Since learning about WWII, I’ve always had a vague understanding that the American attitude toward the war enveloping Europe (and even to a lesser extent in terms of American concern, Asia) was isolationist, accentuated by the echoes of WWI. And then December 7th, 1941, the “a date which will live in infamy,” the attack on Pearl Harbor, changed everything, effectively neutering the isolationist cause. But Lynne Olson’s masterful, captivating 2013 book, Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over WWII, 1939-1941 brought the “Great Debate” between isolationists and interventionists into much more stark, detailed focus for me. And I have to say, her book engendered a measure of pride in the “democracy in action” displayed by Americans on both sides, even when uttering undemocratic ideas, like wanting their political foes arrested (that’s still free speech, after all). Because as Olson’s book painstakingly details, the debate in the two years leading up to Pearl Harbor was fierce and permeated every possible medium of American life at the time: in the nation’s newspapers (and phew, it’s staggering how vibrant newspapers were at the time), with decidedly isolationist and interventionist publishers at the helm; in Hollywood, with its stars and studio heads having a political awakening of their own (Charlie Chaplin was the standout here, of course); in fireside chats Roosevelt delivered, and speeches at rallies in kind Lindbergh and other isolationists delivered; in the halls of Congress; and as I always find interesting, within the diaries of the major and minor characters in the thick of the debate. Olson’s book illuminates how robust, complex, and imperative, in many ways, the debate was to America’s preparedness for its entry into WWII, even if the catalyst (Pearl Harbor) was a surprise.
Perhaps, though, the most surprising part of Those Angry Days is not the role Charles Lindbergh played going from famed aviator to disgraced anti-Semite, albeit, that story is riveting in its own right, particularly as told through the lens of his misguided, neglected wife, Anne, but that of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his quite stunning, repeated capitulation to the strident, if small, isolationists within Congress.
Through learning about FDR and then admittedly applying my ideological leanings toward him, I’ve tended to view FDR similar to how isolationists and Republicans at the time viewed him: As someone usurping Congressional power (and taking it for granted, often to his detriment, like in his failed scheme to pack the Supreme Court Olson mentions) and acting totalitarian in his own right, while totalitarianism is on the march throughout the world. Part of FDR’s usurpation was arming Britain years before any formal Congressional declaration of war against Germany, and mobilizing the entire domestic economy into a war footing, again, prior to that formal declaration. That image I have, at least as it regards war matters, couldn’t be further from the truth, as Olson paints it. Repeatedly, at every turn, Roosevelt is reluctant to lead, reluctant to push for intervention, and reluctant to come to the aide of Britain. He repeatedly reassures Americans that no American boys will be landing in Europe in another European war. The Prime Minister of Britain, Winston Churchill, and those within FDR’s own administration and military apparatus, are urging him to take bolder, swifter action … and he just doesn’t. FDR would give a soaring, tough-sounding fireside chat of a speech, and then nothing happens. FDR would use his political acumen and skill to push the destroyers-bases deal (the U.S. exchanged its destroyers, decrepit WWI-era ones, for leases for British naval and air bases) through Congress, and then the actual action of making it happen would move agonizingly slow, if at all. Same with peace time conscription of soldiers to build up the Army, and the same with the famed Lend-Lease concept (which allowed the U.S. to lend or lease war supplies to any nation FDR deemed worthy), and even after FDR seemed to prime the American people for turning domestic energies to a war footing. Continually, FDR led from behind until the last possible, crucial moment where he became the FDR of the history books. If anything, he seemed guided more by the nascent Gallup polls, and again, the vocal minority of isolationists in Congress, than coming to the aide of Britain, and certainly, helping Jews against Hitler and Nazism.
If anything, the most interesting character on the national stage at that time, who was also a unifying force and also died young amid the war, was Wendell Willkie, who lost to FDR in the 1940 presidential election, ensuring FDR’s unprecedented third term as president. But Willkie went on to be an ambassador of sorts for FDR during the war, visiting different areas of war, and he was a strong advocate of intervention to save Britain. He was also an impressive voice on the domestic racial issues at the time. It’s interesting to wonder how things might have played out with a President Willkie at the time of Pearl Harbor, or even before, what action the U.S. might have taken sooner (like declaring war on Germany after their U-boats sunk a couple of American naval ships, unlike FDR, who didn’t, and who didn’t even issue any sort of condemnation).
In fact, this two-year period Olson covers shows you how tenuous a dial history turns on. If FDR had done this or that differently. Or if Hitler hadn’t taken his eye off of Britain to invade Russia. Would Britain have lasted under the U.S.’s inertia? Of course, world events shaped out as they did, which is what makes Olson’s book all the more a remarkable feat of a historical record: We know the ending, and we know Pearl Harbor is coming to make everything discussed in the book null and void, but the journey to get there is exceedingly interesting, informative, and illustrative.
