The America First Committee (AFC) was established in September 1940. The America First National Committee included Robert E. Wood, John T. Flynn and Charles A. Lindbergh. Supporters of the organization included Elizabeth Dilling , Burton K. Wheeler, Robert R. McCormick, Hugh S. Johnson, Robert LaFollette Jr., Amos Pinchot, Hamilton Stuyvesan Fish, Harry Elmer Barnes and Gerald Nye.
The AFC soon became the most powerful isolationist group in the United States. The AFC had four main principles: (1) The United States must build an impregnable defense for America; (2) No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America; (3) American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European War; (4) "Aid short of war" weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad. John T. Flynn played a major role in the organization's publicity campaigns. This included one advertisement that read: "The Last War Brought: Communism to Russia, Fascism to Italy, Nazism to Germany. What Will Another War Bring To America?"
Hamilton Stuyvesan Fish later told Studs Terkel: "I'd led the fight for three years against Roosevelt getting us into war. I was on the radio every ten days.... That is the greatest thing I did do in my life.... We would have been fighting those Germans, plus probably the Russians, because they made a deal with them. Every American family owes an obligation to me because we would have lost a million or two million killed. That's the biggest thing I ever did, and nobody can take it away from me."
When Winston Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, he realised that it would be vitally important to enlist the Unoted States as Britain's ally. Churchill appointed William Stephenson as the head of the British Security Coordination (BSC). As William Boyd has pointed out: "The phrase is bland, almost defiantly ordinary, depicting perhaps some sub-committee of a minor department in a lowly Whitehall ministry. In fact BSC, as it was generally known, represented one of the largest covert operations in British spying history... With the US alongside Britain, Hitler would be defeated - eventually. Without the US (Russia was neutral at the time), the future looked unbearably bleak... polls in the US still showed that 80% of Americans were against joining the war in Europe. Anglophobia was widespread and the US Congress was violently opposed to any form of intervention."
Stephenson knew that with leading officials supporting isolationism he had to overcome these barriers. His main ally in this was another friend, William Donovan, who he had met in the First World War. "The procurement of certain supplies for Britain was high on my priority list and it was the burning urgency of this requirement that made me instinctively concentrate on the single individual who could help me. I turned to Bill Donovan." Donovan arranged meetings with Henry Stimson (Secretary of War), Cordell Hull (Secretary of State) and Frank Knox (Secretary of the Navy). The main topic was Britain's lack of destroyers and the possibility of finding a formula for transfer of fifty "over-age" destroyers to the Royal Navy without a legal breach of U.S. neutrality legislation.
It was decided to send Donovan to Britain on a fact-finding mission. He left on 14th July, 1940. When he heard the news, Joseph P. Kennedy complained: "Our staff, I think is getting all the information that possibility can be gathered, and to send a new man here at this time is to me the height of nonsense and a definite blow to good organization." He added that the trip would "simply result in causing confusion and misunderstanding on the part of the British". Andrew Lycett has argued: "Nothing was held back from the big American. British planners had decided to take him completely into their confidence and share their most prized military secrets in the hope that he would return home even more convinced of their resourcefulness and determination to win the war."
William Donovan arrived back in the United States in early August, 1940. In his report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt he argued: "(1) That the British would fight to the last ditch. (2) They could not hope to hold to hold the last ditch unless they got supplies at least from America. (3) That supplies were of no avail unless they were delivered to the fighting front - in short, that protecting the lines of communication was a sine qua non. (4) That Fifth Column activity was an important factor." Donovan also urged that the government should sack Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, who was predicting a German victory. Donovan also wrote a series of articles arguing that Nazi Germany posed a serious threat to the United States.
On 22nd August, William Stephenson reported to London that the destroyer deal was agreed upon. The agreement for transferring 50 aging American destroyers, in return for the rights to air and naval basis in Bermuda, Newfoundland, the Caribbean and British Guiana, was announced 3rd September, 1940. The bases were leased for 99 years and the destroyers were of great value as convey escorts. Supporters of the America First Committee in the Senate attempted to defeat this Lend Lease proposal. Gerald Nye, Burton K. Wheeler, Hugh Johnson, Robert LaFollette Jr., Henrik Shipstead, Homer T. Bone, James B. Clark, William Langer, and Arthur Capper, all voted against the measure but it was passed by 60 votes to 31.
Stephenson was very concerned with the growth of the American First Committee. by the spring of 1941, the British Security Coordination estimated that there were 700 chapters and nearly a million members of isolationist groups. Leading isolationists were monitored, targeted and harassed. When Gerald Nye spoke in Boston in September 1941, thousands of handbills were handed out attacking him as an appeaser and Nazi lover. Following a speech by Hamilton Stuyvesan Fish, a member of a group set-up by the BSC, the Fight for Freedom, delivered him a card which said, "Der Fuhrer thanks you for your loyalty" and photographs were taken.
