John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Kurt Vonnegut, Potter Stewart, Gore Vidal, Sargent Shriver, Kingman Brewster — all household names in mid and late twentieth-century America. But earlier in their lives, they had something else in common. In the late 1930s and even into the 1940s, they were passionately opposed to the idea of American involvement in World War II.
Today, that war is known as the “good war” — a necessary conflict to save Western civilization from the evil of Nazi Germany. But in the years before Pearl Harbor, the extent of that evil was not as obvious as it is now, and millions of Americans — notably college students, who would be among the first to fight — revolted against the very thought of U.S. participation in another bloody European war. “The conduct of World War I, with the years of stalemate, the slaughter of millions–all this chilled our marrow,” recalled CBS’s Eric Sevareid, who, as a student at the University of Minnesota, participated in pacifist demonstrations in the mid-1930s. During that period, more than half a million American undergraduates signed a pledge refusing to serve in the armed forces in the event of another conflict. As war swept over Europe in 1939 and 1940, thousands of students across the country took part in antiwar protests; at the University of Missouri, students held up signs reading “The Yanks Are NOT Coming.”
College students were also responsible for the formation of the America First Committee, which, within months of its creation in the summer of 1940, emerged as the most powerful, vocal, and effective isolationist organization in the country. Although America First is generally viewed as the embodiment of conservative, Midwestern isolationism, it was actually born on the Yale campus — the brainchild of a group of top campus leaders. A key founder was Kingman Brewster, a Yale junior who would later become president of Yale and U.S. ambassador to Britain. Also in the group were Potter Stewart, a future justice of the Supreme Court, and his close law school friend, Sargent Shriver, who two decades later would be appointed first head of the Peace Corps. Another participant was law student Gerald Ford, a former All-American football player at the University of Michigan and future president of the United States.
The group kicked off its campaign by circulating antiwar petitions on campuses throughout the East and recruiting other students and recent graduates to lead opposition to American involvement. Nearly half the undergraduates at Yale signed the petitions, with similar numbers reported at other colleges. Hundreds of students agreed to spend the summer of 1940 as organizers, and many more sent money to help the effort. Among the donors was Harvard senior John F. Kennedy, whose $100 check was accompanied by a note that said, “What you are all doing is vital.” Meanwhile, fifteen-year-old Gore Vidal was busy establishing an America First chapter at Phillips Exeter, the exclusive prep school he attended in New Hampshire.
With its emergence on the national stage, America First moved its headquarters to Chicago, From then on, most of its leaders would be Midwestern businessmen, whose social and political views were considerably more conservative than those of its idealistic young founders. By the time of Pearl Harbor, most of the Yalies who had founded America First had drifted away from the organization; when the United States finally entered the war, they, along with the vast majority of other college antiwar activists, enlisted in the fight.
Sargent Shriver — who, like his brother-in-law, John F. Kennedy, was injured during the war — was one of the few people associated with America First who had no qualms later about publicly discussing his prewar isolationism. “Yes, I did belong to AMERICA FIRST,” he wrote. “I joined it because I believed at the time we could better help to secure a just settlement of the war in Europe by staying out of it. History proved that my judgment was wrong, neither for the first time nor the last.” Later, Shriver would tell a journalist: “I wanted to spare American lives. If that’s an ignoble motive, then I’m perfectly willing to be convicted.”