‘America First:’ The Value of Knowing Where We’ve Been

by on August 10, 2017 · 0 comments

in History

By Bob Dorn / San Diego Free Press

Tough subjects seem always to end up with Greek or Latin roots. Alienation, bulimia, catastrophe, depression … just go through the alphabet and you’ll find them.

In our fragile democracies, maybe we assign concepts like these, wrestled over by so many psychoanalysts, social and clinical psychologists, political scientists, sociologists, historians, writers for large daily newspapers — even some politicians — that they’ve become contorted and distorted to the point that they are merely suggestive, symbolic, abstracted from the particular.

Many of them become the product of people who differ mightily over the causes and effects of our barely civilized mistakes; for example, the election of Donald Trump to presidency.

Historians have generally proved to be more reliable than other more scientific specialists active in the battle to explain how we wound up electing a blowhard to the nation’s highest office. Here are two words they’ve used, righteously, to explain our mad indifference to failure: Xenophobia and Isolationism.

A terrific article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor in which Sara Miller Llana managed to connect these two historical social diseases that seem to have metastasized in America.

She was writing about the upcoming celebration of Bastille Day where Trump was appearing “as guest of honor on the Champs-Élysées on Friday to watch US soldiers march with French troops” to help in “commemorating the 100th anniversary of the US entering World War I.”

The only problem with this particular celebration is that, as Llana points out, our soldiers “weren’t there for most of the conflict.” At the same time war was raging in Europe in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson was campaigning for reelection with the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War/ America First.” We didn’t enter against the Germans and Austrians until 1917, a year before it ended.

Now, let’s look at the midpoint of Trump’s inaugural address, the moment when he spoke of the U.S. defending other people’s borders but not its own, of foreign companies taking away jobs, of “making other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.”

“From this moment on,” he continued, “it’s going to be ‘America First.'”

Google this phrase and you’ll summon a loose pack comprised of racists, professional patriots, religious leaders, people who are suspicious of involvements with foreign countries and sometimes hostile to them, anti-Semites and others who form what might be called the drainpipe of today’s Republican Party.

The America First Committee “began at Yale University … in spring 1940,” according to historian Susan Dunn. It also included “Gerald Ford, the future American president, and Potter Stewart, the future Supreme Court justice.”

Together they “drafted a petition stating, ‘We demand that Congress refrain from war, even if England is on the verge of defeat,'” CNN’s Dunn wrote.

“Their solution to the international crisis lay in a negotiated peace with Hitler,” Dunn explains in the dead-pan and professionally neutral style of historians. The attack on Pearl Harbor pretty much ended the first version of America First. We decided we’d better join England in the fight against the Axis powers.

More lately, “America First Policies,” a non-profit composed of Trump and Pence campaign workers, began collecting donations to “back the White House agenda,” according to a Associated Press article published on January 30. Their most visible achievement is a slick attack ad aimed at Senator Dean Heller, a Republican from Nevada, for opposing Trump’s failed plan to cut federal Medicaid subsidies for poor people.

The targets of America Firsters have always included immigrants. Even George W. Bush, in a Think Progress article in 2011, was quoted saying, “There was an America First policy … that, I think, argued there were too many Jews, too many Italians, therefore we should have no immigrants.”

The Chinese were excluded from citizenship after they helped build our railroads; Japanese farmers were interred during World War II. The suspicion of “outsiders” goes back a very long way, and politicians have milked that nastiness to collect votes from frightened people for a very long time.

So, let’s take a look at four national disgraces — two of them originating here in San Diego — that demonstrate the brutalities Trump is toying with.

Sacco and Vanzetti Executed

The story starts with the robbery of some $15,000 back in 1920, a time when that much money could buy a 2-story in West Hollywood. Two security employees of a Massachusetts shoe manufacturer were shot and killed.

It began during The (First) Red Scare, when the Russian Revolution was causing Americans to think people with a lot of vowels in their names were the enemy. Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti qualified. The trial of the two Italian anarchists lasted for days. Though most of the evidence against them was questionable, they were sentenced to death.

Appeals after appeals continued after rejections until the two were finally executed in 1927. They were pardoned by Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in 1977, a full 50 years after their deaths at the state’s hands because, the Dukakis proclamation read: “The atmosphere of their trial and appeals was permeated by prejudice against foreigners and hostility toward unorthodox political views.”

