Thursday, May 09, 2013

What We're Reading: New History

Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941, by Lynne Olson


Those Angry Days is not a book that has an “argument” to advance or a particular case to make in support of a traditional or revisionist account of historical events. It seeks to recreate for readers the mood of public discourse in the country in the years immediately preceding America’s entry into World War II. For those of us who did not live through those years, the mood of the country at the time and the bitterness of the public debate about whether the United States should be involved in the conflict in Europe--and to what extent--will come perhaps as a surprise. For those who lived through the period and witnessed events, this book may resurrect memories of a difficult and dangerous time that have been in some measure tempered by the national unity that emerged during the war years and the victory that followed.

We tend these days to decry the partisanship and rancor in our national debates on public issues, believing that they represent a new low, something unprecedented in our history. Lynne Olson chronicles here an acrimonious national fight wherein the opposing parties were passionate, immoderate, often vindictive, and well organized. Roughly speaking, the opposing camps were those of isolationists--people who wanted the United States to stay strictly neutral and out of the growing conflict in Europe--and internationalists--those who took the view that the United States needed to help the French and British (and later the Soviet Union) against Germany and Italy, perhaps even to the point of military intervention in the war. Of course, this bifurcation simplifies things, obscuring everything from nuances in point of view to visibly awkward political marriages in both camps.

The interventionist camp included key members of the Roosevelt administration (Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes) a number of Democratic members of Congress, leading national newspapers (the New York Herald Tribune perhaps chief among these) and magazines, including Henry Luce’s publications Time and Life, some of the more widely read newspaper columnists and popular radio reporters, and many in the eastern Republican establishment, that wing of the party that was inclined to an international outlook by virtue of its worldwide business and financial connections. Part of the exclusive and largely Republican Century Club formed the Century Group, whose members used powerful connections to campaign for U.S. aid to Great Britain. The very popular Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and commentator from Kansas, William Allen White, headed up a national group that sought greater U.S. support for Britain and France, the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. Hollywood, too, was significantly pro-interventionist, producing a number of anti-Nazi films, but also aiding the cause in the newsreels that played before movie audiences throughout the country. Paramount News was a major exponent of aid to Britain, and the Hollywood studios briefly came under the scrutiny of a Congressional committee dominated by isolationists for their support of greater U.S. involvement in the conflict. Rounding out the homegrown advocacy campaign of the interventionists were two formidable British operations: the British Library of Information that was a rather visible British propaganda mill, and a relatively covert operation that worked out of Rockefeller Center, called British Security Coordination, an organization that planted pro-British stories in the American press, was involved in espionage activity, and worked collaboratively with the FBI.

The isolationist camp included individuals and groups from a wider political spectrum and was a more eclectic and tenuous coalition than the interventionists. It included a number of prominent Republican progressive senators from the Midwest and West: William Borah, Hiram Johnson of California, and Gerald Nye of North Dakota. The split in the Republican party between interventionist and isolationists was always more significant and acrimonious than it was in the Democratic Party, but the Democratic senator from Montana, Burton Wheeler, was a Roosevelt enemy and an effective proponent of isolationist views. Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune was virulently isolationist, as were the papers owned by William Randolph Hearst and the papers owned by the Patterson family--the New York Daily News and the Washington Times-Herald.

The U.S. military command contained a large contingent of isolationist generals. Some were outright German sympathizers, some opposed U.S. engagement in the conflict for strategic reasons, but most of those in opposition argued against aiding Britain out of parochial concern for their own service branches, convinced that U.S. defenses needed any planes and weapons the country could build and that they should not be diverted to Great Britain, whom many of them judged to have lost the conflict already. “Hap” Arnold, chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps, worked to undermine the Roosevelt administration’s effort to send armaments to Britain, leaking information to key Congressional figures and newspapers. The institution of a peacetime draft fostered isolationist sentiment among draft-age men and college students, and America First, which grew to become the major national organization opposed to American intervention in the war, had its origin on a college campus. But the isolationist movement also included under its umbrella the German-American Bund (the American Nazi Party), and America First was supported as well by a large anti-Semitic contingent and named anti-Semites like Avery Brundage and Henry Ford to its national board. The celebrity star of the isolationist movement was Charles Lindbergh, who made radio addresses and public appearances on behalf of the cause. As the crisis of war came ever more near, the extremists in both groups tended to dominate the major national organizations as the discussion became more polarized and the middle ground eroded.

The target of these groups was American public opinion, and Those Angry Days is an interesting précis on the major media and social organs that were used to try to influence public opinion and how they worked. Specific legislative fights leading up to American entry into the war were important rallying points for isolationists and interventionists alike, and fostered the birth of more organized groups on one side or another. There were Congressional battles over revision of the Neutrality Acts that had been passed in the 1930s (which prohibited the selling of U.S.-manufactured arms to Britain and France), the institution of the nation’s first peacetime draft to build the armed forces, the arrangements of a deal to trade destroyers to the British in return for overseas military bases, the establishment of the Lend-Lease Program to aid the allies, and over U.S. Navy protection for merchant vessel convoys crossing the Atlantic.

The years just before the war were a period of great anxiety and paranoia, some of it commensurate with international events, but much of it stirred by the propaganda of warring sides in the national debate. There were unsubstantiated charges that the Roosevelt administration was making secret war plans or that the president was trying to foment an international incident and use it as an excuse to engage in hostilities, talk of Nazi designs on South America and the Panama Canal, and suspicions about foreign agents, saboteurs, and “Fifth Columnists” seeking to undermine American defenses, to name but a few. This was a period of fear and crisis, when wire taps and other illegal actions by the FBI and the Roosevelt administration to control potential enemies (as well as isolationists) became frequent, and Civil Liberties were undermined. It was during this time that the Alien Registration Act (the Smith Act) was passed by Congress, which made mandatory the registration and fingerprinting of all resident aliens.

Olson’s narrative is enlivened by the portraits of leading personalities in the fight over American entry into the war. Anne Morrow Lindbergh emerges as a troubled and conflicted supporter of her enigmatic husband. About Charles Lindbergh, Franklin Roosevelt wrote to his Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, “If I should die tomorrow, I want you to know this: I am absolutely convinced that Lindbergh is a Nazi.” Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt’s Republican opponent in the 1940 Presidential election, is an interesting and charismatic figure in Olsen’s account of these years, and is presented in a generally favorable light in Those Angry Days. By contrast, the picture we get of Roosevelt is much less flattering. Olsen characterizes him (as did many of his interventionist critics) as too timid, often lethargic when it came to following up rhetoric with significant action, unwilling to lead, and fearful of getting ahead of public opinion. It is a view that some readers--those who view Roosevelt’s caution and modulation as part of the orchestration of events by a very skilled politician, one who was able to manage the national debate in such a way that when the crisis came he had not expended the political capital he would need to lead and could be a figure around whom the nation might rally--may find hard to accept. Those Angry Days is a story about how in a democracy great passions and dissent can be aired and public policy can be argued, even with much acrimony, but a strong and vital consensus can emerge. What Those Angry Days seems to suggest is that, whatever our present anxieties, a little political ugliness may be the measure of a vibrant democracy.

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