How He Led America First Before He Joined World War II as Aide to General Eisenhower. Restraint Seen as Model for Foreign Policy of Today.
The first in a series of three articles on the birth of the historic America First Committee that sought to keep the U. S. out of World War II. and a blueprint for those today who seek to restrain future needless international involvements. Reprinted from The Wanderer, the oldest national Catholic weekly in America.
By Thomas F. Roeser
LAKE FOREST, IL.--We celebrated the 90th birthday earlier this summer of the greatest entrepreneur and most public-spirited leader the legendary Quaker Oats Company of Chicago ever had, Robert D. Stuart, Jr. He is a key architect of this citys social contract with generations of mayors, governors and presidents
a lifelong conservative Republican, charming family man, role model for employees and CEO colleagues. And also the founder, national director and last surviving leader of the original America First Committee which was formed to keep this country out of the 2nd World War.
Never was a peace movement so valiant and so successful in terms of delaying a war and saving human lives. Far from being disproved by Pearl Harbor, its fear of unprecedented presidential power to maneuver to war was thereby justified. Those who joined with Bob Stuart to keep America out of war went on to fame in other fields. They included a young John F. Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, Charles A. Lindbergh, Chester Bowles, William Benton, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Gerald Ford, Potter Stewart, Bill Scranton, novelist Kathleen Norris, actress Lillian Gish, the LaFollette brothers of Wisconsin (former governor Philip and U. S. Senator Robert), Kingman Brewster, Gore Vidal, Jay Hormel, General Robert Wood (of Sears-Roebuck), John T. Flynn. While not a member, a close ally was Archbishop Francis Beckman of Dubuque, Iowa.
Because he was my boss for 27 years and valued mentor, I was glad to stand with my colleagues and raise a slender goblet of champagne to Robert D. Stuart, Jr. But at evenings end, he told us our work was not over, ordering us to return to the same spothis homey, tasteful but not ornate mansionfor his 100th. Born in 1916 of Scottish Presbyterian heritage, he had planned to be a lawyer and run for public officesetting his eyes on a U. S. Senate seat. But later it was clear that nobody else was ready to run Quaker after his uncle and fatherand so it fell to him. And there he remained, a businessman when all the timeunbeknownst to ushe wanted a career in public life.
But it was his companys inestimable good fortune to get him as CEO. It didnt hurt that his name was Stuart to head a company partially founded by his grandfatherbut his selection was not inevitable (his family actually owned only a micro-fraction of stock). Much had to be done. When he took over the company Quaker was regarded as principally a breakfast food company. His uncle and father moved it out of the general store classification to mid-20th century stature. When he left it, it was not only the choicest marketing marvel of the breakfast food industry but superbly diversified, owner as well of Fisher-Price, the Cadillac of toy companies, a mens clothing chain, a marquis restaurant chain and a leader in providing quality television entertainment and with a prestigious reputation for social responsibility the conscience of grocery manufacturers. Bob Stuart made it so prominent a company that it was generally listed as outstanding in many categories: marketing and public responsibility foremost.
When he left to serve as Ronald Reagans ambassador to Norway, his company fell upon evil days, into the hands of transitional professional managers who viewed commerce only as funnel for their own enrichment. And who saw their goal as piling up lavish salaries, accoutrements and private jets (which he would not have tolerated).
The stock first spurted but then greed got too much: as it is said of the Jacobins of the French Revolution, they knew the cost of everything but the value of nothing. Rather than hunker down and repair their mistakes, these pragmatic managers sold outthe proper phrase for itand consigned the Company as an appendage to a conglomerate, making big bucks for themselves in the process. But a final bright note: As a retiring vice-president, I was the last of my contemporaries who walked out under his own power. Everybody who plotted the debacle was either booted out the door or was forced to scoot like a river of frightened, squealing mice ahead of the tidal wave. What happened to them didnt bring a good company back but showed there is such a thing as remunerative justice.
But its not of commercial enterprise that I write but of the America First Committee which Bob Stuart founded. After 65 years, he has written a book of memoirs, Making a Difference which he subtitles: Memoirs of a Lucky Man. It is privately circulated but which, if put on the market, would greatly alter some current misconceptions about the effort to keep this country from plunging into World War II very earlywhich was what Franklin Roosevelt sorely wished. The battle waged was valiant and by postponing our entry into the conflict enabled the U. S. to emerge from World War II with fewer casualties than any other nation participant. Pearl Harbor did not invalidate America First: on the contrary, when historians look at the machinations of the FDR administration to goad Japan to war, what happened on December 7, 1941 supported the fears of America First. Now as this nation is engaged in an agonizing reappraisal of the Iraq War, the words Bob Stuart writes and his insights are instructive indeed.
