The self-defeating limits of ‘America First’
On May 23, 1941, 22,000 New Yorkers filled Madison Square Garden to hear Charles A. Lindbergh assert that America should steer clear of foreign involvement. The address was sponsored by the America First Committee.
By then, Britain was at war with Germany, and Japan had seized Manchuria and French Indochina. But “Lucky Lindy” gave them the word: “I have just come from the West,” the hero aviator told them, “and I can tell you that in every state, in every city, on street corners and on farms . . . a cry is rising against this war.” Lindbergh, who had fawningly accepted a medal of honor from the Nazi official Hermann Goering in 1938, acknowledged German persecution of Jews, but asserted that the only way to preserve democracy in America was to stay out of the war.
The rally was one of many held by America First. The organization had begun in 1940, but American isolationism was a powerful and practiced force. Since the mid-1930s, isolationists had emboldened fascist regimes and discouraged the world’s democracies. Moreover, the movement resonated with isolationists in Congress, which checked President Franklin D. Roosevelt from acting more forcefully to arm our allies or prepare the Unsited States for war.
Ultimately, America First made America neither great nor strong. It made us more vulnerable and weak.
President Donald Trump, who boasts of making “America First,” has yet to acknowledge the historic echo. But the resonance should worry Americans who do not want to revisit the economic or military traumas of the 1930s.
This is not — repeat, not — to liken Trump or those around him to Nazis. It is to say that prewar isolationism holds worrisome parallels to today. The earlier movement was borne of resentment to an unsatisfying war. Just as America’s recent war in Iraq hardly quelled conflicts in the Middle East, so World War I failed to resolve simmering nationalist tensions in Europe. But America had had enough, and in 1919 Congress blocked American entry into the League of Nations. The next year, Americans elected a candidate who promised to return America to “normalcy,” much as Trump would nostalgically promise to make the country great “again.”
A more disturbing echo is that the isolationism of the ’20s and ’30s was more than just military; it broadly attempted to close America to foreign peoples, trade, and cultures. In 1924, the United States — motivated by economic anxiety as well as bigotry — enacted a restrictive law intended to reduce immigration overall and, in particular, to Asians, Eastern Europeans, and Southern Europeans.
Even before that — in 1921 and 1922 — America raised import tariffs against foreign goods. This was followed by the even more protectionist Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 — considered by economists one of the most ill-advised pieces of economic legislation ever. As Trump weighs tariffs and border taxes, it is worth recalling that after Smoot-Hawley, other countries predictably responded with protectionist measures against the United States.
Ideologically in the ’20s, America retreated from the globalist vision pursued by Woodrow Wilson. While internationalist-minded statesmen urged America to defer or cancel part of the war loans that were destabilizing Europe, President Coolidge insisted the debts be repaid. “They hired the money,” he noted. That played well with populists at home. But unsustainable debts fueled the rise of European nationalism.
Paradoxically, efforts to restrict foreign commerce were self-defeating and worsened the Great Depression. Without export markets, US manufacturers had no place to sell surplus goods. As Harvard scholar Jeffry Frieden wrote, “Unless the United States bought more from Europe, the Europeans would not have enough dollars to pay their debts.” Ultimately nearly half of those debts were defaulted on.
Moreover, a faltering Germany needed American loans to make reparations to its World War I antagonists — who in turn needed the money to repay American war loans. What America First — then and now — overlooked is that the world economy was not a pecking order of “first,” “second,” and so forth. It is a highly interconnected and interdependent ecosystem.
In the ’30s, suspicion of foreigners hardened into unfeeling ethnicism. As with Syrians today, the United States turned its back on Jewish refugees. Policy was often inward-looking, stoked by paranoia. In 1936, Senator Gerald Nye launched sensational hearings to investigate the charge that America’s entry into the war had been caused by Wall Street bankers. Then as now, xenophobia was stoked by anti-elitist conspiracy theories on the left and on the right.
But isolationism was not the full story in the 1920s and ’30s. World War I had forced America to become the world’s creditor as well as its supplier. Trade and lending was encouraged by Wall Street bankers, who indeed profited from loans, and by the newly created Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Isolationists of that era were largely reacting to America’s raised overseas profile. They wanted to turn the clock back.
So it is today. Frustration with globalism fueled Trump’s electoral victory and generated support for his “America First.” As president, Trump has sent conflicting signals about whether he intends to implement that slogan. His recent about-face on China, suggesting a willingness to engage, was encouraging. His abandonment of a two-state approach in the Middle East was not.
The most worrisome aspect of Trump’s approach is his apparent aversion to multilateralism — his disregard for trade agreements such as NAFTA and alliances such as NATO. Similarly in the 1920s, successive administrations sabotaged American participation in international economic and other groups.
“Whether we want to or not, we are going to take some part in this situation abroad,” Benjamin Strong, head of the New York Fed, insisted in 1921. Dwight Morrow, a J.P. Morgan & Co. banker, tried to explain that prosperity was not a zero-sum game in which only one side “wins.” As he put it, “Leadership in world trade is not a thing to be sought by any nation to the exclusion of all others.”
This was not a message Americans wanted to hear. But as in Morrow’s day, domestic prosperity is rooted in international prosperity and connectedness. Government should help people who are hurt by trade — but not be a cheerleader for toxic xenophobia, or try to succeed through economic triumphalism. Anyone who thinks America can go it alone should consider the $6 trillion of US government debt held overseas. Trump needs a smarter policy — and a better slogan.
Roger Lowenstein lives in Cambridge. His latest book is “America’s Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve.”