Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939–1941
By Lynne Olson. 576 pp. Random House, 2013. $30.
Now that World War II has been enshrined as The Good War fought by The Greatest Generation, it can be hard to remember that millions of Americans avidly opposed entering it— and even harder to understand why. Those Angry Days puts their many and varied reasons in illuminating context, bringing this stormy period’s dizzying dynamics and Tolstoyan cast of characters to cinematic life. Though individual parts of this overview are familiar, the cumulative effect is dramatic, often startling. We see the blurry welter of events through the eyes of hundreds of participants on all sides and watch them try to interpret what they think is happening. In the process, we discover that isolationists, like interventionists, were as diverse as America itself—a tangle of people with often-opposed motives and beliefs who joined forces in shifting alliances to grapple with their country’s role in a world at war.
The story’s co-stars are headlined in the book’s subtitle: FDR and Charles Lindbergh. But in author Lynne Olson’s telling, FDR isn’t cunningly leading the American people through a bruising debate by indirection and stealth. Rather, battered by political missteps—attempting to “pack” the Supreme Court in 1936, then suffering Congressional losses at the midterm elections—and pondering an unprecedented third term, Roosevelt tacks like a new sailor scared of capsizing, drifting despite polls that show most Americans in favor of helping the British and even of going to war. Lindbergh appears as a loner incapable of adapting his ironclad certainties to the world’s changes. He is daunted by German military power and willing to write off Nazi racial policy because, like many Americans, he believes in white Northern European supremacy, is concerned about the survival and prosperity of Western capitalism, and fears the perceived tyrannical and even totalitarian bent in FDR.
Olson truly shines in her handling of myriad supporting players, whose information, interactions, and intrigues had serious significance. Churchill alternately cajoles FDR and reins in his own growing frustration and fear, and his government sets up spy and propaganda shops on American shores that tread carefully to avoid blowback, given America’s angry memory of Britain’s World War I espionage and misinformation. Hitler is eager to avoid immediate war with the United States as he casts hungry eyes on the USSR, so he overrules his admirals and orders U-boats away from American ships despite their increasingly warlike North Atlantic duties. The Japanese, secretly urged by Germany to act aggressively against the U.S., believe they face economic strangulation and certain defeat unless they attack America first. The Soviet Union, finally forced into the war, directs American communists and fellow travelers to support intervention instead of neutrality. If Wendell Wilkie hadn’t taken American aid to Britain off the table during the 1940 election—to the foaming wrath of GOP honchos—what might have happened? How and why did an antiwar movement started by leftist students and old-school populists get reoriented by right-wing business executives and press tycoons? Why did so many high-ranking American generals—like Albert Wedemeyer and “Hap” Arnold— repeatedly push the line between freedom of thought and treason? Dozens of revealing questions are probed in these well-researched pages, animated by Olson’s storytelling flair and shrewd judgments.
Pearl Harbor, of course, clarified the muddle and united the country. Yet, as Olson observes, “Much of the credit for that feeling of unity 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.” It’s worth considering how having such debates—about Vietnam, Iraq, drones— might have changed our postwar history.