A BSC agent approached Donald Chase Downes and told him that he was working under the direct orders of Winston Churchill. "Our primary directive from Churchill is that American participation in the war is the most important single objective for Britain. It is the only way, he feels, to victory over Nazism. Our best information is that the forces of isolationism, a front here for Nazism and Fascism, is gaining, not losing ground. How do you personally feel about these forces, for example, the America First movement." Downes replied: "I couldn't feel stronger. I can say further that I am quite honestly ashamed that my country is not a full-fledged, belligerent ally of Britain's"
Downes was asked if he was willing to spy on the American First Committee. "Do you feel strongly enough on these matters to work for us in your own country? To spy on your fellow Americans and report to us? For we feel there is German money and German direction behind the American First movement, though many of its followers may not know it and would in fact be shocked to know it. If we can pin a Nazi contact or Nazi money on the isolationists, they will lose many of their followers. It might be the deciding factor in America's entry in the war, if the American public knew the truth."
Donald Chase Downes later recalled in his autobiography, The Scarlett Thread (1953) that he received assistance in his work from the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, Congress for Industrial Organisation and U.S. army counter-intelligence. Bill Macdonald, the author of The True Intrepid: Sir William Stephenson and the Unknown Agents (2001), has pointed out: "Downes eventually discovered there was Nazi activity in New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Cleveland and Boston. In some cases they traced actual transfers of money from the Nazis to the America Firsters."
In April 1941, Father Charles Coughlin endorsed the America First Committee in his journal, Social Justice . Although Coughlin was one of America's most popular political figures at the time, his open Anti-Semitism made his endorsement a mixed blessing. In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, Charles A. Lindbergh claimed that the "three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration". Soon afterwards Gerald Nye argued "that the Jewish people are a large factor in our movement toward war." These speeches resulted in some people claiming that the America First Committee was anti-Semitic.
On 21st April, 1941, Rex Stout made a speech in New York City where he attacked the activities of Lindbergh: "I wish I could look you in the eye, Colonel Lindbergh, when I tell you that you simply don't know what it's all about.... A desperate war is being fought, and the winners of the war will win the oceans. No matter what we do, we shall be either one of the winners, or one of the losers; no shivering neutral will get a bite of anything but crow when the shooting stops. It would therefore seem to be plain imbecility not to go in with Britain and win.... Every fascist and pro-Nazi publication in America, without exception, applauds and approves of him.... Dozens of times in the past year he has been enthusiastically quoted in the newspapers of Germany and Italy and Japan."
Stout then went onto defend himself against the attacks he had received from America First Committee: "The America First Committee is calling people like me, who are convinced that we should go in with Britain now and win, a gang of warmongers.... If a 1941 warmonger is a man who advocates that we should immediately send warships and the men we have trained to sail them and shoot their guns, and airplanes and the boys we have trained to fly them and drop their bombs, send them to meet our acknowledged deadly enemy where he is, and attack him and defeat him, then count me in."
On 11th September, 1941, Charles Lindbergh made a controversial speech in Des Moines: "The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration. Behind these groups, but of lesser importance, are a number of capitalists, Anglophiles and intellectuals who believe that their future, and the future of mankind, depends upon the domination of the British Empire... These war agitators comprise only a small minority of our people; but they control a tremendous influence... It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany... But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy, both for us and for them. Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences."
Lindbergh speech resulted in some critics describing him as anti-Semitic. One of the senior members of the AFC, the journalist, Hugh S. Johnson, frightened that these views would "kill his column in the major eastern cities" left the AFC. Lindbergh recorded in his diary on 18th September that John T. Flynn, one of the leaders of the America First Committee paid him a visit: "John Flynn came at 11:00; and we talked the situation over for an hour. Flynn says he does not question the truth of what I said at Des Moines, but feels it was inadvisable to mention the Jewish problem. It is difficult for me to understand Flynn's attitude. He feels as strongly as I do that the Jews are among the major influences pushing this country toward war. He has said so frequently, and he says so now. He is perfectly willing to talk about it among a small group of people in private. But apparently he would rather see us get into the war than mention in public what the Jews are doing, no matter how tolerantly and moderately it is done."