Mostly though, whatever FDR’s muddled leadership, and Lindbergh being an aloof, stubborn racist, I agonized over the ugly anti-Semitic attitudes that were ugly on the face of it, rampant in the U.S. (and the world, obviously), and stymied the U.S. saving more Jewish refugees trying to flee the Holocaust. Beleaguered Britain took scores more Jewish refugees than we did. That’s beyond shameful and one of the ugliest stains on America’s record in its history. The anti-war movement, or as it was then thought of, the isolationist movement, was also colored by gross anti-Semitism, again, with the likes of Lindbergh at the helm and others, including actual Congresspersons who were the witting or unwitting pawns of German propaganda. It also doesn’t help that the isolationist movement took the name “America First.”
I also don’t think I can emphasize enough how much I dislike Lindbergh after coming into the book not knowing much about him. He was another person taken in completely by the myth of German efficiency under the Third Reich, and especially Göring and the Luftwaffe (German Air Force). And on a personal level, he wasn’t much better. Lindbergh was an absent husband and father, who ended up siring scores of European children with European mistresses post-WWII. I digress.
The state of the country in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor and what it would take to win WWII across two theaters of war, the Atlantic and the Pacific, is astonishing. For example, in 1938, the U.S. ranked 20th in size among the world’s air forces, which at the time, was still under Army control, with a few hundred combat planes, most obsolete. That is a world hard to even fathom nowadays, where the U.S. easily has the number one and number two air forces in the world (the latter being the Navy’s air force). To think what it took to, in a very short timespan, turn America from such a pitiful world power in terms of military capability — as well as pivoting form a vibrant domestic economy, where cars and refrigerators were flying off the “shelves” — into the “arsenal of democracy” is nothing short of remarkable.
I’ve read and listened to other books in recent years about Pearl Harbor and WWII, and a common theme in those books relevant here in Olson’s book is that all of the focus in America was on what to do, if anything, about Britain and Hitler’s totalitarian takeover of Europe (there were those in the military and in Congress, much less regular folks, who thought it wasn’t worth giving weapons to Britain because their collapse was imminent), but Japan and their machinations were overlooked and pushed aside, primarily for racist reasons (thinking the “yellow people” wouldn’t be as formidable as the mighty German army) until it was too late. Eventually, the U.S. would rise to that challenge, too, my misgivings with the atomic bombings notwithstanding.
As I Tweeted while reading this book, though, I can’t help but notice whenever I’m reading about history, including this debate between 1939 and 1941, how many of the same things we argued about then, we argue about now, with just some minor differences about subject. In other words, the animating features of then are the animating features of now: populism, concern about the elites, an urban vs. rural divide, fear of foreigners and/or concern of foreign influence on the populace and governance, the seeming power of Hollywood and other cultural forces, the bias of newspapers, and in the fringes of the debate, the repugnant racism and anti-Semitism. All these forces were entangled in 1939-1941 on this side of the world, while in Europe, the world and the lives of millions quite literally burned. I don’t think we can, or should ever, take it for granted that America had the privilege to have the debate we did, largely thanks to the geography of being bookended by two oceans. Even throughout the war, the worst nightmares of the isolationists, as Olson points out, didn’t come to pass (they predicted millions of dead American soldiers, and instead, it was a little more than 416,000), and instead, Americans, unlike their civilian counterparts the world over, were not bombed (on the mainland) and didn’t have their homes destroyed. Rather, we had the privilege of dilly-dallying about what to do and how to do it, and then, when the forces of history compelled us, destroying the enemies arrayed half-way across the world.
If you, too, are interested in political, social, and cultural arguments and debates that occurred in the lead up to America’s involvement in WWII, I’d highly recommend this book. I can’t possibly do it justice in little review. Olson’s book is revelatory, and a page-turner. Yes, a page-turner, because even though I knew how the “story” ended, I was still deeply invested in the machinations of democracy in the face of authoritarianism that got us to confronting the latter.
I don’t recall if you’ve already listened to and written about “Ultra”, Maddow’s podcast about the America First movement of post WWI through the mid 20th century. I recommend. Also, if you’ve not seen it, the recent CBS series “America and the Holocaust” (Ken Burns and Lynn Novick) is excellent.
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I’ve been meaning to get to the Burns documentary, and thank you for the “Ultra” recommendation!
Ultra is incredible. A must listen. 8 episodes. Spielberg has purchased movie rights.
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