In 1938, Roosevelts New Deal began to fade into a Roosevelt recession. Before that happened, the president had been judged a conservative in foreign policy. Now, as the stock market sagged and unemployment rose, he began to warn of foreign aggression. He became especially became concerned with Nazi Dictator Adolf Hitler who spoke of the German peoples wish for more living space (Lebensraum) and initiated a private correspondence with a retired naval person aka Winston Churchill, out of power. The yen to stride across the world stage was entrancing.
. But FDR was frustrated; the Congress, propelled by overwhelming opinion, passed five different Neutrality Acts that forbade U. S. involvement in foreign conflicts. Most Italian-Americans and many German-Americans were Catholics and moved by anti-Communist considerations. Irish-Catholics abhorred the idea of helping British policies anywhere. Which meant that Roosevelt must gingerly, duplicitously, edge toward war while vowing to avoid it. All the same, he wanted to give heart to his international fellows and saw the perfect opportunity to make a pronouncement. In Chicago: where else?
In Chicago on October 5, 1937, he came to dedicate a portion of the Outer Drive bridge. The press had been tipped off that his speech would deal with the need to quarantine foreign aggressors. Covertly, Col. Robert R. McCormick, editor and publisher of the Tribune rented a huge billboard behind the speakers stand. A tarp covered it but underneath, painters were at work. When at noon the president approached the rostrum (with great difficulty due to his paralysis) and the cameras were focused, the tarp was pulled away and the crowd gasped. Some applauded. The billboard showed majestic white letters on a deep blue background that read: The Chicago Tribune: Completely Undominated!
Roosevelt turned and viewed the sign, saw that it would be in the background of every photo taken that day and smoldered. Later in Washington he held a news conference in the Oval Office and asked, is Walter Trohan of the Chicago Tribune here? Would he stand, please?
Trohan, deputy bureau chief, stood up. Roosevelt said, Thank you, Walter. Now you may sit down. I just wanted to get a view of a completely undominated newspaper reporter! Trohan told me the story personally a year before he died in Washington at age 102. The press group roared with laughter but understood that from that moment on, the struggle to keep the nation out of war was centered in one big cityChicago.
But not for long. One McCormick cousin, Joe Patterson, owned the New York Daily News and another, Eleanor (Sissy) Patterson the Washington Times-Herald. McCormick and the two Pattersons started to throw the book at Roosevelt, charging he was seeking war, warning that the so-called Neutrality Act of 1939 was legislation that sailed under false colors. It enabled warring Britain and France to buy armaments and munitions in the United States and extended cash-and-carry provisions that had expired six months earlier. Roosevelt used the mis-named Neutrality Act to extend aid short of war. As increased national defense spending began to revive the economy, there came the subtle Roosevelt strategy to repeal or further drastically revise the Neutrality Act. Grass-roots committees sprung up like mushrooms including one headed by small town editor William Allen White called, coyly, The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies.
The New York Times and the Henry Luce pressTime, Fortune, Lifewere beating the drums for intervention and Hollywood was getting into the act. Still, the polls showed 81 percent of Americans did not want war. The most fashionable foreign policy columnist of the time, Dorothy Thompson, was actively crusading for our entry into the war while her husband, Sinclair Lewis, had signed up for America First. A few organizations formed to oppose the war were pacifist. One was headed by socialist Norman Thomas. Non-pacifist American nationalists needed a grassroots movement to oppose the war.
It was at that psychologically right moment that a student movement to keep us out of war got a leader from Chicagoa young law student of 24 at Yale, Bob Stuart, whose father was a vice president of Quaker Oats and whose grandfather had been a company founder. The difference between his generation which opposed involvement in war and the much later grungy generation of unshaven, unshorn and un-bathed Hippies of the 1960s and `70s was like day and night. Then, bright, cogent and immaculately researched students vowed to defend America if it were attacked; in the `60s the grunge generation skipped to Canada. Today so-called peace movements are ineffective, camp out with Cindy Sheehan near Crawford, Texas, tool around with Al Sharpton and invite the president of Iran to berate President Bush and America in Harlem.
