04.07.13

The Fight Over America’s Entrance to WWII

That was the question that tore apart America before Pearl Harbor. Lynne Olson talks to Sandra McElwaine about her new book on the battle for public opinion between FDR and Charles Lindbergh—and Britain’s spies in New York.

In Those Angry Days, Lynne Olson tells the story of the bitter battle between the isolationists and interventionists over preparation for World War II, and the dysfunction and mistrust that encompassed and stifled Washington, D.C.—much as it does today.

“We’re living through those same angry days, again,” says the journalist and historian over a cup of coffee near her Georgetown home. “The country was as polarized then as it is now. There was a red state–blue state divide and extreme anger throughout the nation and in the capital.”

The East Coast, especially New York City, was the hot bed of interventionism, while rural middle America ferociously supported the isolationists, or “America Firstness" as they became known. It was a tortuous period with millions caught up violent clashes between conservative and liberal factions which split families, friends, and neighbors.

The end result, of course, was to the world embroiled in a war like nothing ever seen before, and ultimately to destroy two militaristic empires (Japan and Germany) and set America on the path to world dominance. The rancorous debate ended on December 7, 1941, when the U.S. entered the war after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

The author of several well-received histories set in Britain during the first half of the 20th-century, Olson has “recycled” some of her research to center this highly detailed and focused account on two figures: President Franklin Roosevelt, an interventionist who supported a clandestine effort to aid and abet England against Hitler, and his arch foe, famed aviator and leading isolationist, Charles Lindbergh.

Wendell Wilkie, a leading Republican businessman, also played a crucial role. Charismatic and pragmatic Wilkie actively endorsed conscription and support for Great Britain early on. To the fury of the old guard, he spurned the right wing of his party to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1940. He put country before political ambition and evolved into one of Olson’s heroes. “He came out of nowhere, and took the party by storm,” she says. “He was willing to take risk after risk for his beliefs and said if he lost he lost.”

After his defeat he swung his support to Roosevelt and served as his representative to England.” Is there anybody like him in the Republican Party today,” she queries? ‘No, absolutely not.”

She depicts the conflict between Roosevelt and Lindbergh to influence public opinion as a venomous vendetta.

The president considered “Lucky Lindy,” as he was derisively called, a Nazi sympathizer and a subversive. Lindbergh believed Roosevelt was dictator, a danger to democracy, intent on pushing America to war. Olson maintains Roosevelt did not use his bully pulpit for war but that he was exceedingly slow to act and hoped to avoid foreign intercession until the very end. Their fight involved propaganda, surveillance, and a plethora of dirty tricks.

One of the most intriguing undercover operations employed a thousand people in a top-secret agency, the British Security Coordination, on two crammed floors in Rockefeller Center. It was sanctioned by Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover and helmed by the suave William Stephenson, a Canadian industrialist, who arrived in 1940 to become head of British intelligence for the entire Western hemisphere and the prototype for James Bond.

His cadre of swashbuckling operatives, including novelists Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl and advertising whiz David Ogilvy, workedsurreptitiously throughout the country.

His cadre of swashbuckling operatives, including novelists Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl and advertising whiz David Ogilvy, worked surreptitiously throughout the country—wooing prominent columnists and broadcasters, infiltrating antiwar groups, bugging foreign embassies, and digging up dirt on conservative congressmen. It was sabotage and espionage par excellence.

Lindbergh, because of his admiration for Germany, his ties to the Third Reich, and ant-Semitic rhetoric, was the natural focus of these spies and the FBI. He was also a magnet for the media, who swarmed wherever he went, and he and his family moved constantly in an effort to avoid their unrelenting attention.

Olson expresses special empathy for the predicament of Lindbergh’s troubled wife, Anne Morrow, who was caught in the middle of the rage. She was from a wealthy and socially prominent New York family who were pro-British. Her mother and sister were active interventionists. She loyally supported her husband, however, despite many misgivings and found herself alone and exiled from most of her friends and relatives. They considered Lindbergh, as she put it, “the anti-Christ.” As his sole confidant she tried to alter his stance and soften his statements to no avail. He refused to budge, and Anne retreated further from public view squashed by his bullying and domineering manner.

Millions of other Americans were equally conflicted over the pros and cons of fighting a war. By the time of Pearl Harbor the national discussion was so exhaustive that almost everyone realized that intervention was a necessity. By the time it came Olson observes that the previous two years of fraught public debate had helped prepare the nation emotionally and psychologically to be unified to fight.

In contrast most of the wars since then, from Vietnam to Iraq, are the exact opposite. They have been decided essentially by executive fiat with a minimal amount of discussion among Congress or the public. “Congress rolled over and played dead,” says Olson. “It’s 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.”

But America’s conflicted decision to step forward in 1941 ultimately saved the free world. Olson has shone a dramatic light on the complexities of the issue and skillfully portrayed the protagonists of an almost forgotten crisis in American history.