THE STREETS AROUND NEW YORK CITY'S Madison Square Garden swarmed with America First rally-goers—thirty thousand in all—shouting, stabbing the air with their signs. The staunchest Firsters had begun lining up before dawn in hopes of getting a front-row seat. Others had come straight from work on that Friday afternoon. Although everyone had a ticket, not everyone would get inside. The Garden's cavernous arena wasn't big enough to hold all the movement's supporters. Those who didn't manage to get through the door would have to listen from the street via loudspeakers set up for that purpose. Tuned in to a local radio station, the speakers blasted a selection of news and music meant to entertain. But the noise merely whipped the crowd into an even greater frenzy.
So did the sudden appearance of a group of protesters. Led by a young woman with short dark hair, they marched back and forth, carrying signs that read AID TO FRANCE and MAINTAIN THE BRITISH BLOCKADE.
A sullen murmur of disapproval seemed to come from everywhere in the crowd, like low growls of thunder. A fist of men separated themselves from the other Firsters and pushed close to the protesters.
"Get out of here or we'll kill you!" yelled one of the men.
"Nazis!" a protester retorted.
The men lunged. After wrestling away the protesters' signs, the Firsters ripped them to shreds, while the mob hurled insults.
Policemen rushed in. They formed a wedge, then pushed through the yelling crowd and began leading the shaken protesters toward a safer place across the street. Still, Firsters ran in front of and behind them, jamming the way, being shoved aside by police, falling over each other. Violence simmered just beneath the surface. Anything could happen tonight. Anything was possible. These days, anger rippled across the country like waves, turning American against American. Neighbor against neighbor.
Flashbulbs popped as press photographers captured it all.
A couple of Firsters stepped assertively toward a reporter. Would the press cover the rally fairly this time? they wanted to know. Or would the newspapers be biased and inaccurate as usual? Many rally-goers believed the media couldn't be trusted. Their hero, the face of America First and the man they'd come to hear speak tonight, had told them so. "Contemptible," he'd called the press. "Dishonest parasites." In a recent speech he'd even told supporters that the press was controlled by "dangerous elements," men who placed their own interests above America's. That was why he had to keep holding rallies, he explained. Someone had to tell it like it was. Someone had to speak the impolite truth about the foreigners who threatened the nation. It was time to build walls—"ramparts," he called them—to hold back the infiltration of "alien blood." It was time for America to close its borders, isolate itself from the rest of the world, and focus solely on its own interests. It was the only way, he claimed, "to preserve our American way of life."
At 5:30 p.m., the Garden's doors opened and a crush of people began pushing and shoving, eager to get inside. As the enormous space filled, it grew hot and deafeningly loud. There was anger here, too, brewing, seething, waiting to be channeled toward some common enemy. It seemed to fill every seat, all the way up to the dim balconies.
Down in front, rally-goers discovered a protester in their midst. Pointing, shouting, their faces flushed, they called out a tall, sullen man. Men and women climbed onto their seats for a better look. The boos and roars reverberated to the far-off corners of the building. "Throw him out!" they screamed. People were standing up all over the arena now; the aisles were filling; lines of police gathered. "Throw him out!"
The protester backed up the aisle, his eyes fastened anxiously on the policemen walking toward him. The officers followed him slowly, controlled and rigid. All the while a low, grumbling sound came from the mob, like thunder about to break into a storm. It felt, recalled one rally-goer, like "the rumbles of revolution."
Onstage, the warm-up speakers approached the podium. Rally organizer John T. Flynn was first, followed by well-known orator and Presbyterian minister Norman Thomas. Both men gave brief, heartfelt speeches about building up the nation's defenses. But hardly anyone in the audience listened. They were waiting for one man.
At last, he walked slowly toward the podium.