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.