“Those of us who remember the past are condemned to watch others repeat it.” – Dieselpunk Axiom
Back in April, Donald Trump, the presumptive Presidential nominee for US Republican Party, made the following statement during a speech,
"My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else. That will be the foundation of every decision that I will make. America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration."
“... for many Americans, the term ‘America First’ will always be associated with and tainted by this history. In a political season that already has prompted a national conversation about civility and tolerance, choosing a call to action historically associated with incivility and intolerance seems ill-advised,"
German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Reuters concerning Trump’s statement,
"I can only hope that the election campaign in the U.S.A. does not lack the perception of reality.”
What was it about a seemingly innocuous phase such as “America First” that rattled so many? To understand we need to go back to the Diesel Era.
America First was first coined by Woodrow Wilson as a label for his isolationist policy. In his policy, America would stay out of the Great War until Europe finally carried things “so far” and then the US would step in.
The legendary newspaper owner William Hearst was strongly pro-German and vehemently opposed America being involved in the Great War or even sending aid to the Allies. When America did enter the war he adopted Wilson's slogan for his newspaper and used it as part of a policy in which he advocated that while fighting Germany, America should still not give aid to the Allied countries.
Hearst hated FDR and through his support behind Congressman John Nance Garner from Texas. In his support for Garner, Hearst said that he preferred “a man … whose guiding motto is ‘America First,’”.
Hearst then set about reinventing Garner with a mythological log-cabin birth along with the characteristics that Hearst thought would help him win. Garner was not only a strong free-trader he also shared Hearst paranoia that the greatest danger to America was its “increasing tendency toward socialism and communism.”
Hearst’s paranoia about socialism and communism isn’t as disturbing as his admiration for Adolf Hitler. By 1932, Hearst was publishing articles written by Hitler. Hearst praised Hitler, saying in his paper that he saved Germany from “the beckoning arms of Bolshevism.” Hearst also liked Hitler’s emphasis on nationalism meaning that he put Germany first by attacking, literally, those on the Left. Something that Hearst wanted to see happen in the US as well.
Hearst could not stop the Roosevelt steamroller at the Democratic convention in 1932. However, he did have sufficient pull to be able to ensure that FDR chose Garner as his running mate. With Garner as FDRs running mate Hearst and the president-elect buried the hatchet. FDR eventually replaced Garner with Henry A. Wallace as his VP in his 1940 reelection .
However, peace between Hearst and FDR didn’t last long. By the end of 1933 Hearst was describing the New Deal as “more communistic than the communists” and as being, “un-American to the core.”
During the 1930s, Hearst paper with “AMERICA FIRST” on its masthead with a stylized eagle clutching a ribbon reading, “AN AMERICAN PAPER FOR THE AMERICAN PEOPLE,” praised and promoted Nazism. Hearst, through his paper, said that fascism was a “great achievement”. His paranoia grew every year. Communists, according the Hearst, could be found from the FDR administration to college professors to unions.
Hearst paranoia translated, like it so often does, into violence. When mobs attacked the homes of strikers in San Francisco in July of 1934 Hearst’s New York Times reported, “Thank God the patriotic citizens of California have shown us the way.”
Representatives with the Trump campaign have denied that there’s any connection between his use of the phrase.