Seventy years distant, World War II has become indelibly etched in the national memory as “the good war.” The rapid passing of the war generation makes it difficult to disentangle the conflict itself from our collective reverence for its sacrifice and achievement. Yet Lynne Olson reminds us that a conflict almost universally seen today as the quintessential “war of necessity” was as contentious in its day as any of our recent foreign interventions.
Olson’s tale is freighted with high drama, political intrigue, and titanic personalities. And like the period itself, these personalities take on entirely new dimensions when subject to Olson’s meticulous research and lucid storytelling. Franklin D. Roosevelt, so often seen as a calculating Machiavelli who propelled the United States into global war despite the isolationism of the electorate, appears as a vacillating politician marching in near-lockstep with public opinion. Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator and principal public opponent of involvement, appears not as a well-meaning (if slightly deluded) patriot who simply misunderstood the moral and geopolitical imperatives of his time; rather, Olson’s Lindbergh is an ill-informed narcissist and political neophyte who simply cannot understand why his casual anti-Semitism and moral equivalence would anger so many.
While Olson’s reappraisals of the dominant figures of the period may be disconcerting to those accustomed to prevailing narratives, her portraits of FDR and Lindbergh reflect the nuance of America’s great debate over intervention in World War II. From Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, and continuing until at least the summer of 1941, public support for American involvement in the conflict was tepid at best. Each successive step toward active involvement—from trading aging Navy destroyers to the British in exchange for bases in the Western Hemisphere to providing large-scale aid under Lend-Lease—was passionately opposed by a particularly strident segment of public opinion. President Roosevelt was consistently reluctant to take any action that might outstrip Americans’ appetite for participation. Olson’s FDR is less a scheming, string-pulling interventionist than a gun-shy pessimist intent on avoiding a domestic political calamity.
If Roosevelt scrupulously followed public opinion, Olson’s lesser characters were devoted to molding and leading it. William Allen White, the Kansas newspaperman and founder of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, played an instrumental role in mobilizing both elite and mass opinion on the side of incremental support for the countries resisting Axis domination. The Century Group, a collection of East Coast intellectuals and society figures like playwright Robert Sherwood and publisher Henry Luce, agitated for immediate intervention in the conflict for both moral and geopolitical reasons. Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts from blitzed London inspired listeners with Britain’s resilience. Even before the full scale of Hitler’s evil was widely known, Olson reminds us, some Americans (including, it should be emphasized, Roosevelt himself) were under no illusions as to the nature of the Nazi regime and the threat it posed to free peoples everywhere.
The same cannot be said for Lindbergh and his compatriots in America First. It is now common to dismiss pre-Pearl Harbor isolationists as misguided yet, given the scale of post-World War I disillusionment, somehow justified in their failure to assess America’s strategic imperatives and moral obligations. While the ranks of America First certainly included well-meaning idealists such as future Yale president Kingman Brewster and future Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, Olson traces the deep and troubling undercurrents that pervaded opposition to American involvement. Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota attributed the pro-British films coming out of Hollywood to the “racial emotions” of Jewish studio moguls. Lindbergh publicly stated that American Jews would do well to avoid support for intervention because they would face public reprisal.
Yet if Lindbergh and his isolationist brethren fare poorly here, a brilliant cast of supporting characters shines anew. Henry Stimson, the venerable Republican tapped by Roosevelt to be secretary of war in the summer of 1940, is shown as exercising prescient judgment in almost every notable instance in the runup to Pearl Harbor. Grenville Clark, an old FDR law partner and founder of the ROTC program in World War I, undertook a carefully orchestrated campaign to implement the first peacetime draft in American history. James Wadsworth, a New York Republican congressman, volunteered to introduce conscription legislation despite the political perils.
But it is Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt’s Republican opponent in 1940, who emerges as the true hero of the “angry days” before December 7, 1941. An interventionist serving as the standard-bearer for an isolationist-dominated party, Willkie adamantly refused to alter his belief in the necessity of aiding the Allies. And by unstintingly supporting Roosevelt’s cautious steps toward involvement, Willkie provided political cover to FDR and helped stiffen the president’s resolve. Had Willkie chosen political expediency in the heat of a presidential campaign, Roosevelt might well have been forced to further distance himself from efforts to aid the Allies in their darkest hours.
The message of this book could not be timelier. Like their predecessors, today’s new isolationists have decided that America’s geographical position, surrounded by two oceans and friendly neighbors, makes global engagement unnecessary and counterproductive. They reject assertions of inalienable American interests—from ensuring freedom of the seas to supporting our allies—which might require military involvement. More vehemently still, they recoil at the suggestion that the United States has a peculiar moral obligation on behalf of free peoples in the face of tyranny.
While the new isolationism falls within a historical tradition unlikely ever to disappear, the heirs of America First must be answered by those who understand, as Wendell Willkie and Franklin Roosevelt did, that no matter how much Americans abhor conflict, there are some things worth fighting for.
Alexander B. Gray is a writer in Washington.