How ‘America First’ and ‘American Dream’ Went From Hazy Sentiments to Loaded Clichés

How ‘America First’ and ‘American Dream’ Went From Hazy Sentiments to Loaded Clichés

After the war was over, the phrase returned to being a rebuke to internationalist involvement — and became, increasingly, the slogan of white supremacists and homegrown fascists. The Ku Klux Klan adopted it as a motto, stating that “the ABC of the Klan is America First, benevolence, clannishness” (a reminder, as if we need one, that even the most asinine rhetoric can be deadly).

All these protean meanings can get confusing, and Churchwell has a tendency to corral the unruliness of her material by overstating her case. Still, she’s an elegant writer, and when “America First” and “the American dream” come head-to-head in her book during the run-up to World War II, the unexpected (and alarming) historical coincidences begin to resonate like demented wind chimes.

There’s the repeated excuse that Americans needed to look after their own and therefore couldn’t welcome any refugees. There’s the pro-authoritarian media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who emblazoned his newspapers’ mastheads with “America First Should Be Every American’s Motto.” There’s even a “rather flippant” Time magazine article reporting the vile declarations of the white nationalist James B. True, who bragged that he was planning a “national Jew shoot.”

Churchwell finds some solace in the work of Dorothy Thompson, the first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany (and, for a time, the wife of the novelist Sinclair Lewis, the author of “It Can’t Happen Here”). Thompson skewered the ideology of “America first” and its adherents, even crashing a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden to heckle the speakers. She used the phrase “American dream,” too, writing that it rejected authoritarianism and corporatism “with the spontaneity with which a healthy organism vomits poison.”

Of course, Thompson’s assertion was inflated wartime polemic, not precise analysis. And as much as Churchwell insists that “the scourges of racism and anti-Semitism were fundamentally inimical to the American dream,” a convincing argument can be made that the dream was always a fantasy of self-congratulation, inextricable from the slave society upon which it was built.

Churchwell strenuously resists any implication “that the American dream was invented as a fig leaf to protect white privilege, to obscure the racist foundations of the capitalist system in institutional slavery.” But the phrase didn’t have to be “invented” for that purpose in order to serve as such. Her entire book argues against categorical defenses like hers. “Behold, America” illuminates how much history takes place in the gap between what people say and what they do.

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