If saving the democratic empires of Europe was a dubious endeavor, an alliance with Stalin’s Russia was downright immoral. But when Hitler launched his invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, the communist nation was immediately transformed from Hitler’s co-aggressor into an Allied partner against the Nazis.
The Gathering Communist Storm
Allied leaders had rarely viewed Stalin with the same skepticism they had Hitler. In the months leading up to the outbreak of war in 1939, Stalin had played the Allies and the Germans against each other, with both sides courting Russia as an ally. Stalin’s price for such an alliance was, Hoover reported, “British agreement to the annexation by the Soviet Union of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, East Poland, Bessarabia, and Bukovina.” British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, appalled at the immorality of the demand, refused to assent to these demands, despite objections from inside his own government. Among the dissenters was Chamberlain’s soon-to-be successor, Churchill, who doubted Britain’s ability to fulfill its promise to defend Poland without Russia’s help.
Hitler, unlike Chamberlain, had no scruples about negotiating with other peoples’ freedom. On August 23, 1939, the Germans and Russians signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which they described as a non-aggression treaty. In reality, secret provisions divided Europe into spheres of influence, with Stalin getting nearly everything he had asked the British for in exchange for aiding Hitler in his invasion of Poland and allowing Germany a free hand in Western Europe. The Germans kicked off the European theater of World War II a little over a week later by invading Poland from the west on September 1, 1939. Russia attacked from the east on September 17.
But the Hitler-Stalin alliance was doomed to fail, and fail it did in the summer of 1941. After Hitler’s invasion of Russia, the Allies immediately accepted Stalin as a curious partner in the struggle against totalitarianism. In his memoirs, Churchill justified his alliance with Stalin by stating that his life had been “much simplified” by the war with Germany. “I have only one purpose,” he told his private secretary, “the destruction of Hitler… If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.” In light of Churchill’s willingness to praise Lucifer, his partnership with Stalin is unsurprising.
Roosevelt, too, immediately embraced his new Russian ally, and quickly set in motion the delivery of Lend-Lease aid to Stalin. To soften the blow of supporting a totalitarian regime, Roosevelt chose to whitewash Stalin’s pact with Hitler. Professor Raymond H. Dawson wrote that, despite its invasion of Poland and other Eastern European countries, Roosevelt claimed that “Russia is in no sense the aggressor nation.” The President even attempted to argue that the Russian constitution protected religious freedom, even though, in the words of historian Robert Dallek, “Roosevelt knew full well there was no freedom of religion in the Soviet Union.”
The non-interventionists were unconvinced. To them the Soviet partnership with Hitler, not to mention Stalin’s mass murders via purges, intentional famines and concentration camps, made any alliance with the communists an albatross on American virtue. In a radio address, Hoover called to memory Soviet aggression, saying, “To align ourselves alongside Stalin will be as great a violation of everything American as to align ourselves with Hitler.” If America was committed to helping Stalin conquer new territory for communism, “We should at least cease to tell our sons that they would be giving their lives to restore democracy and freedom to the world.”
In August 1941, Hoover issued a joint statement with prominent Americans, including academics and former politicians and diplomats, stating that, “Recent events raise doubts that this is a clear-cut issue of liberty and democracy. It is not purely a world conflict between tyranny and freedom. The Anglo-Russian alliance has dissipated that illusion.”
Felix Morley, president of Haverford College and a signatory to the statement, wrote after the war, “I could see no legal or moral reason for our involvement in the derivative hostilities, even with full realization of the Nazi tyranny. Equal disregard of ‘human rights’ was apparent in Soviet Russia, and the idea of an alliance with either regime seemed to me anathema.”
Stalin’s atrocities were not to be simply ignored. The New York Daily News claimed that “The Soviets’ Christian victims have far outnumbered the Nazi’s Jewish victims.” While this claim seems odd in retrospect, historian Thomas Fleming reminded readers that 1941 was “a full year before anyone realized Hitler might try to exterminate Europe’s Jews.” Non-interventionists, Fleming noted, pointed out that antisemitism was common in many European countries, including Russia, where the New York Times correspondent in Moscow reported that “Josef Stalin had shot more Jews in his late-1930s purges of supposedly disloyal Communists than Adolf Hitler had thus far killed in Germany.”
Not only would coming to the aid of Stalin contaminate the morality of an American war effort, it would likely lead to the creation of another, potentially more dangerous enemy. Doenecke wrote that the Chicago Tribune wondered, “Would another war begin with British and American troops trying to stem forces they had supported?” In a similar vein, the Saturday Evening Post asked “Having saved the world from Nazism, should we not be morally obligated to go on and save it from Bolshevism?” Events during and after the war would validate these concerns.
