You Do Not, Under Any Circumstances, Gotta Hand it To America FirstersRoundup
tags: fascism, isolationism, World War 2, America First
Eric Rauchway is distinguished professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and has written seven books of history, as well as a novel. He is the author most recently of Why the New Deal Matters (Yale University Press, 2021). He writes about U.S. history with a focus on the period from 1933-1945.
The Munich agreement of 1938, in which Britain’s appeasement of Germany permitted the Nazi conquest of Eastern Europe, belongs on the list of well known no-go historical comparisons for its many abuses, including justification of the U.S. wars in Vietnam and Iraq. But now we need a corollary: if “Munich” should not be deployed to authorize military adventurism, neither should later, ill-advised wars reflect retroactively on the debate over whether the U.S. should have aided the fight against Hitler. If you find yourself arguing, “maybe the appeasers had a point,” you should stop. To borrow from dril, “you do not, under any circumstances, ‘gotta hand it to'” the America Firsters.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has revived the arguments of 1940–41. An aggressor invades a neighbor it regards as illegitimate, forcibly relocating its people and occupying its land. Sympathizing with the victims, Americans nevertheless would rather not fight a war. U.S. leaders, sensible of the analogy to the past, invoke the Franklin Roosevelt administration to justify aid short of war — most explicitly when, this May, President Biden signed a law styled the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act.
The March 1941 Lend-Lease Act allowed the United States to supply first Britain, then the Soviet Union and other countries fighting fascism, without billing them. Roosevelt likened it to lending one’s neighbor a garden hose when his house is on fire; one does not ask payment, just the hose’s return once the fire is safely out. Under Lend-Lease, the United States sent tanks, airplanes, trucks, food, and fuel (among other goods) to nations seeking to extinguish the conflagration of fascist conquest. Churchill referred to Lend-Lease as “the most unsordid act in the whole of recorded history.” Stalin and Khrushchev both said it was essential to Allied victory and later histories support this view.
Observing the administration’s comparison between then and now, some scholars challenge the historical narrative, and in doing so have revived the arguments leveled against U.S. aid to the Allies in the early years of World War II. Adam Tooze, skeptical of the current Democratic leadership, urges historians to discard “the sugar-coated narrative of a ‘good war’ won by the ‘arsenal of democracy'” and understand the Lend-Lease law instead as a “dramatic act of escalation” in the conflict with Hitler. In adopting it, Tooze says, the U.S. was “crossing the point of no return” and “unleashing . . . an apocalyptic world war.”
From an opposite ideological position, the neoconservative Robert Kagan agrees, accepting arguments of self-proclaimed realists and other Roosevelt critics that “American security was not immediately or even prospectively threatened.” Thus, Kagan argues approvingly, U.S. intervention in World War II was unforced; it was a choice the Roosevelt administration made, hoping to impose liberal ideals on the world.
While similar arguments casting Lend-Lease as an unnecessary escalation were common in 1941, it is worth briefly noting that they were often made by people who were at least Nazi-curious, including many members of the America First movement.