book cover imageAmerica First! Its History, Culture, and Politics
by Bill Kauffman.
Prometheus Books, 2016.
Paperback, 390 pages, $18.

In numerous books, and in the pages of The American Conservative, Bill Kauffman continues to develop his unique blend of radical localism and conservative antiwar politics. This new edition of a volume first published in 1995 adds a preface and a lengthy epilogue to his congenial account of a vital off-center tradition. The new preface affirms Kauffman’s faith in his original premise: that America has long nurtured a healthy, if at times eccentric, group of writers, politicians, and cultural critics who challenge the received wisdom of cosmopolitan internationalism and an endless warfare state. The strongest sections of Kauffman’s study focus on those small-r republican thinkers who have rejected empire, from Robinson Jeffers and Edmund Wilson to Jack Kerouac and Gore Vidal—the latter provided an enthusiastic forward to the first edition.

Kauffman’s new epilogue brings his tale up to the messy present, in which a bombastic politician has embraced “America First” as one of his campaign themes.

Which shouldn’t surprise readers of Kauffman’s witty and conversational narrative. American isolationism has bred numerous cranks, but it also inspired some of our most original thinkers, from populists (Tom Watson and Hamlin Garland) to patricians (Amos Pinchot and Alice Roosevelt). Many politicians also have at one time or another championed a much reduced involvement abroad, as Kauffman documents, relying on the best scholarship available in 1995. (Justus Doenecke’s authoritative Storm on the Horizon did not appear until 2000.)

In Kauffman’s amiable history, George Washington’s much-quoted farewell address, warning of foreign entanglements, looks forward to President Eisenhower’s equally famous worry about the increasing “military-industrial complex.” And along the way, Kauffman profiles the politicians across the spectrum who took up the noninterventionist banner: Farm-Labor Senator Robert La Follette, erstwhile socialist Norman Thomas, and Republican Senator Robert Taft, to name a few. The original members of the America First Committee, founded at Yale, included both future Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee Sergent Shriver and future President Gerald Ford.

After Pearl Harbor, the conservative critics of intervention went into retreat, resurfacing briefly in the presidential campaigns of insurgents Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan. As Kauffman notes in his epilogue, after 9/11, American adventurism flourished again under Presidents G. W. Bush and Obama. Only now, in Kauffman’s measured opinion, has the least likely presidential candidate given voice again to an otherwise worthy combination of strengthened borders and foreign disentanglements. And only time will tell if the messenger has crippled or advanced the cause.  

Thomas DePietro has published in numerous magazines, including The American Conservative, Commonweal, and The Nation. He most recently edited Conversations with Kingsley Amis ( Univ. of Mississippi Press).