After the U.S. air strikes against Syria in April, some questioned whether Donald Trump has abandoned his campaign platform of “America First.” The phrase has elicited comparisons with language used by the American First Committee, the powerful isolationist group founded in 1940 to oppose any material support for Britain in its war against Nazi Germany. But it wasn’t the first political movement to use the slogan.
William “Big Bill” Hale Thompson served three terms as Chicago’s mayor, from 1915 to 1923, and then again from 1927 to 1931. In Chicago’s 1927 mayoral race, Thompson campaigned against what he saw as the insidious influence of the British Empire in the city’s politics. His America First slate would elect so many candidates that “the king of England will find out for the first time he is damned unpopular,” Thompson said on the campaign trail. Insinuating that he might work to have the incumbent mayor, William E. Dever, sent to prison, Thompson described his opponent as “very weak, no courage, no manhood, doesn’t know how to fight.”
Sounds reminiscent of some modern-day campaigning, doesn’t it?
Thompson won. But things didn’t end well for him.
Thompson served three terms as Chicago’s mayor, from 1915 to 1923 and then again from 1927 to 1931. When campaigning for his first term, Thompson stumped on his image as a cowboy (his wealthy father owned a ranch), a former star athlete, and a can-do alderman.
After Congress declared war against Germany in April 1917, Thompson publicly opposed sending American troops to Europe—this while Chicagoans were under intense pressure from the federal government to support the war effort. That September, Illinois governor Frank Lowden called the National Guard into Chicago to keep order after Thompson welcomed the People’s Council, a pacifist group pressing for a negotiated end to the war—there was fear of antiwar rioting, and the chief of police worried that his force didn’t have enough rifles to handle such a disturbance. Patriots hanged Thompson in effigy on Michigan Avenue.
After Thompson’s reelection in 1919, the city experienced paralyzing labor strikes, a traumatizing race riot, and a crime wave. While 30,000 Chicago schoolchildren attended classes in portable shacks, well-connected companies sold record players to the schools at a 467 percent markup. With men in his inner circle under indictment for corruption for school expenditures, Thompson chose not to run for a third term, and any comeback seemed unlikely. In his semi-retirement, he organized an expedition to the South Pacific to film purported tree-climbing fish. (His boat only got as far as New Orleans.)
Though the colorful mayor made for great stories, most Chicago papers despised Thompson’s corruption and feared his habit of filing libel suits.
The newspapers of William Randolph Hearst, however, loved Big Bill. Harboring an intense hatred against Great Britain, Hearst had argued in April 1917 that the United States could “think of other nations’ troubles” only once it got its military in order, which could take years. “But, till then,” Hearst wrote in the Chicago Examiner, “America first!”
In 1926, Thompson marshaled together a new faction in the Illinois Republican Party: America First. Voters expecting detailed positions against corruption or gangs were instead treated to promises of big infrastructure projects and pledges to fight against American involvement with the World Court and the League of Nations (which, incidentally, Hearst also hated). Thompson’s education platform pledged to purge textbooks of British propaganda, which disregarded “Polish, German, Irish, and other heroes” of the American Revolution, and demeaned George Washington. Thompson obsessed over one college textbook that dared label Washington “a rebel.”
To its opponents, America First seemed as idiotic as Thompson’s expedition for tree-climbing fish. Yet a German-language newspaper described a Thompson rally before 3,000 German Americans as “a love-feast.” Thompson, who said at the start of the war that, by population, Chicago was the “sixth largest German city in the world,” tapped into the bitterness remaining from the war, capturing voters who would have normally supported Democrats or reform-minded Republicans.
America First opposed immigration, but ironically it suggested the greatest threat came from Thompson’s own tribe: WASPs. America First was a way to strike back at elites—the reformers who endlessly lectured white ethnic Chicagoans to be more American, the fanatics who had criminalized beer, the professors and newspapermen who had promised that the sacrifices of the Great War would bring about a just society.
On the campaign trail, the present English king, George V, wasn’t merely a punch line—a jerk Big Bill would punch in “the snoot”—but a sinister figure interfering in Chicago politics through the city’s elites. Thompson went as far as to claim the king was the reason why no one on Democratic Mayor Dever’s school board had been indicted.
“Thompson’s trouble is mental,” Dever shot back in an interview with the Chicago Daily News. (Dever’s campaign also characterized Thompson as “a political pyromaniac.”)
The Democrats themselves distributed racist campaign literature, and Dever, a former judge, failed to mobilize voters. Thompson won his reelection bid.
But if Chicagoans thought Thompson’s promises about the British were just show, they were mistaken. Once in office, Thompson set out to make good on his promises of wiping perceived British influence from the city.
One Thompson deputy threatened to build a bonfire of “un-American” library books on the lakefront, but was stymied by the chore of having to comb through 8,000 history books for British propaganda. Chicago police and firefighters were strongly advised to voluntarily join the American First Foundation. The Foundation planned to purchase radios for Chicago classrooms, all set to programming on William Hale Thompson’s own radio station, WHT.
Facing national ridicule for policing textbooks instead of gangs, Thompson replied, “the only crime war we have is with dishonest newspapers.”
In Thompson’s defense, Hearst chided the mayor’s detractors, writing in a Chicago Herald-Examiner editorial, “Undermining patriotism was no cause for laughter.” Voters, however, had tired of Thompson’s culture war, which went as far as demanding that Chicago’s flag have five-pointed “American” stars. The six-pointed stars, according to Big Bill, were British.
In a violent Republican primary in April 1928—campaign workers were killed—America First candidates were wiped out. As his grander political aspirations dimmed, Thompson went on a two-month vacation in the Wisconsin woods. Upon his return, the grandiose schemes of America First were abandoned. Thompson was temperamentally unprepared to deal with the challenges of the Depression, which left the city insolvent.
During his final, unsuccessful run for mayor against Anton Cermak in 1931, Thompson pathetically labeled his Czech-American opponent as “Dictator Tony,” a party boss who sought to bring Chicago under the thumb of King George and British bankers, and “Pushcart Tony,” an uppity ethnic unsuitable to lead the city. In this, as in his previous political efforts, Big Bill, whose persona of a master builder and entertaining “truth teller” won him previous elections, revealed himself in the end to be just another helpless bigot.
For more on the life of Thompson, we highly recommend Douglas Bukowski’s biography, Big Bill Thompson, Chicago, and the Politics of Image.