The Ugly Origins of Trump’s “America First” Policy

People’s choice of words can be revealing.  That’s certainly the case with respect to one of Donald Trump’s favorite slogans, “America First.”

In April 2016, Trump initially used the term in a campaign speech, proclaiming that “America First” would be “the major and overriding theme of my administration.”  The following year, in his inaugural address, he promised that “a new vision will govern our land.  From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first―America first.”  Subsequently, he has employed the slogan frequently to describe his approach to foreign and domestic policy.

This approach is remarkable because, over the past century, “America First” has acquired some very unsavory connotations.

Although the seemingly innocent slogan goes back deep in American history, it began to develop a racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic tone after World War I.  The Ku Klux Klan, which surged to some five million members at that time, employed it frequently for its terrorist mobilizations.  Like the Klan, nativist groups took up “America First” as they used racist, eugenicist claims to press, successfully, for U.S. government restrictions on immigration.  Appealing to an overheated nationalism, William Randolph Hearst used his newspaper empire to campaign, successfully, against U.S. participation in the League of Nations.  Soon thereafter, he became a booster of other nationalist fanatics, the rising fascist powers.

Hearst’s newspapers, with “America First” emblazoned on their masthead, celebrated what they called the “great achievement” of the new Nazi regime in Germany.  In 1934, Hearst himself scurried off to Berlin to interview Adolf Hitler.  Instructing his reporters in Germany to provide positive coverage of the Nazis, Hearst fired journalists who failed to do so.  Meanwhile, the Hearst press ran columns, without rebuttal, by Hitler, Mussolini, and Nazi leader Hermann Göring.

This toxic brew of racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia increasingly found its way into a growing isolationist movement that crested in 1940 with the establishment of the America First Committee.  Bankrolled by several top corporate leaders, the America First Committee was determined to prevent the United States from becoming involved in what it labeled, disparagingly, “Europe’s wars.”  And as fascist military forces swept from triumph to triumph, it emerged as America’s largest isolationist organization.  Although the 800,000 America First members had a variety of political opinions, many of them held anti-Semitic views and sympathized with the Nazis.

Henry Ford, for example, a member of the America First executive committee, was a major backer of anti-Semitic and racist organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan.  Purchasing a Michigan newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, he used it to publish articles promoting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, such as the idea that Jews controlled the American financial system, that they started World War I, and that they were plotting to rule the world.  The newspaper eventually acquired a circulation of nearly a million thanks to Ford’s requirement that his car dealers distribute it.  Ford has the distinction of being the only American Hitler complimented in Mein Kampf.

The most prominent leader of the America First Committee was Charles Lindbergh, who―thanks to his celebrated solo flight over the Atlantic―was also one of the best-known Americans of the era.  Hitler, Lindbergh believed, was “a visionary” and “undoubtedly a great man.”  Visiting Nazi Germany, Lindbergh liked its professed values―what he called “science and technology harnessed for the preservation of a superior race.”  Increasingly, he thought that the “strong central leadership of the Nazi state was the only hope for restoring a moral world order.”  Addressing reporters, he said that he was “intensely pleased” by all he had seen while in Germany.   By contrast, like other anti-Semites, he fretted over “the Jewish problem,” and blamed Jews for the shattered German economy that followed World War I.  In 1938, Field Marshall Göring presented Lindbergh with a medal on behalf of the Führer.

Even after Hitler violated the Munich Pact by dispatching his troops to conquer all of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Lindbergh thought Hitler’s justification plausible, and argued that France and Britain should form an alliance with the Third Reich.  “It is time to turn from our quarrels and to build our White ramparts again,” he declared.  “Our future depends on . . . a Western Wall of race and arms which can hold back . . . the infiltration of inferior blood.”  Returning from his European travels to the United States, Lindbergh argued that it was “imperative” for “the sake of Western civilization that America stay out of Germany’s way as [it] guarded against the West’s true enemies”―the “Asiatic hordes” of Russia, China, and Japan.

That September, with the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Lindbergh became America’s foremost isolationist, telling a radio audience:  “Our bond with Europe is a bond of race. . . .  It is the European race we must preserve. . . .  If the white race is ever . . . threatened, it may then be time for us to take our part in its protection, to fight side by side with the English, French, and Germans, but not with one against the other for our mutual destruction.”  Only after Japan’s devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 did Lindbergh and the America First Committee shut down their isolationist campaign.

Given this record, when Trump revived the “America First” slogan, the Anti-Defamation League urged him to reconsider, pointing to the slogan’s bigoted and pro-Nazi history.

But Trump has continued to invoke “America First” in his statements.

Why?  It’s clear that he agrees with this slogan’s connotations.  After all, Trump’s top emphases have been barring and deporting minority group immigrants from the United States, attacking “migrant crime,” inflaming Christian Nationalism, and ridiculing international cooperation and organizations.  When one adds his obsession with genetic superiority and blood purity, plus his admiration for dictators, it’s an all too familiar pattern.

Indeed, Trump is the heir to America First and its fascist proclivities.

Lawrence S. Wittner ( is Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press). Read other articles by Lawrence, or visit Lawrence's website.