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'Make America First Again' Theme Echoes Pre-World War II U.S.


The slogan, make America first again, which is being used today at the Republican convention here in Cleveland is a slogan with a past.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) America first, America first, America first, last and always.

SIEGEL: The America First Committee was founded with the aim to keep this country out of the war that had begun in Europe in 1939.


ROBERT NATHAN: In the 1940 presidential campaign, one of Roosevelt's principal issues was that, I will not send American troops abroad.

SIEGEL: That's the late Robert Nathan, an economist who worked for the Roosevelt administration. I spoke to him back in 1991.


NATHAN: I honestly believe myself Roosevelt really believed that we could avoid active participation.

SIEGEL: But the America First Movement doubted FDR would keep his promise. Here's one of the group's radio broadcasts.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: From Boston Massachusetts, William B. Gallagher, father of five children, World War veteran, American legionnaire - Mr. Gallagher, they say we will never send another American expeditionary force abroad to fight in foreign lands. What do you think?

WILLIAM B GALLAGHER: Don't believe it for one minute. One of the things that makes me maddest nowadays is the way that people who are egging us on to fight keep telling us that there will be no casualty lists. They try to make us think that the Navy will do all the fighting. That's simply ridiculous.

SIEGEL: And then on December 7, 1941, Japan bombed an American base in Hawaii, and Pearl Harbor was the end of America First, the anti-war movement. The phrase did make a return in 1992 when the conservative Republican Pat Buchanan challenged President George H.W. Bush for the nomination. Buchanan said he would make America first again, specifically in manufacturing, by the year 2000.

And now the phrase has been revived. Although Donald Trump has been accused of being isolationist, his campaign claims that the phrase America first has no connection to the anti-war movement of 1940.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Ladies and gentlemen, The America First Committee knows that eight out of every ten American citizens are wholeheartedly opposed to entering the present conflict. But the people do not realize how fast the events are hurrying us toward war. You've heard it said a million times. America won the last war. You've probably believed it, but nobody ever wins a war.

SIEGEL: We want to thank member station WCPN ideastream for hosting us in Cleveland this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.