Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America,’’ imagined a world in which the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh was elected president in 1940. Roth’s inspiration for the novel, he said, was the autobiography of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who noted that some Republicans wanted Lindbergh to run against President Roosevelt. As it turns out, that same autobiography provided the title and spirit of Lynne Olson’s new book, which is also about Lindbergh and the 1940 election.
“Those Angry Days,’’ however, is a factual account of America’s years immediately preceding World War II. No fictional characters are included, and none are needed. Schlesinger was a man who saw the violent political debates surrounding McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, but he called the quarrels from 1939 to 1941 the worst he ever saw.
In one corner was Lindbergh, the man whose 1927 trans-Atlantic flight jetted him to everlasting fame. “Lucky Lindy’’ was the de facto leader of the isolationists — those who believed that America should stay out of Europe’s war and negotiate a peace between Great Britain and Nazi Germany. Prominent isolationists included Henry Ford and Joe Kennedy Sr. Politicians included Senators Burton Wheeler, Robert Taft, Gerald Nye, and Representative Hamilton Fish.
Supporting them was a grass-roots organization called the America First Committee, born at Yale University and of the national student antiwar movement. These students were “frankly determined to have peace at any price,” according to a Harvard Crimson editorial quoted by Olson. Members and supporters of America First included a young John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, and Sargent Shriver.
In the opposing corner were the interventionists — those who believed the United States needed to support Britain and defeat Germany. Proponents variously advocated arming Churchill’s England, restoring the draft, or sending American troops directly into battle. The interventionist counterpart of America First was the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. Headed by newspaper editor William Allen White, the citizens’ group employed writer Robert Sherwood and lawyer Adlai Stevenson to blanket the country with radio and newspaper ads, organize speeches, and influence public opinion.
In government, the interventionists were supported by Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Roosevelt. Olson maintains, however, that FDR was far more timid than is commonly remembered. In contrast to Roosevelt’s boldness in leading the New Deal, “he was notably cautious and hesitant in the two years before the Japanese attack on American soil,” Olson writes.
In Olson’s telling, the most skillful American politician ever was “on the sidelines” of the 20th century’s roughest political debate because he was afraid of congressional isolationists, of men he defeated at the ballot box on four consecutive occasions.
The best evidence against Olson’s thesis is found in the very pages of “Those Angry Days.’’ There we learn that “[j]ust plain, common, ordinary hatred of Roosevelt is a factor in isolationism,” as a contemporaneous report in Life magazinehad it. Roosevelt had seen Woodrow Wilson’s failure to persuade Congress to join the League of Nations, which led to the very backlash against foreign engagement he was trying to undo.
By engaging in what historian Steven Casey called a “Cautious Crusade” (the title of one of many important books on FDR’s leadership absent from the unimpressive bibliography in “Those Angry Days’’), Roosevelt achieved two things of priceless value. First, once Americans got into war, they did so with unity and determination. “[T]hey coalesced as never before in history,” Olson writes, seemingly unaware that had FDR led a strongly isolationist country into war without public opinion on his side that very unity would have dissolved. When the war was going badly in 1942, few Americans called for surrender or indulged in partisan acrimony — all because FDR had waited to be attacked by a foreign country before making war.
Second, Roosevelt’s decision to permit isolationist sentiment to be undermined by world events rather than presidential decree encouraged the United States to assume global leadership after the war. Isolationism, so prevalent in the 1920s and 1930s, was so discredited by reality that it still hasn’t made a comeback.
Lindbergh, in Olson’s hands, was an obstinate, cold-blooded man who was wrong on the defining question of the 20th century. At first the greatest exponent of antiwar sentiment, the icon’s public anti-Semitism — he called the Jews a “danger to this country” in an infamous speech — eventually made him not just a social pariah but someone who “did incalculable harm to the cause of isolationism,” writes Olson.
Olson notes at one point that “the national debate over the draft, drawn-out and contentious as it was, helped awaken the American people to the need to prepare themselves for a war that was drawing steadily closer.” Exactly.
Similar debates over the 1941 Lend-Lease law, which allowed the United States to supply materiel to the Allies, and peacetime conscription also had the effect of forcing Britain and the Soviet Union to bear much of the financial and human burden of defeating Germany while the United States rearmed. As a result, the United States suffered comparatively few casualties and its economy boomed. When the war ended, America stood unchallenged as the world’s superpower, a position it has yet to relinquish. Not bad for a guy frightened of Hamilton Fish.Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon.com and the Christian Science Monitor.