Those Angry Days:
Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and
America's Fight over World War II,
People often think they live in the worst of times. The present day is no exception. One need only point to the turbulence in the Middle East, the looming threat of China, and the possible return of the Cold War in Eastern Europe. This is not to mention all the problems which bedevil us at home.
By contrast, it seems that earlier days were always easier. We did survive them, after all. Take the lead up to the Second World War, for example. It seems in retrospect to be a time of high national purpose when we pulled ourselves out of the Great Depression and mobilized our resources to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Yet, on closer inspection, it was a time of great anxiety and profound divisions. And perhaps the most profound divisions of all were played out in our national politics. This is the subject of Lynne Olson's compelling new book, Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight over World War II, 1939-1941.
The major struggle in the years before Pearl Harbor was between isolationists who felt that we had no business getting involved in yet another European conflict and interventionists who believed we would sooner or later have to come to the aid of both Britain and France.
Although there were many minor skirmishes, the principal clash was between conservative, right-wing Republicans and moderate to left leaning Democrats. It seemed to be nothing less than a struggle for the soul of the Republic, a struggle that came to a dramatic climax in the election of 1940. The American historian and intellectual gadfly, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once noted that this period was the "most savage political debate in my lifetime," even surpassing Vietnam in its intensity.
Depending on one's point of view, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was gearing up for an unprecedented third term as president, was either a treacherous villain or the savior of his party and the nation. By September 1939, Hitler had invaded Poland and it was clear to many it was only a matter of time before he invaded France and possibly even Great Britain. Yet this country remained awash in denial. Businessmen and industrialists such as Joseph P. Kennedy and Henry Ford were prominent and unapologetic appeasers. But perhaps the most prominent appeaser of all was Charles Lindbergh.
Lucky Lindy, though a modest and reluctant hero, eventually became an unofficial spokesman for the isolationist movement and its best-known organization, America First. Although there was never a direct confrontation, Lindbergh was Roosevelt's most formidable antagonist and they seemed to circle one another like prize fighters in the ring. Lindbergh's strength was to present himself as a dispassionate observer who understood Hitler and the logical ascendancy of the Third Reich. England was already doomed, he seemed to be saying, so why interfere.
Although not part of the main narrative, there are many fascinating personalities in Olson's authoritative chronicle who have walk-on roles that provide colorful texture and depth to the unfolding drama. Perhaps the most compelling of these individuals is Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the aviator and an accomplished writer in her own right. Shy and romantic by nature, she was cast by history into the public role of defending her husband while privately nursing doubts about his reactionary views.
Lindbergh's star fell abruptly to earth after a speech at an America First rally in Des Moines, Iowa in September 1941 when he accused Jews of being "war agitators."
"We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction," Lindberg said. Jews ... pose a particular "danger to this country" because of "their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government."
Anne, who saw an advanced copy of the speech, pleaded with him not to give it. As she wrote to a friend, his speech was "at best unconsciously a bid for anti-Semitism" and that "the anti-Semitic forces will rally to him, exultant." Olson then describes a disconcerting insight into Lindbergh's character:
Tone deaf to nuance in the sensitivities of others, he felt that the views he held were invariably correct and that he had a right --- indeed an obligation --- to express them, no matter the consequences to himself or others. Lindbergh regarded such stubbornness as courage, not hubris.
One of the most riveting sections of this book concerns the presidential election of 1940 which at times achieves the suspense of a good novel. While most observers expected Roosevelt to get the Democratic nomination without a serious battle, the Republican nomination was far from certain. And Roosevelt seemed vulnerable: the economy was still depressed, unemployment was high, and there was unease about breaking the two-term precedent.
In May 1940, as many observers had feared, Germany invaded France. Not long afterward, in late June, the Republicans held their convention in Philadelphia. Despite the invasion and talk of a wider war, isolationists seemed to be assured of victory by one of the two front runners: Thomas Dewey, governor of New York, or Robert Taft, Senator of Ohio.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a people's campaign was organized by political novices and interventionist-minded Republicans to support the reluctant candidacy of Wendell Wilkie, a corporate lawyer from Indiana. Only days after France fell to the Nazis on June 22, the draft-Wilkie movement finally put him over the top and he became the Republican nominee. It was a curious turn of events. Wilkie, in addition to being an affable, low key interventionist, was also an admirer of Roosevelt and supported most of his new deal legislation. The Wilkie nomination guaranteed Roosevelt's reelection.
Fortunately, and somewhat unexpectedly, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the vitriolic assaults against the interventionists quickly died away and almost all of the isolationists rallied around the president. Typical of the response was that of the ultraconservative Robert McCormick, owner of the Chicago Tribune who said almost immediately after hearing the news on December 7, "I must ... write an editorial that will rally the nation against aggression."
A notable exception to this wave of patriotism was Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota who was making a speech at an America First rally in Pittsburgh when the Japanese attack was announced. He proclaimed to the audience this is
the worst news that I have had in 20 years to report ... This was just what Great Britain planned for us .... We have been maneuvered into this by the President.
Olson, who was a White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun is an accomplished historian who has written several other books about World War II, most notably Citizens of London: the Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour. In Those Angry Days she describes in meticulous and absorbing detail what some might consider as the darkest and finest hour on this side of the Atlantic.
In summarizing the lead up to the war, Olson writes:
much of the credit for ... a strong sense of genuine community must be given to the two-year public debate over the war, which, despite its unseemly acrimony, helped educate Americans about the need to ready themselves for entry into the conflict .... It was a robust, if tumultuous, example of democracy in action.
Underscoring this sentiment was an article in the Army and Navy Journal of November 1945 that noted
when the Japanese attacked us, and when their Axis Allies in Europe declared war on us, this nation was better prepared, spiritually as well as militarily, than it had ever been for any war in our history.
Olson's scholarly yet lively account of those years helps us understand what it was like to live in those tumultuous times.--- Larissa Belmondo