, the America First Committee dissolved. Shortly beforehand, on December 8 of 1941, Congress voted for war with Japan. The vote was nearly unanimous and the sole vote against war came not from a member of America First. It was not even cast by an isolationist. Instead, Progressive Montana Republican Jeannette Rankin, the first woman in Congress, an advocate for the 19th Amendment, and a lifelong pacifist cast the no vote, just as she had in 1917 against the First World War.
James Legee, Visiting Lecturer, Framingham State University Department of Political Science
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