AFC was never able to get funding for its own public opinion poll. The New York chapter received slightly more than $190,000, most of it from its 47,000 contributors. Since it never had a national membership form or national dues, and local chapters were quite autonomous, historians suggest the leaders had no idea how many "members" it had. [Cole 1953, 25-33; Schneider 201-2]
Serious organizing of the America First Committee took place in Chicago not long after the September 1940 establishment. Chicago was to remain the national headquarters of the committee. To preside over their committee, America First chose General Robert E. Wood, the 61 year-old chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Co.. While Wood would accept only an interim position, he remained at the head of the committee until it was disbanded in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The America First Committee had its share of prominent businessmen as well as the sympathies of political figures like Senator Burton K. Wheeler, Senator Gerald P. Nye, and Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, with its most prominent spokesman being Charles A. Lindbergh.
Other celebrities supporting America First were novelist Sinclair Lewis, poet E. E. Cummings, author Gore Vidal (as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy), Alice Roosevelt Longworth, film producer Walt Disney and actress Lillian Gish. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright attempted to join, but the board thought he had a "reputation for immorality".
On the day after Roosevelt's lend-lease bill was submitted to the United States Congress, Wood promised AFC opposition "with all the vigor it can exert." America First staunchly opposed the convoying of ships, the Atlantic Charter, and the placing of economic pressure on Japan. In order to achieve the defeat of lend-lease and the perpetuation of American neutrality, the AFC advocated four basic principles:
Despite the onset of war in Europe, an overwhelming majority of the American people wanted to stay out of the new war if they could.[CMH, Chapter 19]. The AFC tapped into this widespread anti-war feeling in the years leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into the war.
Charles Lindbergh had been actively involved in questioning the motives of the Roosevelt administration well before the formation of the AFC. Lindbergh adopted an anti-war stance even before the Battle of Britain and before the advent of the lend-lease bill. His first radio speech was broadcast on September 15, 1939 over all three of the major radio networks (Mutual, National, and Columbia). Lindbergh urged listeners to look beyond the speeches and propaganda they were being fed and instead look at who was writing the speeches and reports, who owned the papers and who influenced the speakers.
The heart of Lindbergh's arguments then, as it would be in his America First speeches, was his advocacy of a hemispheric defense. He was convinced that the barriers posed by the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans would keep any potential attacker at bay. He urged the strengthening of American air power and the establishment of coastal defenses for good measure. The best hope for preserving America's peace was a strong American defense in its own hemisphere. He also routinely pointed out that Americans had not been able to vote on the issues at hand and that they were being asked to become involved in issues that were not their own but Europe's.
Throughout 1940 and 1941 Lindbergh emerged as the most recognizable of America First's spokesmen. However, while his personal fame brought a measure of potency to the movement, there were shadows of his past that served, along with other elements, to marginalize the movement's message. Despite increasing controversy about their intentions, most Americans still agreed with America First's neutralist message and continued to respect Lindbergh until public opinion slowly began to turn against him in 1941. "As each side fought for the soul of the nation," explains Pulitzer Prize winning Lindbergh biographer A. Scott Berg, "the argument boiled down to eleven months of oratory between Franklin Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh." Although he was eventually forced to step down from the debate that left his public reputation "henceforth contaminated," Berg notes that members of the Roosevelt Administration admitted Lindbergh was one of their most formidable rivals.
On June 20, 1940 Lindbergh spoke to a rally in Los Angeles billed as "Peace and Preparedness Mass Meeting". In his speech of that day, Lindbergh criticized those movements he perceived as leading America into the war. He proclaimed that the United States was in a position that made it virtually impregnable and he pointed out that when interventionists said "the defense of England" they really meant "defeat of Germany." Lindbergh's presence at the Hollywood Bowl rally was overshadowed, however, by the presence of fringe elements in the crowd.
However, nothing did more to escalate the tensions than the speech he delivered to a rally in Des Moines, Iowa on September 11, 1941. In that speech he identified the forces pulling America into the war as the British, the Roosevelt administration, and the Jews. While he expressed sympathy for the plight of the Jews in Germany, he argued that America's entry into the war would serve them little better. He said in part:
It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race. No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution the Jewish race suffered in 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. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few farsighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government. [Cole 1953, p 144]
With the formal declaration of war against Japan following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Committee chose to disband. On December 11 the committee leaders met and voted for dissolution. In the statement they released to the press was the following:
Our principles were right. Had they been followed, war could have been avoided. No good purpose can now be served by considering what might have been, had our objectives been attained...
Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan has frequently praised America First and often uses its name as a slogan. "The achievements of that organization are monumental," writes Buchanan, "By keeping America out of World War II until Hitler attacked Stalin in June of 1941, Soviet Russia, not America, bore the brunt of the fighting, bleeding and dying to defeat Nazi Germany. For this reason the movement is still an icon to paleoconservatives and other Americans who wish to return to a foreign policy of non-intervention.
Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America (2004) is based on an alternative history developed by Roth, in which America First's ideology prevailed in the early 1940s and a Lindbergh presidency saw the growth of Anti-Semitism in the United States.