What Does It Mean to Be ‘America First’?
Prominent columnist Josh Hammer is mistaken to argue that the term “America First” is a mere “basic analytical prism” that can be interpreted at face value.
What’s in a name? That’s the question Newsweek’s editor-at-large Josh Hammer pondered in an op-ed last week, examining the foreign policy of Donald Trump’s first term and recommending which direction he should continue in a second.
Zeroing in on the slogan “America First,” which has come to be one of the defining adages of Donald Trump’s reformation of the Republican Party, Hammer urges that the moniker must come to represent a forceful interventionism without do-gooder pretensions, and not fall victim to a “doctrinaire isolationism” that looks “a lot more like Charles Lindbergh and the ‘America First Committee’ of old.”
Hammer is incorrect to say that the term “America First” is a “basic analytical prism” that can be interpreted at face-value. There’s a reason why it was banished from elite discourse for so many decades before its 2016 revival, why it frightens away figures like Bill Kristol and David Frum like garlic to a vampire.
It’s a term with a long history and a particular meaning. It’s not up for just anybody to grab.
The earliest iteration of America First originated, probably to the surprise of many modern readers, with the reelection campaign of Woodrow Wilson. For two years, as the First World War roiled Europe, Wilson had attempted a balancing act between the full neutrality demanded by folks like his Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan (who resigned in principled opposition) and others like Theodore Roosevelt who demanded immediate action.
Flanked on either side by the slogans “He Kept Us Out of War” and “America First,” Wilson was narrowly gifted a second term by an American public still very reluctant at the idea of sending their sons to European battlefields.
Five months later, his political future secured but his middle ground having become untenable, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. With one hundred thousand doughboys dead and buried by the time Versailles convened, Senator Hiram Johnson of California surveyed the landscape of the postwar United States:
We have engaged in a miserable misadventure stultifying our professions, and setting at naught our promises. We have punished no guilty; we have but brought misery and starvation and death to the innocent. We have garnered none of the fruits of the victory of war, but suffer the odium and infamy of undeclared warfare. We have sacrificed our own blood to no purpose, and into American homes have brought sorrow and anguish and suffering.
Johnson formed the nucleus of what Wilson called “the little group of willful men” opposing his proposed League of Nations. Adopting the one-time slogan of his erstwhile opponent with gusto, Johnson loudly campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920 under the America First banner. When he was defeated at the national convention in Chicago, that banner was hoisted up by the winner Warren Harding, whose promised “return to normalcy” away from war and internationalism garnered over 60 percent of the electorate.
By 1940, many Americans, especially in the heartland, had come to share Hiram Johnson’s verdict on the Great War as a disastrous hoodwink, a moment when, in the words of one veteran, “American soldiers were sent to war to save Wall Street’s mortgage on Europe.” And now they saw carnage destroying that continent for the second time in a generation, a titanic struggle between domestic fascism, international communism, and overseas colonialism.
Their response? This isn’t our fight.
The America First Committee was founded in September 1940 by a group of college students, and in less than a year grew to over 800,000 members, making it the largest antiwar organization in American history. Their promotional materials explain their motivation:
If we permit our country to become involved in the wars now raging in Europe, Asia and Africa, we face disastrous sacrifices—human, social and material. We risk the liberties of the United States in a conflict from which no nation can emerge truly victorious. Let us spare America from such an act of national folly.
They had heartfelt love for their country and the intelligence to see how war destroys domestic institutions of liberty. For that they were inaccurately smeared as “isolationists,” a slur still in use today, and illegally investigated by the Roosevelt administration’s FBI. But eighty years later, can anyone look at the Deep State behemoth that sits astride the Potomac and say they were wrong?
A note on Charles Lindbergh, whom Hammer calls out by name as a historical bogeyman. Let’s not shrink away from the facts: Lindbergh was an aviation pioneer whose demonstration of daring and endurance on his solo, transatlantic flight from New York to Paris made him a celebrated and renowned American folk hero. While never officially part of the America First Committee’s leadership, he was its most popular spokesman and an ardent critic of FDR’s ploys to pull America into the war through executive will. Yet despite Lindbergh’s bone-deep apprehension towards the war, following Pearl Harbor he flew fifty combat missions in the Pacific as a civilian consultant (a bitter Roosevelt refused to give him a military commision).
His stark views on race were more commonly shared during his lifetime, as unacceptable as they’d be considered now. But it would be wrong, as conservatives or historians, to allow presentism and unfair, liberal fictions to retroactively shame an American of great accomplishment.
After the Second World War, America First as a slogan and ethos withered as its last holdouts died out. Not until the end of the Cold War and after the specter of communism was extinguished—not with atom bombs but with economic calculation—did America First become infused with a spirit of revival.
Virginian and Korean War veteran Douglas Wilder, the first black man elected as a governor since Reconstruction, briefly sought the Oval Office in 1992 with the slightly altered slogan “Put America First.” His idea was to refocus the United States away from concerns on the other side of the world and instead redirect its energies to eliminating waste in the federal budget and implementing middle class tax cuts. Remember when those ideas were acceptable in the Democratic Party?
But the man who truly revived America First, who by the end of the decade embodied its sentiment as much as any other person in U.S. history, was a cofounder of The American Conservative, Pat Buchanan.
