Earlier this year I finished reading Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941. I recommend the book unreservedly. There is so much intensely interesting history in the book. Much of the interest derives from the incredible cast of characters that populates the book. The Century Group, with which I was previously unfamiliar, alone supplies a panoply. The text runs over 450 pages and it is if anything too short to do the subject full justice.
The book provides an educational escape from the current campaign, but with contemporary echoes. Among those who have noticed some of the echoes of 1940 in the Trump campaign are Michael Beschloss, Lewis Gould, and David Stebenne.
Reading the book made me wonder what I would have thought about our “fight over World War II” at the time. Olson recalls Roosevelt’s sensitivity to public opinion and therefore his wariness of support for Great Britain when war came. Congressional Republicans detested Roosevelt and his internationalist tendencies. They largely resisted those tendencies as various aid schemes to support England were concocted and proposed.
Published in 2013, Those Angry Days wasn’t specifically intended to illuminate current events. Reading it today nevertheless evokes them, both by comparison and contrast. The title of the book comes from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Olson quotes Schlesinger in one of her epigraphs: “Though historians have dealt with the policy issues, justice has not been done to the searing personal impact of those angry days.” It’s a perfect title. Those angry days are not to be confused with these angry days. Angry days have become a permanent condition.
Olson devotes chapter 12 to Wendell Willkie, the GOP nominee for president in 1940, and he is a wonderful character. A prominent businessman, Willkie had first come to public attention as head of the Commonwealth and Southern utility opposing the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. It was Willkie’s internationalist orientation, however, that distinguished him from Thomas Dewey and Robert Taft, his principal intraparty rivals. Dewey and Taft were attuned to the isolationism that ran deep in the country. In Dewey’s case, the isolationism was a matter of political calculation. In Taft’s case, it was a matter of principle. Olson attributes Willkie’s nomination to the coming of World War II in Europe.
As for Willkie, Olson writes, “He may have been a political amateur, but his passionate conviction appealed to a growing number of Americans, particularly those in his party who leaned toward liberalism and internationalism.” Indeed, Willkie had been a registered Democrat until the fall of 1939. Olson notes that he supported “a number of the New Deal’s reforms, including the minimum wage, a limit on worker’s hours, Social Security, and collective bargaining[.]”
Willkie is just one of the many deeply interesting figures taking their place in the course of Olson’s narrative. I was particularly struck by the minor characters who turn up on college campuses. Here we have JFK, signing up with America First as a Harvard student. There we have Kingman Brewster, who became one of the founders of America First while a Yale undergraduate. And there is Gerald Ford as well, getting involved with America First as a student at Yale Law School. Olson recalls a few other familiar figures who turn up in this context here.
On an inspirational note, we have the hundreds of young men who went to Britain to enlist in the Royal Air Force, “seven of them flying in the Battle of Britain. So many U.S. citizens, in fact, had become RAF pilots that they were given their own units, called the Eagle squadrons.” Several dozens of Americans also joined the British army:
Among the British army volunteers were five young Ivy Leaguers who had left their Harvard and Dartmouth classmates to enlist in Britain’s cause. They included Charles Bolte, a Dartmouth student leader, who in the course of a year had moved from ardent pacifism to an equally fierce belief in interventionism. In April 1941, Bolte had published an open letter to President Roosevelt on the front page of the Dartmouth daily newspaper. “[W]e have waited long enough,” he wrote. “We hear that Greece has fallen, and on the same radio broadcast we hear that the United States is sending Britain some ships–‘small ships, 20 torpedo boats.’ It is travesty in the midst of tragedy…We ask you to make us our best selves by waging war.”
Here Olson drops a footnote: “Bolte would lose a leg while fighting with the British at El Alamein and two of his Ivy League comrades would die in combat shortly before the 1943 Allied victory in North Africa.”
I wondered about one gap in Olson’s book. She fails to take any account of the role of the Communist Party USA and the Popular Front during the period under review. Slavishly following the line laid down by their masters in Moscow, the Communists loudly opposed Germany and the Nazis until approximately August 23, 1939, when Stalin and Hitler entered into their Pact. Then the Communists and their friends in the United States became loudly anti-war, until approximately June 22, 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and the party line reversed course accordingly.
In early 1941, for example, “the Almanac Singers, left-wing folks artists of whom the best known were Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, released an album called Songs for John Doe, in which antiwar lyrics were imposed on familiar tunes. One was called ‘Plow Under.’ In it the artists claimed that the government meant to have American boys slaughtered, as hogs had been during the New Deal.” So writes William O’Neill in the first chapter of A Better World: The Great Schism: Stalinism and American Intellectuals (1982).
It seemed to me that the role of the CPUSA would have been worth at least a chapter of Olson’s book by itself. I wrote to ask Professor Harvey Klehr, the foremost historian of American Communism, for his help on the literature that might fill in this part of the story. Professor Klehr graciously responded:
There are not very many extended treatments of the CPUSA in the 1939-1941 period — for obvious reasons. The Party and its acolytes are embarrassed by the era and the less said the better. John Haynes and I treated the period briefly — very briefly — in The American Communist Movement.
Maurice Isserman has a long chapter in Which Side Were You On? He’s a revisionist but an honest historian and it’s not bad. Haynes and I wrote a piece published in The New Criterion on the hypocrisy and lying of the Lincoln Brigade people about their foreign policy positions during the Pact in recent years: “The Myth of Premature Antifascism” (September 2002). We also wrote a piece for American Communist History, Vol 4, No. 1, 2005, “The CPUSA Reports to the Comintern,” in which we reprinted several confidential reports the Party sent to Moscow.
Roosevelt and Lindbergh are of course the antagonists at the heart of Olson’s narrative. Lindbergh’s wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, is a fascinating character in her own right, and Olson is excellent on her as well, but she closes the book with a sympathetic glimpse of her husband:
Several times a year until he died, Lindbergh traveled to Washington to visit the Smithsonian Arts and Industry Building. With his lined face and white, thinning hair, he was no longer recognizable to most tourists. Yet he always took the same precaution, inconspicuously stationing himself behind a showcase. From there, he gazed up at the Spirit of St. Louis, riding high in the air above him.
This is great stuff.
NOTE: A commenter accurately notes below that Olson’s stupid liberal views (very infrequently) peek out at the reader from the narrative. I thought it was easy and worthwhile to discount for her politics.