After the United States foolishly and unnecessarily intervened in World War One — against the warnings of the Founding Fathers about getting involved in European wars — and lost over 116,000 of its young men, American sentiment underwent a shift toward neutrality and nonintervention.
With Europe once again embroiled in war beginning in the late 1930s, the America First Committee (AFC) was organized in September 1940 to keep America out of another European war. In May 1940, a Gallup poll found that only 7 percent of Americans believed that the United States should declare war on Germany, but public opinion had started to shift after the fall of France.
The origin of the AFC had nothing to do with fascism, nativism, isolationism, or anti-Semitism. The organization’s 800,000 dues-paying members was politically, religiously, and culturally diverse, and included Robert E. Wood of Sears-Roebuck, Robert R. McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, future presidents John Kennedy and Gerald Ford, future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, aviator Charles Lindbergh, progressives John Dewey and Robert La Follette, American Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, and popular radio priest Charles Coughlin. The AFC staged mass rallies and broadcast radio advertisements until it disbanded after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Trump’s America First
Enter Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. He adopted the term America First in a March 2016 interview with the New York Times. After the interviewer, David Sanger, suggested that Trump was taking something of an “‘America First’ kind of approach, a mistrust of many foreigners, both our adversaries and some of our allies, a sense that they’ve been freeloading off of us for many years.” Trump replied, “Not isolationist, I’m not isolationist, but I am ‘America First.’ So I like the expression. I’m ‘America First.’” He then made the phrase the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. In a speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., in April 2016, Trump said that his “foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else.” He pledged that America First would be “the foundation of every single decision” he made and “the major and overriding theme” of his administration.” In his inaugural address, President Trump stated, “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”
Trump’s vision of America First should not be confused with the historic AFC. Trump himself, in another interview with the New York Times, said, “America First is a brand-new modern term. I never related it to the past.” Trump’s America First policy included a large military buildup with foreign military actions, “buy American” campaigns, economic nationalism, “fair” trade, higher tariffs, trade wars, increased immigration restrictions, Cuba travel restrictions, anti–flag burning legislation, foreign aid, and the continuance of NATO membership, foreign military bases, and U.S. troops stationed all over the globe. Trump’s foreign policy was militaristic, jingoistic, and interventionist, just like his predecessors.
Trump’s idea of America First did put some Americans first — like businesses that didn’t want foreign competition, and individuals who were connected with or stood to benefit in some way by the military-industrial complex. Some pundits have recently taken Trump’s catch phrase and applied it to the war in Ukraine — but just like Trump, they have perverted the meaning of the term.
RAND’s America First
The RAND Corporation — no connection to Ayn Rand — “is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.” Although it claims to be “a nonpartisan organization,” the RAND Corporation receives the majority of its funding from the federal government.
Earlier this year, two RAND senior scholars — Raphael S. Cohen, the director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE, and Gian Gentile, the deputy director of the RAND Arroyo Center, “the United States Army’s sole federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis” — penned a commentary for The Hill in which they argued that “support to Ukraine continues to be for America first.”
Cohen and Gentile lament that “some Americans, particularly those on the political right, are questioning American support for Ukraine.” They ask and answer the question, “Why should the United States spend tens of billions of dollars on a war a half a world away?” That Russia “launched an unprovoked attack on a smaller, nascent democracy,” “killed thousands of innocent Ukrainians and raped and tortured many more,” and caused “almost 8 million Ukrainians” to flee the country and “almost 18 million” more to need humanitarian assistance are enough to “make a compelling enough case for the United States to support Ukraine’s war against Russia.” But “American support for Ukraine remains squarely in its own self-interest.”
First, because Europe is one of America’s “largest trading partners,” and European allies contribute “tens of thousands of troops and billions of their own dollars to American-led operations,” America’s “security and prosperity has for decades been intertwined with Europe, and it remains so today.” The success of Ukraine “protects not just the country itself but the whole of Europe and, with it, American economic and security interests.”
Second, “a victory for Ukraine fits squarely within U.S. interests because it would also mean a Russian defeat.”
