The words of every inaugural address are carefully parsed, but two words in particular stood out in President Trump's address on Friday. Partway through his inaugural speech, the new president called for "a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power."
"From this day forward, it’s going to be only 'America first, America first,'" he said, as the crowd on the National Mall broke out in applause.
Despite Mr. Trump's assertion, "America First" is hardly a new decree at all. Some observers quickly pointed out that "America First" was a 1930s-era slogan of isolationists before World War II, which is true. But some additional historical context is helpful, because the phrase dates to many years earlier, to before World War I, when another awful conflagration consumed Europe and the Middle East.
In the early 20th century, "America First" was an Interior Department tourism campaign for citizens of the United States to explore their own country before spending their money overseas. For many United States citizens, the American west was an unexplored and mysterious part of the country, and "See America First" was an effort to lure tourist dollars into little-known pockets of the country.
When war broke out in Europe 1914, the slogan shifted, imbued with both national pride and isolationism. "Seeing 'America First' will be popular with our tourists now," the Wahpeton Times of North Dakota wrote on August 20, 1915, shortly after war broke out in Europe. The slogan also had an anti-war thread to it, suggesting that the United States eschewed the bloodshed overseas.
"There ought to be now in very American heart a greater affection for his own land. It should stand for him as the land of peace, as the land were love and science and labor are the ideals, not blood and iron. Let him them, until Europe repents of its follies and insanities, see what God and the hand of man have done for its own soil," the Bridgeport Evening Farmer wrote on September 1, 1914.
In 1915, after the war had turned into a horrifying spasm of slaughter that turned Europe into an abattoir, the meaning of the phrase shifted again. On April 20, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson delivered a speech to the Associated Press at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, where he changed Interior Secretary Franklin Lane's marketing slogan into a more explicitly nationalist phrase -- but with an expansive, internationalist subtext.
"So that I am not speaking in a selfish spirit when I say that our whole duty for the present, at any rate, is summed up in this motto, America First, let us think of America before we think of Europe, in order that America may be fit to be Europe's friend when the day of tested Friendship comes. The test of friendship is not now sympathy with the one side or the other, but getting ready to help both sides when the struggle is over," he said.
Wilson's re-definition of the phrase, in other worse, was both inward-looking and outward-looking. He wanted American neutrality to hold firm, but he also wanted to conserve American strength for what would come after the war, when nations ruined by conflict would need allies and assistance.
"The basis of neutrality, gentlemen, is not indifference; it is not self interest," he said at the Waldorf-Astoria. "The basis of neutrality is sympathy for mankind. It is fairness, it is goodwill at bottom. It is impartiality of spirit and judgment. I wish that all of our fellow-citizens could realize that."
Of course, 'America First' then was no binding pledge and promised no guarantees. On January 31, 1917 -- just less than a century before President Trump's inaugural speech on Friday -- Germany abandoned its pledge not to attack neutral ships at sea, making American vessels targets of submarine attacks. Just over two months later, that same president asked Congress for a war declaration against Germany. 'America First' was discarded in the stampede toward war.
A century ago, 'America First' had a blunt appeal to American anxious over Europe's bloodshed, with what appeared to be an uncompromising and unbudging heft. But it also proved to be a more malleable slogan than it first seemed. Perhaps the meaning of 'America First', which seems clear in the harsh light of 2017, will mean something else entirely -- or nothing at all -- in the years to come.