'America first' BEFORE trump

Mike wellman


The theme of President Trump’s administration, as emphatically declared in his inaugural address, is "America First," a notion that some say echoes ominously from the past. The context is different, but, they say, the underlying prejudice is parallel.

During the run-up to our entry into World War II, a group emerged called the America First Committee in hopes of keeping the country out of what it saw as none of our business.

President  Donald Trump  being sworn in on 20 January 2017 at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump being sworn in on 20 January 2017 at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

America First was established by a group of students at Yale University in September 1940. Despite its Ivy League origins, most of the movement’s membership, which quickly grew to some 800,000, was clustered in the Midwest when its most prominent spokesman, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, came to Des Moines to deliver a speech on 11 September 1941, the same day, ironically, that ground was broken to build the Pentagon.

By then, Lucky Lindy’s luck wasn’t so good, he and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh having suffered the devastation of the kidnapping and murder of their young son Charles Jr. in 1932; the “crime of the century,” after which they exiled themselves to Europe where Lindbergh was feted by the nascent Nazi regime. He returned to the United States in 1939, and when he came to Des Moines he was a lightning rod more than the hero who earned a ticker tape parade in New York City after he became the first to fly solo from New York to Paris in 1927 — 90 years ago in May.

Few iconic Americans have been as chameleonic as Lindbergh. By turns he was an object of admiration, sympathy and scorn as the chapters of his extraordinary life were written. When he arrived in Des Moines the day before his scheduled appearance, there were autograph hounds waiting at the airport along with two police officers who were assigned to escort him throughout his visit. They whisked him away to the Hotel Fort Des Moines downtown where Lindbergh holed up and polished his much-anticipated speech.

The site for the America First rally keynoted by Lindbergh was the Des Moines Coliseum. It didn’t happen until 9:30 that evening. President Roosevelt first spoke to the nation at 8:00, drawing a line in the sea. Following a U-boat attack on an American destroyer that same day, Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Navy to shoot on sight any German vessel threatening American ships or convoys. That was the subject of the next day’s banner headline in the Register, but FDR was on the undercard at the coliseum, a venue that hosted many a night of boxing over the years. Lindbergh was the main event.

The title of the address was Who Are the War Agitators? Lindbergh’s answer was threefold: England, FDR and, most controversially, Jews.

“Their (Jews') greatest danger to this country is in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government,” he declared.

Media reaction was explosive worldwide. The Des Moines Register had this to say: “It may have been courageous for Colonel Lindbergh to say what was in his mind, but it was so lacking in appreciation of consequences — putting the best interpretation on it — that it disqualifies him for any pretensions of leadership of this republic in policy-making.”  The speech was “so intemperate, so unfair, so dangerous in its implications that it cannot but turn many spadefuls in the digging of the grave of his influence in this crisis.”

Still, Lindbergh was unshaken. He wrote this in his diary:

“My Des Moines address has caused so much controversy, that General Wood has decided to hold a meeting of the America First National Committee in Chicago. I must, of course, attend. I felt I had worded my Des Moines address carefully and moderately. It seems that almost anything can be discussed today in America except the Jewish problem. The very mention of the word ‘Jew’ is cause for a storm. Personally, I feel that the only hope for a moderate solution lies in an open and frank discussion.”

Phillip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America is enjoying a resurrection on the best-seller charts in the wake of the recent election. It imagines a country where Lindbergh defeats FDR in the 1940 race for the presidency. Even though the book speculates based on the outcome of an election that would have happened a year prior to Lindbergh’s actual appearance in Des Moines, it references the Des Moines speech just a few pages in, retrofitting its timing to help frame the plot line. The extensive postscript at the back of the book includes a full transcript. The book was published in 2004. Thirteen years later, it’s getting a second life as the line between political fact and fantasy blurs.

Lindbergh’s speech would remain the most notorious political rhetoric espoused in Des Moines until Richard Nixon’s VP, Spiro Agnew, delivered a blistering attack on the news media in 1969 that was covered live by all of the major networks at the time. That one, too, can be heard echoing in the early days of this new administration. But that’s another story.

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Mike Wellman has lived in Des Moines most of his life. He is an author and freelance writer who also works as a staff writer for the Des Moines Public Schools. Article used with kind permission of the author.