America First Committee | History Lessons

Uploaded by cfr on 05.09.2012

A war is being waged overseas. The suffering is immense. The consequences for American
interests are contested. Should the United States intervene? Or stand on the sidelines?
I’m Jim Lindsay, and this is History Lessons. Our topic today is the creation of the America
First Committee on September 4th, 1940.
As Americans celebrated Labor Day in 1940, Europe had been at war for a year. France
and much of the rest of Europe had fallen to German troops that May. Britain’s future
hung in the balance as the “Battle of Britain” ended its second month.
Across the Atlantic, the United States was at peace. But for how long? Americans remembered
that Woodrow Wilson had run for reelection in 1916 pledging to keep America neutral,
and then six months later took the country into World War I. Some feared that President
Franklin Roosevelt was intent on doing the same thing.
That fear was the driving force behind the formation of the America First Committee.
The committee had its roots at Yale Law School, where its early supporters included future
president Gerald Ford and future Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart.
The Committee announced itself to the world on September 4, 1940, the day after FDR announced
he had ordered the U.S. Navy to give Britain 50 old destroyers in exchange for extended
leases on eight British bases. This was just the sort of the move the Committee feared
would drag the United States into war.
The America First Committee argued for four basic principles:
1. The United States must build an impregnable defense for America.
2. No foreign powers, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America.
3. American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war.
4. “Aid short of war” weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America
in war abroad.
At the height of its popularity, the America First Committee claimed more than 750,000
dues-paying members. Although the Committee originated on the East Coast, it was most
popular in the upper Midwest. Its members included senators and representatives from
both political parties, powerful business leaders, and perhaps the country’s greatest
hero, Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic.
Americans joined the America First Committee for many different reasons: a principled opposition
to war; the conviction that Europe’s war didn’t affect U.S. interests; hatred of
FDR and the British; and regrettably in some instances, admiration for Nazi Germany and
rank anti-Semitism.
The America First Committee lobbied against efforts it believed would drag the country
into war. It largely failed, and with steps like the Lend-Lease Act the United States
slowly drew closer to Great Britain. While most Americans shared the Committee’s desire
to avoid war, they agreed with FDR that the United States could not sit idly by while
the last European democracy was crushed.
The debate over the war in Europe became moot on the December 7, 1941. Four days after Pearl
Harbor, the Committee’s leaders voted to disband. They insisted that the United States
could have avoided war had their principles been followed. But they agreed that “the
time for military action is here.”
What is the lesson of the America First Committee? Just this: Non-interventionist sentiment strikes
a deep chord in American political life. The Committee’s arguments appealed to so many
Americans on the eve of World War II because of legitimate disagreement about how best
to protect the national interest and because they reflected warnings dating back to the
country’s founding about the perils of foreign entanglements.
We fortunately do not face the threat of a world war as Americans did some seven decades
ago. But we can hear echoes of the debate they had in the discussions we are having
today about how the United States should respond to fighting in places like Libya and Syria.
Americans disagree about the consequences of acting versus not acting in these conflicts,
dispute the merits of contending courses of action, and debate what obligations they have
to the citizens of other nations.
So here’s a question to consider: When should the United States intervene in wars overseas?
I encourage you to weigh in with your answers on my blog, The Water’s Edge. You can find
it at
I’m Jim Lindsay. Thank you for watching this installment of History Lessons.