Where ‘America First’ Once Led

A new exhibit reveals America’s isolationist attitudes and policies during the Holocaust—and speaks to where the country still stands today.

People line up to enter the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. (Alex Brandon / AP)

According to the authoritative Freedom House rankings, we have seen over a decade of deterioration in free institutions. Outright massacre is the order of the day in countries from Burma to the Levant, and tyrants no less cunning than Mussolini or Franco subvert the rule of law, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech from Warsaw to Ankara, and from Beijing to Moscow. As was the case 80 years ago, many in the United States would rather step back from a world that seems turbulent but not their problem. Their president wants tariffs and walls, while polls show that for many Americans, democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are not values to be defended to the death. Against this backdrop, a new exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—“Americans and the Holocaust”—seems to speak to where America stands today, even though it has been years in the making and thus was not designed as a political commentary on the United States of 2018.

Speaking about the Holocaust Museum (where my wife works as a curator), Elie Wiesel said that it is “a question mark, not an answer.” That is particularly true here. But even so, the exhibit establishes some important facts. In an ingenious display that was crowdsourced from around the country, visitors from anywhere in the United States can discover what their hometown newspapers were saying during the rise of Hitler. The answer is: a lot. Discrimination against, and then persecution of, Germany’s Jews was widely covered. Kristallnacht, the officially sanctioned pogrom of November 9–10, 1938, received particular attention, and was roundly condemned across the country. The sympathy with the Jews of Germany and later Europe was impressive, and is documented by contemporary Gallup polls.

But were Americans willing to take in refugees, even children? The answer is no: By a three-to-one margin, including on the eve of the war and indeed after it, Americans did not want such immigrants. Grimmer yet: Did America admit at least those refugees provided for in the skimpy quotas allowed under law in the years leading up to 1941 and American entry? The answer again is no: not by a large margin. In 1936, for example, barely a quarter of the visas that could have been issued to refugees from Germany—most of them Jews—were in fact issued. Although in 1939 and 1940 the quotas were filled, in the early 1930s the percentage of visas granted was even smaller than in 1936.

The exhibit brings home both the feel of these attitudes and policies and the human price paid for them. A wall of letters, bureaucratic forms, visa applications, telegrams, and affidavits gives visitors the feeling of being caught in a bewildering blizzard of paper. A computerized light table lets visitors track the escapades of those attempting to escape Hitler’s clutches. Naturally enough, I chose to follow the career of a professor who trekked across Europe. He had just about made it through the State Department’s procedural rules, European passport and visa requirements, logistical obstacles … and, at the last step, vanished into the hell of Majdanek.

There is much else as well, including Dr. Seuss’s anti-Nazi cartoons, and, inevitably, Donald Duck going to war. But the exhibit returns repeatedly to the attitudes of leaders and opinion makers. The bulk of careful scholars are kinder to Roosevelt than once they were. Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman in FDR and the Jews show that when he thought he had room to maneuver, the president was helpful to those fleeing Hitler from Germany—to a point. But there is nonetheless a sting in reading an entry from the diary of his new ambassador to Berlin in June 1933, recounting the views expressed by FDR at their last meeting: “The German authorities are treating the Jews shamefully and the Jews in this country are greatly excited. But this is also not a governmental affair.”

Roosevelt was a master calculator who was leading a country that wanted nothing to do with immigrants, nothing to do with European squabbles, and not a whole lot to do with Jews. There were others who were much, much worse. Radio preacher Father Coughlin—not the first exceedingly un-Christian clergyman, and not the last—spewing his hatred, for example, or the more coldly odious Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, who bears the largest responsibility for reducing the numbers of refugees admitted to well below the limits provided for by law. He was reassigned in 1941 and left the State Department in late 1944, retiring to collect antiques, raise horses, and hunt foxes on his Maryland farm, never seeming to have felt the slightest twinge of conscience about the thousands his obstruction doomed.

This might all be an occasion for mere brooding about the past, were there not some jarring echoes for today. The isolationist organization America First gets its share of attention here, and deservedly so. Launched in September 1940, it soon built up a membership of over 800,000. Led by the retired general and business executive Robert Wood, its most charismatic spokesman was the heroic aviator Charles Lindbergh, a strange but inflammatory hero for the isolationists, who was not beyond the occasional Jew-baiting himself. America First opposed the Atlantic Charter issued by Roosevelt and Churchill in August 1941 after their meeting off Newfoundland, presumably including clauses like the pledge to respect the right to self-government. It captured the imaginations of some privileged young men, to include a couple of future presidents and assorted intellectual luminaries. It vanished into thin air after Pearl Harbor, and many of the young men who supported it, like John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford, changed their views in later years.

America First is, because of its discreditable history, a disreputable slogan, which has not prevented President Trump from embracing it and subordinates who know better from defending it. In so doing, they unwittingly undermine their other slogan, “Make America Great Again,” because the America of the 1930s was not all that great. There were—as we have been reminded by the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice—the pitiless murders of African Americans by lynch mobs. There were scores of such killings in the 1930s. There was casual and open bigotry and discrimination against Jews and other religious and ethnic groups. If Roosevelt proclaimed the Four Freedoms in his 1941 State of the Union address—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—the great objectives of the struggle that impended, it was not because America was contentedly enjoying them and wished to share in their bounty, but because he knew that they had to be fought for, at home and abroad simultaneously.

There were, thank goodness, other voices and other movements. There was the fearless journalist Dorothy Thompson, who interviewed Hitler early on and wrote an astonishingly perceptive book, I Saw Hitler!, in 1932, warning her fellow citizens about what was to come. There was Freedom House, established by Wendell Willkie—FDR’s failed opponent in 1940—and Eleanor Roosevelt, to counteract America First. It remains today one of the great voices of conscience in chronicling the abuses of freedom wherever they occur, true to the legacy of those who founded it almost eight decades ago. It, not America First, is the true voice of a generation that at last made a difficult choice and the right choice.

A second Holocaust is not on the horizon, insofar as we know. The mood is more that of the early 1930s, when the horrors of Auschwitz lay in the unimagined and unimaginable future. Then, Americans, angry that the war of 1914–18, the war to end all wars, had not in fact done so, were suspicious of foreigners and susceptible to the demagoguery of politicians like Huey Long or Gerald Nye. They tried to close themselves off from the world. If building a wall would have done it, many would have favored it.

Roosevelt turned all of his extraordinary political skills to averting the disaster that would have meant—and even so, it was only through a series of extraordinary miscalculations by America’s enemies that the United States fully stepped up to the challenges awaiting it. It was an America that, painfully, was willing to overcome its fears and its demons and aspire to greatness, not one that rose and pledged with Father Coughlin to “restore America to Americans!” In the months and years to come, the question posed—unintentionally perhaps, but powerfully even so by the Holocaust Museum—is whether today an America irritated by its burdens and now led by an America Firster would be willing to do so again.