The America First Committee (AFC) was the foremost United States non-interventionist pressure group against the American entry into World War II. Started on September 4, 1940, it was dissolved on December 10, 1941, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor had brought the war to America. Membership peaked at 800,000 paying members in 450 chapters. It was one of the largest anti-war organizations in American history.
The AFC was established on September 4, 1940, by Yale Law School student R. Douglas Stuart, Jr. (son of R. Douglas Stuart, co-founder of Quaker Oats), along with other students, including future President Gerald Ford, future Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, and future U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart. Future President John F. Kennedy contributed $100, along with a note saying "What you all are doing is vital." At its peak, America First claimed 800,000 dues-paying members in 450 chapters, located mostly in a 300-mile radius of Chicago.
It claimed 135,000 members in 60 chapters in Illinois, its strongest state. Fundraising drives produced about $370,000 from some 25,000 contributors. Nearly half came from a few millionaires such as William H. Regnery, H. Smith Richardson of the Vick Chemical Company, General Robert E. Wood of Sears-Roebuck, Sterling Morton (1855-1961), secretary of the Morton Salt Company (son of the company's founder, Joy Morton), publisher Joseph M. Patterson (New York Daily News) and his cousin, publisher Robert R. McCormick (Chicago Tribune).
The AFC was never able to get funding for its own public opinion poll. The New York chapter received slightly more than $190,000, most of it from its 47,000 contributors. Since it never had a national membership form or national dues, and local chapters were quite autonomous, historians suggest that the organization's leaders had no idea how many "members" it had.
Serious organizing of the America First Committee took place in Chicago not long after the September 1940 establishment. Chicago was to remain the national headquarters of the committee. To preside over their committee, America First chose General Robert E. Wood, the 61-year-old chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Wood remained at the head of the committee until it was disbanded in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The America First Committee had its share of prominent businessmen as well as the sympathies of political figures including Democratic Senators Burton K. Wheeler of Montana and David I. Walsh of Massachusetts, Republican Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota, and Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, with its most prominent spokesman being aviator Charles A. Lindbergh. Other celebrities supporting America First were novelist Sinclair Lewis, poet E. E. Cummings, Washington socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth, film producer Walt Disney, actress Lillian Gish and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The many student chapters included future celebrities, such as the author Gore Vidal (as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy), and the future President Gerald Ford, at Yale Law School.
When the war began in September 1939, most Americans, including politicians, demanded neutrality regarding Europe. Although most Americans supported strong measures against Japan, Europe was the focus of the America First Committee. The public mood was changing, however, especially after the fall of France in the spring of 1940.
The America First Committee launched a petition aimed at enforcing the 1939 Neutrality Act and forcing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to keep his pledge to keep America out of the war. They profoundly distrusted Roosevelt and argued that he was lying to the American people.
On the day after Roosevelt's lend-lease bill was submitted to the United States Congress, Wood promised AFC opposition "with all the vigor it can exert". America First staunchly opposed the convoying of ships, the Atlantic Charter, and the placing of economic pressure on Japan. In order to achieve the defeat of lend-lease and the perpetuation of American neutrality, the AFC advocated four basic principles:
Charles Lindbergh was admired in Germany and allowed to see the buildup of the German air force, the Luftwaffe, in 1937. He was impressed with its strength and secretly reported his findings to the General Staff of the U.S. Army, warning that the U.S. had fallen behind and must urgently build up its aviation. He had feuded with the Roosevelt administration for years. His first radio speech was broadcast on September 15, 1939, over all three of the major radio networks. He urged listeners to look beyond the speeches and propaganda they were being fed and instead look at who was writing the speeches and reports, who owned the papers and who influenced the speakers.
On June 20, 1941, Lindbergh spoke to 30,000 people in Los Angeles billed as "Peace and Preparedness Mass Meeting", Lindbergh criticized those movements which he perceived were leading America into the war. He proclaimed that the United States was in a position that made it virtually impregnable. He claimed that the interventionists and the British who called for "the defense of England" really meant "the defeat of Germany".
Nothing did more to escalate the tensions than the speech Lindbergh delivered to a rally in Des Moines, Iowa on September 11, 1941. In that speech he identified the forces pulling America into the war as the British, the Roosevelt administration, and American Jews. While he expressed sympathy for the plight of the Jews in Germany, he argued that America's entry into the war would serve them little better. He said in part:
It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race. No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution the Jewish race suffered in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy, both for us and for them.
Instead of agitating for war the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few farsighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, AFC canceled a rally with Lindbergh at Boston Garden "in view of recent critical developments", and the organization's leaders announced their support of the war effort. Lindbergh said:
We have been stepping closer to war for many months. Now it has come and we must meet it as united Americans regardless of our attitude in the past toward the policy our government has followed.
Whether or not that policy has been wise, our country has been attacked by force of arms and by force of arms we must retaliate. Our own defenses and our own military position have already been neglected too long. We must now turn every effort to building the greatest and most efficient Army, Navy and Air Force in the world. When American soldiers go to war it must be with the best equipment that modern skill can design and that modern industry can build.
With the formal declaration of war against Japan, the organization chose to disband. On December 11, the committee leaders met and voted for dissolution. In the statement which they released to the press was the following:
Our principles were right. Had they been followed, war could have been avoided. No good purpose can now be served by considering what might have been, had our objectives been attained.
We are at war. Today, though there may be many important subsidiary considerations, the primary objective is not difficult to state. It can be completely defined in one word: Victory.
Communists were antiwar until June 1941 and tried to infiltrate or take over America First. After Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, they reversed positions and denounced the AFC as a Nazi front (or infiltrated by German agents). Nazis also tried to use the committee: at the trial of the aviator and orator Laura Ingalls, the prosecution revealed that her handler, Ulrich Freiherr von Gienanth, a German diplomat, had encouraged her to participate in committee activities.
Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan has praised America First and used its name as a slogan. "The achievements of that organization are monumental," writes Buchanan. "By keeping America out of World War II until Hitler attacked Stalin in June 1941, Soviet Russia, not America, bore the brunt of the fighting, bleeding and dying to defeat Nazi Germany."