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Dwight Macdonald

Who’s Behind Lindbergh?

The America First Committee:
Reading from Left to Right

(June 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No.22, 2 June 1941, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Last Friday, May 24, the America First Committee held a mass meeting in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The chief speakers were Charles A. Lindbergh, Senator Burton K. Wheeler, and Norman Thomas. It was by far the biggest and most enthusiastic isolationist rally New York has yet seen. Inside the Garden there was a capacity crowd of 22,000, with another 14,000 milling around outside – a big increase since Lindbergh’s last New York meeting, just one month earlier, for which only about 10,000 turned out.

By now the America First Committee is far and away the dominant isolationist outfit in the country. The considerably older (founded 1938) Keep America Out of War Committee, a Socialist Party-liberal-pacifist group which is holding its annual convention in Washington in a few days, has been far outdistanced in both size and publicity by its younger (and more conservative) competitor. The flash-in-the-pan No Foreign War Committee, launched early this year with a big burst of expensive publicity by the smalltown Iowa editor, Verne Marshall, has by now fizzled out completely. Its death was hastened by Marshall’s blunders and by the revelation of the source of its copious funds: the sinister international oil operator, William Rhodes Davis, whose “connections” with the Nazis have long been of the very best.

Lindbergh has become the chief mouthpiece for America First? But who is behind the Committee – and behind Lindbergh? What is its history? What sort of support does it have? Where is it going politically. These questions I shall try to answer.

Birthplace: Yale University

America First look definite shape only last fall, as the presidential campaign was going into its last weeks. But its origins can be traced back to the spring of 1940 and the elm-shaded campus of Yale, the chief figure in its founding was R. DOUGLAS STUART, JR., then a Yale senior, whose father is the first vice-president of the Quaker Oats Co. Young Stuart (who now edits the near-fascist magazine. Scribner’s Commentator) soon made contact with financial backing.

One of the men was CHESTER BOWLES, JR., head of Benton & Bowles, a big Manhattan advertising agency. His agency was useful in preparing the early publicity and ads of the Committee. The “Benton” of Benton & Bowles, incidentally, is now vice-president of the University of Chicago, whose president, Robert E. Hutchins. is also a leading collaborator of the America First Committee.

The second – and more important – adviser of young Stewart was WILLIAM R. CASTLE, JR., a wealthy Harvard man whose family owns large Hawaiian sugar interests. Castle had a long career in the U.S. State Department, ending up as Hoover’s Under-Secretary of State. He is said to be ambitious to get back into politics and has been termed by observers “definitely the brains of the America First Committee.” He denies the oft-repeated story that he writes Lindbergh’s speeches, but he is at least a very intimate friend of Lindbergh. His political views are extreme right-wing Republican, with a touch of anti-Semitism. He is reported to be privately “convinced that Hitler has won the war.”

Big Business and America First

With such parents, it is not surprising that America First should have accumulated quite a load of big business supporters on its National Committee as it began to get under way last fail.

One of the first converts was HENRY FORD, whose relationship to the Committee is peculiar enough to deserve a paragraph here. On September 21 he was announced as a member of the National Committee. Three months later, however, he resigned this post under mysterious circumstances. It is not definitely known whether he chose to do so for personal reasons or whether, as the Committee began to build a mass following, its directors felt that Ford, with his Nazi medals, his fascistic labor policies and his well known anti-Semitic views, was more of a debit than an asset. He is still a rank-and-file member, however. Furthermore, according to a sensational story in PM for February 9 last:

“In a locked and guarded room on the sixth floor of the Ford Building, 1710 Broadway, Henry Ford has compiled a master list of appeasers with the names and addresses of thousands of anti-Semites, pro-Nazis and fascists. It was done with the cooperation of Scribner’s Commentator, bible of America’s super-appeasers.”

Other big business names on America First’s National Committee are; GEN. ROBERT E. WOOD, national chairman, who heads the great Chicago mail-order house of Sears, Roebuck; STERLING MORTON, of the wealthy Morton salt family; THOMAS N. McCARTER, founder and longtime head of the powerful Public Service Company of New Jersey; EDWARD RICKENBACKER, president of Eastern Air Lines; EDWARD L. RYERSON, JR., of the Ryerson Steel family, vice-chairman oi the Inland Steel Co.; JAY C. HORMEL, the meat packer (“Spam”), who got the topflight Manhattan advertising firm of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborne to contribute its technical services free to the Committee. (It is also reported that Stuart uses the Quaker Oats publicity staff and General Wood the Sears, Roebuck publicity department to work on America First propaganda.)

