January 28, 2007

America First Redux?

It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race.

No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy both for us and for them. Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.

Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastations. A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not.

Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.

I am not attacking either the Jewish or the British people. Both races, I admire. But I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war.

We cannot blame them for looking out for what they believe to be their own interests, but we also must look out for ours. We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction.

--Charles Lindbergh, 1941
Larison points to Lindbergh's speech as evidence against the unjust anathematization of a historical figure in order to bash present-day opponents.

Examination of the question of interventionism must bring us sooner or later to the question of World War II and those who opposed American entry before Pearl Harbor. Chief among these opponents was the America First organization and its spokesman Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh today is remembered as the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, as the victim of a notorious kidnapping, and as the leader of America First.

The winners get to rewrite history, and in the light of Pearl Harbor and Hitler's declaration of war against the United States, America First gets tarred as a bunch of ignorant peckerwoods and Lindbergh as a Nazi sympathizer and antisemite. In the view of Lindbergh's critics, Exhibit A for the latter charge is the 1941 Des Moines speech. In the speech, Lindbergh lists the principal forces behind the pro-war faction as Britain, the Jews, and the Roosevelt Administration, and argues that intervention is not in the interest of America taken as a whole.

The section on the Jews, taken above, may not be a model of tact, but it hardly amounts to antisemitic agitation. There are four elements of the speech that some might take as tending that way, but the speech is carefully qualified, so that at most, Lindbergh was infelicitious in his choice of language. These three elements are (a) the references to "the Jews" as if they were a monolith; (b) the claim that Jews are influential in Hollywood and the media; (c) the warning (or threat) that war might bring with it a decline in tolerance; and (d) the contrasting of British and Jewish interests with American interests, as if Jews in this country were not American.

"The Jews," of course, don't agree on much of anything, whether in religion or politics, and they didn't then, as Lindbergh himself acknowledges. On the other hand, there are major Jewish organizations and spokesman. Even if many Jews are driven up the wall by the self-righteousness and self-importance of these groups, they are recognizable and they have influence. Even though there are plenty of Jews nowadays who are critical of Israel and Zionism, for example, it would be a bit crude but not inaccurate to say that "the Jews" favor American support for Israel.

Jews were influential in Hollywood in Lindbergh's day, and they are now; just ask Neil Gabler, who's proud of it. Just how influential Jews were in the 1941 media is not clear to me, but it's fair to say they weren't invisible when the New York Times was the newspaper of record and not a leftist birdcage-liner and Walter Lippman was the foremost political columnist. Did these media folks have a uniform view of politics or the world? Probably not. Were most of them pro-Allied? Probably.

The notion that crisis and conflict brings with it a heightened risk of ethnic and religious conflict of all kinds is familiar enough. Just ask any middle-class refugee from Baghdad. Did Lindbergh intend a threat? That's hardly clear, although there was Nazi propaganda in the era to the effect that if the Jews launch a war in Europe they would pay for it. Of course, they didn't launch the war and ended up paying anyway.

Finally, the old-fashioned reference to British and Jewish "races" advocating intervention for reasons that are "not American" logically implies that the Jewish reasons for wanting to intervene against Germany were not American, and if not close-read, that American Jews themselves were not American. Lindbergh actually didn't say the latter. What he was really saying was that German abuses against Jews were not reason enough for America to go to war.

To summarize, Lindbergh's speech is anything but an antisemitic rant, although it contains some language that in our PC age would be rephrased.

America First was a broad coalition. One could turn Lindbergh on his head and say that pro-German forces in America would favor neutrality for reasons legitimate to them, but that doesn't justify a retroactive anathematization of America First. Given the failure of Wilson's preachments about making the world safe for democracy in World War I, and the contribution of the Versailles settlement to the start of the Second War, the reluctance to intervene was understandable. So was the belief that the Roosevelt Administration was maneuvering to provide maximum help to the Allies, and pressing Japan to the brink as well.

From the perspective of half a century of interventionism/internationalism, the notion that America can survive and prosper without fighting the wars of the Old World may seem as quaint as the Mayor of Chicago threatening to bust the King of England in the snoot if he set foot in the Windy City, but the caution about fighting foreign wars that underlay America First is no longer quaint or outmoded. Neither does noticing that AIPAC is a powerful and effective pro-Israel lobby, or that some Zionist sympathizers are in the forefront of those agitating for war with Iran, an antisemite make.

No comments: