Given his contempt for custom and history, President Donald Trump probably has no idea of the dark story echoed by his “America First” slogan. For him it’s just politics and demagoguery. For the historically literate, it is a sinister reminder of American “isolationism” in the 1930s and early 1940s – when, but for Franklin D. Roosevelt and his aid “short of war,” the beleaguered Britain of Winston Churchill might have been left to the mercies of Adolf Hitler.
This seems to be a forgotten story today, but has suddenly taken on a fresh relevance. The principal isolationist organization of the pre-World War II period also called itself “America First.” It starred such figures as Al Smith, the New York Democrat and 1928 presidential nominee. Smith lost to Herbert Hoover – in part, it was thought, because his Roman Catholic faith and the strange sound of his voice on the new medium that he called “radio” alienated Democratic voters in the upper South, including North Carolina, and split the “solid South.” Just why he later fell out so far with FDR as to become a prominent foe remains a mystery.
Another prominent America-firster was the heroic aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, who, wined and dined by the Nazis, was so impressed by Herman Goering’s (illegal) Nazi Luftwaffe that he feared bombing would mean the end of American cities if not of civilization itself. A silent sympathizer was Joseph P. Kennedy, recently cashiered as FDR’s ambassador to Britain, who probably took satisfaction in Britain’s ordeal; a situation not displeasing to one of Irish extraction.
All this, true or merely supposition, was common political lore in its day and it lasted down to Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s helpful declaration of war on the U.S., which followed within days.
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Trump’s recent overseas tour featured weird contrasts – deferential bowing and scraping to the Saudi autocrats and Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu, accompanied by boorish rudeness to traditional U.S. friends in Western Europe. He revealed the subtext and gist of his “America First” slogan when he scolded the allies like a petty shopkeeper with a backlog of overdue bills – a novel suggestion of “pay to play” in a historic alliance.
Infinitely more dangerous, however, was his refusal to reaffirm the mutual defense article of the NATO treaty – that refusal, in turn, was eclipsed by an American media frenzy over his evident disbelief in global warming. It has the potential to cause the most serious damage to American security since 1945.
Trump’s casual treatment of Article 5 obligations prompted German chancellor Angela Merkel, in turn, to hint at a reciprocal European isolationism. She didn’t proclaim an answering “Europe first,” let alone “Germany first” policy, but the implication was clear. Trump has set the stage for a potential triangular folly featuring himself, Merkel and his friend Vladimir Putin. The latter, we may be sure, delights in this faint crack in a coalition crucial to U.S. security that has kept Russia at bay and sheltered European prosperity for many decades.
Perhaps nothing will come of it. But Putin is a gambler, and is rumored to have been denied top KGB rank because he was thought reckless – a tendency he has certainly affirmed in aggressive moves against Crimea and Ukraine in his political role. So far, he is no cleaned-up version of Nikita Khrushchev. However, it is worth remembering Khrushchev’s attempt to sneak medium-range missiles into Cuba in 1961-62 – the closest brush with nuclear war of the post-1945 era. Given an opening, Putin may be equally rash.
Does Trump, with his bill-collecting mania and his scorn of the crucial Article 5 of the NATO alliance, understand the implications of his actions? Does Merkel, in permitting a mere re-election campaign to push her into isolationist territory, not realize that Trump’s oddities must be endured, not made the pretext of go-it-alone hints that recall the role of Germany in two terrible world wars?
More importantly, does Trump understand that he is rolling the dice with American security? Will National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, or someone in his entourage who knows a bit of relevant history, please drill a bit of prudence into that thick skull?
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.