Frustrated by incumbent George H.W. Bush’s sellouts on taxes, “civil rights,” and his invasion of Iraq, the longtime syndicated columnist and presidential speechwriter announced an insurgent primary campaign to reawaken the American right. Emblazoned on every pin, slapped on every rally sign, and mentioned at every campaign stop was America First. From one pamphlet, for instance:
Our resolve is to put America First, to make America First again, and to keep America First. For 50 years, we have liberated, defended, and aided nations all over the world. It was the right and just thing to do. But, now, we must begin to look out for the forgotten Americans right here in the United States…. For half a century, Americans fought the Cold War against Communism, investing thousands of precious lives and trillions of dollars in that great struggle. We won that victory for all mankind. Now, it is time that rich and prosperous allies, like Germany and Japan, start paying the bills for their own defense.
Buchanan wanted a return to the foreign policy conservatives were promised they’d receive after the defeat of the Warsaw Pact. “Pitchfork Pat” would spend the rest of the 1990s refining and developing his populist America First credo, with books on trade and immigration, but never forgetting that the lodestar was a belief in a republic, not an empire.
This story is important because from its inception America First has always meant that the United States should have fewer military interventions and diplomatic commitments overseas. That’s what it must continue to mean.
But how can this anti-interventionist lineage remain intact when confronted with the United States’ current predicaments in the Middle East, inquires Hammer:
How is it ‘America First’ to dismiss those who are righteously indignant about the three American soldiers killed, and dozens more wounded, by an Iranian-supplied drone at Tower 22 in Jordan last Sunday? How is it ‘America First’ for the United States to fail to respond in any capacity to a terrorist regime whose proxies have now struck our military bases over 170 times since Oct. 7?
This is an instance of having more wrath than judgment.
On Friday, the Biden administration launched an extensive retaliation—without congressional approval—striking 85 targets in Iraq and Syria, killing around 40 people, including civilians.
And now what? Do we believe that these strikes will deter further attacks from these militias, motivated as they are by the United States’ unqualified support for the Israeli demolishment of Gaza? What is the end goal? To ensure that American soldiers can occupy the Middle East unmolested in perpetuity?
The groups our government is in a bombing tit-for-tat with are the Popular Mobilization Forces, which are formally part of the Iraqi security force. That’s the military of the regime more than 8,000 Americans died to install, and which we still give more than $500 million in aid annually. Over the weekend the Iraqi Prime Minister visited the wounded and declared three days of mourning “as a tribute for the martyrs….”
“You would expect school boys fighting on a sand lot to know better statesmanship.” Saturday Evening Post columnist and America First advocate Garet Garrett wrote in 1941, but we could say the same thing about our leaders today.
The only answer is a complete and immediate military withdrawal from Iraq, Syria, and all combat operations where the U.S. Congress hasn’t voted to formally declare war as required by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. Not only will it help shore up our country financially, and go a long way in healing our self-inflicted moral injury, but the immediate problem will be taken off the table. There will be no further attacks on U.S. forces because there will be no bases to attack.
In 2020 the Iraqi Parliament voted for their government “to work towards ending the presence of all foreign troops on Iraqi soil….” Prior to Biden’s retaliatory strikes, the largest of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Kataib Hezbollah, forswore further attacks on U.S. troops to give leeway to Prime Minister Shia al-Sudani so he can negotiate a withdrawal.
These people do not want us there. The American people don’t want us there. And if Arabs are able to decide their own destiny, while Americans concentrate on reestablishing their own sovereignty at home, all the better for both sides.
Lastly, Hammer references the numerous hostages captured by Hamas during their October 7 incursion into Israel proper, some of them U.S. citizens. “Caring about the fate of our citizens taken hostage overseas and seeking retaliation for our soldiers murdered by an evil adversary regime overseas, moreover, is about the lowest-hanging fruit imaginable for any American who calls himself a patriot.”
Every diplomatic effort must be employed to see the safe return of American citizens, and thankfully several have already been released through these efforts. But attempts at their rescue ought to stop short of employing the military as a tool, which would embroil the United States in the Gaza war directly and put Americans overseas at even greater risk. To quote that truculent and independent Republican Senator of Wisconsin, John J. Blaine, “no American citizen has a right to jeopardize the peace and honor of his country for gain, for pleasure, for adventure.” Furthermore, the ongoing controversy about Israeli priorities when it comes to retrieving hostages ought to make American officials pause about utilizing lethal force on our end.
Hammer makes clear his position that, “The nation-building boondoggles of yesterday resulted in failure—indeed, the entire enterprise has been discredited.” But his shortcoming, with no challenge to the structure of the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East and the blowback it engenders, and his absence of an affirmative demand to withdraw from these no-win quagmires, leaves him spinning to defend the continuation of these failures.
America First cannot become code for no more grand invasions for democracy while still maintaining the status quo of American empire. It meant more than that in 1920 and 1940 and 1992, and it ought to mean more today.
I’m going to keep employing the phrase America First, and when I do I’ll be echoing patriots like Johnson, Harding, Lindbergh, and Buchanan. Josh Hammer may use the term, but we part company on the soul of the matter.