One of the most remarkable turn of events in America’s 2016 election has been the revitalization of the phrase “America First!” America First as a slogan has its origins in the pre-World War II America First Committee which was dedicated to keeping the United States out of that war. It was a slogan that energized many in the hinterlands against what they saw as a useless entanglement over foreign interests many thousands of miles away. Notable supporters of the Committee included future presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford along with cultural figures like Walt Disney, Frank Lloyd Wright and E.E. Cummings. It even included many leftists independent of communist marching orders like Norman Thomas. And of course, there was its most noted celebrity spokesman, aviator Charles Lindbergh.
America First as a slogan gained a second life in the candidacy of Pat Buchanan in the early nineties, a figure who sought to shake off the moribund morass of the Cold War and return America to its earlier traditions. However, by this time a new America was emerging, one which was not only at war with the Old America, but was downright hostile to its history, traditions and very people.
Many involved with America First had radically different views of what America ultimately was, but what united them was an understanding that America was a nation with its own interests and its own people. The old America that they defended was, in many ways, birthed out of the tragedy of the War Between the States. The all-consuming fire that tore asunder what could be called the American First Republic was put back together after a painful process of radicalism and reconciliation between its formerly warring parts.
After the shameful and destructive excess of Reconstruction in the Old South was ended, a place was carved in American history for its formerly warring White nations. The valor and honor of the Southern cause was acknowledged, as well as its monuments and particular memory, while at the same time the nation was understood as one, moving ever towards the frontier.
This was acknowledged from the Founding onwards; for instance, John Jay in Federalist no.2 states:
”With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people–a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.”
In 1921 then Vice President Calvin Coolidge would re-enunciate this similar spirit in an article for Good Housekeeping, writing:
There are racial considerations too grave to be brushed aside for sentimental reasons. Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides. Quality of mind and body suggests that observance of ethnic law is as great a necessity to a nation as immigration law.
The title of his article? “Whose Country is This?”
Ultimately, the American nation of this time was defined by its White citizens, be they Yankee, Confederate, or Western. It was a tapestry reaching back to Plymouth Rock, Jamestown, and Columbus that provided a shared history and vision, and it was, for the most part, based on the history of its White citizens.
The settlement of the frontier led to the creation of what is now deemed “the American Heartland,” the breadbasket from whence America was fed and the yeoman collection of family farms birthed a vision of the “American Dream,” regardless of its fulfillment. The White men and women who went west formed the backbone of the America First Committee, along with many old stock Americans who were perturbed by foreign influence on American affairs.
The America First Committee was much maligned by many in the mainstream media of its day, as Nazis, Babbitts, or even Bolsheviks.
Things came to a head on September 11, 1941 when a man simultaneously derided as a “Nazi” and a “gopher Bolshevik” gave a speech to a Des Moines, Iowa crowd. Here, in the heartland, Charles Lindbergh made his plea:
” Men and women of Iowa; only one thing holds this country from war today. That is the rising opposition of the American people. Our system of democracy and representative government is on test today as it has never been before. We are on the verge of a war in which the only victor would be chaos and prostration.
We are on the verge of a war for which we are still unprepared, and for which no one has offered a feasible plan for victory–a war which cannot be won without sending our soldiers across the ocean to force a landing on a hostile coast against armies stronger than our own.
We are on the verge of war, but it is not yet too late to stay out. It is not too late to show that no amount of money, or propaganda, or patronage can force a free and independent people into war against its will. It is not yet too late to retrieve and to maintain the independent American destiny that our forefathers established in this new world.”
That “American destiny” that our “forefathers established” was at the crux of Lindbergh’s argument: that the destiny of America should be in the hands of Americans alone, and in particular, the historic American Nation bequeathed to us by the Founders. Not an abstraction, not an ideal, and sure as hell not an idea, but a people.
