The Long History Behind Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ Foreign Policy

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tags: election 2016, Trump



Though the nation has a long history of vowing to stay out of the problems of other countries—George Washington’s farewell address famously warned against foreign entanglements in 1796—but it was after World War I, as the U.S. was in a position of power and wealth compared to its once-stronger allies, that the modern version of that sentiment came to the forefront. At the war’s close, President Wilson had urged the nation to join the new League of Nations, to ensure peace through international cooperation in the precursor to the United Nations. In 1919, however, the Senate had rejected the idea of participating in such an organization.

In the years that followed, it appeared to some that the isolationist instinct in the U.S. had been a good one. As Europe faltered and once-supreme nations struggled to recover, the U.S. seemed by contrast healthy and wealthy—a fact that at least some observers attributed to having left the rest of the world to fend for itself. “The United States has achieved prosperity by the wise policy of America first,” declared London’s Daily Express in 1923. In 1927, the slogan got another boost when Chicago elected a headline-hungry mayor, William Hale Thompson, whose campaign anthem was “America First, Last and Always.” He pledged to support the establishment of America First Associations around the country, and said he would show English leaders who asked for economic help “where to get off.”

That “America First” attitude would be put to the test soon enough.

As war broke out once again in the 1930s, isolation-minded Americans confronted the possibility that the U.S. would become entangled in another international campaign. As TIME recounted in December of 1940, the previous summer a Yale law student named Robert Douglas Stuart Jr. had joined forces with business executive and famed veteran Gen. Robert E. Wood, and together they had started the America First Committee. The committee espoused the view that since Germany was unlikely to invade the U.S. directly, the best response to the war was for the U.S. to remain neutral in all respects, even if that meant doing business with the Nazis. By that December, the committee boasted 60,000 members




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