Will Vladimir Putin’s invasion of a peaceful and democratic Ukraine do anything to liberate the American right from its attachment (or regression) to the foolish and dangerous doctrine of “America First”?
I hope so. But I’m doubtful.
Consider this bit of history. Munich was at the end of September 1938, and Kristallnacht a few weeks later. Prague was occupied in March 1939, and Poland crushed that September. France and the low countries were invaded in May 1940. The assault on Great Britain was to begin soon thereafter.
What was the reaction to these rapid and momentous world events by prominent conservatives, leading members of the business community, and various fascist fellow travelers and anti-anti-fascist luminaries?
They formed the America First Committee. In September 1940.
Until a few years ago I hadn’t realized (or had forgotten, if I’d once known) that the America First Committee wasn’t a creature of 1937 or 1938—when it might still have been vaguely plausible to believe in some form of appeasement. It wasn’t even a creature of 1939—when it might have been plausible to hope Hitler might confine his ambitions to his east.
While there were rumblings of isolationism and anti-interventionism in the 1930s—especially in the work of the Nye Committee, during the 1939 congressional debates over repealing the Neutrality Acts, and when Charles Lindbergh took to the airwaves—the America First Committee was not founded until September 1940, after the fall of France. Its heyday was in the first half of 1941—as Britain stood alone against Hitler, who was then allied, one might note, with Stalin.
You might think that the Nazi regime’s character and intentions—and the implications of that character and those intentions for the United States and the entire world—would by then have been clear for all to see.
But fear, misunderstanding, and wishful thinking all held sway, mixed in with a dash of genuine sympathy for or admiration of Germany. For various reasons people wanted to believe in America First—to believe that America should go it alone, should mind its own business, should stay out and stay neutral as democracies were attacked and overrun.
The America First Committee was dissolved only after Pearl Harbor.
Why rehearse this history? To suggest that, sadly, we shouldn’t expect most of today’s America Firsters to change their minds any time soon because of Putin’s acts. Indeed, the representatives of today’s new pro-authoritarian or anti-anti-authoritarian right are if anything more invested in their worldview than their forebears from eight decades ago.
One hopes that there are some sincere but misguided types who will learn from being mugged by the reality of Putin. One hopes that some others who have acquiesced in “America First” without believing in it may decide this is a moment to speak up.
If any of these figures wish to join the alliance of pro- democratic forces, they should be welcomed aboard. We can leave historical reckoning to another time and place.
But, as one can tell from the litany of apologias for Putin assembled by Charlie Sykes, we shouldn’t expect that the defenders of democracy will have our ranks substantially augmented.
So the Biden administration will in this crisis have to lead a nation divided. And not merely a nation divided, but a nation one of whose two major parties, led by our most recent former president who is also that party’s probable next presidential candidate, will likely go out of its way to oppose what must be done to meet the challenges we face.
It would be nice at this moment of crisis to have a constructive and loyal opposition party. Alas, “this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected.”
This makes it all the more important that those Republicans and conservatives who are willing to be constructive and loyal speak up for American world leadership. That they speak up against the demagogues in their midst whom they have failed for too long to repudiate. That they show what it means to shun the partisan and pernicious rhetoric of “America First” and instead act genuinely to put America first.