Despite the rich, complex history of the non-interventionists, they have repeatedly been reduced to a caricature which emphasizes a singular accusation: that their movement was filled with anti-Semites and Nazi sympathizers. And it is undeniably true that there were anti-Semites and Nazi sympathizers in America, and that they opposed the war. One of the most outspoken critics of intervention was Father Charles Coughlin, who used his national radio program and his publication Social Justice to combine antisemitism with criticism of Roosevelt’s foreign policies, occasionally going as far as to praise Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini. Similarly, the German-American Bund operated from 1936 to 1941 with the purpose of creating in America a favorable view of the Nazis.
While the America First Committee, wrote historian Wayne Cole, “had the disadvantage of having Nazis, Communitsts, and anti-Semites venting similar foreign policy views,” this was not, and has never been, proof that they were the driving force behind the mainstream non-interventionist movement. This lack of evidence, however, did not stop Roosevelt’s defenders, especially his attack dog and Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, from repeatedly making that claim. Ickes singled out the AFC, reserving his most vicious attacks for its most popular spokesman, Charles Lindbergh.
Ickes accusations of Nazi sympathies against the AFC were quite unwarranted. The committee’s first press release following its formation announced it’s intention “To bring together all Americans who see eye-to-eye on these principles [of non-interventionism],” but stated that this did not include “Nazists, Fascists, Communists, or members of other groups that place the interest of any other nation above those of our own.” The AFC’s executive committee, wrote Cole, rejected contributions from people “expressing pro-Nazi or extreme anti-Roosevelt or anti-Semitic views.” Cole wrote that John T. Flynn, head of the committee’s New York chapter, told the German-American Bund that “America First not only did not solicit their support but that Bundists were ineligible for membership” because of their fascist views.
Just as Soviet agents would infiltrate interventionist groups – and, indeed, the Roosevelt Administration itself – a handful of America First members were later revealed to have been influenced by the German government. But while Roosevelt ignored the Soviet moles within his administration, the AFC proactively worked with federal officials to out any foreign agents in their midst. All told, roughly 30 individuals associated with America First were indicted, out of the 800,000 members of the organization. No member of America First’s executive committee, which guided its policies, were ever found to have been influenced by concerns for any nation but the United States. Indeed, one member of the executive committee, Clay Judson, noted that while Great Britain wanted to draw the United States into war and Germany wanted it to stay out, “Our Committee believes that its policy should not be affected on way or the other by what other nations want, but that American interests demand that we stay out.”
“Committee leaders,” concluded Cole, “earnestly sought to prevent these elements form working through their organization. And their efforts were more successful than most of its critics would concede”
America First’s leadership also made a special effort to keep anti-Semites out of the organization, saying that the committee “did not countenance anti-Semitism.” While Jewish non-interventionists played key roles in the organization, donations from anti-Semites, like those from fascists, were rejected and explicitly antisemitic speakers were declared ineligible to speak at America First rallies. Antisemitic letters sent to the AFC’s headquarters, wrote Cole, were stamped “CRANK-IGNORE.” The committee urged its chapters to make sure that devotees of Father Coughlin did not sell his racist rag Social Justice at America First rallies, stating the importance of not permitting “any Coughlin organization leaders to be in a position of leadership or direction in our local chapters” so that “they do not in any way identify the chapter with the Coughlin movement…” In July 1941, General Robert E. Wood, a member of the AFC’s executive committee, was reported to have told a group of Coughlin followers that “We don’t want you people at America First meeting.” Its reward for these efforts, wrote Cole, was that “Many extreme anti-Semites denounced America First…”
The charge of antisemitism against the committe revolved primarily around a speech Lindbergh gave in Des Moines, Iowa in September 1941 in which the aviator inarticulately said that “The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt Administration.” Lindbergh exacerbated his predicament by pointing to the Jewish influence “in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.” He took time to explain, “I am not attacking either the Jewish or the British people. Both races, I admire.” He stated his belief that “No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany.”
Despite this qualification, an avalanche of criticism descended on Lindbergh and the committee. Certainly some critics were sincerely disturbed by Lindbergh’s speech, but Cole wrote that “there can be no doubt that interventionists exploited this incident in an attempt and weaken the campaign against intervention in the European war.” Some within the committee became angry with Lindbergh for speaking carelessly and drawing unwanted negative attention. But other non-interventionists were more forgiving, saying that Lindbergh was not a racist, that his speech was not intended to be antisemitic and that some of Lindbergh’s critics actually practiced the antisemitism they accused him of. In fact, the Des Moines speech, while offensive, was considerably less bigoted than various comments attributed to Roosevelt himself. Two weeks after the speech, the committee released a statement that said,
Colonel Lindbergh and his fellow members of the America First Committee are not anti-Semitic. We deplore the injection of the race issue into the discussion of war or peace. It is the interventionists who have done this. America First, on the other hand, has invited men and women of every race, religion and national origin to join this committee, provided only that they are patriotic citizens who put the interests of their country ahead of those of any other nation. We repeat that invitation. …There is but one real issue – the issue of war. From this issue we will not be diverted.
