WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Considered in the abstract, the words ''America First'' could hardly offend anyone lucky enough to be a citizen of this country. But after more than two centuries of
political dialogue, most such phrases suggest more than they say.
Anyone familiar with our 20th-century history, such as the commentator Pat Buchanan, surely understands this. Thus, in declaring his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on an ''America First'' platform, he knowingly associates himself with the best-known earlier political movement of that name.
Taken broadly, his theme is no novelty in this campaign; all six of the announced Democrats are urging George Bush to turn his attention to troubles at home rather than spend so much time and effort on affairs abroad. But only one contender has chosen those two words to sum up his whole campaign.
Approaching World War II, the America First Committee was the most vigorous isolationist group in the United States, campaigning against Franklin Roosevelt's alleged intention to take the country in on Britain's side. Its leadership was politically mixed, including not only conservative industrialists and senators but later liberal torch-bearers like the New Frontiersman Chester Bowles and Kingman Brewster, the Yale president who spoke out against the Vietnam war.
But its most conspicuous figure was the Golden Boy of the Twenties, the Lone Eagle, Charles Lindbergh, an international hero since his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Public sympathy for him welled up again when his infant son was kidnaped and killed. The ensuing manhunt and the trial of Bruno Hauptmann was one of the sensational running stories of the Thirties. Lindbergh, harassed and disillusioned, fled to Europe to escape more publicity.
A gifted aviator, he was more naive than conniving, and flattery abroad made him think he understood world politics. As an official guest of the German government, he was impressed by Hitler's Luftwaffe. His reports on German air power convinced the U.S. ambassador to London, Joseph P. Kennedy, and through him British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who subsequently caved in to Adolf Hitler at Munich.
When Lindbergh returned to America, he stirred public support with a radio speech against the war in Europe, and there was talk of his running against Roosevelt in 1940. As Hitler's army overran France, he spoke out more urgently. He joined America First, and became its prize speaker.
Up to that point, his speeches against the war were simply a political crusade that turned out to be wrong. But within the anti-war movement there was a growing strain of anti-Jewish sentiment. In the most controversial address of his career, Lindbergh voiced a minor fraction of it at Des Moines in September, 1941.
He did not condone the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, he said. But ''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. . . . Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government. . . .
''We cannot blame them for looking out for what they believe to be their own interests, but we also must look out for ours. We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction.''
In his written remarks, Lindbergh had included a paragraph predicting that he would be accused of anti-Semitism. Like others in his position before and since, he maintained that while he had criticized Jewish attitudes and influence, ''I am not
anti-Semitic nor have I attacked the Jews.'' But on the platform, he left out that paragraph.
History overran Lindbergh and the America First Committee, but it has led ambitious politicians in later decades to return to some of his themes. George McGovern in 1972 pleaded ''Come home, America'' -- from war in Vietnam. Current Democratic contenders urge priority for domestic concerns. David Duke blames Jews for much of what is wrong. Pat Buchanan asserts that the Jewish lobby in Washington drags America into disputes and commitments we had best avoid.
Like Lindbergh, Mr. Buchanan denies that he is anti-Semitic. Unlike Lindbergh, he is not naive.