The War against World War II
The America First Committee, ever since its inception at Yale University, has been plagued by accusations of being anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi, and Communist. However, Ruth Sarles provides evidence in her book, A Story of America First, that the America First Committee was in fact, “as American as the hot dog.”1 Unfounded accusations by interventionists did not sway the American public, the majority of which answered with a resounding “no” to involvement in World War II. Background information on the committee and its members gives readers a chance to glance at the inner workings of the once 800,000-strong America First Committee. This book serves as an account of the AFC’s actions as well as hard proof that America First was fully and completely behind the United States and her interests.
A myriad of groups and interests constituted the America First Committee. Isolationists, continental Americans, internationalists, and pacifists were some of those who made up the beginnings of America First. Among these groups, General Robert E. Woods, R. Douglas Stuart, Jr., and Colonel Lindbergh emerged as leaders. Despite its seemingly loose formation, America First was strictly exclusive. In its preamble, it specifically states: “Membership in the America First Committee is open to all patriotic American citizens. We exclude from our rolls Fascists, Nazis, Communists, and members of the Bund.”2 In order to organize its nation-wide members, a National Committee was built to direct the movement against intervention. Purposefully selected for a diversity of background in labor, business, politics, and economics, approximately eighty leaders were put in place to encourage membership in communities across the country.
Because of its vulnerable state as a new organization and its provocative stance on the war, America First endured heavy accusations from interventionists who hoped to weaken the immense support the AFC had. In fact, because of its unique position as a non-radical group, it offered people a “cloak of respectability and prestige.”3 America First simply saw World War II as the first and foremost threat to the country as a whole. Moreover, the majority of the nation agreed with the AFC—in hundreds of polls, the results all showed American’s reluctance to enter the war. However, interventionists attempted to smear the name of the America First Committee by associating it with anti-Semitism, criticizing it for discriminating against potential Jewish leaders, especially after Colonel Lindbergh’s Des Moines speech in which he stated that both Jews and the British, in pursuing their own interests, were pulling America into the war; as a result, Lindbergh was immediately branded an anti-Semitic. In reality, he was only stating his “understanding of any Jewish desire for the crushing of the persecutors of their race.”4 Also, there were few Jewish leaders in the committee because Jewish two leaders, Lessing Rosenwald and Florence Kahn, retired. After their retirements, the AFC made every attempt to secure leaders who would speak for the Jews in opposition to the war, but to no avail. America First was also accused of taking bribes from Nazis in order to persuade America to stay out of the war, therefore branding it and all of its members pro-Nazi. These attacks were untrue, as “the National Committee had made the rule that all contributions of over $100 were to be investigated before acceptance. No contribution of over $100 was ever brought into question.”5
Colonel Lindbergh began working with America First in 1941. He campaigned heavily, traveling to give speeches, and hosting radio addresses. Although he was offered the position of chairman for the National Committee by General Wood, he declined, worried that the increased amount of work and time needed to organize the AFC would detract from his work as a speaker. Colonel Lindbergh became the “popular hero”6 of America First, drawing in thousands of new members and working tirelessly for the cause. However, this dramatic increase in members and awareness came with a price. Colonel Lindbergh was blasted as an anti-Semitist, marring the America First Committee’s name. In Congress, the antiwar bloc began to move as well, with seventy-one members meeting together to determine their goals and methods of anti-intervention. The America First Committee had a give-and-take relationship with Congress, cooperating while remaining separate to preserve integrity in order to further the antiwar movement.
Members of America First naturally varied on their opinions as to why America should stay out of the war. For example, Reverend Beckman stated that the “horrible war will crush and distort the human spirit, deprave and bestialize it,”7 while Senator Brooks espoused that “the destiny of America is to renew her faith in her own [government], to govern and defend herself, to remain free and independent…”8 These two opposing views within the committee exemplify how diverse America First was, and how the multiple facets to its opposition lent themselves to the committee’s successes. Its successes included building up national support, working to maintain its integrity when voicing the opinions of its members, and resisting from participating in the slander that was so liberally used against it. However, these successes ended in December of 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor. On December 11, the National Committee of the AFC passed a resolution that would dissolve all chapters, choosing to unify the nation in a time of official war.
Ruth Sarles clearly states that the America First Committee was an organization wholly dedicated to protecting America from danger. In this case, it recognized the dangerous results of World War II involvement. In order to do this, it went head to head with interventionists, who were just as patriotic as the members of America First were. However, because of the fierce rivalry between two polar ideologies, malicious rumors emerged regarding the AFC, connecting it to anti-Semitism, Nazism, and Communism. For example, the committee came under suspicion of sympathizing with Nazi agents when an instance occurred where it “accepted several bags of franked speeches….delivered by a House of Representatives truck from the office of Prescott Dennett, under suspicion as a Nazi agent.”9 Although the incident was cleared before a grand jury, the AFC’s name had already been smeared, and the true story had not been told, until Ruth Sarles’s book. She remains adamant in her position on the issue of America First’s “questionable” motives. Her mission is to relate clearly and precisely what the America First Committee did during its brief existence in order to prove its true patriotism. She supplements her thesis with a rational tone and sharp focus on this issue at hand, emphasizing the innocence of the AFC’s actions and decisions.
