At last week’s RNC convention, “Make America First Again”—an isolationist twist on Donald Trump’s basic campaign catchphrase—was one of the gathering’s four nightly themes. Since then, a number of media outlets have noted that Trump’s invocation of “America First” resuscitates an old slogan once used to try to keep the United States out of World War II. At almost the same time, we are also suddenly hearing more about the Trump campaign’s improbably extensive network of professional and financial ties to Russia—whose intelligence services may have just been implicated in the theft and leaking of 20,000 embarrassing emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee. Vladimir Putin, whose strategic interests would certainly be served by a more isolationist American foreign policy, has spoken favorably of candidate Trump on many occasions, and judging by Trump’s rhetoric, the feeling is clearly mutual. More worryingly, Trump has called into question the very existence of NATO, the US-led military alliance that has functioned as a guarantor of global security—and a geopolitical check on Russia—since 1949. So, is Russia helping Trump get elected, and has Putin been promised something in return?
I don’t know, obviously. But it wouldn’t be the first time a foreign power tried to sway the results of an American election by tapping into the political impulse of isolationism. In 1940, as Britain stood alone against a seemingly unstoppable Nazi juggernaut, it became the job of the German charge d’affairs in Washington DC, Hans Thomsen, to keep the United States from getting into the war. So Hansen asked his government for money—lots of it—to fund a “well-camouflaged lightning propaganda campaign” to steer public opinion and both major parties away from intervention. Roosevelt was certain by then that Nazi Germany posed a threat, and he desperately wanted to help Britain. So Thomsen funneled the German money toward the President’s isolationist political enemies in both major parties, who strongly opposed American intervention even in the event of England’s defeat.
German official communiques uncovered in the late 1990s by historian Gerhard Weinberg show that Thomsen requested $3,000 to help one unnamed isolationist Republican Congressman bring around 50 like-minded members of his party to the 1940 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, where they would push for an antiwar plank in the party’s platform. The German government also secretly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars (millions today) to buy full-page ads in Philly newspapers during the convention, urging delegates to vote for the antiwar platform. The money for the ads was effectively laundered through an organization called the National Committee to Keep America Out of Foreign Wars, chaired by Rep. Hamilton Fish, who loathed Roosevelt. (There is no evidence that Rep. Fish knew where money came from, and the arrangement would not have been illegal under the existing campaign finance laws anyway.) The Germans appear to have tried something similar at the 1940 Democratic Convention in Chicago, spending around $160,000 “buying the approximately 40 Pennsylvania delegates to vote against Roosevelt” and successfully push for a plank to keep the US out of foreign wars. At Roosevelt’s insistence, that plank was later appended with the phrase “except in case of attack.” According to Weinberg, the German effort was, at the time, the most “extensive foreign intervention” ever into an American election.
It’s probably not possible to measure Hans Thomsen’s effectiveness at keeping the US out of the war, separate from all the other dynamics then in play. (In fact, the American Communist Party was likely undertaking similar efforts on behalf of the Soviet Union—up until the Nazis invaded the USSR.) But from a domestic politics standpoint, the Nazis’ political meddling was quite shrewd. By tapping into the isolationism that had dominated American politics since the end of World War I, Thomsen and the Nazis hindered Roosevelt’s efforts to help Britain.
It’s not like there weren’t some justifiable reasons for Americans to be suspicious of direct involvement in what seemed like other countries’ wars. The economic stagnation of the Great Depression still lingered, and the prospect of fighting a war on another country’s behalf seemed to many like a ridiculous expense of lives and money. Many isolationists regarded Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program as a not-so-furtive step toward American intervention, taken at the behest of ungrateful allies and war profiteers. Staunch antiwar advocates like Senators Gerald Nye and Burton Wheeler also fit within the strong isolationist tradition in American foreign policy, dating back to George Washington’s famous entreaty not to “interweave our destiny with that of any part of Europe.”
Alongside these potentially well-taken concerns, there were also less-laudable reasons for opposing American intervention, including anti-Semitism, nativism, and antipathy to Roosevelt himself. Many noted anti-Semites, including Henry Ford, were members of the America First Committee, the largest and best-known advocacy organization opposing American intervention. The AFC’s spokesman, Charles Lindbergh, infamously blamed American Jews for pushing the country toward war.
This was the roiling admixture of political impulses that Hans Thomsen and the Nazis exploited in their effort to keep America out of the war. It bears striking resemblance to the political energy now fueling the Donald Trump phenomenon. We do not stand on the precipice of a world war, and America faces much different geopolitical challenges today than in 1940. But once again, a calamitous and unpopular war has spawned an isolationist movement, whose standard bearer advocates a shortsighted, transactional foreign policy. Once again, that movement appeals to nativism and bigotry, while at the same time addressing (at least rhetorically) progressive concerns like income inequality, political corruption and unfair business practices. And once again, that movement may be lending itself to political manipulation by a foreign country.
It is worth keeping in mind the kinds of foreign regimes that have sought to profit from American isolationism in the past. It is also worth remembering the global conflagration that flared up the last time America turned its back on the world.