---- — The main lesson history teaches us is to learn from our mistakes and not repeat them. There’s also an old saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Perhaps the two notions have something in common because we continually prove that history does indeed repeat itself.
I bring up these axioms because of our recently purchased book, “Those Angry Days,” by Lynne Olson. As an integral addition to our World War II collection it offers a remarkable and unappreciated look at American history in the two years prior to our entry into that historic conflict.
A huge battle raged between interventionists and isolationists, and the book focuses on the leading protagonists, Franklin Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh. Most people do not recall the two sides’ vicious clash of ideas because any decision to enter the war became moot after Pearl Harbor.
Lindbergh was a national hero when he became the first man to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic in 1927. He and his wife Anne were constantly in the news afterwards, most notably for the tragic kidnapping and murder of their son, Charles, Jr., in 1932.
The Lindberghs lived much of the 1930s in Europe and Charles became enamored with Germany and its military aviation program. One thing led to another and he stumbled into being the chief spokesperson for the isolationist movement after war broke out in Europe in 1939. It’s been debated whether he was a Nazi sympathizer, anti-Semitic, or simply naïve but he was unapologetic for anything he ever said or did in his life.
On the other side was the interventionist Roosevelt who understood the Nazi menace and all the evil that went with it. However, the assumption that he was gung-ho for war and doing everything possible to get us into the conflict is a myth. FDR was actually a very cautious and reluctant advocate for war.
The president suffered a brutal legislative defeat with his “court-packing” scheme in 1937 (trying to tweak the Supreme Court to his liking) and it left him politically vulnerable. He believed the country was in an isolationist mood and refused to take the lead in stopping Hitler.
What is most startling about the raucous pre-war debate is that its tone is remarkably similar to what’s currently happening in this country. There were several notable characters in the fight between interventionists and isolationists who ironically sound much like today’s politicians. In some cases you would swear they were clones of their present-day counterparts.
Newspapers back then were what cable networks are today. Objective journalism took a backseat to agitating. Isolationists called FDR a fascist, communist, dictator, warmonger, and an elitist who wanted to destroy the Constitution. Interventionists called Lindbergh pro-Nazi and anti-American. His family constantly received death threats.
And those were just for starters. It’s amazing that a civil war didn’t break out between the “warring” parties. The mudslinging and character assassinations were unrelenting. The two sides literally hated each other.
The war debate was also a regional conflict. New York and the Northeast had an affinity for Great Britain and tended to be interventionist. Chicago and the Midwest, with its huge German immigrant population, veered toward isolationism.
Beyond the parallels to today’s society the book is revealing in many ways that go against conventional wisdom. Beyond FDR being politically weak and reluctant to lead, the unsung hero of the interventionist movement was none other than 1940 Republican presidential nominee, Wendell Wilkie.
Wilkie is best remembered for his cutesy name, his “Win with Wilkie” campaign buttons, and being the third of four GOP candidates to get whipped by Roosevelt. The truth is that he ran a very competitive campaign, was a populist candidate who bucked his party hierarchy (sound familiar?), and had the integrity to put his country ahead of personal ambition.
Another oddity was that the America First Committee, the leading isolationist group and one that gained a reputation as Nazi sympathizers, was originally founded by a group of liberal, anti-war Yale students. It simply morphed into an extremist organization infiltrated by nativist and anti-Semitic elements.
Two aspects of the pre-war era that differed from present day were the way Congress and the military functioned. Congress actually worked in the 1930s the way it’s supposed to. Alliances were not straight party line since both Democrats and Republicans had liberal, moderate, and conservative members. Filibusters were an exception, not the rule, and floor debate was consequential.
The military-industrial complex of today did not exist 75 years ago. In fact, the military was deliberately kept weak and underfunded. The country felt shafted after World War I and felt a feeble military would keep us out of foreign conflicts. In 1940 the U.S. was woefully unprepared for war.
There are many eyebrow raising moments in “Those Angry Days.” Lynne Olson has written a tremendous book about one of the most important eras in our history. She teaches us that we can always learn something new and that history does repeat itself. Those may be the greatest object lessons of all.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that all book reviews are for titles that the Village Library has available for rental.