The Americans hyperventilating over “America First,” President Trump’s supposedly anti-Semitic slogan spotlighted in his Inauguration can calm down. The phrase’s history has been (deliberately?) distorted. From a broader view the term’s pedigree isn’t hateful at all. If the catchphrase makes Donald Trump an anti-Semite, then fellow presidents Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, and Gerald Ford are anti-Semites. Please.
The main accusation is that “America First” was the name of a movement that opposed U.S. involvement in World War Two. The America First Committee (AFC) was the largest group opposing sending American boys to fight Hitler and his allies in the 15 months before Pearl Harbor made its existence moot.
But to call the AFC an anti-Semitic organization is absurd. Yes, some members were Jew-haters, as were lots of Americans were at the end of the Great Depression. In fact, Charles Lindbergh was its most prominent spokesman, and he gave a dreadful speech in Des Moines attacking the Jews and “their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.”
But the national AFC structure took stops to oppose anti-Semitism within its ranks, and removed noted anti-Semites Henry Ford and Avery Brundage from leadership positions. And its list of supporters include a Who’s Who of admired 20th-century Americans: Walt Disney, Gerald Ford, Sinclair Lewis, e.e. cummings, Frank Lloyd Wright. A 23-year-old John F. Kennedy praised the group and sent a check for $100. Even some Jews, most notably Sears heir Lessing Rosenwald, backed the group.
Most importantly, anti-Semitism was not the group’s mission. It was a troubling attitude held by many but probably not most of its members. If America First was an essentially anti-Semitic organization, it’s strange that its 1,500-word Wikipedia article fails to mention anti-Semitism even once, beyond a single Lindbergh quote, isn’t it?
If it’s unfair to call the movement known as America First anti-Semitic, the idea the mere phrase is anti-Semitic is preposterous.
“America First” is (logically!) the term used in various historical eras when Americans have wanted to reduce foreign policy commitments and focus on nurturing domestic life. What other term would you have them use? Should Trump have found a euphemism like “America Premier” or “Top-of-the-List America” to avoid evoking an 80-year-old group most Americans (including most Jews) have never heard of?
When Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916, one of his main slogans for buttons, posters, and speeches was “America First.” Yet American Jews were among the biggest advocates of trying to keep the U.S. out of joining The Great War on the side of Tsarist Russia (home of pogroms) against Imperial Germany (which actually had fostered a flourishing Jewish community).
And when the African-American former governor of Virginia, Douglas Wilder, ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1992, his slogan was “Put America First.” Was Wilder trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes? More likely, he had never heard of the America First Committee, just as Donald Trump probably had not heard of it, just as I would not have heard of it had I not completed several years of graduate work in American Jewish history.
It’s silly to take a common two-word phrase that is the pithiest way of expressing something and declare it permanently off-limits because it evokes Nazi-era language. To take an absurd example, in 2010 President Barack Obama called for a “final solution” to a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Was he evoking the extermination of Jews? Of course not. But if you want to express a desire for a decisive end to a problem, “final solution” is the most logical English phrase to use. We can’t be expected to retire common phrases just because some bad people used them – especially since virtually nobody would know about those bad usages had they not been told as part of the campaign to stop their usage!
There are lots of reasons to oppose this president. The idea that he’s inserting coded language into his speeches to demonstrate Jew-hatred simply isn’t one of them. I would ask the people making this argument, “Is that all you’ve got?” Because if it is, they’re admitting they have very little.
They need to think harder.
David Benkof is a columnist for The Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.