The Birth of America First

“We are not here to-day to mourn their deaths. Nothing would so shock the devoted and exultant spirit of their service.” So said former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson in November 1920, as Yale University dedicated tablets in Memorial Hall with the names of 227 Yalies who had fallen in the recent World War. “We are here to set aside a memorial by which it is our hope that future generations of Yale men may be roused to an emulation of their spirit and their endeavor.”

Henry L. Stimson in Berlin, 1945
Stimson (with cane) in Berlin in 1945 to attend the Potsdam Conference – U.S. National Archives

Twenty years later, as German forces did what they couldn’t in 1914 and compelled France’s surrender, Stimson gave a radio broadcast from his home near campus. Calling the war in Europe “probably the greatest crisis of [America’s] history,” he urged the repeal of neutrality laws and the implementation of a peacetime draft. A few weeks later, the Republican Stimson entered Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet for his second term as Secretary of War.

But in 1940, many students had no desire to emulate the endeavor of their WWI predecessors. Four years earlier, Yalies joined the national campus trend of hosting peace rallies. In 1939 the Yale Political Union voted two to one against entering the war. By the time of Stimson’s radio address, Yale Daily News editor Kingman Brewster and law student Robert Douglas Stuart, Jr. were already organizing what became the America First Committee. (Their group also included law students Gerald Ford, Sargent Shriver, and Potter Stewart.)

Stimson’s proposal for what was called Selective Service went into effect on October 29, a day before FDR’s campaign for an unprecedented third term brought him to New Haven for a whistle stop speech at Union Station. But that same night, far more people came to Yale to hear the most famous critic of FDR’s foreign policy: Charles Lindbergh.

Lindbergh and his family had returned from their self-imposed exile in Europe in 1939, as war clouds gathered. By the fall he was writing and speaking directly against intervention, with an infamous article in Reader’s Digest warning that

Western nations are again at war, a war likely to be more prostrating than any in the past, a war in which the White race is bound to lose, and the others bound to gain, a war which may easily lead our civilization through more Dark Ages if it survives at all.

Lindbergh met Stuart in August 1940, at a dinner hosted by conservative newspaper publisher Robert McCormick. Then at a breakfast meeting with America First leaders two months later, Lindbergh was invited to speak at Yale.

Olson, Those Angry DaysHe estimated that 3,000 people crammed into Woolsey Hall to hear his half-hour address. Many in the crowd had no doubt passed by the names of the WWI dead on their way into the auditorium. But Lindbergh drew a very different lesson than Stimson from American participation in the previous war:

As you know, it is not many years ago that we tried to “make the world safe for democracy” by entering a European war. We sent an army over the oceans; we spent some billions of dollars; we gave up our normal national life to crusade for the ideals in which we believed. With our assistance, the Allies won that war. What has been the result? Instead of democracy spreading over the world as we expected, every major nation on the continent of Europe has become a dictatorship. Now, one generation later, Europe is in the throes of another war. And we are again being asked to enter it in another crusade “to save democracy” under conditions far more difficult than before.

Later that night Lindbergh reported to his diary that he had “expected considerable opposition and probably some heckling from the audience, but none took place. They listened attentively during the entire half hour, and it seemed that everyone in the hall was clapping when I finished! Although it was not large, it was by far the most successful and satisfying meeting of this kind in which I have ever taken part.”

When war did come to America in December 1941, America First quickly shuttered. Yalies joined the military in such numbers that the university (like most others) experienced economic challenges; all but three of the existing residential colleges were converted into military housing. Lindbergh, too, participated in the war effort — working primarily at Ford’s Willow Run bomber plant, but also flying combat missions in the South Pacific in 1944.

But to the end of his life, he insisted that he had been right. For example, in commenting on Walter Ross’ biography of him in 1968, Lindbergh took one more shot at FDR:

Personally, I feel sure that World War II could have been avoided, and I think if we had had a great man as president of the United States at the time, he would have avoided it. In this connection, it seems to me that no man in history had greater opportunity for constructive action than did Franklin Roosevelt; and that no man made more destructive use of such an opportunity.

For more on Yale and America First, see this July/August 2016 article from the school’s alumni magazine and this 2001 article in the Yale Daily News. I’ve written previously about the religious history of America First for The Anxious Bench.