When Donald Trump laid out his foreign policy agenda on Wednesday, April 27, many of the critical commentators latched on to his statement, “America first will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”
“Trump’s New Slogan Has Old Baggage From Nazi Era” was the headline of a Bloomberg column. “America first” and the idea it represented — American neutrality towards the Nazis — has been largely banished from respectable discourse, the column said, in an attempt to discredit Trump.
Critics suggested that Trump was advocating a discredited policy that had been soundly rejected by Americans before WWII. It’s not that simple.
The fact is that until Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans were genuinely divided between interventionism and isolationism. Millions of patriotic Americans believed that it was not in the nation’s interest to get involved again in European turmoil. Some polls showed that in June 1940, American opinion was split two-to-one in favor of staying out of the war, even if it meant Britain losing.
Started on September 4, 1940, the America First Committee, which favored nonintervention in Europe’s war, had 450 chapters across the country at its peak.
America First’s most outspoken leader was Charles Lindbergh, famous for having been the first to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1927.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, Lindbergh became active in the war effort.
As for America First, it was dissolved on December 10, 1941, three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
I’m not a big fan of Trump, but attempts to discredit him by his reference to America First are off-base. The hard-headed philosophy of putting America first in foreign policy decisions is not obsolete and Trump’s foreign police prescription is not isolationist.
“No country has ever prospered that failed to put its own interests first. Our friends and enemies put their interests above ours, and we must start doing the same,” Trump said on Wednesday.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the same thing, though in a different way. “In a democracy as pluralistic as ours, the absence of an articulated ‘national interest’ either produces a fertile ground for those wishing to withdraw from the world or creates a vacuum to be filled by parochial groups and transitory pressures,”she said.
Ensuring a nation’s survival is a critical obligation of a leader in foreign policy. You will not be a successful leader of America if you recoil from the urgency of protecting the national interest, of making America first.