Looking for a good summer book? Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 is outstanding.
Author Lynne Olson builds her gripping story of history and politics around the two great men named in the subtitle, but several others from Kentucky and Indiana play prominent parts. Olson's tale of a bitterly divided country also draws some powerful parallels to today's America.
Olson, a former Baltimore Sun White House correspondent, has a keen reporter's eye for interesting detail and a first-rate novelist's gift for narrative. Her brilliant earlier work, Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England, told of Britain's pre-war political battles.
Turning homeward, she finds President Franklin D. Roosevelt weakened by the lingering Depression, his failed court-packing scheme, and an unsuccessful 1938 effort to oust congressional enemies, including those who would become isolationist bulls as war engulfed Europe. After the still raw trauma of World War I, the nation was strongly opposed to getting involved.
Suffocated by his celebrity status in America, Lindbergh took refuge in Europe, where he consorted with Nazi elites and was impressed by their war machine. Upon returning home he emerged as the most prominent opponent of U.S. involvement in the new struggle between old world powers.
Public attitudes slowly changed as the German blitzkrieg overwhelmed France and news of Nazi atrocities became better known. Olson deftly uses Lindbergh's wife, Anne Morrow, a famous writer in her own right, to personalize the dilemma of a country caught between compelling, yet contradictory, impulses.
FDR actually trailed the people in coming to terms with the inevitability American entry into the war. Herbert Agar, editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal (which Olson observes was "then considered one of the best newspapers in the United States") helped the president catch up.
Agar was a leader of the Century Group, an organization of influential interventionist businessmen and intellectuals. Handsome, sophisticated, and passionately committed, he urged U. S. action in many ways, like the remarkable 1940 radio address you can hear courtesy of the Berea College Sound Archives at http://libraryguides.berea.edu/content.php?pid=398179&sid=3262206.
After a stage-managed convention chaired by Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley, the tentative Roosevelt won reelection in 1940. That he did so is largely thanks to the patriotic, country before party approach of his Republican opponent, native Hoosier Wendell Willkie, an underappreciated American hero.
A former Democrat and committed internationalist, Willkie stampeded the isolationist frontrunners at the GOP convention and repeatedly refused to undermine Roosevelt during their campaign. After losing, Willkie became a roving ambassador for FDR and provided critical bipartisan support to the president's gradual efforts to prepare Americans for battle.
Some suspected Lindbergh of ambitions to become an American dictator, but he never sought political office. (For a fictional account of a pro-Nazi Lindbergh presidency read Phillip Roth's The Plot Against America, in which Danville and Louisville feature prominently.)
During the ferocious debate over a pre-war draft, Barkley had to restrain Indiana's Senator Sherman Minton, who called a colleague pro-Hitler and from a "slacker family." Kentucky congressman Beverly Vincent from Edmonson County decked an Ohio Representative on the House floor with what that chamber's doorkeeper described as the best punch thrown by a member of Congress in fifty years.
Then as now, there was controversy concerning leaks of national security secrets. To discredit FDR as having a plan to take the country to war, a high-ranking isolationist military official (of which there were many) exposed a confidential military contingency program causing some administration officials to urge prosecution of newspaper executives who printed it.
Worsening events in Europe, British and American propaganda in movies and otherwise, and encounters with German submarines on the Atlantic eventually undercut the isolationists. Both Lindberghs did, too: she with a book that was perceived as pro-Nazi, and he with a speech that was perceived as anti-Semitic.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler's declaration of war brought the isolationist-interventionist debate (and eventually the Great Depression) to an end. Despite Roosevelt's best efforts to blacklist him, Lindbergh performed admirable service to the American war cause (but afterwards led a secret life in which he fathered seven children by three German women).
Every page of Those Angry Days is a fascinating education. In these parlous present times it is encouraging to remember that American has survived such times before.
John David Dyche is an attorney and political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.