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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Echoes of American First in anti-war movement today?

“If international finance Jewry in and outside of Europe should succeed in thrusting the nations once again into a world war, the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth and with it the victory of Jewry, but the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe.”
                 -- Adolf Hitler, March 1933 after Reichstag fire
“It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi 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 devastation.”
              -- Charles Lindbergh, Sept 11, 1941, 3 mos. before Pearl Harbor
Mark Twain famously said "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes," and I think some troubling similarities can be found between the pro-Hitler anti-interventionist movement led by Charles Lindbergh and organize by the American First Committee before the US entered World War II, and the current anti-interventionists "anti-imperialist" anti-war movement that has been promoting a "Hands Off Syria" approach to the devastation Bashar al-Assad has been wrecking on his country. For example, In 1941 New Republic columnist & AFC'er John Flynn published Should America Fight to Make Europe Safe for Communism? which claimed that supporting the fight against Hitler put us on the side of the communists, then the bogeyman. In August 2013 ex-journalist Robert Fisk published Does Obama know he’s fighting on al-Qa’ida’s side? which I critiqued in a recent post, in which he claimed that if the United States supported the struggle against Bashar al-Assad, it would be on the side of al Qaeda, the current bogeyman. Does anyone else see parallels between these two rhetorical questions?

It goes without saying that there are important differences between the two historical periods and thus the two anti-interventionist movements. The situation in Europe at the time was clearly headed for a world class war, Syria is, at worst, a regional conflict. The Arabs just don't have that kind of clout. And communism is forward looking, at least in its theory, while Islamic extremism is backwards looking, in fact thoroughly reactionary, in its practise. The western propagandist have shown they can cast either in the role of "devil" as the situation requires, so these differences , as important as they are, mean little to them when it comes to justifying imperialist polices. Note how easily and transparently the "War on Communism" slip-streamed into the "War of Terrorism" as the Soviet Union disintegrated?

With these thoughts in mind, I've been reading a very interesting paper by David Gordon, History Department, Bronx Community College, published on 26 September 2003 when it was presented at a joint meeting of the Historical Society and The New York Military Affairs Symposium. It is titled America First: the Anti-War Movement, Charles Lindbergh and the Second World War, 1940-1941. Let's look at this paper about a certain section of the anti-war movement before the United States joined the war against the Axis powers with a special ear for anything that may resonate with the "anti-imperialist" anti-war movement that currently opposes any military intervention against Bashar al Assad and his government in Syria, or even support or aid for his opposition.

David Gordon warns us early on that the forces behind this anti-war movement were diverse:
Many joined the AFC as a way of attacking President Roosevelt and the New Deal. Still others had more sinister reasons. The evolution of the America First movement in the eighteen months of debate preceding Pearl Harbor revealed xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiment both within the AFC leadership, and among its supporters.

This study of the America First Committee is thus a cautionary tale. It is a reminder that anti-war movements are not always, or entirely, the humanitarian movements their supporters claim them to be.
Then he tells us the approach these "anti-war" activists took and why:
The greatest weakness of the anti-war movement before 1917 had been widespread sympathy for Britain and France. It remained so in 1940. The central task of the Committee therefore became to reduce support for Britain. Building on the fears of the electorate, its leaders set out to convince Americans that aid was synonymous with war. But America First did much more. It claimed the nation could work peacefully and profitably with Germany. It consistently minimized or ignored Hitler’s crimes in Europe. At the same time the Committee’s unceasing criticism of the British Empire helped convince at least some voters that democratic England was not only an unworthy recipient of American aid, it was also undeserving of American sympathy.
The claim that aid is synonymous with war is certainly a central theme of the current "anti-imperialists." They don't just oppose military intervention of any type by Western powers against Assad, they oppose any material support for those Syrians fighting Assad. They see it not as a possible way to avoid war but instead as a first step towards war, both now and then. But why is it that because they don't want to take up the struggle, those in need of help must be found unworthy? We have seen this pattern repeated time and time again. We see that to today in the constant demonization of Assad's opposition by the anti-interventionists. How many times do they bring up that one heinous act of a rebel biting into human flesh, as a reason not to do anything to stop Assad from bombing the children? Walk on, the woman being raped in the park is probably a whore anyway!

