Those Angry Days
Today we think of it as 'The Good War.' But Lynne Olson's excellent new book reminds us that, once upon a time, the question of US involvement in World War II was at least as contentious as Vietnam.
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Some of the most unflattering episodes in “Those Angry Days” involve Charles Lindbergh, the celebrated American aviator who used his international stature to argue against early American participation in the war. The book’s period photos include a snapshot of Lindbergh and wife Anne visiting Nazi Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering, one of numerous occasions in “Those Angry Days” when the reader winces at the thought of global terrors to come – and Lindbergh’s apparent blindness to the full implications of the Nazi regime. Even more unsettling is Olson’s detailed account of Lindbergh’s casual anti-Semitism, as when he blamed fledgling American pro-war sentiment at least partly on a Jewish media cabal.Skip to next paragraph
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But rather than demonizing Lindbergh, Olson parses the nuances of his early isolationism, noting that his reluctance to fight the Germans grew from several factors, including his conclusion that Nazi air power made diplomacy, rather than confrontation, the most practical way for Americans to address the European conflict before Pearl Harbor.
While not excusing Lindbergh’s racial views, Olson also notes that anti-Semitism was very much a part of his era, extending even to the White House, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was known to make eye-rolling references to “Hebrew” culture. Roosevelt takes some other lumps in “Those Angry Days” for his lack of clarity concerning global questions when Europe began to unravel. As a president elected for his command of domestic policy during the Great Depression, FDR had to dramatically sharpen his foreign policy skills on the job, an evolution in which his inexperience often showed, Olson contends. In the early days of Nazi expansion into Czechoslovakia, with “the president making little or no attempt to persuade Americans that it was in the country’s best interests to help stop the dictators, the increasingly dire events in Europe only confirmed their determination to stay as far away from that hornet’s nest as possible,” she writes.
Olson, a former journalist, proves especially resourceful at combing through newspaper archives to flesh out her narrative with evocative detail. She doesn’t so much revisit a historical period as inhabit it; her scenes flicker as urgently as a newsreel. While highlighting Lindbergh and FDR as its stars, “Those Angry Days” embraces a cast of characters far beyond the book’s title characters. The story expands to include everyone from William Stephenson, an American-based operative for the British who partially inspired fictional spy James Bond, to young Theodor Geisel, whose cartoon spoof of Lindbergh’s isolationism helped hone the talents he’d bring to Dr Seuss.
About the end of this policy debate, we already know. The Japanese bombing of Hawaii brought America fully into World War II, fulfilling a famous Churchill quote that appears at the beginning of “Those Angry Days.”
“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing,” he declared, “after they’ve tried everything else.”
Danny Heitman, an author and a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is an adjunct professor at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication.