On February 20, 1941, the New York City branch of the America First Committee rented the Mecca Temple in Manhattan (now the New York City Center) and held its first rally. The local group’s chairman, John T. Flynn, had lined up the main speakers, Senators Gerald Nye and Burton Wheeler, to deliver a public blast at President Roosevelt and the plan for helping Great Britain fight the Germans. New York was seen as the heart of Roosevelt’s support, but the rally showed the strength of the city’s antiwar movement. The audience was estimated at 3,500, a number that included at least one heckler, who called out as donations were being collected: “Who’s giving the money, Hitler or Mussolini?” The crowd called for the man to be ejected, but Flynn said no. “This is an American meeting, and if anyone has anything to say they are free to say it.”
Flynn was quick, however, to put a stop to a group handing out anti-Semitic literature to the crowd, and all the speakers distanced themselves from this message. But the charges of anti-Semitism in the isolationist movement were not new, and they would not go away. The day after the meeting, a local interventionist group commented that, whether intentionally or not, the AFC speakers were “making their appeal to the Nazis, Fascists, Communists, and their fellow-travelers in this country.” Most Americans were isolationists, and America Firsters had many reasons for joining the organization. But the running current of anti-Semitism suggested that for some members Europe’s Jews were simply not worth fighting for. Many in the U.S. might have felt this way, but America First went further and blamed Jews for trying to drag the U.S. into the war.
John Flynn grew up near Washington, D.C., where he graduated from law school. He was more interested in writing than in law, and he moved to New York City around 1920 to work as a journalist. He lived in Queens with his family. His politics were liberal and antiwar. He wrote books about the need to rein in corporate greed, and had a regular column in the New Republic, a liberal weekly.
At first, Flynn was pleased by the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but he was increasingly at odds with the president’s position on European fascism. Flynn never believed Hitler would invade the U.S., or that the American economy was at risk. He thought FDR was whipping up war anxiety to get re-elected to a second term. In 1938, Flynn and others on the right and left formed the Keep America Out of War Congress (KAOWC), aimed at undoing the steps FDR had taken to prepare the U.S. for the possibility of war. Flynn was KAOWC’s national chairman.
In 1939 and 1940, when Europe was at war and much of the mainland had fallen to Germany, the pressing question was whether the U.S. should help Great Britain resist the Nazi Blitzkrieg. The British said they were out of money and material, and desperately needed assistance. In his January 6, 1941 fireside chat, President Roosevelt promised to keep the U.S. out of war, but proposed a program that would allow the U.S. to lend or lease arms and supplies to any country whose security was vital to American interests. The next day, Flynn issued a statement for KAOWC: “It is not merely a question whether Hitler will construe this act as an act of war. It is an act of war.”
Flynn, still the national chair of KAOWC and now also the chairman of the New York chapter of the America First Committee, threw himself into the battle against Lend-Lease. He took out an ad in The New York Times, declaring that Great Britain was not out of money and did not need U.S. help. He scheduled the February 20 America First rally at the Mecca Temple, where the issue was addressed by prominent U.S. senators. These efforts failed. On March 10, 1941, with the Land-Lease Act to become law the next day, Flynn labeled the Democrats the “war party” and promised that KAOWC would “fight to the last ditch to save the American people from this catastrophe.”
Another rally was planned for April 23 at the Manhattan Center. This one would be a huge protest against Lend- Lease and any U.S. role in Europe’s war. It would be a national, not just a local, event. The headlining speaker would be the prominent new member of the America First Committee: Charles A. Lindbergh. His name would draw enormous crowds, but it also put the issue of anti-Semitism right on the marquee. Lucky Lindy, the handsome aviation hero of the 1920s, had a history of making anti-Jewish statements. He had traveled to Germany and accepted an award from the Third Reich. Rumors spread that pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic groups would attend the April 23 rally. Pro-Interventionists determined to picket the event, and The New York Times quoted one interventionist’s prediction that the meeting would be “the largest gathering of pro-Nazi and pro-Fascists, of both domestic and imported brands, since the German-American Bund rallies in Madison Square Garden.” After the rally, newspapers reported that some 35,000 people had been inside and outside the hall. Many German accents were heard in the crowd. There was a suggestion that Nazi organizations had been given free tickets.
Flynn fought against the extremist groups he believed were damaging to the isolationist message. He banned Nazis, communists, Bundists, and followers of Father Coughlin from joining the New York chapter. But keeping extremist elements out of public meetings proved almost impossible. The press reported every sign of their presence. One critical writer called America First a “Nazi transmission belt”—accusing it of operating as the engine that delivered Hitler’s propaganda to American audiences.
As the summer went on, Lindbergh continued speaking for America First, and continued to be labeled a racist. He struck back at a meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, in September, where he blamed three groups for beating the drums of war: the British, the Roosevelt Administration, and the Jews. John T. Flynn was home in New York the next morning when one of his lieutenants called with news of Lindbergh’s speech, which Flynn had not heard. The caller found the straight talk thrilling and asked Flynn to issue a statement of support. Flynn, horrified, said there would be no statement from him or anyone in the local committee. He called the Chicago headquarters of America First, and learned that Lindbergh was not required to submit his speeches to them in advance. Flynn said he was “profoundly disturbed,” and that Lindbergh had “literally committed the America First Movement to an open attack on the Jews.” Lindbergh remained a major speaker for America First, and continued to draw crowds, but the organization did not recover from his talk in Des Moines. Anti-Semitism became the story line, not the argument over American policy.
Flynn made what was probably his last antiwar speech on December 4, 1941 in the Bronx. Four days later, following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war on Japan, he released this comment: “The New York Chapter of the America First Committee accepts completely the statement of our national chairman, General R. E. Wood, pledging loyal support to the government by the members of America First. This committee was organized to oppose America’s involvement in European and Asiatic wars. Its counsels and advice were rejected at each step by the government. But the time for discussing that is past. We are now at war. It is the duty of the government to prosecute that war with all the energy of the nation. It is equally the duty of every citizen to stand behind the government to the uttermost in that task.”
The New York chapter of America First stopped operating after Pearl Harbor, and closed formally in the summer of 1942. It had been the largest and wealthiest of the branches, bigger and richer than even the main headquarters in Chicago. New York City was known as the base of the intervention movement, but the size of John Flynn’s chapter showed that many New Yorkers, like Americans in general, wanted no part of this war.
After World War II, John T. Flynn continued writing and speaking against interventionist foreign policies and militarism. His politics were increasingly conservative, but he was at odds with other elements of the rising conservative movement, and sometimes had difficulty getting his work published. He was a critic of the United Nations and a supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against Communist infiltrators in the U.S.
Sources: John E. Moser, “The Ideological Odyssey of John T. Flynn,” personal. (ashland.edu/~jmoser1/flynn.html, accessed 5-17-12, M. Waters); John E. Moser, Right Turn: John T. Flynn and the Transformation of American Liberalism (New York: New York University Press, 2005); Michele Flynn Stenehjem, An American First: John T. Flynn and the America First Committee (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1976); Mike Wallace, Gotham II: A History of New York City from 1889 to 1945 (in progress; to be published by Oxford University Press).
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