Lindbergh said in October 1941, that his intentions had been “falsely ascribed” and that he did not “speak out of hate for any individuals or people.” In a letter to General Wood, non-interventionist Norman Thomas wrote that “I know that Colonel Lindbergh is not anti-Semitic,” but that he needed “advice on public relations.”
Whether or not Lindbergh was a racist has been debated ever since. Many of the claims that he was have come as much in the form of speculative character assassination as they have serious historical research. Evidence to rebut the accusations of Lindbergh’s antisemitism and Nazi sympathies, however, have come from well-respected historians and those closest to him. Lindbergh’s wife, perhaps not an unbiased source, said decades after the war that “in the 45 years I lived with him I never heard him make a remark against Jews, not a crack or a joke, neither did any of my children.” This opinion was supported by Harry Guggenheim, Lindbergh’s close friend and one-time publisher of Newsday, who claimed that Lindbergh “never had the slightest anti-Semitic feeling.”
Accusations of Lindbergh’s Nazi sympathies seem similarly off the mark. The evidence usually cited for their existence is a medal given to Lindbergh by Hermann Goring in 1938, during Lindbergh’s trip to Germany in an official capacity for the American government. The medal, wrote historian James Duffy, commended Lindbergh “for his services to world aviation and particularly for his 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic.” Furthermore, the medal, which Lindbergh had no foreknowledge of, was awarded in the presence of the American ambassador at a diplomatic party at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. Lindbergh could not have rejected it, wrote Duffy, without causing “a well-publicized diplomatic incident.”
At least two prominent historians have exonerated LIndbergh of the charge of Nazi sympathies. Historian A. Scott Berg, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Lindbergh, concluded that “Charles Lindbergh was never associated with any pro-Nazi or anti-Semitic organization…” Cole, long a respected authority on the non-interventionist movement, wrote that “Lindbergh did not like Hitler or Nazism. He did not favor a Nazi dictatorship either for Germany or for the United States. Whatever one may think of his views, Lindbergh formulated them in terms of his own judgment of what was best for the United States and for Western Civilization.”
Lindbergh, like most famous figures, was a complicated and not thoroughly defensible character, but the more outlandish claims about his motivations seem to be, at the very least, exaggerations. But, observed writer Bill Kauffman, “There is a sense in which far too much has been made of Lindbergh. He was one man in the last broad peace movement in American history, almost a million strong.” Lindbergh was not, wrote Kauffman, more representative of the movement than a host of other figures. Regardless of whatever anyone thought of Lindbergh, it is ridiculous to smear the entire non-interventionist movement as being fueled by racists and Nazi sympathizers.
The non-interventionists reflected general American sentiment towards the European war. Even into late 1941, 80 percent of Americans did not support intervention to the point of war. If Ickes’ accusations of Nazi sympathies were correct, this would have meant that four-fifths of the American population – roughly twice the highest level of electoral success the Nazis achieved in Germany – either actively sympathized with the Nazis, or were duped into supporting them. This is an obviously absurd conclusion.
The Non-Interventionists’ Fall and Vindication
All of the non-interventionists’ objections became moot when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and Hitler declared war on the United States four days later. The non-interventionists, who had made the defense of America their top priority, quickly supported the war that they hoped would not come. But they rarely doubted that they had been right. “Years after Pearl Harbor,” wrote Doenecke, “few isolationists regretted the battle, no matter how much their reputations were ruined. For them, the crusade was always one of highest patriotism – and wisdom as well.”
History has not been kind to the non-interventionists. As World War II came and went, they were jettisoned to a dark corner of American history. Slandered and denounced, what they said and believed was unfairly reduced to a few baseless accusations. Almost nobody stopped to consider that, on many significant points, they had been right.
As the non-interventionists said, the government grew exponentially during the war. It engaged in the rationing and central planning that Senator Vandenburg had predicted. They were right about how war would grow the powers of the presidency and, much more than their opponents, they understood the nature of Soviet Russia and the dangers of communism. The postwar conflict with Russia that they predicted came true in the form of the Cold War and in the proxy wars that sprang up as a result. The non-interventionists’ concern about the damage that war would due to traditional American society would prove similarly prescient.
World War II vindicated the most important objections the non-interventionists raised between 1939 and 1941. It has not just they who have been mistreated by history, but their arguments. By forgetting why they opposed the war and what the costs of it were, Americans have shredded an important chapter of World War II, one that provides invaluable context to both that conflict and to our modern debates about war.