Of course, Lindbergh’s speech would go on to name another group of people, a group that could roughly be described by an American of his time as an anti-America. was one which sought to put various tribal, ideological and commercial interests ahead of those of the living historic America. In some ways, this was a milder form of a division that also occurred in that other “nation of the enlightenment,” France, which had similarly divided up into a France/Anti-France distinction.
Lindbergh went on to describe the groups as follows:
” The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.
Behind these groups, but of lesser importance, are a number of capitalists, Anglophiles, and intellectuals who believe that the future of mankind depends upon the domination of the British empire. Add to these the Communistic groups who were opposed to intervention until a few weeks ago, and I believe I have named the major war agitators in this country.”
Of course, it didn’t matter that in the speech Lindbergh acknowledged the Jewish plight against Germany as “understandable.” It was enough to sink him and the movement. Just two months later Pearl Harbor would come, America would be at war, and the America First Committee would shut its doors and do their part for their country.
Even Lindbergh would fly in bomber raids over the Pacific. However, the America he fought to preserve started on a dialectical path that would forever change the nature of its people and its history.
The post-war Lindbergh serves as an interesting microcosm of the America he wanted to put first. He got involved in environmental activism preserving the natural beauty of his America.
Many of today’s largest immigration restrictionist organizations trace their origins to the nascent environmentalist movement with concerns about quality of life and a literal preservation of America as a place. Many old stock Americans were involved in this cause including not only Madison Grant and Lindbergh, but people like John Tanton, another American from the heartland who seeks to preserve not just America, but its people.
This impulse was even derided throughout popular culture. Thus, you have jokes like those of brash fraudster Gordon Gekko in 1987’s Wall Street who declaims, “That’s the one thing you have to remember about WASPs: they love animals and hate people.” Contra Mr. Gekko, it’s not hatred of people, just an indifference to an alien people. Indeed, among the groups who opposed the 1965 Immigration Act, which transformed the United States demographically, were the Daughters of the American Revolution, who if thought of at all now are just a prop to establish someone’s WASP identity in popular culture.
But America was a changing place after the war, and prosperity and progress were intermingled with battles for the soul of the American nation that reverberate to this day.
Post-war America was one of peace, prosperity and cultural hegemony, so much so that many refer to this era as “the American Century.” The generation that returned from the carnage of Europe and the Pacific eagerly started to enjoy the fruits of their victory: in the G.I. Bill, the massive infrastructure improvements, and most of all, in starting families. Between the end of the war and the beginning of the 1960s Americans gave birth to millions of children who would grow up in a much different America than the one we have today, and would go on to shape America in a vastly different direction than many of their predecessors.
The children of America’s soldiers came of age not only in an “American” era, but one dominated by mass forms of media, large corporations, and big government. The way mass media consumption of movies and television have shaped “boomer” attitudes towards their own history would come to have massive repercussions for the America of today.
Looked on from today, many complain that the boomer generation faced few if any conflicts; however, that is not exactly correct.
The boomer childhood witnessed some of the greatest feats of humanity, including our earliest voyages into space and our (so far) impressive discipline in not blowing ourselves into a cinder. At the same time, it was punctuated with “events” that gave them the feeling of history. I say events, because in the dawn of the mass-media age, history is never just “made” but is molded not just in its moments but for many years after. The two biggest of these events were the Vietnam War and the so-called “Civil Rights” movement.
The Vietnam War was more of a watershed for White America than the Civil Rights movement, even if it is hard to see it that way today. In addition to its literal battlefields, Vietnam served as a sort of opening salvo in the culture wars. While the descendants of Lindbergh’s America First coalition were largely yelling to “nuke Hanoi,” left-wing inspired youth largely staged massive draft protests and became known as “hippies” and founders of the peace movement.
Even the demonstrations were very different. Take for example one of the Vietnam War’s most well-known protesters: Jane Fonda.
