HARRIS & EWING / LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Saving “America First”

What Responsible Nationalism Looks Like

One of the privileges of power that Americans routinely abuse is to remember selectively. It was not surprising, then, that this year’s centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I attracted barely any official attention. A House resolution commending “the brave members of the United States Armed Forces for their efforts in ‘making the world safe for democracy’” never made it out of committee. And although the Senate did endorse a fatuous decree “expressing gratitude and appreciation” for the declaration of war passed back in April 1917, the White House ignored the anniversary altogether. As far as Washington is concerned, that conflict retains little or no political salience. 

It was not always so, of course. For those who lived through it, the “war to end all wars” was a searing experience. In its wake came acute disillusionment, compounded by a sense of having been deceived about its origins and purposes. The horrific conflict seemed only to create new problems; President Woodrow Wilson’s insistence in a 1919 speech that the 116,000 American soldiers lost in that war had “saved the liberty of the world” rang hollow. 

So 20 years later, when another European conflict presented Americans with a fresh opportunity to rescue liberty, many balked. A second war against Germany on behalf of France and the United Kingdom, they believed, was unlikely to produce more satisfactory results than the first. Those intent on keeping the United States out of that war organized a nationwide, grass-roots campaign led by the America First Committee. During its brief existence, the movement enlisted more supporters than the Tea Party, was better organized than Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter, and wielded more political clout than the “resistance” to President Donald Trump.

Yet despite drawing support from across the political spectrum, the movement failed. Well before the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt had embarked on a program of incremental intervention aimed at bringing the United States into the war as a full-fledged

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