- Unknown Binding: 305 pages
- Publisher: Octagon Books; Later Printing Used edition (1971)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0374918007
- ISBN-13: 978-0374918002
- Package Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.6 x 1.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 1 customer review
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,200,200 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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America first;: The battle against intervention, 1940-1941, Unknown Binding – 1971
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A young Yale law student named R. Douglas Stewart founded America First in June 1940 in conjunction with other students concerned about the war in Europe. The initial platform of the group called for the United States to avoid sending war materials to England except under "cash and carry," to stay out of the conflict even if Great Britain is on "the verge of defeat," and a hope that America would build up its defenses only to protect "this hemisphere." The group also believed hostilities threatened American democracy. After Stewart and a friend told Senator Robert Taft about their plans at the Republican National Convention, General Robert Wood of Sears and Roebuck got involved. A national committee decided to rename the group the America First Committee on August 29, 1940. Dozens of other prominent individuals soon flocked to the newly unfurled isolationist banner, including Alice Roosevelt Longworth, John T. Flynn, Mrs. Burton K. Wheeler, and Oswald Garrison Villard. A new statement of purpose essentially confirmed the earlier Stewart document, but went a step further by stating "aid short of war weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad." A national radio broadcast delivered on September 5, 1940 by General Hugh S. Johnson announced the arrival of the organization to millions of Americans.
America First had three organizational tiers. An executive committee of seven members, including Wood and Stewart, ran the group. The fifty member national committee met sporadically to help the executive body set policy. Local chapters were run by either national committee members or by enthusiastic citizens who wrote into national headquarters volunteering for the positions. Public donations and sizeable sums contributed by wealthy members and supporters paid for publications and circulars. Despite the hierarchical structure of America First, the organization was surprisingly loose and flexible. Locals could influence policy created at the highest levels, and the leaders frequently sought advice from outside isolationists. Unfortunately, Cole claims, this flexibility caused fundamental problems. It was difficult to find competent local leaders and even harder to control the chapters. These two problems would cause innumerable headaches when anti-Semites and pro-fascist elements began infiltrating America First.
The author argues that an Anglophobic taint shared by many members inspired campaigns against several Roosevelt administration initiatives. Lend Lease presented the isolationists with their first test, a test that they ultimately failed. Aiding Britain in such a way, argued the committee, propped up an imperialistic empire, gave away American armaments badly needed to maintain the defense of the homeland, and potentially placed the United States at loggerheads with the Axis powers. Moreover, they argued that the legislation gave the chief executive dictatorial powers, powers that could allow the president to send American merchant ships into danger. The organization urged its local chapters to bombard Congress with letters and telegrams expressing outrage over the bill, to no avail. Public support for the measure actually increased during the debate. Congress passed the bill, and Roosevelt signed Lend Lease into law on March 11, 1941. Subsequent campaigns to hold a national referendum on the issue of choosing war or peace and an effort to prevent repeal of the vital provisions of the Neutrality Act also failed. In its short history, the America First Committee never won a single issue in the political arena.
A major reason for the failure of the group, Cole explains, was the issue of political extremism. America First had the unfortunate luck "of having Nazis, Communists, and anti-Semites venting similar foreign policy views." The high visibility of the committee tended to draw into the fold people who espoused decidedly un-American views, and it drew the wrath of interventionist groups suspicious of political radicalism. Even worse, a German radio broadcast in 1941 called America First "truly American and truly patriotic," the sort of ringing endorsement the group could definitely do without. The upper echelons of the organization worked hard to keep anti-Jewish advocates out of the chapters, through purges and by monitoring the communications of local units, often with uneven success. Cole concludes that the committee did the best it could to bar extremists from the ranks, and was not an endorser of pro-Nazi or anti-Semitic views.
The author might have improved his work had he provided deeper biographical background on some of the movers and shakers in the isolationist camp. Cole claims he researched the topic partly due to the "Great Debate" on foreign policy in the early 1950s. An effort to link the America First Committee to the deliberations over the Korean conflict and the Truman Doctrine would have been intriguing, and may have given the book a richer context. These quibbles are small and in no way deflate the contribution this text makes to the study of American isolationism in the years before the Second World War.