Behold America by Sarah Churchwell
It was on Monday, 30th May, 1927, that patriotic New Yorkers took to the streets to celebrate Memorial Day. Also on the streets that day were members of the organisation of American Fascists, an Italian-American alliance that supported Mussolini. They marched through Manhattan with sporadic fights breaking out against those who opposed them. In Brooklyn, members of the Angelo Rizza Fascista League stomped through the borough, again with fights breaking out. Wearing black shirts, the pro-Mussolini marchers stopped outside a Catholic Cathedral and gave the Fascist salute as both Italian and American flags flew overhead.
In Queens, it was the turn of the Ku Klux Klan. On that Memorial Day, approximately 1000 white supremacists, who proclaimed themselves to be ‘one hundred per cent American‘ marched as 20,000 spectators looked on, some cheering, some not. They claimed the mantra of America First for themselves although the phrase had been in popular use for a decade or more by that time. Serious trouble broke out and there were a number of arrests.
The police commissioner said later, ‘Neither the Klan nor the Fascisti have a proper place in a parade dedicated to the soldier dead of the United States.‘ Of the seven men arrested during the riot, five were self-proclaimed members of the Klan. One other was arrested by mistake as he was injured, but immediately released. The final person to be arrested that day was a twenty-year-old German-American who was arraigned and discharged. He name was Fred Christ Trump, father of the current President of the United States.
Sarah Churchwell’s wonderful tome delves into the origins and meaning of the terms, America First and The American Dream. She goes as far back as 1900 in her exposé of how the terms were first created and what they were originally intended to mean. Why? Well, in today’s climate in the USA, these two terms have been used to good effect by the incumbent President. Donald Trump has promoted the phrase America First as one of his campaign slogans. He has used it to coalesce a disaffected populace and garner votes. Trump has effectively hijacked established terms in his rush to power. It is of interest to see how appropriate his modern usage of said terms is.
The American Dream has changed a lot over the past century in the USA. It went from meaning a land of opportunity for everyone, a place of great equality where a manual labourer could climb to the top, to one where inequality is accepted and unquestioned corporate control the norm. In the early days, The American Dream was opposed to the gathering of vast fortunes by individuals. It was designed to prevent such monopolies from attaining total power. Yet, as time moved on, it can be seen that rampant Capitalism mutated the meaning into that which lauds the super-rich, and facilitates the incredible influence that such people have upon US society and political life today.
It may seem strange to us now, but Churchwell demonstrates that The American Dream was firstly one where free enterprise was encouraged but only with strong government regulation. Oil and rail barons were not popular nor applauded. If we look at the current approach to US society, we can see how much the general perspective has changed, to the point whereby the original meaning is lost.
Churchwell has provided, in Behold America, a thoroughly researched investigation into the step by step change in that process. She provides newspaper articles, pamphlets, posters, radio excerpts, TV broadcasts and legal statements in her presentation of how the changing use of the terms America First and The American Dream have mirrored the fundamental changes in US society.
Her factual accounts, of the times that were, closely link the Ku Klux Klan to the term America First. It was an insular phrase, first meant to encourage the avoidance of war on behalf of any European power at the start of the 20th century. Isolationists wanted the USA to remain outside of the turbulent European theatre. Their opponents saw the inevitable entry of the USA into the First World War.
In addition to this geo-political positioning, there was also the localised use of the term, America First, to force an end to the ties that existed between emigrants, their families and their places of origin. In a startling reminder of Trump’s non-white xenophobia, immigrants from certain countries were banned at the start of the 20th century. Senior politicians ranted about the need for continuing white dominance with Nordic and Celtic nations of both northern and western Europe being the only favoured places of origin. Italians, Spanish, Greeks and anyone not considered entirely white, were not to be welcomed. Non-Europeans were not to be considered at all. WASP’s were determined to see their power continue. Of course, given Ireland’s mostly Catholic identity, it’s hard to see how the Celts from Ireland fitted into these criteria. Mostly they didn’t. Catholics were suspected of having allegiance to the Pope ahead of the US President.
The Klan demanded 100% Americanism. The concept of ‘Hyphenates’ was established. This was anyone who was Irish-American, Italian-American etc. The allegiance to the USA of these groups was questioned and, as a result, they were vilified. During the early part of the 20th century, America First and hyphenate hysteria stomped hand-in-hand over many American dreams. The rot went all the way to the top.
In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson made a speech that declared, ‘Our whole duty for the present, at any rate, is summed up in the motto: America First.‘ It was also during this speech that the term ‘fake news‘ was first employed as a regular feature by a US President. America First was to become Wilson’s election slogan. Theodore Roosevelt was another who espoused the virtues of America First, with a special distaste of ‘hyphenates’ thrown in for good measure. Warren G Harding similarly fell into the mindset of America First. It became an epidemic that was welcomed by the Ku Klux Klan who, at the time, were millions strong.
It’s interesting to note that the ‘one drop rule’ was in force whereby a person with any trace of black heritage was considered to be fully black. It was this that led to accusations against Harding during his 1920’s election campaign, of having black blood and therefore being unsuitable for office. It’s reminiscent of Trumps’ charges against Obama of being born outside the USA and therefore not American. OK, the charges are different, but the attempt was the same. Blacks were not considered to be fully American in early 20th century USA, only WASPs were, even if those WASPs were not born in the country. Strange place.
Era by era, Sarah Churchwell walks us through the changes to the usage of these two terms and the corresponding changes to society. It makes for fascinating reading. The similarities between the attitudes of the Presidents then, and Trump now, are remarkable. It’s as if Trump has deigned to study only one era of US history and decided that he would emulate it. Of course, he will ignore the attitudes and conduct of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the socialist President who managed to take the US out of the Great Depression by enacting a series of socialist policies known as The New Deal.
In this book, Churchwell does not shy away from the ugly truths about US society and the Presidents who reigned over it. Lynching was commonplace, as she demonstrates, and it was the Democrats who opposed numerous anti-lynching bills in Congress. The Klan got various members elected to senior positions in Congress and the Supreme Court. The black community had no chance of a normal life with equality as its basis.
The story really only runs to 1945, but the epilogue does bring us less thoroughly up to the present time. Fred Christ Trump was a property developer who engaged in many questionable practices, including Federal funds to develop ‘racially homogeneous’ residences around New York. The celebrated singer-songwriter, Woody Guthrie, lived in one of Fred Trump’s housing projects for two years and was so outraged about what he recognised as overt racism by Trump that he penned the song, ‘Old Man Trump‘. Fred Trump was investigated by a US Senate Committee for profiteering off public contracts. His actions could be regarded today as fraud. Sometimes the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Behold America is a book for those who wish to better understand how the USA got to where it is today. It uses two terms to demonstrate this. There is a wealth of information, including photos and copies of posters that might be of interest. It is detailed and as a result isn’t a light read. But it is obligatory for getting a handle on why Trump is adopting such an antiquated approach to running the office of President of the United States.
Sult scale rating: 7.5 out of 10. This is an excellent reference tool for those with a keen interest in more recent US history. It will walk you through the first half of the 20th century using the terms America First and The American Dream to provide a reference for how society has changed and is changing. As the Spanish philosopher and novelist, George Santayana said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Perhaps, there are those in the USA who would do well to read Behold America.
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