Third, “if the United States wants to deter a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, or Iranian aggression in the Middle East, then ensuring Russia’s defeat would send a vivid message of deterrence.” ”
And fourth, support for Ukraine supports the U.S. military. From a military standpoint, “The United States is finding out which systems work, and which do not, on a 21st century battlefield, all without costing American lives. When Congress pays for military aid to Ukraine, it is functionally allowing the United States to replace its older weapons with new ones,” they argue, and “Ukraine aid also boosts the American defense industry and the American economy in the short-run, and, in the long-run, expands the United States’s capacity to build everything from artillery rounds to air defense missiles.” Cohen and Gentile conclude that “America’s support to Ukraine is for America first.”
Thiessen’s America First
Marc Thiessen is no Trump supporter. He is “a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) where he studies and writes about American presidential leadership and counterterrorism” and “also writes about general U.S. foreign and defense policy issues and contributes to the AEIdeas blog.” In addition, Thiessen writes a column for the Washington Post and is a contributor to Fox News. He was “a member of the White House senior staff under President George W. Bush” and “served as chief speechwriter to the president and to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.” Thiessen infamously defended the use of CIA torture techniques during the Bush administration as necessary to save American lives and stated that Trump’s assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was “defensive, preemptive, and lawful.”
Thiessen likewise believes that there is an America First case for supporting Ukraine. In his Washington Post article on the subject, he laments that “GOP support for Ukraine” is “softening,” and that some Republicans are “beginning to ask whether U.S. support for Ukraine is really in the nation’s interest.” Thiessen believes that “most conservatives are not isolationists; they are reluctant internationalists, willing to support U.S. leadership on the world stage — as long as they are convinced our national interest is involved.” Conservatives demand “an ‘America First’ case for supporting Ukraine.”
Thiessen makes, and then elaborates on “10 clear points”:
- A Russian victory would reinforce a narrative of American weakness and embolden our enemies.
- A Ukrainian victory would help deter China.
- Defeating Vladmir Putin would weaken the Sino-Russian partnership.
- Support for Ukraine will restore the Reagan Doctrine.
- Victory in Ukraine will save the United States billions of dollars.
- Support for Ukraine allows us to test new weapons and defense concepts that will increase U.S. military preparedness.
- Arming Ukraine is revitalizing our defense industrial base.
- The Russian invasion has strengthened U.S. alliances.
- A Russian victory could spark new wars of aggression and a global nuclear arms race.
- Victory in Ukraine is achievable.
He saves his “most powerful argument” for last: “Helping Ukraine is the right thing to do. It is the American thing to do.” Thiessen believes that “the war in Ukraine is a struggle between right and wrong and good and evil, and in that struggle, America must not remain neutral.” His conception of putting America First “requires us to project strength and deter our enemies from launching wars of aggression — so that U.S. troops don’t have to fight and die in another global conflagration.” His “America First” conclusion is that “helping Ukraine is a supreme national interest.”
After penning his article, Thiessen doubled down on his America First case for supporting Ukraine when he appeared with AEI’s “distinguished senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies” Danielle Pletka on the AEI “What the Hell Is Going On?” podcast. After demeaning the House “Freedom Caucus” and Tucker Carlson for not supporting Ukraine, she termed Thiessen’s article “persuasive, hard to refute, and full of facts — whether you care about China, Taiwan, Israel, Iran, North Korea, NATO, or just your own safety, security and prosperity.” Since President Biden is not sufficiently making the case that “supporting Ukraine in its defense against Putin’s Russia is a vital national interest,” Thiessen “decided to do the job of the President’s speechwriter and make the American case for supporting Ukraine.”
But the fact is that Cohen, Gentile, and Thiessen have a warped view of America First. There is no America First case for supporting Ukraine, but there is certainly an America First case for not doing so.
It should first be said that the case for not doing so does not depend on the unworthiness of Ukraine. To argue that the United States should not support Ukraine because it is the most corrupt country in Europe, has a proto-fascist government, has antagonized Russia, has suppressed churches and the press, has shelled civilians for years in the prominently Russian areas of the country, has ties to the Biden family, or has soldiers with Nazi symbols on their uniforms has nothing to do with why the United States should not support Ukraine. If the case against supporting Ukraine depended on these things, then it would fall to pieces if these things ceased to exist.
Even if we assume for the sake of argument that none of the above things are true, that the simplistic “Russia bad, Ukraine good” narrative that is peddled by the U.S. government and the media is true, that Russia is aggressing against Ukraine for no good reason, that Russia longs to reestablish the USSR, that Vladimir Putin is the personification of evil, that Russia wants to turn Ukraine into a vassal state, and that Russian soldiers have committed atrocities and acts of genocide against Ukrainians, there would still be no “compelling enough case for the United States to support Ukraine’s war against Russia,” and certainly no America First case for doing so.
