America First

America First: Its History, Culture, and Politics
© 1995 Bill Kauffman
296 pages

For slightly over a year prior to the attack at Pearl Harbor, there existed a civic organization of nearly a million people called the America First Committee. It dedicated itself to stymieing the attempts of D.C. and Hollywood to embroil the United States in yet another European war  Despite its name, this book isn’t about them, though Kauffman does honor their heritage in the expanse of people it celebrates here. America First hails writers and politicians commenting on not just foreign policy, but the American spirit.   Here collected are the broadsides and literary stabs of men and women from across the political spectrum, from across the country,  from across income brackets — who have resisted the idea that America needs to be great to be wonderful.  Politically, their concerns are straightforward: they are against foreign wars and against involvement in organizations that jeopardize American sovereignty. This isn’t merely a rehash of Ain’t my America, with added rebukes for NATO;  instead, Kauffman  shares the ardent love of these writers for America in itself via literary reflection. These authors don’t love it for what it could be – a global player, even a global savior – but for what it is, a vast land of beauty and promise, with a healthy individualistic tradition that protects people not only from the state, but the danger of social smothering.

Kauffman begins in the early 20th century, examining the populist and progressive backgrounds of many who later joined America First. They included Amos Pinchot, written out of the Progressive movement for his strident anti-imperialism. (The rough riding-Caesar, Teddy, referred to him as the party’s lunatic fringe.)  Teddy’s pistol-packing  daughter Alice Roosevelt also appears,  vexed at both Wilson’s League of Nations and her cousin’s entire administration. After the war, Kauffman pivots again to literary types — Jack Kerouac and that magnificent son of the desert, Ed Abbey. Another dear fellow, Wendell Berry, is quoted a few times. (One reason I’m so fond of Kauffman, besides his punchy writing filled with words like katzenjammer: we’re both fond of men like those two, plus Dorothy Day.)  Kauffman finishes the book with a section on the contemporary of this ‘peculiar nationalism’, one that wants to celebrate America as America, not as another frustrated and penniless empire. Writing in the early 1990s, he saw in the campaign of Ross Perot great promise. Here at last was a sign that Americans were escaping the bonds of the establishment — and there were other kooky fellows like Pat Buchanan waiting to do their part, too.  (Buchanan is hailed as convert to the cause; while previously supporting military adventures in Grenada, he’s since written numerous books  urging Americans to focus on the home front —  protecting American industry, discouraging immigration, etc.)  Twenty years later, here we are again, faced with the most depressing candidates in American history.

The high point of America First are the long-forgotten authors whom Kauffman exhumes. Hamlin Garland, Amos Pinchot, Harold Frederic — who knows these names, other than Kauffman and his readers?  On the low end, a fair few of the people chronicled here carry  the faint aroma of xenophobia.  To their wholly-legitimate fear of railroad monopolies (who controlled their only means of getting produce to market) and of banks (to whom they were often in hock), they added the specter of immigrants with strange cultures swelling the ranks of New York  voting machines, or surging into the heartland and taking what few opportunities were there.  “Americanism” had its dark side, manifested most obviously in the Klan — who, in their 1920s iteration, seduced many by targeting outsiders. Kauffman doesn’t mention this, and while he always acknowledges racial tinges to populist criticism, he doesn’t dwell on it. He is more interested in the quiet pride and content people can take in simply being home, in taking solace in the simple pleasures like good company and a family recipe for blackberry cobbler.   Kauffman’s own embrace of homebodies from across political camps — he is a localist with an affection for Gene Debs, who always won his conservative hometown’s presidential devotes on the merits of his being a good neighbor —  is well reflected in one chapter’s closing remarks:

Who should ‘run’ America? No one. Or 250 million single individuals.[…] As Americans from Emerson to Mencken have known, following leaders is a fool’s game. Only when we restore to Americans their birthright — local self-government in prideful communities that respect the liberties of every dentist and Baptist and socialist and lesbian and hermit and auto parts dealer — will we remember what it means to be an American, first.”

In commenting on the Harold Frederic novel for which he did a screenplay, Copperhead, Kauffman wrote that the essential tragedy of the story was that its characters had lost sight of the human. They contended against one another not as neighbors, but as ideological nemeses.  That is how the Civil War nearly destroyed their town — not by artillery fire, but by the fire of their self-righteous rage.   While American money and attention is constantly devoted to defending Europe, defending  southeast Asia, managing the middle east,  and policing the seven seas, there’s little time or opportunity for tending to each other.


About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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4 Responses to America First

  1. Interesting! I suspect I would have arguments with some of the book, but I'm open minded enough to find it and read it. Still, though, your fine critique suggests interesting questions: What is America supposed to be? Who gets to decide?

  2. Stephen says:

    It is decided by whomever holds the power, and these days that seems to be the power elite of the coasts — New York, D.C., Los Angeles. The people there don't always agree, of course…some would have the United States in a world-commanding position, some think it should be more subordinate to world organizations like the UN, the WTO, and so on. And some don't care about 'america'; it's simply an area on the North American continent where their lawyers live and where some of their customers are.

    There are better visions of America, which compete with one another. My ideal America is a nostalgic one, of course — healthy main streets, neighborhoods that are actually neighborly, people whose vocations provided a life instead of allowed them to exist. I've never drifted very far from wanting an Ozzie and Harriet kind of world. I'm not a total sentimentalist, is still possible to have a vibrant life in the modern world, even after all the 'ties that bind' have been severed and tossed us to the wind.

    Or should I say WAS possible? These days it's hard to imagine anyone going to the neighborhood bakery and being with their friends. They'll sit there staring at their phones, with their friends also standing on their phones.

    If I meet the right girl, we'll run away together and be Amish, I think. :-p

  3. CyberKitten says:

    I'm looking forward to your comments when I post book reviews regarding the idea of governing the *world* rather than just an individual country or region…. [grin]

  4. Stephen says:

    I think it will prove more complicated than expected! 😉

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