The Left Wing Forms

Since the line is exclusively concerned with keeping America out of the war, without any commitment as to either the political reasons for this or the kind of a social system a peaceful, “independent” America should build, the America First Committee has attracted a richly variegated following. At its meetings, both in the audience and on the platform. Coughlinites mingle with Norman Thomas socialists. Midwest progressives with Wall Street brokers. There are signs of late that tension is increasing, however, between its liberal and its fascist wings – with the business men playing a more or less centrist role. This tension is perhaps mostly caused by the fact that, of late, the Committee has ambitiously tried to strike out simultaneously both to the left and to the right to gain more recruits.

The leader of the liberal wing in the Committee is the energetic JOHN T. FLYNN, one of the founders of the Keep America Out of War Committee, who is chairman of the New York section of America First. Flynn, for years a New Republic columnist, is an old-fashioned trust-busting liberal, ever on the alert to protect free competition and the little business man against “Wall Street.” His chief leftwing colleague on the National Committee is KATHRYN LEWIS. Stalinoid daughter of John L.

First has been working more and more closely with the Socialist Party. The New Leader of May 24 reported that the SP and America First are exchanging membership lists. Last week in Chicago, MAYNARD KREUGER, Thomas’s 1940 presidential running mate, spoke at an America First chapter meeting. And, of course, the appearance of NORMAN THOMAS last Friday for the first time on an America First platform, is highly significant. Typical of the Committee’s scrambled politics was the conjunction on the platform of Thomas and the arch-conservative lady novelist, KATHLEEN NORRIS.)

“Nazi Transmission Belt”?

America First has also been philandering on the extreme right with various outright anti-Semitic and semi-fascistic characters. The Friends of Democracy charge that America First, indeed, is nothing less than a “Nazi transmission belt.” This has been mostly a matter of native fascists turning out for America First meetings uninvited, and giving (also uninvited) plugs for the Committee in their papers. The German-American National Alliance, successor to the Bund, in its official paper has solicited contributions to America First; Father Coughlin’s Social Justice is hawked vigorously at America First meetings; from Berlin itself have come broadcasts embarrassingly sympathetic to Lindbergh and Wheeler. It is true that this kind of support is not only unsought by the Committee, but also generally unwelcome. It seems exaggerating to sense as the various “innocent front” organizations of the Popular Front period were for the Stalinists. But it is also true that the line of America First, exclusively concerned with keeping American war aid from England and silent on all domestic political issues, is one which native fascists can easily support almost 100 per cent.

There have also been recent instances of the Committee’s officially collaborating with fascistic elements. According to The New Leader of May 17. “The America First Committee is taking over workers dismissed from Verne Marshall’s No Foreign War Committee ...” Two weeks ago, the REV. EDWARD LODGE CURRAN, editor of the pro-fascist Brooklyn Catholic sheet, The Tablet, and generally considered eastern spokesman for Father Coughlin, delivered the invocation at a big America First rally in Brooklyn. At this meeting – whose chief speaker was EX-GOVERNOR PHILIP LaFOLLETTE of Wisconsin, whose political career has shown certain totalitarian tendencies – prominent among those present was JOHN F. CASS1DY, Brooklyn leader at the Christian Front.

The Future

Friction seems to be developing between the liberals and the fascists in the Committee. Flynn is reported to be up in arms about the Brooklyn meeting addressed by the Rev. Mr. Curran. At Friday’s meeting, Flynn, who presided, dramatically denounced from the platform JOE McWILLIAMS, former Yorkville fuehrer and now leader of a lunatic-fringe fascist group called the American Destiny Party. McWilliams was sitting, as usual, in a front row seat at the rally. Most of the audience, papers reported, seemed to be sympathetic with Flynn’s attack. There is said to be a big fight brewing between Flynn and Curran, each of whom wants to purge the other.

Regardless of the outcome of the fight, it seems likely that the political complexion of the Committee’s following will not change much. Its isolationist line is one skillfully calculated to draw together all shades of bourgeois political opinion. So long as America First continues to avoid raising any domestic social or political issues, it will get the support both of the bourgeois isolationists, from Norman Thomas to Jay C. Hormel, and also the native fascists. It seems not unreasonable to predict that its positive political program, when the time comes to make it public, will be more along the lines desired by Messrs. Hormel, Wood, Ford and the other big-money backers of the Committee than along those of Messrs. Flynn and Thomas. One thing is notable about America First, that it seems to have very little trade union following, despite the widespread anti-war sentiment of the American working class. In such matters the workers often have a sure instinct.


(We will return to the motive behind America First in a coming issue of Labor Action. – Ed.)

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