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Minnesota’s America First Association was formed to support a foreign war, not oppose it

The leaders of the AFA sought to counter what they perceived to be apathy or hostility toward the American war effort against Germany and Austria during World War I.

historic illustration of man standing in front of american flag
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
America First Association poster designed by Howard Chandler Christy ca. 1920.
The expression “America First” has been used by numerous American organizations and movements since at least 1914. Most of them opposed US involvement in foreign conflicts. The Minnesota-based America First Association (AFA) was an exception in that it was formed to support the United States’ entry into World War I.

Nearly three years after the war in Europe began, the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Soon thereafter, a group of prominent Minnesotans, including the president of the University of Minnesota, issued an invitation to “fellow citizens of Minnesota” to attend loyalty meetings in November of 1917. The letter declared that “[our] objects are to unite the people in support of the Government in its gigantic task of winning the war, and to make Americanism the paramount issue of the present.”

Residents in many counties selected delegates to the primary St. Paul meeting, which was held on November 16, 1917. At this meeting, the delegates adopted the constitution for the America First Association, which would be based in St. Paul.

The leaders of the AFA sought to counter what they perceived to be apathy or hostility toward the American war effort against Germany and Austria. Some labor and civic leaders continued to oppose entry into the war. According to the 1910 census, more than half of the population of Minnesota were natives of Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, or Ireland or were children of such natives, and some AFA members were concerned about their loyalty. It was thought that Scandinavians tended to be more sympathetic to Germany than to the United Kingdom. Minnesotans of Irish descent were believed to be hostile to the British. According to the president of the AFA, however, people of all backgrounds could be good Americans if they fully endorsed the American system of government and supported the war effort by, for example, participating in the Liberty Loan program.

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The principal activity of the war-time AFA was to conduct meetings throughout the state to promote “Americanism” in support of the war effort. Attendees at these meetings were encouraged to sign pledge cards and join the AFA. The officers and county representatives of AFA held follow-up meetings in which they reported the extent of Americanism in their communities (e.g., 90 percent Americanism). By the end of the war, the AFA claimed more than 100,000 members.

The signing of the armistice ended fighting in Europe on November 11, 1918, thereby eliminating the AFA’s reason for existence. In meetings held in January of 1919, the leaders of the AFA debated whether to disband the organization. They decided to continue but to change their focus from combatting “Prussianism” to fighting socialism and Bolshevism. They also adopted a new constitution and a resolution to advance their new goals.

In the records and publications of the post-war AFA, there was considerable discussion of the dangers posed to the American system of property rights and personal rights. AFA members feared, for example, socialists and their outreach to farmers, the activities of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) and other so-called radical labor unions, the Nonpartisan League (a farmers’ organization), and developments in the North Dakota government that were considered socialistic.

In its 1919 meetings, the AFA planned to educate students about the virtues of the American system and the dangers of socialism. It proposed to Minnesota education officials that one class period a week be set aside for Americanization work and that one day each school year be designated “America First Day.” It is not clear from the available records for how long, if ever, these plans were implemented.

The AFA demanded that English be used in schools. In 1919, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law requiring the use of English in the teaching of the basic courses. This requirement, with some exceptions, continues to the present in Minnesota law.

AFA organizational records and Minneapolis newspapers do not reflect significant AFA activity after 1919. When World War II approached in the 1930s, new movements adopted the “America First” label, but they opposed, rather than supported, US involvement in Europe.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.