David Gordon tells us they did something else that sounds like a talking point from the anti-interventionist "anti-imperialist" play-book, they tried to portray both sides and equally as bad:
In order to defeat the president’s pro-British agenda, Committee members insisted the crimes of the western powers were as great as those of Germany. Their arguments usually began with a formulaic denunciation of Hitler, without any serious examination of his actions. This was followed by a detailed catalogue of the sins of the allies.[26]
Hitler's fascist atrocities were down-played while the alleged crimes of his opponents were broadcast:
One AFC pamphlet asked “when is Britain going to release the 30,000 political prisoners in India?“[30] The verdict was clear. The European democracies, tainted by imperialism, were not worth saving.
The good thing about a line like that is both the fascists and the "anti-imperialists" can get behind it. Today we see that broad type of "unity" being built along Islamaphobic lines, and just as fear of al Qaeda has emerged as the main reason promoted by the pro-Assad crowd for not supporting his overthrow; fear of communism was used as an argument for not opposing Hitler then:
Another AFC pamphlet stated: “The entry of Communist Russia into the war should settle once and for all the intervention issue here at home. The war party can hardly ask the people of America to take up arms behind the red flag of Stalin. With the ruthless force of dictatorship and aggression now clearly aligned on both sides the proper course for the United States becomes even clearer. We must continue to build our own defenses and take no part in this incongruous European conflict.”
Now with Hitler on one side and Stalin on the other, the anti-interventionists thought they had a "both sides and equally bad" argument that couldn't be denied.

AFC drew its membership from a wide political spectrum, from socialists like Norman Thomas to Nazis:
Many AFC supporters were certain industry and the banks wanted war for their own profit.[14] Many other supporters were Republicans who flocked to the AFC for partisan political reasons. Still others were covertly pro-German. Some were German-Americans whose sentimental attachments had not been diminished by the crimes of the Nazi regime. Others, whether of German origin or not, were attracted to Hitler’s racism and anti-Semitism.
Norman Thomas could be considered the left wing of the AFC leadership  but he was not above showing them how to give their racist propaganda a little "anti-imperialist" flare:
Norman Thomas for example suggested to Senator Wheeler that when attacking interventionist Jews he should “avoid even a suspicion of racial implication” by putting in “the House of Morgan … and perhaps the Chase National Bank.” Swanberg, Norman Thomas, p. 248.
AFC tended towards fascism with time, and Charles Lindbergh became its best known speaker:
Charles Lindbergh was among the most extreme AFC spokesmen.[37] He also introduced a troubling new theme into the America First campaign. It was support for Germany.
...
Very few AFC members discounted the importance of democracy and personal freedom. Lindbergh, with what one critic called an “Olympian contempt for all democratic processes,” did.[39] Despite formulaic protestations about its “excesses,” he found much to admire in the new German state. He also shared many of its leaders’ racial beliefs. Lindbergh was not against war. He simply opposed war with Germany.
...
Lindbergh’s opinions were not shared by all AFC leaders, or the membership. However, he was the Committee’s most popular spokesman.[40]
...
Lindbergh gave voice to Nazi fellow travelers and anti-Semites who were among the least worthy elements within America First. They repaid him with enthusiastic support.
FDR, like most political observers, considered Lindbergh completely pro-Hitler behind a few pretences. He never blamed Hitler for the fascist aggression or the war:
Neither the freedom of Poland, nor the destruction of the Nazi dictatorship, seemed worth the struggle. Even after the invasion of Poland, he refused to blame Hitler for the conflict. “No one, not even Germany,” he asserted, “is more responsible for the conditions that caused this war than England and France.”[49]
Just as some in the anti-interventionist camp today somehow blame much of the violence in Syria on Obama, like Shamaus Cooke in Counterpunch:
President Obama will have no talk of peace. He has chosen war since the very start and he’s sticking to it.
Lindbergh blamed Roosevelt, not Hitler, for the rising war tensions, from his famous nine-eleven speech:
The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.
Lindbergh also considered President Roosevelt a greater threat to world peace than Hitler and let it be known that he hoped for a negotiated peace rather than an English victory.



This anti-war coalition, involving as it did different motivations, was always shaky because it was based on opportunism, and the more open Lindbergh became about his pro-Nazi views, the more exposed the AFC became:
Most members of the AFC leadership refused to denounce him. Some agreed with him. Others, like Norman Thomas, Oswald Villard and John Flynn were willing to go along in order to achieve their goal - the preservation of American neutrality.[52] The unity of the anti-war movement, they were certain, was worth the sacrifice.
...
The moral implications of Lindbergh’s position were not entirely apparent in January 1941. What did seem clear was the need to remain united.
As spokesman for the anti-interventionists, Lindbergh always claimed that they were above board while the other side was trying to hide something:
If you will look back over the record, you will find that those of us who oppose intervention have constantly tried to clarify facts and issues; while the interventionists have tried to hide facts and confuse issues.
He also argued that we had too many debts as it was and couldn't afford to do anything about Hitler. Then as now, any fart in a storm:
As you all know, we were left with the debts of the last European war; and unless we are more cautious in the future than we have been in the past, we will be left with the debts of the present case.
It is not surprising that here too, those opposed to intervention were quick to point out that we aren't the cops of the world. Think of the guy hearing the pleas of the woman being raped in the park and responding "Hey, do I look like a cop?":
Lindbergh’s Washington testimony also received national attention. “It is not the duty of the United States to police the world,“ he had declared.[55] This would become a refrain taken up by men as different as Gerald Nye and Charles Coughlin, head of the anti-Roosevelt and anti-Semitic Christian Front movement.[56]
Lindbergh was clear on his reasons for opposing the United States entering the war as it did. He wanted to see Hitler prevail and he feared communism, just as many in the anti-interventionist movement today want to see Assad prevail and fear al Qaeda:
I would a hundred times rather see my country ally itself with England, or even with Germany, with all of her faults, than with the cruelty, the godlessness, and the barbarism that exist in Soviet Russia. An alliance between the United States and Russia should be opposed by every American, by every Christian, and by every humanitarian in this country.”[66]
And while most AFC'ers weren't really pro-Hitler, they were willing to "live with" Hitler for the sake of "peace," just as many in the anti-intervention movement today know that Assad is a fascist dictator but oppose the Syrian revolutionary's demand that he go as a pre-condition for peace:
Indifference and timidity characterized the AFC program. Most America Firsters were prepared to live, however uncomfortably, with Hitler because they believed they had no choice.[116] There were others, however, who were pro-German.