With her extensive pacifistic background with the National Council for Prevention of War, Sarles found her niche in the America First Committee. Her position within the committee was the optimal site for first-hand information, but also created the opportunity for bias in any of her work written during this time. Her closeness to the committee might have resulted in over-emphasis on the AFC’s patriotic attributes while downplaying its failures. Sarles wrote her manuscript for A Story of America First in 1942, immediately following the AFC’s disbandment, ensuring that sources and information were current and accurate; however, the book was not published until 2003, which might have allowed for discrepancies in the final product. Written in the midst of the struggle between interventionists and isolationists, the concentration on social, economic, and psychological impacts of the war is a trait of the Progressive historiography of the time. Ruth Sarles even states, “America First showed that it was possible for individuals and groups of diametrically opposed political, social, and economic views to work together…”10 This is proof of the Progressive viewpoint of the time, which was preserved in her work.
In their reviews of A Story of America First, both Justin Raimondo and Stephen Sniegoski admire Sarles’s ability to provide a clear-cut vision of the essence of the America First Committee. In his review, “The Last Word on America First,” Justin Raimondo of The American Conservative praises her recreation of the mental atmosphere of pre-war America through her reports of “the long trail of contrived scandals, set-ups, and smear campaigns launched by the well-organized and lushly funded interventionist minority.”11 Regarding her account of Lindbergh’s Des Moines speech, Raimondo calls her “[dutiful]”12 in her recording of Lindbergh’s defense. With virtually no criticisms for her book, Raimondo even goes so far as to side with the America First Committee, stating, “Like liberals of today, who hate SUVs more than imperialism…the leftists of yesteryear helped to marginalize antiwar sentiment.”13 He applauds the work members did for the committee, but at the same time, blames them for being “far too restrained and noble for their own good.”14 He implies that America First’s pride and sense of dignity prevented it from being as effective as it could have been, perhaps even contributing, in part, to its downfall. Raimondo also ties the publication of Sarles’s book to the worsening relations in the Middle East during that year, in 2003. He reminds the public of their right to resist, and of the “conservative heroes of the America First generation”15 who bravely opposed American imperialism.
Likewise, Stephen J. Sniegoski also provides a glowing review of A Story of America First in his article, “Setting the Isolationist Record Straight” in The Occidental Quarterly. He defends the AFC’s stance, calling it “the traditional foreign policy of the United States from the time of the Founding Fathers…”16 He also commends Ruth Sarles herself, for her objectivity “despite her close connection to America First, Sarles wrote [with]…Olympian detachment.”17 His admiration shows the credibility of Sarles’s work and writing, and how her words should not be discarded as a pathetic attempt at defending a committee that was defeated long ago. He recognizes that the accusations against the AFC for being anti-Semitic parallel situations in the modern world, a world where the public has lost sight of America’s foundations in the midst of twisting politics and globalization. Sniegoski laments how far the United States of America has strayed from the fundamental republican ideas that the America First Committee captured so beautifully.
Ruth Sarles maintains such a cool aloofness throughout A Story of America First that bias is negligible and the text is factual. Despite having admitted to not being able to follow up with the main participants in the America First Committee because of the outbreak of World War II, Sarles’s descriptions are well-backed with evidence of letters, reports, and press releases. She thoroughly researched General Woods’ and Stuart’s “personal files”18 in her mission of creating a true story of what the America First Committee was about and its actions as a result of their ideas. Though her tone and text might sound completely and resolutely factual, Sarles still manages to slip in her own commentary, attributing the strength and under-handed methods of the opposition to the rise and power of the America First Committee. Sarles’s unique position inside of the committee itself gave her exclusive access to information that was sensitive during its existence. However, because of its short life span, Sarles was able to recount and share all of her knowledge with the public after the AFC dissolved. Despite her first-hand experience of the vicious slander against the AFC, Sarles does not let any of her own emotion, indignation or otherwise, seep into her work. Her technique of coherent arguments and thoroughly qualified evidence lends itself to her success in asserting the America First Committee’s innocence.
