‘America First’— What the Heck Does That Mean These Days?

Greg Markley


“Freedom is not free,” “My country right or wrong” and especially “America First” are famous patriotic phrases in the U.S. They are often said at veterans’ group meetings, seen on bumper stickers and heard from the lips of political candidates. Hal Holbrook, who portrayed Mark Twain for decades on stage, offers his opinion on one of these phrases.

“Man is the only animal that deals in the atrocity of war,” Holbrook said. “He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He has a motto for this — Our country right or wrong. Any man who fails to shout it is a traitor. Only the others are patriots.”

 America First is the slogan Donald Trump carried to victory in 2016. He capitalized on the desire of Americans towards isolationism. Even after victories such as in World War II and the relatively short Persian Gulf War, folks wanted a break from war. They sought to spend the country’s wealth, for example, in social services or infrastructure. President Trump’s interpretation of America First also called for U.S. withdrawal from international treaties and organizations.

A wrinkle with America:  First if there is a war, the U.S. may operate largely on its own. Joint wars cut down on American casualties and expenditures. For example, the Kurds were allies with the U.S. in beating back ISIS. Yet in late 2018, Trump prematurely declared victory against ISIS. Not extending the U.S. role in Syria was widely seen as an abandonment of the Kurds who had saved the lives of more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers.

The term America First was not created by candidate Trump. The idea of isolation, instead of intervention, grew between the two World Wars (1918-1939).

One of the leaders of non-intervention in Europe was Charles Lindbergh, an American aviator, former military officer and national hero for his successful flight from New York to Paris, in 1927. Lindbergh and the group disbanded after Pearl Harbor, and supported the war from then on.

President Woodrow Wilson won reelection in 1916 under the slogan “He kept us out of war.” But events and the need of the U.S. to play a dominant role brought the Americans into the war. America First sounds like it is an approach to self-defense to make everyone happy. But to be a world player and keep its status as “the indispensable nation” the U.S. will likely get drawn into more conflicts despite its citizens’ desire for concentrating on home affairs rather than those of the world.

When a person does not support an emerging war or military conflict, a man or woman who backs the impending action will respond with: “Freedom is not free.”  I have seen people using that phrase in a condescending way in which they thought the four words they just said were profound and original. Come on, folks!

Freedom has not been free of challenges and consequences for Texas Congressman Daniel Crenshaw. He deployed three times to Afghanistan, as a member of Navy SEAL Team 3. On the last deployment, he was wounded and lost his right eye. His contributions to America have not been “free” in any way.

One freeloader is Josh Hawley, the Junior Senator from Missouri. At age 41, he has 89 U.S. Senators senior in rank to him. Before he encouraged thugs to break into the Capitol, he could have double-checked his U.S. Constitution to see if it was legal. It wasn’t. Hawley not only wants freedom to be “free”, he wants to get it with actions like calling for the Afghanistan War to end months before it did, and then urging the impeachment of the president because he ended the war later. Nice try.

If a very wealthy man startles you by saying “Freedom is not free” tell him yes it is, for national defense skinflints like him. In the early part of the Afghan war, a bill was offered to add just $1,000 to very rich people’s taxes. The money would make Humvees more secure from enemy gunfire and mines. Freedom was provided “free” for these high earners, as the vote was against the funds to save troops. Here’s an aphorism for people like that: “My money: Right or wrong.”

“(President) Biden has become the emblem of the hour: headstrong but shaky, ambitious but inept,” Bret Stephens of the NYT wrote after the disastrous American withdrawal from Afghanistan.  “… The military and intelligence assumptions were deeply flawed, the manner in which it was executed was a national humiliation and a moral betrayal and the timing was catastrophic.”

Here’s how to make sense of it: Just accept the tragedy because “Freedom is not free,” so you stand by “My country right or wrong,” and above all else, think of “America First.” In the 1960s, Denis Johnson, author of “Tree of Smoke” wrote about Vietnam: “The Americans won’t win. They’re not fighting for their homeland. They just want to be good. In order to be good, they just have to fight awhile and then leave.” Now they tell us.

Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 11 years.  gm.markley@charter.net


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