Those in the US opposed to actually doing anything to stop Hitler from creating millions of refugees did talk about humanitarian aid for those refugees as the solution, just as today. Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote:
In the meantime, we should begin to make this country a refuge for those who will not live without liberty. For less than the cost of two battleships we could accommodate half a million refugees from totalitarian countries for a year. The net cost would not approach the cost of two battleships, for these victims, unlike battleships, would contribute to our industry and our cultural life, and help us make democracy work.
Hiram Johnson sounded like so many in the anti-war movement who know Assad is a tyrant but can't justify the cost of helping when he  wrote:
Naturally, like any normally constituted human being, I hate the persecutions to which the Jews have been put, and I will go any fair length save the ruin of my own country to aid them; but I will not go to the length of fighting citizens of other nations, who have been badly and shamefully treated, nor that these citizens of other nations may vindicate their rights or punish their wrongdoers.
The reasons Rep. Alan Grayson gave Amy Goodman for opposing any military response to the Assad Regime's slaughter of 1700 Syrians with sarin gas would have served the AFC very well with no modification:
It’s not our responsibility, it’s not going to do any good, it’s expensive, and it’s dangerous.
David Gordon tells us that:
America First remained to the end an uncomfortable alliance of isolationists, pacifists, enemies of England, opponents of Roosevelt and friends of Germany.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions and regardless of one's reasoning, the important question was how did one stand on taking the fight to fascism.
Some AFC supporters had been motivated by humanitarian ideals. Not all interventionists were. Yet in the end those who supported intervention also supported the preservation of democracy and human rights in Europe. Those who opposed war did not. This obvious fact had long troubled some Committee members, including Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas. Although anti-fascist, his Party had never been able to explain how fascism could be eliminated without war.[127]
Some stayed steadfast in their position even after Hitler's effects had been fully revealed.
From the fall of France until the end of the war, Senator Gerald Nye never lost his way. “To take care of our own (is) the number one American obligation.” The destiny of America, he was certain, was not “either to reform or to police the world.”[111] This was a practical policy. Depending on how the Nazi threat was assessed, it might have been a rational one. But it was not generous. It consigned most of Europe to Hitler’s murderous rule. Other Progressives were like minded.
For almost three years, the Left has been hoping that if they just kept ignoring the Syrian struggle, it would just go away, but instead it has been growing to proportions that they can no longer ignore. The non-interventionists among them have long blamed US imperialism for the crisis and increasing they've turned to "bad mouthing" Assad's opposition, dwelling on real or counterfeit "war crimes" of "the rebels" forgetting Assad's daily assaults and weekly massacres, all this in a effort to boaster their claims that "both sides are equally bad" as though this somehow relieved them of the responsibility of intervention when 120 children are being killed every day.

This last quote from the David Gordon piece has little to do with American First Committee or our current crop of anti-interventionists. I am including it because I think it says a lot about the attitude the Left should be taking towards opposition participation in the up coming Geneva II Conference. It is President Roosevelt explaining why he was not pushing his allies to negotiate a peace with Hitler:
[129] Roosevelt had told the nation during a fireside chat in December 1940 that “the Nazi masters of Germany have made it clear that they intend not only to dominate all life and thought in their own country, but also to enslave the whole of Europe, and then to use the resources of Europe to dominate the rest of the world.” Therefore “the United States had no right or reason to encourage talk of peace, until the day shall come when there is a clear intention on the part of the aggressor nations to abandon all thought of dominating or conquering the world.” He also rejected any notion of a negotiated peace, since such a peace “would be only another armistice, leading to the most gigantic armaments race and the most devastating trade war in all history. And in these contests the Americans would offer the only real resistance to the Axis powers.” Cole, Roosevelt, p. 343.
So, with those thoughts in mind, what business is it of anybody in the west to tell the opposition that they should sit down and talk with a dictator intend on running a fascist police state while he is still dropping bombs on schools, hospitals and bakeries?

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