How 'America First' Got Its Nationalistic Edge

When New York media tycoon William Randolph Hearst wanted an American “motto” that would sum up his admiration for Hitler’s governing style, he went with what is now Donald Trump’s foreign-policy slogan.

William Randolph Hearst talks to reporters after moving back to New York City from California, where he said the income tax was too high. (Associated Press)

When Donald Trump declared,⁠ “‘America First’ will be the overriding theme of my administration,” he invoked the America First Committee, which opposed U.S. aid to the opponents of Nazi Germany before December 1941. This legacy sparked critiques⁠ and defenses⁠ alike of Trump’s appeal to nationalism. Nervous⁠ U.S. allies even worried the phrase heralded a new isolationism. One of Trump’s advisers, however, insisted the phrase was a coincidental echo that didn’t “go back to negative aspects at all.” Apparently, it was merely quaint⁠ in today’s relatively Nazi-free era. But the slogan actually predates the anti-interventionist committee, and it has a lot more to do with the proto-fascist politics of the publishing magnate and sometime politician William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst did not invent the slogan “America First”; he borrowed it from Woodrow Wilson—so he could hurl it back at the president. After World War I broke out, Wilson used the “motto” of “America First” to define his version of neutrality: The United States should bide its time and husband its resources until the warring powers had “carried the thing so far” that they “must be disposed of”—then America would wade in and sort Europe out. In keeping with this view, after the Germans declared unrestricted submarine warfare against transatlantic shipping, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war in April 1917.

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.

Hearst could not stop Roosevelt at the Democratic convention in 1932, but with control of delegations from his own state of California and from Garner’s home state of Texas, Hearst had enough influence to ensure Roosevelt picked Garner as his running mate. Hearst supported the ticket on the grounds that Roosevelt would turn out to be, in his words, “properly conservative.” Roosevelt won the election, and Garner nearly made it into the Oval Office when, in February 1933, an assassin narrowly missed murdering the president-elect. As it was, the rapprochement between Hearst and Roosevelt did not last the year. Soon the publisher decided the New Deal’s program of unemployment relief was “more communistic than the communists.” It was, Hearst said, “un-American to the core.”

With “AMERICA FIRST” at the center of his newspaper masthead, emblazoned above a stylized eagle clutching a ribbon reading, “AN AMERICAN PAPER FOR THE AMERICAN PEOPLE,” Hearst promoted the virtues of Nazism, whose “great achievement”—and a lesson to all “liberty-loving people”—was the defeat of communism. Hearst now saw communism everywhere—not only in the Roosevelt administration, but among college professors “teaching alien doctrines” and among striking union workers in San Francisco, against whom Hearst’s papers encouraged vigilante violence. In July 1934, during the San Francisco general strike, mobs broke the windows of residents in tradesmen’s neighborhoods, threatened them with violence, and told them to move; “police,” The New York Times drily reported, “said that not all the victims were radicals.” For his part, Hearst responded appreciatively: “Thank God the patriotic citizens of California have shown us the way.”

This was Hearst’s “America First” in the 1930s—a nationalist enthusiasm for crushing the left by hyperbole and violence (invariably involving the use of all-caps). It’s a discourse familiar to devotees of Trump today (although Trump’s preferred typographic emphasis is the exclamation point). Trump’s campaign has put Nazi symbols on the U.S. flag and quoted white nationalist websites; now it’s using a fascist-friendly slogan. Like Hearst, Trump may not have thought his commitments through, but he has moved into a nasty intellectual neighborhood, and it shows.

Like Trump, Hearst was born to wealth, but spoke fluently, perhaps instinctively, the language of a middle-class man. Hearst, one observer in the 1930s wrote, “lives as the individual of the lower middle class would like to live,” building a huge castle and stocking it indiscriminately with bric-a-brac that might vaguely connote someone’s idea of class. Similarly, as The Economist notes, “The gaudy Mr Trump has always been a poor-man’s idea of a rich man.” Both dislike foreigners, financiers, and especially foreign financiers (who, in the 1930s, would have been implicitly understood to be Jewish). Both Trump and Hearst present a puzzle—did they create their followings or were they created by their followers?—that is answered by their chosen slogan: Before either man gave voice to it, what came before them was the inchoate idea of the defensive nationalist crouch, putting a snarling America first.