Before the United States entered World War I, Hearst’s sympathies lay with Germany. He used his publishing empire to gather pro-German editors and writers around him, did a deal with a German agent for newsreel footage, and used a paid agent of the German government as his newspaper correspondent for German matters. But once the United States declared war on Germany, Hearst could no longer maintain this stance, so he took up a new one. With American flags decorating his newspapers’ masthead, he declared that the freshly belligerent Americans should tender no aid to the Allies also fighting Germany: “[K]eep every dollar and every man and every weapon and all our supplies and stores AT HOME, for the defense of our own land, our own people, our own freedom, until that defense has been made ABSOLUTELY secure. After that we can think of other nations’ troubles. But till then, America first!”
Wilson had used “America first” to position the United States as an international leader; Hearst interpreted the slogan to mean preserving, in sympathy with the Germans, above all and absolutely the security of the American homeland and the American people. Hearst’s version stuck, not least because he revived it to oppose the 1932 nomination of Franklin Roosevelt for president and to invent the candidacy of John Nance Garner.
In 1932, it already looked likely that with unemployment near 25 percent, the incumbent president, Herbert Hoover, would lose his bid for reelection, which meant the contest for the Democratic nomination would almost certainly wind up choosing the next chief executive. Hearst therefore stepped forward in January of that year with a speech decrying the internationalist Roosevelt as a Wilsonian meddler, opportunist, and the sort of fellow who would “allow the international bankers and the other big influences that have gambled with your prosperity to gamble with your politics.” Hearst preferred “a man … whose guiding motto is ‘America First,’” and named Garner—the Texas congressman who had, for slightly less than a month, been speaker of the House—as that man.
Garner did not then know he was the leading anti-Roosevelt candidate for president or that, as an inveterate free-trader, his motto was “America First.” Hearst, unfazed, hired a campaign biographer to invent a log-cabin birth and other suitable prerequisites for Garner, whose appeal, as one observer noted, was as “a Democratic Coolidge”—or, as Garner himself said, someone who believed “the gravest possible menace” facing the country was “the constantly increasing tendency toward socialism and communism.” Here, he was reciting a verse from the Hearst hymnal.
By 1932, Hearst was publishing articles by Adolf Hitler, whom Hearst admired for keeping Germany out of, as Hitler put it in a Hearst paper, “the beckoning arms of Bolshevism.” Hitler instead promoted a transcendent idea of nationalism—putting Germany first—and, by organizing devoted nationalist followers to threaten and beat up leftists, Hitler would soon destroy class-based politics in his country. Increasingly, Hearst wanted to see something similar happen in the United States.