The Haymarket Square Affair

Earlier than the Sacco-Vanzetti injustice, a 1886 gathering in Chicago of American Federation of Labor activists demonstrating for an eight-hour workday and overtime pay also resulted in deaths — this time of both law enforcement and workers. It started on May 3 of the same year, when an unknown number of pickets were killed in a police attack at Chicago’s McCormick Reaper Plant.

The next day, 200 to 300 laborers and their organizers rallied at Haymarket Square and some 176 Chicago police with repeating Winchester rifles resumed the attack even though the Mayor of Chicago at the time, Carter Harrison, had approved the meeting and by some accounts even attended it.

The many histories of the event can’t establish the origins of the dynamite bomb that went off, killing one policeman. When the smoke had cleared, “more than a dozen people lay dead or dying (among them some 7 policemen) and close to 100 were injured.”

According to the History channel website, “The riot set off a national wave of xenophobia as scores of foreign-born radicals and labor organizers were rounded up by the police in Chicago and elsewhere.” By August 1886, eight men were convicted in a sensational and controversial trial by a jury considered biased.

On Nov. 11, 1887, four of the men were hanged. Of the additional three sentenced to death, one committed suicide on the eve of his execution and the other two had their death sentences commuted to life in prison by Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby. Later, Governor John P. Altgeld, pardoned the three activists still living in 1893.”

The Lemon Grove Incident

Yes. Lemon Grove is the origin of what the San Diego Historical Society calls “the first successful school desegregation court decision in the history of the United States.”

The best work exposing this demonstration of how know-nothing racism destroys culture is that of Robert Alvarez Jr. A University of California San Diego Ethnic Studies professor, Alvarez’s article by the name of the boldfaced head above can be found in the San Diego History Journal.

“On January 5, 1931, Jerome T. Green, principal of the Lemon Grove Grammar School, acting under instructions from the school trustees, stood at the door and admitted all pupils except the Mexican students,” the article reads.

Before that day, the children of people mostly from Baja had been learning side by side with the children of what the La Mesa Scout bragged in 1926 were “many of the better class of people who have selected San Diego County as their home.”

Alvarez continues, “Green announced that the Mexican children did not belong at the school, could not enter, and instructed them to attend a two-room building constructed to house Mexican children.”

A year before Green’s blockade against Mexican children, the governor of the state had received a report advocating the deportation of Mexican people that didn’t “differentiate between Mexicans born in Mexico, or U.S. citizens of Mexican descent.”

Parents refused to send their kids to the separate school, the district imposed an Americanization program at the intended new “Mexican” school, and the school board president owed the parent’s intransigence to “an intense Mexican national organization which is organized among the Spanish-American elements along the coast.”

Long story made too short: the parents won the struggle at the Superior Court and the case made popular the guarantee that all people born in the U.S. are U.S. citizens. By the way, the man who brought the suit is the father of the author of the groundbreaking article.

The IWW and San Diego

Among most American historians, San Diego is known to have hidden its greed and inclination to let money rule behind an image of sunny-faced innocence. One of the most effective rips in this thin fabric of fun-and-good-times is the story of the International Workers of the World and its fight to organize here.

A good source on this is our own Jim Miller, who wrote a deeply disturbing account of the events in his weekly column Under the Perfect Sun, which ought to be opened by every good reader in San Diego.

Wikipedia has a good start on the subject too, including historian’s works describing the city’s attempt to deport citizens who violated a 1912 city ordinance banning free speech in a 49-square-block area of downtown. San Diego likes to deport people.

The entire American obsession with fear — fear of foreigners, fear of foreign states that drives us to form “Red Squads” of police — can be found here, in this sordid and too little known aspect of our town/city’s history.

The “Red Squads” here lasted until the early 1970s in an attempt to sanitize the city in preparation for the 1972 Nixon-nominating convention by identifying and exporting to Mexico dissidents against the Republican. The convention never occurred. It was moved to Miami.

But we’re still dealing with these attitudes. We’re reminded, again, of the value of knowing where we’ve been, so cunningly and convincingly contained in William Faulkner’s famous remark:

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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