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'America First': From Charles Lindbergh To President Trump

Feb 6, 2017
Originally published on February 8, 2017 6:09 pm

Charles Lindbergh became an instant American hero when he piloted the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris in 1927, the first person to fly solo and nonstop across the Atlantic.

Lindbergh was an icon in Europe as well, and he moved to England in the late 1930s. By 1941, though, he was back home, touring the U.S. as the leading voice of the America First Committee — an isolationist group of some 800,000 members that claimed England was trying to drag America into a war he thought it should avoid.

"I have been forced to the conclusion that we cannot win this war for England regardless of how much assistance we send. That is why the America First Committee has been formed," Lindbergh said in 1941, just months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the U.S. into World War II.

A few momentous years later, after the devastation of the war, isolationism was out of fashion. Instead, America became the driving force in establishing a global web that defines the world to this day — NATO, the United Nations, a strong U.S. military presence in Asia, open seas, a host of trade agreements.

These arrangements are now being challenged by President Trump. He has often described them as a burden the U.S. should shed, and he has distilled his approach into the phrase "America First."

"From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first," Trump said at his inaugural on Jan. 20.

Trump has never made the connection to Lindbergh and his group, and there are both similarities and differences. In foreign policy lingo, Lindbergh and his group were isolationists. They wanted to keep the U.S. out of most foreign entanglements.

Trump is more commonly described as a unilateralist — someone who thinks the U.S. can be engaged around the world, but on its own terms, unconstrained by alliances or multinational groups like the United Nations.

Still, Trump, like Lindbergh before him, argues the U.S. should not be the world's policeman.

Ian Bremmer, head of the Eurasia Group, which analyzes global risk, explained Trump's worldview this way in an interview with NPR:

"The U.S. should not be promoting its values internationally. It should not be telling other counties how they run themselves. The multilateral institutions that the U.S. has had a significant role in are part of that problem."

A focus on burdens

Trump has plenty of company in attacking the global status quo. Liberals and conservatives argue that institutions like the U.N. and NATO should, at minimum, be restructured to keep up with a world that has changed dramatically since they were established. Critics also point to U.S. military actions that have resulted in inconclusive wars at enormous costs.

"Many Americans looked at the policies of the past decades and saw that the U.S. acting as the global sheriff did not benefit them," Bremmer said. "It was trillions of dollars wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan, with thousands of American lives lost ... and they don't want to see that anymore."

Trump has talked mostly about disrupting the world order, without saying what would replace it. Yet if the U.S. simply recedes from its superpower role, Russia, China and Iran and others would gladly step in to fill that void, according to many analysts.

"The international order that America created is now under unprecedented threat from multiple directions," retired Gen. David Petraeus warned recently on Capitol Hill.

Petraeus said the U.S. still has the resources to be a superpower, but he worries about "something perhaps even more pernicious — a loss of self-confidence, resolve and strategic clarity on America's part about our vital interest in preserving and protecting the system we sacrificed so much to bring into being."

Trump has focused on the burdens rather than intangible benefits that the U.S. received by working to shape the world in its image for decades. He argues that NATO allies aren't pulling their weight, those U.S. troops in Asia since World War II are too expensive, and trade agreements are costing American workers their jobs.

"For many decades, we've enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military," Trump declared at his inaugural.

Lindbergh changes course

Lindbergh once expressed similar sentiments.

"The doctrine that we must enter the wars of Europe in order to defend America will be fatal to our nation if we follow it," he said in 1941.

But then came Pearl Harbor, and that changed everything. Lindbergh's movement collapsed — and he not only backed the U.S. war effort, he joined it. Although he had civilian, not military status, he still manged to fly more than 50 combat missions in the Pacific.

And after the war was over, he was often back in Europe, supporting the U.S. effort to rebuild the Continent.

Every president faces unexpected crises, and as Trump sets his course in a volatile world, his own interpretation of America First may also be challenged.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Charles Lindbergh became an American hero when he flew the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic in 1927. Well, that wasn't his only claim to fame. He later led a hugely popular political movement with a slogan and a philosophy similar to those of President Trump. NPR's Greg Myre has the story.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Lindbergh was an icon in Europe as well as the U.S., and he moved to England in the late 1930s. By 1941, though, he was back home touring the country as the leading voice of the America First Committee, an isolationist group that claimed England was dragging America into a war he thought it should avoid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES LINDBERGH: And I have been forced to the conclusion that we cannot win this war for England regardless of how much assistance we send. That is why the America First Committee has been formed.

MYRE: That's Lindbergh just months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Here's President Trump at his inaugural.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first.

MYRE: Trump has never connected his tag line to Lindbergh and his group, and the parallels are far from absolute. But like Lindbergh before him, Trump has argued the U.S. should not be the world's policeman. Ian Bremmer, head of the Eurasia Group, which analyzes global risk, explains Trump's world view this way.

IAN BREMMER: The U.S. should not be promoting its values internationally, should not be telling other countries how they run themselves, that multilateral institutions that U.S. has had a significant role in are part of that problem.

MYRE: Trump has plenty of company in attacking the global status quo. Many argue that institutions like NATO and the United Nations need to be restructured. Critics also point to America's long-running, expensive and inconclusive wars. Here's Bremmer again.

BREMMER: Many, many Americans looked at the policies of the past decades and saw that the U.S. acting as the global sheriff did not benefit them. It was trillions of dollars wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan with thousands of American lives lost. And they don't want to see that anymore.

MYRE: Trump has talked mostly about disrupting the current world order without saying what he would put in its place. Yet if the U.S. recedes from its superpower role, that would invite the likes of Russia, China and Iran to fill the vacuum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID PETRAEUS: The international order that America created is now under unprecedented threat from multiple directions.

MYRE: That's retired General David Petraeus speaking recently on Capitol Hill. He says the current global security system has generally served America well. But, he adds...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETRAEUS: It did not will itself into existence. We created it. Likewise, it is not naturally self-sustaining. We have sustained it. If we stop doing so, it will fray and eventually collapse.

MYRE: Trump has focused on the burdens of America's global role. He says NATO allies aren't pulling their weight, those U.S. troops in Asia since World War II are too expensive, trade agreements are costing American workers their jobs. Charles Lindbergh once raised similar objections to foreign adventures.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDBERGH: The doctrine that we must enter the wars of Europe in order to defend America will be fatal to our nation if we follow it.

MYRE: In Lindbergh's case, the Pearl Harbor attack changed everything. His movement collapsed, and he not only backed the U.S. war effort. He joined it. He returned to the cockpit, flying more than 50 combat missions in the Pacific. Every president faces unexpected crises. And as Trump sets his course in a volatile world, his own definition of America first is sure to be challenged. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.