The slogan “America first!” has been used as a motto by three American presidents in history. Warren G. Harding, Woodrow Wilson and Donald Trump. Each in a slightly different situation and with different motivations. In the 1930s, this slogan was both the name and the program of the movement that promoted the isolationist policy of the United States.
The world was heading unstoppably towards another international conflict, and the leading representatives of the America First movement did not want to ask themselves which side they would take in it. They were clear that the only party to care about was theirs. Domestic, national.
Rather, they perceived the geopolitical situation in such a way that tension in Europe or Asia is purely a matter for Europe and Asia. The United States should take care of itself and its citizens, not exhaust itself economically in costly and wasteful military adventures abroad.
“Why should an American soldier bleed, or perhaps even die, in a war on another continent, in a war that his nation did not provoke?” said Charles Lindbergh, an important celebrity of the movement, for example.
Proponents of isolationist politics assumed that the United States of America was large enough and self-sufficient to withstand a possible global conflict on its own, in complete neutrality. And wait for the storm to pass.
America First outwardly positioned itself as a peace-promoting, anti-war movement. Peace is a common interest, which is why it also gained considerable support from the American public. At the height of its fame, its base could count on 800,000 members, people from the entire spectrum of society.
The protest rally on 5th Avenue in New York that occurred on July 7, 1941, called for peace.
Too explosive a map
However, with the passage of time, it became clear from the sharpening rhetoric that some of the most prominent speakers, leaders and members of this community do not hide pro-fascist and anti-Semitic views at all. And that, rather than neutrality, they strive to ensure that the United States of America does not supply material and armaments only to countries fighting against Nazism.
American support for Great Britain was presented by the movement as drawing America into the war. It argued that the eventual collapse and victory of Nazism in Europe posed no security threat to the North American continent. And when his protagonists failed in this persuasion? They pulled a trump card.
On Sunday, November 28, 1937, a map appeared on the front page of a supplement to the Chicago Herald and Examiner that definitely shook readers. She presented a bleak future. The shape of the United States of America, if they did succumb to the urge to go to war overseas. And they lost. This was a fairly new perspective on the matter, which had not been discussed much anywhere before.
Confident American citizens had hitherto been confronted with the fact that their unrivaled industry could bring a decisive turn to the eventual war rage in Europe. But a fight on home soil? The last time Americans tried it was in 1865, during the Civil War. They still remembered it from their great-grandfathers’ stories, and they definitely didn’t stand a repeat.
The idea that by entering the war they could bring destruction to their continent, that they could even lose that war at home, horrified them. The labels on the full-page map only supported the depressing impression.
United States Divided
“Our Pacific coast, famous for mineral, oil, forest wealth, has become easy prey for conquerors” is written next to the territory in a kind of Yellow Zone. It also includes the Hawaiian Islands, where it is written: “The United States would lose this Pacific springboard and an important naval base.”
The red and blue zones overlap states from Alabama to Tennessee to Pennsylvania. The local industrial centers and factories will become a fat reward for the invading troops, they will serve his purposes. Likewise, the grain of Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico will fall to the enemies. And New York? “A city too valuable for just one conqueror to hold within its sphere of influence will be established as a free international port.”
Although not specifically mentioned, the map and color-coded spheres of influence make it clear what the unnamed conquerors and invading troops are. After the war was lost, the Germans, Japanese and Italians took their share from the United States.
The map was a cold shower for the Americans, who until now had convinced themselves that another world war would not touch their country. But despite the undeniable threatening effect it had on the American public, America First propagandists miscalculated it a bit.
Hitler didn’t attack us, so why attack Hitler?
Arming Great Britain, they say, only means prolonging the war.
In those colorful hints, the map defined who is a potential enemy and a possible threat to the United States of America. She lectured that the French, Poles, Chinese or Soviets are not trying to conquer America. And by doing so, she actually indirectly indicated who needs to be supported in order to preserve one’s own existence.
However, the map, presented under the glaring headline “If we enter a world war and lose!”, will be remembered once more. Four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 11, 1941. That’s when the original America First movement is officially disbanded, and Americans are no longer confused about where the isolationist policy could lead them. They know who the enemy is.
And thanks to the “peace” map from 1937, he also has an inkling of what the future would hold for the United States of America. A dubious map that presented the necessity of neutrality and peace became an argument for entering the war just four years later.