home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

those angry days

26 september 2013

My initial reaction to Lynne Olson's Those Angry Days was that its depiction of the isolation/intervention controversy of 1939-41 in the United States was slightly superficial and slightly sensationalist: a sober academic history, this is not. But as I read on and on, through scores of major characters and hundreds of bizarre events and seesaw dynamics, I came to appreciate the great skill Olson deploys in making a complicated democratic drama come to life.

Franklin Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh appear on the dust jacket of Olson's book, and one expects them to figure as adversaries on the grand scale. But of course they rarely met in person; they dueled via intermediaries; they didn't really have the same fields of action (except for the field represented by national radio audiences), and they went their separate ways quickly after Pearl Harbor ended their conflict. Olson quickly assembles a huge cast of characters that come to overwhelm her famous principal antagonists. The vast and unruly forces that gathered behind and around them represented strains of American life and thought that echoed well through the postwar years, and continue to resonate today.

For instance, I read Those Angry Days during a vexed and noisy national debate over military intervention in Syria, in the late summer of 2013. Once again, a Democratic President, vilified by many as a socialist or worse, was trying to get Congress to take action against an unprincipled state, and finding opposition from fire-breathing Republicans, as much out to hurt him in any way possible as to express a coherent view about America's role in the world. Once again, Republicans were split on the issue, and Democrats were too, with liberals prominent here and there among the isolationists.

The difference, of course, is that every potential international conflict since 1941 has been viewed in the light of 1941 and the few years that led up to it: the years of Munich, Poland, Lend-Lease and action in the North Atlantic, the Battle of Britain, America First, and the specter of appeasement. Virtually everything the U.S. government has committed to in the meantime has been measured against the threat of Hitler: and either judged to be as bad or worse, and grounds for all-out intervention, or as nugatory in comparison, and not worth the blood and treasure.

Not that 1939-41 played out in any vacuum. American intervention had turned the tide of the First World War against Germany. Returning American veterans, and the politicians who had sent them Over There, drew different lessons from that victory. Some were stunned into pacifism by the violence of the war. Some were insistent that the earlier the intervention, the less it would cost in all respects. Some wanted to arm to keep the peace, and some wanted to disarm for the very same reason. (Some changed their minds, like playwright Robert Sherwood, a pacifist veteran turned interventionist.) WWI offered no clear-cut lessons, as WWII has always seemed to. But maybe history never really offers lessons, only excuses for rhetoric.

Olson may overstate the lack of American preparedness for war in the year 1939. The grand US strategy, after all, was to mobilize after a threat had emerged, and not waste resources on a standing army in the meantime. But if the US Army hadn't really reached comic-opera proportions by the late '30s, it came close. One of the more troubling photographs among the many that Olson prints is one taken during American maneuvers in August 1939. Three men are standing together watching wargames in upstate New York. One is a Japanese attaché. Another is a Wehrmacht attaché, beaming as he points off into the distance. Both appear overqualified to conquer the world. In between is US general Walter Short, who is dressed like a scoutmaster and looks about 75 years old. He seems to be mentally drafting an Army Field Manual on How to Surrender.

Many forces in Congress and without wanted to keep the American military at that level of dysfunction. Some were simply pacifist on all grounds, some favored Germany over Britain or France. Some, like Lindbergh, were rabidly antiCommunist, and found it hard to live down accusations of fascism or antiSemitism. (Lindbergh never really tried; people who knew him thought he was a decent man, and he didn't care what people who didn't know him thought.)

For much of the middle of the book, the protagonist is Wendell Willkie, one of the odder, and ultimately most admirable, of all Presidential candidates. Willkie was no politician. He came to national prominence as a utility executive who resisted the New Deal. He agreed with FDR on more things than he didn't, though, and he became a staunch ally of Roosevelt shortly after losing the 1940 election to him. Olson argues persuasively that Willkie did as much to establish a national consensus in 1940-41 as anyone else. He really was an outsider to the process, unbeholden to Republican constituencies. He could tell off Lindbergh, attack the Republican obstructionists and isolationists, and at the same time be unsuspected of being a creature of Franklin Roosevelt. Willkie made an odd but indelible impression on American political discourse, and this book is in many ways a testimony to that feat.

Olson, Lynne. Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's fight over World War II, 1939-1941. New York: Random House, 2013.