Nicholas J. Cull, the author of Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against American Neutrality (1996), has argued: "During the summer of 1941, he (Ivar Bryce) became eager to awaken the United States to the Nazi threat in South America." It was especially important for the British Security Coordination to undermine the propaganda of the American First Committee that had over a million paid-up members. Ivar Bryce recalls in his autobiography, You Only Live Once (1975): "Sketching out trial maps of the possible changes, on my blotter, I came up with one showing the probable reallocation of territories that would appeal to Berlin. It was very convincing: the more I studied it the more sense it made... were a genuine German map of this kind to be discovered and publicised among... the American Firsters, what a commotion would be caused."
William Stephenson approved the idea and the project was handed over to Station M, the phony document factory in Toronto run by Eric Maschwitz, of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). It took them only 48 hours to produce "a map, slightly travel-stained with use, but on which the Reich's chief map makers... would be prepared to swear was made by them." Stephenson now arranged for the FBI to find the map during a raid on a German safe-house on the south coast of Cuba. J. Edgar Hoover handed the map over to William Donovan. His executive assistant, James R. Murphy, delivered the map to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The historian, Thomas E. Mahl argues that "as a result of this document Congress dismantled the last of the neutrality legislation."
Nicholas J. Cull has argued that Roosevelt should not have realised it was a forgery. He points out that Adolf A. Berle, the Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, had already warned Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State that "British intelligence has been very active in making things appear dangerous in South America. We have to be a little on our guard against false scares."
Fight for Freedom group monitored the activities of the leading isolationist organization, the America First Committee. Leading isolationists were also targeted and harassed. When Gerald Nye spoke in Boston in September 1941, thousands of handbills were handed out attacking him as an appeaser and Nazi lover. Following a speech by Hamilton Stuyvesan Fish, a member of a group set-up by the BSC, the Fight for Freedom, delivered him a card which said, "Der Fuhrer thanks you for your loyalty" and photographs were taken.
In October 1941, the British Security Coordination attempted to disrupt a rally at Madison Square Garden by issuing counterfeit tickets. H. Montgomery Hyde has argued that the plan backfired as the AFC got a lot of publicity from the meeting with 20,000 people inside and the same number supporting the cause outside. The only opposition was an obvious agent provocateur shouting "Hang Roosevelt".
Another BSC agent, Sanford Griffith, established a company Market Analysts Incorporated and was initially commissioned to carry out polls for the anti-isolationist Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies and Fight for Freedom group. Griffith's assistant, Francis Adams Henson, a long time activist against the Nazi Germany government, later recalled: "My job was to use the results of our polls, taken among their constituents, to convince on-the-fence Congressmen and Senators that they should favor more aid to Britain."
As Richard W. Steele has pointed out: "public opinion polls had become a political weapon that could be used to inform the views of the doubtful, weaken the commitment of opponents, and strengthen the conviction of supporters." William Stephenson later admitted: "Great care was taken beforehand to make certain the poll results would turn out as desired. The questions were to steer opinion toward the support of Britain and the war... Public Opinion was manipulated through what seemed an objective poll."
Michael Wheeler, the author of Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: The Manipulation of Public Opinion in America (2007): "Proving that a given poll is rigged is difficult because there are so many subtle ways to fake data... a clever pollster can just as easily favor one candidate or the other by making less conspicuous adjustments, such as allocating the undecided voters as suits his needs, throwing out certain interviews on the grounds that they were non-voters, or manipulating the sequence and context within which the questions are asked... Polls can even be rigged without the pollster knowing it.... Most major polling organizations keep their sampling lists under lock and key."
The main target of these polls concerned the political views of leading politicians opposed to Lend-Lease. This included Hamilton Stuyvesan Fish. In February 1941, a poll of Fish's constituents said that 70 percent of them favored the passage of Lend-Lease. James H. Causey, president of the Foundation for the Advancement of Social Sciences, was highly suspicious of this poll and called for a congressional investigation.
The AFC influenced public opinion through publications and speeches and within a year the organization had 450 local chapters and over 800,000 members. The AFC was dissolved four days after the Japanese Air Force attacked Pearl Harbor on 7th December, 1941. Hamilton Stuyvesan Fish later recalled: "Franklin Roosevelt took us into a war without telling the people anything about it. He served an ultimatum which we knew nothing about. We were forced into the war. It was the biggest cover-up ever perpetrated in the United States of America. But in 1941, December 8, the day after the Japanese. I made the first speech ever made in the halls of Congress over the radio. I'd been speaking every week to keep us out of war. The day after the attack, as ranking member of the rules committee, it was my duty to speak first. I damned the Japs and upheld Roosevelt's day of infamy. I called on all noninterventionists to go into the army until we defeated the Japs. For fifteen minutes I talked to twenty-five million people. People told me they cried after. I made the only speech because I took up the whole time allotted."