In her attempt at clearing America First’s good name, Ruth Sarles deluges the book with facts and figures, and even dedicates one whole chapter to purely polls and their results. Nevertheless, she breaks the monotony with a photo essay in between chapters four and five. Her use of the photo essay greatly contributes to her descriptions of the leaders of the America First Committee, such as Colonel Lindbergh and General Wood19. The weight of their work is emphasized along with the weight the committee itself carried throughout its short-lived career. Sarles also emphasizes the evidence denying the accusations brought upon America First by interventionists while accentuating the blatant slander and manipulation used by those contesting the AFC’s stance. Her defense of the America First Committee serves as an effective means to clarify any confusion lingering from the previous decades of suspicion and malcontent. Through her rational defense and solid evidence, Ruth Sarles convinces the reader that the AFC was indeed an all-American committee dedicated to protecting the United States of America.
Throughout the course of the book, Ruth Sarles maintains that the 1940s was a tumultuous time, one defined by indecision in both the government and the public. This was a defining point in time, where the United States was forced to make the decision of whether or not it should enter the war. As a country, it had to weigh the pros and cons of entering the war—global versus domestic, imperialistic versus isolationistic—and decide on what ideals would shape and define the United States of America to the rest of the world. In order to do this, Sarles poses an insightful question: “Is our representative system, with its emphasis on sectional interests, adequate for the world of today?”20 America, in this time of chaos and confusion, experienced a kind of revelation—an epiphany that people should, in fact, be raising questions regarding the government’s actions. Especially with a matter so close to the people’s hearts, the America First Committee raised the alarm and informed the public on how much World War II would impact their day-to-day lives.
The America First Committee’s far outreach gave a voice to millions of Americans, as well as a reminder of the rights each citizen held and still holds today. Ruth Sarles uses this to show the fervent, frantic, and passionate atmosphere of this extraordinary period of time. She states, “America First showed that it was possible for individuals and groups of diametrically opposed political, social, and economic views to work together in the interests of social action.”21 No matter which group opposed it, the America First Committee gave Americans a reminder of their rights as American citizens. She also declares, “America First taught millions of people who had never before exercised their right of petition to use that privilege freely.”22 According to Ruth Sarles, the 1940s was not only a time of social, economical, and political conflict, but a time that celebrated the Bill of Rights. This vulnerability and the strength that emerged out of this period of vulnerability is what set aside the 1940s from the rest of the century.
In order to defend America First from decades of political stigma, Sarles tells of what went on in the minds of its leaders as they watched the committee grow into one of the most complex organizations in American history. Her accurate account of the AFC’s story and background provide unerring evidence that the events leading up to the 1940s created the perfect climate for the “rebellion against the label ideology that has colored the American scene for the last fifteen years.”23 The pending war and the resulting clash between interventionists and non-interventionists created a tension that would last until the end of the war.
1. Sarles, Ruth. A Story of America First. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2003. 1.
2. Sarles, Ruth. lviii.
3. Sarles, Ruth. 33.
4. Sarles, Ruth. 57.
5. Sarles, Ruth. 41.
6. Sarles, Ruth. 103.
7. Sarles, Ruth. 141
8. Sarles, Ruth. 141
9. Sarles, Ruth. 45.
10. Sarles, Ruth. lxi.
11. Raimondo, Justin. "The Last Word on America First." Rev. of A Story of America First. The American Conservative 19 May 2003: 25-27. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/archive/may-19-2003/. Web. 05 June 2013.
12. Raimondo, Justin. "The Last Word on America First." Rev. of A Story of America First. The American Conservative 19 May 2003: 25-27. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/archive/may-19-2003/. Web. 05 June 2013.
13. Raimondo, Justin. "The Last Word on America First." Rev. of A Story of America First. The American Conservative 19 May 2003: 25-27. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/archive/may-19-2003/. Web. 05 June 2013.
14. Raimondo, Justin. "The Last Word on America First." Rev. of A Story of America First. The American Conservative 19 May 2003: 25-27. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/archive/may-19-2003/. Web. 05 June 2013.
15. Raimondo, Justin. "The Last Word on America First." Rev. of A Story of America First. The American Conservative 19 May 2003: 25-27. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/archive/may-19-2003/. Web. 05 June 2013.
16. Sniegoski, Stephen J. "Setting the Isolationist Record Straight." Rev. of A Story of America First. The Occidental Quarterly 2003: 73-80. http://toqonline.com/archives/v3n4/TOQv3n4Sniegoski.pdf. Web. 05 June 2013.
17. Sniegoski, Stephen J. "Setting the Isolationist Record Straight." Rev. of A Story of America First. The Occidental Quarterly 2003: 73-80. http://toqonline.com/archives/v3n4/TOQv3n4Sniegoski.pdf. Web. 05 June 2013.
18. Sarles, Ruth. lxi.
19. Sarles, Ruth. 98.
20. Sarles, Ruth. lxi.
21. Sarles, Ruth. lxi.
22. Sarles, Ruth. lxi.
23. Sarles, Ruth. lxi.