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Pat MurphyIn a recent interview with The New York Times, Donald Trump put the cat among the pigeons when, talking about foreign policy, he characterised himself as “America First.”

For the historically minded, this expression evokes memories of the America First Committee (AFC) that was passionately opposed to any U.S. involvement in the Second World War. Although largely forgotten now, the AFC was very big in its day. Indeed, historical journalist Lynne Olson goes so far as to call it “the most powerful, vocal, and effective isolationist organization in the country.”

If we reflect at all on pre-war America, we tend to think of isolationists as stodgy, ill-informed nativists. The reality, though, was much more complicated.

In fact, the AFC began at Yale University, one of the most intellectually elite institutions in the country. And after its 1940 founding by law student R. Douglas Stuart Jr., the organization took off like wildfire, soaring to approximately 800,000 paid-up members spread over 450 chapters.

At Yale, supporting students included future president Gerald Ford and future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. From Harvard, John F. Kennedy sent a $100 donation with a note extolling the “vital” nature of the enterprise.

And it wasn’t just university students who got on board.

There were businessmen such as Sears-Roebuck’s Robert E. Wood and newspaper publisher Robert McCormick; politicians like Socialist leader and perennial presidential candidate Norman Thomas; the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh; the novelist Sinclair Lewis; the film producer Walt Disney; and so forth.

However, creeping unease over German successes in Europe, the suspicion that some AFC supporters were closet Nazi sympathisers and the wiliness of Franklin D. Roosevelt all combined to chip away at the organization’s support. Then Pearl Harbour struck the decisive blow. Within days of the attack, the AFC dissolved.

As you’d expect, the political environment after the war was very different from what it had hitherto been. Mistakes had been made, perceived lessons had been learned, and, in consequence, both Democrats and Republicans adopted a new internationalist orthodoxy.

Collective security was now the order of the day with America acting as the ultimate guarantor. And if this led to military entanglements hither and yon, such was simply the cost of leadership. Kennedy’s inaugural address proclaiming a willingness to pay any price and bear any burden received wide acclaim, vigorous idealism was in the air and naysayers were scarce.

For countries sheltering under the American umbrella, this provided the best of both worlds. You could kvetch about American imperialism, deplore the military-industrial complex, question who appointed America as the world’s policeman, and generally feel morally superior. Meanwhile, you could sidestep the necessity of fully looking after your own defense.

Reaction to the 1986 Reykjavik summit neatly illustrated the implicit dependence. When Ronald Reagan’s loathing of nuclear weapons and abhorrence for Mutually Assured Destruction briefly put a nuclear abolition agreement on the table, key Western European leaders were appalled. To them, a non-nuclear America would inevitably drift towards isolationism, thereby leaving Western Europe on its own to cope with the Soviet Union.

So what about Donald Trump? In the event of his becoming president, would he fit the 1940/41 America First mould?

Rosa Brooks is a law professor and national security consultant who spent a couple of years in Barack Obama’s administration, and she doesn’t see Trump quite that way. But neither does she see him embracing the conventional orthodoxy of both major parties.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Brooks characterises Trump as “crazy like a fox.” And although it explicitly pains her to say so, she also acknowledges that he’s largely “articulating a coherent vision of international relations and America’s role in the world.” While his perspective isn’t one she much cares for, she understands where he’s coming from.

Trump, she thinks, “hasn’t the slightest objection to being perceived as a bully, but he doesn’t want to be ripped off.” Consequently, everything would be a negotiation. American allies would be treated like potential business partners in a real-estate transaction, always subject to the simple question: “What have you done for me lately?”

No doubt, many of us find this discomfiting and take consolation from the pundits who tell us that a Trump presidency is very unlikely. Mind you, they said the same thing about the prospect of his winning the Republican nomination.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

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