When young John F. Kennedy was marooned on a Pacific jungle island in WWII, he was given a coconut by the natives. He carved a message in the shell. The natives carried it to a nearby island. Allies rescued Lieutenant (j.g.) Kennedy and his crew of survivors of the sinking of PT-109. Why did those islanders align themselves with the Americans? Why didn’t they turn him in to the Japanese?

A good opinion of the United States is very old, even when Kennedy was shipwrecked in 1943. It began in 1776. Jefferson’s line from the Declaration of Independence provided the rationale for publishing such a document. “A decent respect to the opinions of Mankind” was the basis for such goodwill. And Jefferson took pains to “let facts be submitted to a candid world.” Most nations did not require such a justification for their revolutions. Ours did; we needed friends. 

Benjamin Franklin took his printing press to Paris that year of 1776. He would publish the Declaration and many another pamphlets defending our Revolution. Franklin, too, appealed for popular support. Common people were for us even if we had not yet gained support from the crowned heads in Europe. 

Washington’s treatment of his eight hundred Hessian prisoners, taken at Trenton, astonished readers in Europe. Those mercenaries had raped and looted their way across New Jersey in ’76. They even bayoneted a non-combatant Continental Army chaplain, leaving his body in the road with thirteen stab wounds. His Excellency’s policy of humanity toward his war prisoners was why the people in foreign lands marveled at his compassion. And they gave their hearts to our Glorious American Cause.

In our Civil War, the rulers of Britain and France leaned toward the Confederates. Those who then ruled had no desire to see the Union survive. Or any democracy. Lincoln knew this. He knew also the common folk were no friends of slavery. 

When Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, The Times of London sneered: “The principle is not that a man may not own a man; the President proclaims only that a man may not own a man unless he is loyal to Mr. Lincoln’s government.” Lincoln knew the people better. He wrote his act was:

. . . sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God. 

He knew our civil war was a people’s contest, and it was to them around the world that he appealed.

So did Roosevelt. Before we entered the Second World War, Roosevelt pressured Churchill to sign the Atlantic Charter. We needed to offer the colonial peoples of the world the assurance of self-determination when peace was achieved. 

Historian John Lukacs observed in his amazing story of The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle between Churchill and Hitler that in the First World War, people in the global south were certainly aware of Britain fighting Germany. But they had only a vague awareness of who their leaders were. In the Second World War, everyone knew it was Churchill versus Hitler—and they knew what side they were on.

For people in the colonial territories (today’s global south) however, there was another contest—between Roosevelt and Churchill. FDR was the anti-imperialist. Roosevelt would have bled for Great Britain, but he would not shed one drop of American blood to save the British Empire.

Churchill memorably resisted. “I have not become the King’s first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” he said defiantly. Peoples of the global south knew what side they were on in that contest, too. 

All of this is what America First rejects. From 1939-41, leaders like Charles Lindbergh, top Republicans like Senators Robert A. Taft and Arthur Vandenberg, wanted no part of stopping Hitler’s rampage—even if that meant Britain was crushed under his jackboot. We knew enough of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and the Poles to know what he intended for all the minorities—White and Non-White alike. Still, millions of Americans wanted to be spared the costs in blood and treasure of a war with Hitler. 

In 2015, “America First” made a comeback—with a vengeance. For the first time, the Republican Party was taken over by America First. Our alliances were entangling us and our democratic allies were taking us for suckers. That was the simple message of Donald Trump. He exploited the populist rage, and he benefited from the rush of discontented voters who stormed into Republican primaries to kick all of the seventeen major candidates off the stage—save one. That was the largest field of serious candidates in history. 

The New York Times, in a key article by Nate Cohn (31 December 2015), pointed to “a certain kind of Democrat” as the key demographic for the Donald. Blue collar Democrats were the “certain” ones the Times viewed with its fey look down its nose. That certain kind of Democrat had once been the base of the Democratic Party—from Wilson to JFK and LBJ. “Blue collar” once meant physical labor. In modern America, a blue-collar voter could be anyone who works for a boss. That’s a lot. Key in the Times’ insightful analysis was the “non-college” moniker. That is 62.1% of all Americans. 

The Donald relished the support of Americans he said were “less educated” and getting the shaft. He pledged to stop any cuts to Social Security and Medicare. He promised to end all the “endless wars.” He blamed the country’s problems on immigrants—especially those who violate our Southern borders. 

In all of this, our leaders forget the domestic lessons of our Civil War and World War II. Both Lincoln and Roosevelt led Peoples’ Contests—giving their full respect to the opinions of mankind. Neither savvy politician forgot, however, that they had to get re-elected in order to realize their visions of America’s place in the world. A good reputation abroad is indeed a useful asset, yet domestic issues must be addressed as well. 

That is why both candidates took great care to provide for Americans’ needs at home. Lincoln’s Transcontinental Railroad, Homestead Act, Land Grant Colleges, and the most generous Immigration Act in history all enabled him to defend the Union and its “just and generous” appeal to voters. Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 Economic Bill of Rights assured the twelve million Americans in uniform (one in every eleven citizens) they would have government aid to go to college, start a business, and buy a home—after victory was achieved. Both Lincoln and Roosevelt were re-elected. Where there is no vision, the people perish, says Scripture. Where there is no vision, our political leaders falter.