There couldn’t be a bigger difference between Jane Fonda and Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh was known throughout the world for his daring feats of aviation and engineering prowess. The man even started work on a heart perfusion pump when his sister-in-law came down with a condition. This in contrast with Fonda, who was a second-generation actor whose biggest claims to fame at that point included “Barbarella” and being amongst the radical chic set.
One has only to contrast the ways the speak against their wars, and of the America they represent:
”In the shadow of the Temple of Literature I saw Vietnamese actors and actresses perform the second act of Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons, and this was very moving to me- the fact that artists here are translating and performing American plays while US imperialists are bombing their country…I cherish the memory of the blushing militia girls on the roof of their factory, encouraging one of their sisters as she sang a song praising the blue sky of Vietnam- these women, who are so gentle and poetic, whose voices are so beautiful, but who, when American planes are bombing their city, become such good fighters.”
While the Vietnam War was a major tragedy on the part of America, the country that Fonda speaks of is very different than the one spoken of by Lindbergh.
For Fonda, America is Arthur Miller, Hollywood and its assorted causes. It is ultimately an idea and not a place. The tragedy isn’t just that Americans are bombing the Vietnamese, but that the Vietnamese are living closer to some fantasy of America than Americans themselves. For many who came of age at this time, their patriotism was essentially forged as one for a country as an idea, rather than a place built by a particular people.
This was a watershed stage in the decline of American consciousness. Where once it was asked to think twice about its foreign interventions by a hero, here it was asked to do so by a harlot.
Vietnam was the first time that White America felt a modicum of doubt about the way history was moving. The American South had tasted such a reversal of history before, giving it a kind of strangeness to the rest of the American spirit, but the post-war reconciliation that carried through the World Wars largely delivered an American South that was, to paraphrase Walker Percy, victorious and prosperous. That is, except for the vexing race issue.
The Civil Rights movement has gone down as the new Founding Epoch of America’s new post-1968 mythology. The “dream” of Martin Luther King Jr. has gone on to crowd out all other dreams of America, to animate a far different country than the one its original Founders intended.
More ink has been spilled on this era than almost any other by movement pens. However, what is usually missed is how deep the story of the Civil Rights Movement goes into the America of today. That’s because America now is largely a different country than the one most American right-wingers envision it to be.
The America of today declared its independence with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and has sought to bring in line the rest of its institutions by any means necessary.
But for an older generation of White Americans, the Civil Rights movement was less of a revolution in the very mythological underpinnings of the American state and more just another brokered peace. Just as there was reconciliation after the “brother’s war” between the states, so too did many White Americans see the passages of most Civil Rights legislation. In this way, all the programs initiatives and welfare of the past half century have been nothing more of a counterfeit peace offering that White America deludes itself into believing. That’s because unlike the truce between the warring factions of North and South which were united by “common ancestry, customs” etc. the irreconcilable differences between the different racial groups in America have almost always led to conflict.
Understanding the America that the boomer generation has constructed helps to understand what it is they want to preserve. The triumphalist narrative of their history is best represented in such popular schlock at Forrest Gump which depicts an idiot’s encounters through various nodes on the staircase to progress.
For boomers, America was less a place of ancestry and heritage and more of a place of potential. In particular, individual potential. Its why an old hippie can become a yuppie without batting an eye. Their America is one of narrow possibilities and potentials, not an America of blood and soil.
Thus, the radicalism of the sixties gave way to the American boosterism of the Reagan years. Supply-side economics made everyone a king, from the Huxtables to Family Ties. The America of Ronald Reagan represented the conservative entrenchment of the revolution begun in the sixties. It even had its own “shining city on a hill” speech.
We arrive in an America forged on the cliffs or Normandy, where it once was Plymouth Rock, and declaring its own independence and purpose in ordaining that “all men are created equal” (with the only dispute within that catechism as to what it is true equality actually means).
