The Original Meanings of the “American Dream” and “America First” Were Starkly Different From How They are Used Today

This article, by Anna Diamond, appeared on in October 2018.

A new book from historian Sarah Churchwell examines the etymologies of two ubiquitous phrases

These excerpts from the article:

When Mussolini took power in November 1922, the word “fascism” entered the American political conversation. People were trying to understand what this new thing “fascism” was. Around the same time, between 1915 and the mid 1920s, the Second Klan was on the rise.Across the country, people explained the Klan, “America First” and fascism in terms of each other. If they were trying to explain what Mussolini was up to, they would say, “It’s basically ‘America First,’ but in Italy.”

The Klan instantly declared “America First” one of its most prominent slogans. They would march with [it on] banners, they would carry it in parades, they ran advertisements saying they were the only “America First” society. They even claimed to hold the copyright. (That wasn’t true.)”

“The American Dream” has always been about the prospect of success, but 100 years ago, the phrase meant the opposite of what it does now. The original “American Dream” was not a dream of individual wealth; it was a dream of equality, justice and democracy for the nation. The phrase was repurposed by each generation, until the Cold War, when it became an argument for a consumer capitalist version of democracy. Our ideas about the “American Dream” froze in the 1950s. Today, it doesn’t occur to anybody that it could mean anything else.


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