Along with the customary cluster of cookouts, parades, and fireworks, the 4th of July this year brings something different to the observance of our great national festival. “America First” is President Trump’s not-so-new rhetorical contribution to Independence Day 2017.
Opinion is divided on whether that’s good or bad. On this, a distinction may help.
Taken simply as an ingenuous expression of patriotism, there’s no real objection to America First. Charity at the global level truly must begin at home, for unless it starts there—in love of one’s own country, that is—charity isn’t likely to thrive anywhere else.
The Second Vatican Council says as much. “Citizens should cultivate a generous and loyal spirit of patriotism,” Vatican II teaches in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. But then it makes a second, inseparable point. Citizens should practice patriotism, it says, “without narrow-mindedness,” keeping in mind “the welfare of the whole human family which is formed into one by various kinds of links between races, peoples, and nations” (Gaudium et Spes, 75).
By that standard, how does Trump’s iteration of America First measure up? That question must be weighed in light of his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, his problematic views on NATO, immigration and free trade, and much else. These plainly are complex issues about which reasoned disagreement is possible; but the president’s words and deeds, taken together, at least provide matter for concern when gauged by Vatican II.
That said, moreover, there is no ignoring the historical baggage that the slogan “America First” inescapably carries with it.
The story goes back to 1940 when Yale law students who included future president Gerald Ford, future Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, and future Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart joined in establishing a group called the America First Committee. Its stated purpose was to oppose United States’ entry into the war then raging in Europe.
By that time the world had witnessed the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact, the invasion and dismemberment of Poland, and the fall of France. The Luftwaffe’s air war against London and other British cities was underway, and a German invasion of Britain was thought to be imminent.
By no means, however, was the America First Committee a mere creature of head-in-the-sand isolationism. Isolationism certainly was part of it, but the group also drew support from respectable sources, including a number of big businessmen. Its chief spokesman was the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh, who, besides wanting America to stay out of the war, also advocated an American military buildup in anticipation of the day when the country might have to fight. Future president John F. Kennedy sent a check for $100 together with a note calling America First’s efforts “vital.” At its peak, the group claimed 800,000 members in 450 chapters, most of them in the Midwest.
Then came December 7, 1941—Pearl Harbor. Four days after the attack on America’s Pacific fleet, the America First Committee closed down for good.
Historical parallels are never exact, and this one surely isn’t. Still, there may be a lesson here, one reinforced by Vatican Council II. Besides calling for patriotism, the council prayed that leaders of nations would “enlarge their thoughts and their spirit beyond the confines of their own countries” and, putting aside “nationalistic selfishness and ambition…cultivate deep reverence for the whole of mankind” (Gaudium et Spes, 82).
That is still a good prayer. Yes, certainly, America First. But a very close second, the rest of the world.
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