Monday, September 30, 2013

Once upon a time: a popular debate before the bombing starts …

I thought I knew something about what Lynne Olson (following historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) calls "those angry days." In my 1950s childhood, which position people had chosen about U.S. intervention in the European war against Hitler was still a live issue, at least in my family. My mother had been vehemently pro-intervention. At the end of World War II, she had a job in a high school; the other women who taught there became her friends for life. Except one. When I later attended the school, Mother was always stand-offish about the woman who taught me modern European history; "she was an America Firster," she'd snap icily. I got the impression that meant this teacher had been pro-Nazi or something else too awful to discuss.

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.

After the Munich agreement [in 1938], Roosevelt had little doubt that appeasement would fail, that war would soon follow, and that the United States could not escape unscathed, no matter what the isolationists claimed. But he shrank from passing this thought on to the American public. When Harold Ickes urged him to do so, he replied that they would not believe him. …With the president making little or no attempt to persuade Americans that it was in the country's best interests to help stop the dictators, the increasingly dire events in Europe only confirmed their determination to stay as far away from that hornet's nest as possible. As a result, when FDR tried to redirect U.S. foreign policy in 1939 toward a greater involvement in the European crisis, he was acutely aware that public opinion did not support him.

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.

"It wasn't the packing of the galleries or the flood of telegrams that nominated Willkie," one of his key advisers later said. "Adolf Hitler nominated Wilkie. With the fall of France and the Low Countries, American public opinion shifted overnight -- and that was responsible for Willkie's nomination." As Life saw it, "The people saved the day. They proved that when they are really aroused, they can push through the bicker and dicker of party politics and make their representatives pick the man they want."

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:

"if the Republican Party allows itself to be presented to the American people as the isolationist party, it will never again gain control the American government."

… Willkie was denounced as a turn coat and a traitor by members of his party. …Roosevelt was well aware of how much he owed his former opponent …"we might not have have Lend Lease or Selective Service or a lot of other things if it hadn't been for Wendell Willkie."

Congress felt the wrath of those seeking the keep the U.S. out of the war.

Thousands of supporters of [a] so-called "mothers' movement" traveled to Washington whenever Congress took up legislation they considered interventionist. Dressed in black, many with veils covering their faces, the women made life miserable for members of Congress who were not avowedly isolationist. They stalked their targets, screamed and spat at them, and held vigils outside their offices, keening and wailing ...

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:

In those two years I write about, this country engaged in one of the most vigorous debates in its history. As I said earlier, millions of private citizens were involved in that discussion. It became very nasty, especially toward the end, but everyone got a chance to make his case, and, as a result, the pros and cons of U.S. involvement in World War II were carefully and thoroughly weighed against one another. By the time of Pearl Harbor, the American people were aware they would have to pay a heavy price if they entered the war, but most had come to the conclusion it was probably necessary. That psychological and emotional preparation was one major reason, in my opinion, for the immediate unity of the country once war was declared against Japan, Germany, and Italy.

By contrast, most of the wars America has waged since then, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, have been undertaken by the executive branch of our government with little or no consultation with — or input by– the public or Congress. This is certainly not what our Founding Fathers had in mind and has not only resulted in considerable national disunity and dysfunction but presents a real danger to our democracy.

It was thought provoking to read this book during the week when the country debated President Obama's plan to attack Syria in response to President Assad's release of chemical weapons. I had no doubt at all that we should not engage more deeply in the Syrian civil war.

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."

1 comment:

Hattie said...

Everyone knew the war had to be fought.
Lots to say, but trying to keep up with the news cycle right now.
Can you believe it?

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