In the 1930s and 1940s, Americans’ politics was polarizing, ugly. Then, as now, toxic bullies exploited genuine anxieties and Washington’s disconnectedness to legitimize voices once considered too fanatic, and ultimately anti-American in their bigotry despite their “America First” rhetoric. Back then, decency triumphed. Influential leaders at critical moments rejected the haters, even when they agreed on certain issues. Who knows what will happen now.
We can learn from Madison Square Garden’s huge “America First” rally on May 23, 1941, opposing American intervention in the growing World War. The leading isolationists, from right to left, from the celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh to the socialist firebrand Norman Thomas, blasted Franklin Roosevelt, warning about an unprepared America stumbling into another European war. A liberal columnist from The New Republic, passionately isolationist, John T. Flynn, rose to speak. Seeing the anti-Semitic, pro-Hitler thug Joseph McWilliams in the audience, Flynn proclaimed: “The America First Committee is not crazy enough to want the support of a handful of Bundists, Communists, and Christian Fronters who are without influence, without power, and without respect in this or any other community. Just because some misguided fool in Manhattan who happens to be a Nazi, gets a few tickets to this rally, this meeting of American citizens is called a Nazi meeting. And right here, not many places from me, is sitting a man named McWilliams. What he is doing here, how he gets in here, whose stooge he is, I do not know, but I know the photographers of these war-mongering newspapers can always find him when they want him.”
This “man named McWilliams” was despicable. Born in Oklahoma to pioneering parents in 1904, this self-taught mechanical engineer invented an improved razor blade. When he moved to New York City in 1925, he supported Marxism. After a health crisis in 1935, he turned fascist and anti-Semitic, despite the Jewish friends who helped him financially...
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