To say that the slogan “America First” has a checkered past in the United States is an understatement of epic proportions. Launched in the spring of 1940 on the eve of Hitler’s conquest of France, Belgium and Holland, the America First Committee was an isolationist crusade which grew to 800,000 members who sought the keep the U.S. out of any war with Germany. But that’s not all. After the trauma of the Great Depression, its leadership was rife with anti-Semites and Nazi sympathizers like Olympic Committee Chairman Avery Brundage, auto magnate Henry Ford and the world-famous pilot Charles Lindbergh who saw European fascism—and not American democracy—as the wave of the future. In September 1941, just three months before Pearl Harbor and Adolf Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States, Lindbergh proclaimed, “The British and the Jewish races for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war.” The greatest of the dangers Jews posed to the United States, he warned, “lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.”
At a time when the United States faced a monumental choice between good and evil, human rights and barbarous slaughter, freedom and enslavement, the America Firsters were on the wrong side of history. Ultimately and at great cost, the forces of light prevailed in Europe and the Pacific, but not before vanquishing the forces of darkness here at home.
Now, as Americans confront a new crossroads in history, Donald Trump’s 21st century incarnation of the America First movement threatens to once again take the nation down a dangerously mistaken—and irreversible—path. After 25 years, America’s unipolar moment of unrivalled military dominance is coming to a close, as rising Chinese power around the world, resurgent Russian expansionism in Eastern Europe and a nuclear North Korea means the United States can no longer strike at the times and places of its choosing without painful consequences. Never again will the U.S. account for half of world GDP, as it did after the destruction of its economic competitors in World War II. Globalization, the seamless flow of capital (and capitalists) across national boundaries, the transformational impact of climate change, and, above all, China’s ever-increasing role in the worldwide economy require Washington to think anew and act anew. And more and more, the United States will be less and less able to act alone.