The grunge protests hit the nadir in the `60s when a disheveled, bearded effeminate youth held aloft a sign Make Love Not War! in front of California Governor Ronald Reagan as he addressed the crowd. With brilliant timing, Reagan read the sign aloud to the crowd: Make love not war! Im not sure this chap can do either! to resounding cheers. Since that time, no grassroots movement protesting usurpation of executive power has been seen as clean, orderly, meticulous and reasoned.
As FDR moved toward war, Bob Stuart fashioned a committee unequaled in prestige. Earlier, in March, 1939 Hitler dismembered Czechoslovakia and stepped up pressure on Poland for Danzig and the Polish Corridor that separated the two parts of Germany. Then on September 1, 1939 he moved on Poland. In April, 1940, he launched his blitzkrieg against Denmark and Norway. Stuart believed that if America kept up its defenses it could avoid war. He did not believe nor does he now that the forces of Hitlers aggression could possibly overtake the United States. He believed then as he does now that the up-building of a strong military is the best preventive of war. At no time in public polling did Americans prefer war. Rather sizable skepticism felt that war was viewed by policy makers as a stimulant to bolster the economy where the old New Deal had failed.
My primary reason for believing that America should stay out of the war was simple, Stuart writes in his memoir. I had learned at Princeton that the United States had gained nothing from its intervention in the `Great War of 1914-1918. On the contrary, our country had lost a great deal. We had wasted lives, squandered treasure and betrayed some of our most sacred founding principles. More than 112,000 `doughboys fresh from the prairies and Main streets of Ohio and Kansas and Georgia had died horrible deaths in the killing fields of Europe. The war cost us countless millions of dollars (and broke the economies of Britain, France and Germany). At home, our government had curtailed civil rights and expanded federal power with abandonactions that smoothed the way for the 19th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, the calamitous social experiment known as Prohibition.
So, afire with antiwar convictions he called together a handful of like-minded students at Yale and formed in spring, 1941 what would come to be known as The America First Committee. Four of them circulated a letter to collegians nationwide requesting their support in forming a definite program to counter the forces that are leading the United States toward intervention in the European war. Stuarts wife, the late Barbara, then a 25-year-old mother, did the mailing and mimeographing. Stuart recalls, The vortex of America First might have pulled other couples apart but it strengthened our marriage. In later years, Barbara had a few emotionally shaky periods but she was always at her best when she had a projectand overseeing a truly grass-roots movement to keep America out of war was one helluva project.
Its first public announcement made these points:
1. The United States must build an impregnable defense for America.
2. No foreign power, nor group powers, can successfully attack a
prepared America. American democracy can be preserved
only by keeping out of a European war.
3. Aid short of war weakens national defense at home and
threatens to involve America in war abroad.
Stuart led the group on its first stepto obtain signatures on hundreds of thousandspotentially millionsof petitions. Our general purpose, the group declared, is to give expression to the large but unorganized mass of American people who believe in defending America in the Americas, instead of forfeiting democracy by fighting abroad.
All the while he ran the petition drive, Stuart, from an unused Quaker office at the Board of Trade building, met with Sears General Robert Wood, himself a brilliant quartermaster general of World War I and phoned and corresponded with a great number of leaderselected and non-elected. Earlier he had gone to the Philadelphia GOP convention to try to nominate Sen. Robert A. Taft. His list of acquaintances was bulky: from Democratic Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, a foe of intervention, to Republican Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota, to then nationalist Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, to Jack Kennedy who was handling the grassroots in Massachusetts, to Lillian Gish in Hollywood who was beginning to feel the sting of a blacklist, to Jerry Ford, the assistant football coach at Yale.
And to the leading Roman Catholic prelate in the United States who was unalterably opposed to our entering the warArchbishop Francis Beckman of Dubuque. Fr. Charles E. Coughlin struck Stuart thenand nowas too extreme although through his newspaper Social Justice he carried a strong message.
The money was coming in. General Wood was raising money by the bucket-full. But The America First Committee was composed of clean-cut college kids and new grads plus a phalanx of grey-haired businessmen: not an ounce of charisma in a carload.
Then there came into the organization, Americas Number One Hero, a man Bob Stuart today calls a one-of-a-kind phenomenon in our countrys historythe Lone Eagle, Charles A. Lindbergh. How Stuart and Lindbergh workedand flew together across the countryand how Archbishop Francis Beckman of Dubuque made a speech that electrified the country and got the fury of the Roosevelt Justice Department on his neck meting out retaliation that ruined his careerwill be told in the next two installments.