America First? The History of an Idea

Ohio State University

Christopher McKnight Nichols is Professor of History and Wayne Woodrow Hayes Chair in National Security Studies, Mershon Center for International Security Studies, at The Ohio State University. Nichols specializes in the history of the United States and its relationship to the rest of the world, and is also an expert on modern U.S. intellectual, political, and cultural history, from the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (1880-1920) through the present. An Andrew Carnegie Fellow and award-winning teacher and scholar, Nichols is author or editor of six books, including Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age, and his most recent (co-edited with David Milne), Ideology in U.S. Foreign Relations: New Histories.

 

Overview

In championing “America First” isolationism and protectionism, the Trump administration shifted the political mood toward selective U.S. engagement, where foreign commitments are limited to areas of vital U.S. interest and economic nationalism and unilateralism are the order of the day. The Biden Administration, in contrast, has rejected such a worldview as an aberration and proclaimed “America is back.” Yet the resurgence of the phrase — and even these ideas and policies — has been largely disconnected from historical context. What is that history? What are the key ideas embedded in “America First” and the longer tradition of isolationism? And why is it significant? In this course, Professor Nichols explains the origins, development, and central tenets of American isolationism. The talk traces the term “America First” to the late nineteenth century but will focus primarily on the rise of “America First” in the early 1940s and WWII. Overall, the presentation will illuminate how the seemingly hidden history of a constellation of ideas related to “America First” has endured and deepened over time with profound implications that shape present policies and debates.

Reviews

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Marlene Burnett

America First? the history of an idea

Excellent presentation. I wish it could have been longer..

3 months ago
Marc Tanenbaum

A Complex, Yet Unclear Presentation

Although I was drawn to the topic, I found Professor McKnight’s presentation very wordy and his points and illustrations unclear. I became confused from time to time whether he was talking for or against “America First.” As I tried to follow the History of this idea as he presented it, I became lost in his verbosity. The illustrations used did not make easily readable salient points as best I could tell. His energy and commitment to his subject matter is readily evident. If he could rework his slides to make easily visible his main points of this history, it could only help.

3 months ago
Susan Backer

Information Galore!

Professor McKnight Nichols has so much information to share that he spoke at breakneck speed. Glad I did not have to take notes! Amazing how the “America First” rhetoric has not changed; it is everyone else’s fault but ours’. I did not realize how strong this movement was, nor how old. The connection to xenophobia and this movement is evident, when one studies WWI; the resistance and denial of military honors presented to Native American, Black, Asian and Jewish soldiers’ was an outrage. I now understand that by America not fully participating as an ally and not recognizing it’s minorities heroism during the war all stems from American First ideology. Thank you for sharing this important topic!

3 months ago
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