Mother was still angry into the 1950s. There was lots more to learn about this the period in U.S. history that led up to World War II.
In Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941, Olson tries to help her readers imagine the passions of that time. Because, after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, most U.S. people quickly rallied around winning the two-front war in the Pacific and in Europe, pre-war animosities have tended to disappear from our memories. But Olson makes a strong case that coming to U.S. intervention was a hard fought popular struggle, one she believes had positive consequences for the nation.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt apparently harbored no real question that the U.S. would eventually have to fight the European dictators.
Olson's picture of FDR portrays him as a hyper-cautious politician repeatedly hesitant to make a case for war, even after popular opinion moved toward his views after the Nazi blitzkrieg overran western Europe in 1940.
The anti-interventionists are personified in this book by aviator Charles Lindbergh whose first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 had made him the country's most admired celebrity-hero. Lindbergh seems to have been a strange, shy, introverted and distant character who never properly understood the reactions others might have to his views. Olson describes him as believing that the United States was completely unready to fight Germany and so therefore willing to throw himself into the "America First" cause. Many contemporaries thought he had Nazi sympathies but Olson doesn't reinforce that.
The book contains much about the emotional turmoil of Charles' wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose family were leading interventionists. This didn't much interest me -- anachronistically, we expect women to have their own opinions and wonder when they act trapped by their husband's leanings. On Martha's Vineyard where the Lindberghs moved to get out of the public maelstrom, older people can still point out, sometimes with a bit of disdain, where this slightly notorious couple resided.
There are many details of this period that Olson enlightened me about. It's fascinating to imagine a time in which numerous well-known luminaries, including private citizens like Lindbergh, Republican Henry L. Stimson (who later became FDR's Secretary of War) and Elizabeth Reeve Cutter Morrow, Anne Morrow Lindbergh's literary mother, could command vast audiences for radio speeches and thus move public opinion. I cannot imagine equivalent figures capturing so much attention these days -- maybe if they made clever two minute YouTube videos?
Olson highlights the forgotten bravery of businessman Wendell Willkie whose interventionist stance unexpectedly inspired a groundswell that won him the (doomed) Republican presidential nomination in 1940. Party leaders were mostly isolationists as were most Republican voters. But in a nominating convention held just after the fall of France to Hitler's armies, Willkie received the party nod.
Willkie's nomination meant that the election of 1940 was not fought over the country's most contentious issue: whether to help the British to fight on against the aggressors. Willkie agreed with FDR not to raise the topic. Later, when FDR did go to Congress for authorization to send supplies to Britain and later start a draft, Willkie bucked much of his party, explaining:
Congress felt the wrath of those seeking the keep the U.S. out of the war.
The horrors of European battlefields in World War I proved to many citizens that a foreign war would be a fruitless, murderous national misstep; great masses of people simply didn't want to do that again, however little they liked Hitler.
Olson's account of the popular conflicts of this period has a gaping hole: she simply ignores the gyrations of the left, both Communist and intellectual/socialist. In 1936, military fascists rose up against the elected republican government of Spain with the support of Hitler and Mussolini. The U.S. Congress almost unanimously voted to embargo arms shipments to Spain's government and let that democracy be overthrown. That isolationism came easily. Meanwhile Communists and socialists of every stripe rallied to extra-legal private efforts to support the doomed Spanish government against General Franco's atrocity-filled (and ultimately all too successful) assault. So by the beginning of the period Olson covers, the left, a significant force at the time, was united in trying to rally people against European right-wing dictators.
Then, in 1939, the Soviet Union's ruler Joseph Stalin cut a deal with Hitler to partition Poland and, he hoped, keep his country out of the Nazi bomb sights. Loyal party-member Communists turned on a dime from warning about the dangers of fascism to preaching nonintervention. They only came around when the Germans invaded Russia in 1941 and subsequently experienced the sort of popular rejection that Willkie had warned that the Republicans risked if they became isolationists. Meanwhile, the non-Communist left remained staunchly interventionist. Olson simply omits this drama. Her book is the poorer for skipping over this significant sub-plot in the period's history.
Olson shares some of her reflections on the book's website:
But what would I have thought during the 1938-1941 debate?
I'm sympathetic to pacifism -- that is, I strongly suspect that refusing to take up the sword is how we ought to live. I have a t-shirt that says "anything war can do, peace can do better." People like it. And I think it is true … But …
But back then, as now, I would probably have been what I call a "non-aligned leftist." Then, that would have meant that I knew a lot about the atrocities of fascism in Spain and the anti-Semitic pogroms in Hitler's Germany. I might not yet have appreciated the horrors of Stalinist Russia, though I would have had suspicions. And I would have felt that FDR had made too many dirty compromises with Southern white supremacy, such as allowing segregation in New Deal programs. But in that time and place, I probably would have moved from isolationism to an early belief in the necessity of defeating fascism.
Where I'm sure that Olson is right is that having the long contentious national conversation as prelude helped make possible World War II's subsequent status as our "Good War."