That most boomer of presidents Bill Clinton captured this spirit when he spoke about the coming racial transformation of America and said:
“We should be honored that America, whether it’s called the City on a Hill, or the Old Gold Mountain, or El Norte, is still seen around the world as the land of new beginnings…America is not so much a place as a promise, not a guarantee but a chance, not a particular race but an embrace of our common humanity”
This would become the new American dream of boomer America. An America where everyone could be another unique brick in the wall. An America that didn’t see any colors but red, white, and blue. It was an America that was built through orgiastic dreaming and even some good impulses, but it was a fantasy America that never existed.
America was birthed anew, and today we are living in it.
Pat Buchanan tried to build a new coalition around “America First” throughout the 1990s. It was largely a failure, but succeeded in questioning the contours of the new America in both foreign and domestic policy. His most lasting testament however might be that he elucidated the divide in America more clearly than anyone else in his famous “Culture War” speech of the 1992 GOP national convention.
”My friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe, and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.”
Buchanan was largely correct that America was now engaged in its own internal cold war. What was missing, however, was the fact that not only was there a grand cultural replacement going on, but also a demographic one. America was losing its historic, meaning White, character. The events of the following decade would only make this clearer.
On September 11, 2001, the certainties of this new America came shattering down in downtown Manhattan. The ‘end of history’ turned out to merely be its prelude. The attack by Islamic extremists on what was then the pax Americana sent shockwaves throughout the system with many trying to justify the horror that had just been broadcast to millions of people.
People were lectured about how our enemies hate us “for our freedoms” and a variety of the other various nostrums of the day. Many believe in this, because, having grown up with tales of America’s inexorable march towards the current year, no one could hate us for what we do. There was a right and a wrong, a Japan and a Pearl Harbor, a Bull Connor and a Martin Luther King Jr: and we had a “decider” as president.
It didn’t take long for America’s response to go south. Soon we were engaged in a war in Iraq, with soldiers largely coming from the rural south, America at home meanwhile was engaged in an orgiastic economic boom of “home ownership” whose hollowness would be laid bare.
But when many of those same men returned home, it was to empty homes. Most of them were foreclosed on in one of the largest economic downturns since the Great Depression. America, drunk on a mix of the prosperity gospel and anti-discrimination laws, at last found itself at a bust.
The “conservative” movement of this time was a largely moribund husk which mixed snake-oil evangelical outreach along with “MLK Was a Republican” style argumentation. In fact, it was argued that by their very existence Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice had shown that the color-blind society of boomer conservatives was not only real, but in practice.
The Bush years however, only managed to accelerate major trends in America. Its indifference to immigration and obsession with policy minutiae just moved the age of Barack Obama closer.
Obama’s eventual triumph in the 2008 election was the culmination of the America that was given birth in the sixties. The multicultural smart set finally had everything they ever wanted in a president. To quote the first lady “first the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country.”
Obama was also perhaps the first presidential candidate of the left to articulate the internal cold war going on in America. At a campaign stop in Pennsylvania he decried rural mostly White Americans who “cling to their guns and bibles.” Cultural agitprop is largely used as a proxy for speaking in demographic terms. That’s the truce in our cold war: race is the identity that dare not speak its name, lest we have blood on the streets.
Today, writing from Trump’s America one assumes that today Michelle Obama couldn’t be sadder. Trump’s campaign revived the phrase “America First” in a way that Pat Buchanan’s just couldn’t do. However, what remains is the question of what “America” it is that Donald Trump wants to put first.
Usually the phrase is interpreted by those on the right as having to do with the American “heartland” and the rural people there who “cling to their guns and their bibles.” But this is begging the question, who are these people?
They are mostly White, older Americans who have felt deeply betrayed by the way their country has been run. In turn the inhabitants of the other America largely see this group as Kulaks to be liquidated on the march to progress.
For conservatives, the question “who are we?” is an unsettling one, because they’ve bought into an America not based on a people, but on “principles.” Unless it comes to grips with the fact that America was founded and largely defined by White men, the country it puts first will always be one born of the left.
For them, they must answer the question: whose America first? And they must answer before it’s too late.