On September 4, 1940, as tensions between the United States and the Empire of Japan mounted, the America First Committee was formed. Led by Yale Law student R. Douglas Stuart, Jr., future US president Gerald Ford, future Peace Corps. Director Sargent Shriver, and future United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, the America First Committee was dedicated to speaking out against active US involvement in World War II.
Though the nation was committed to a policy of isolationism which kept it from becoming entangled in foreign affairs, as the relationship between the United States and Japan deteriorated, it became evident that war was going to be unavoidable. That meant an probable entry into the European conflict, which was the primary concern of the America First Committee.
America First Committee and the War in Europe
Over the course of nine months, the committee gained approximately 800,000 paying members spread across 450 chapters, all of whom were strongly opposed to engaging Germany and Italy in Europe. Early efforts included demanding the enforcement of the 1939 Neutrality Act and calling on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to uphold his promise to keep the United States out of the war. Despite Roosevelt not giving in to pressure from Prime Minister Winston Churchill to join the fight against Germany, the America First Committee largely distrusted the nation’s leader.
The America First Committee actively fought against Roosevelt, especially after the implementation of the Lend-Lease policy with Allied nations. AFC leaders worked to impose the committee’s four stated principles:
- The United States must build an impregnable defense for America
- No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America
- American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war
- “Aid short of war” weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad
However, even the leaders of the AFC acknowledged a breaking point when it came to opposing the war effort. On December 7, 1941, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the America First Committee was forced to shift their attention from the European conflict toward Japan. After news of the assault on Pearl Harbor spread across the nation, the group cancelled rallies.
After Pearl Harbor
When the United States declared war on Japan on December 8, leaders of the America First Committee came out in favor of the war effort. The organization’s spokesman, Charles Lindbergh, spoke shortly after the declaration of war, stating, “We have been stepping closer to war for many months. Now it has come and we must meet it as united Americans regardless of our attitude in the past toward the policy our government has followed.”
To show their support for the United States war effort, the America First Committee voted to disband on December 11. Not to back down from their ideals, however, shortly after the vote for dissolution, committee leaders released a press release which stated, “Our principles were right. Had they had been followed, war could have been avoided.”
The America First Committee is yet another example of how the attack on Pearl Harbor changed the nation, bringing it together to face a common enemy.