If there is an America First case for supporting Ukraine, then it should be evident. Americans should not have to bombarded with pro-Ukraine and anti-Russian propaganda from their government and news media to convince them to “stand with Ukraine.” Do a significant number of Americans believe there is an America First case for supporting Ukraine? Thiessen and the RAND scholars both cite polls which report that the majority of Americans say that the United States should support Ukraine.
But how many Americans who responded to these polls would actually reach into their pockets and pull out some money to support Ukraine? It is easy to say that the U.S. government should support Ukraine if it is not costing you anything. How much money out of their pockets have Cohen, Gentile, and Thiessen given to support Ukraine? How much money would be collected for Ukraine if government agents actually went door to door and asked Americans to contribute?
How many Americans know — or even care to know — the most basic history of Ukraine and Russia? How many Americans could even locate Ukraine on a map unless it was labeled with big, black letters? How many Americans have lost a minute of sleep fretting over the war in Ukraine? How many Americans are concerned about the territorial integrity of Ukraine? How many Americans actually care anything about what happens in Ukraine?
The America First case for supporting Ukraine is disingenuous. Thiessen makes the claim: “Victory in Ukraine will save the United States billions of dollars. Russian adventurism is a drain on U.S. resources. By decimating the Russian military threat, Ukraine is reducing the amount of money the United States will have to spend defending Europe — without risking American lives to do it.”
There are a number of underlying false premises here. How is the war in Ukraine Russian adventurism? And why should Russian adventurism be a drain on U.S. resources? Since when is Russia a threat to Europe? Since when does the United States have the obligation to defend Europe? Why should the lives of American soldiers ever be risked in defense of some other country? It is not supporting Ukraine that will save the United States billions of dollars.
The U.S. government giving weapons, equipment, supplies, and money to Ukraine is just a form of foreign aid. Yet, foreign-aid spending is not authorized by the Constitution, is not a legitimate purpose of the federal government, and is not supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans if the money has to come out of their pockets.
The America First case against supporting Ukraine is ultimately based on the principles of neutrality and nonintervention. The United States has no constitutional requisite, popular mandate, legal obligation, or moral authority to take sides in territorial disputes or military conflicts, guarantee the security of any country, police the world, or seek to change the governments in other countries.
Neutrality respects the sovereignty of other nations; guarantees a peaceful, noninterventionist foreign policy; prevents hatred of America and Americans; ensures that the military is not misused; keeps U.S. soldiers from dying in senseless foreign wars; and doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything. Neutrality and nonintervention are not isolationism. They are just minding our own business. Remaining neutral and not intervening in other countries is the right thing to do. It is also the American thing to do.
Support for Ukraine doesn’t put the American people first; it puts the military/industrial complex first, the warfare state first, and the stockholders and employees of defense contractors first. And above all, support for Ukraine puts Ukraine first, not America first.
Americans who want to put Ukraine first should stop suggesting or telling us what the U.S. government should do and appeal directly to the American people to do something. It is not the business of the U.S. government to take sides in disputes between countries, to take money from Americans and give it to foreigners or their governments, to boost the defense industry, or to intervene in the affairs of other countries.
Americans who want a proxy war with Russia, who want to deter China, who want to defeat Putin, who want regime change in Moscow, who want to boycott Russian goods, who want to weaken the Sino-Russian partnership, who want to restore the Reagan Doctrine, who want the military to test new weapons and defense concepts, who want to revitalize our defense industrial base (military Keynesianism), who want to include Ukraine in NATO, and who want to support Ukraine “as long as it takes” should put their money where their mouth is and persuade their fellow Americans to do likewise.
Americans who want to put Ukraine first should encourage their sons and grandsons to fight for Ukraine. They should go door to door seeking money for Ukraine. They should start a direct-mail campaign appealing for support for Ukraine. They should enlist corporate sponsors to send goods to the Ukrainian people. They should write a check to the government of Ukraine. They should donate guns, ammunition, and supplies to Ukraine. They should start a boycott-Russia and buy-Ukrainian campaign. They should use persuasion to convince their fellow Americans to support Ukraine, not the power of the government to force Americans to do so.
Only by a tortured redefinition of “America First” can an America First case for Ukraine be made.
This article was originally published in the September 2023 edition of Future of Freedom.