There may have been no war more necessary than World War II. But the Americans who lived in the late 1930s and early 1940s couldn't see into the future, and many believed Germany and Japan didn't pose a major threat. War, they argued, would be a disaster.
As author Lynne Olson writes in her new book, a roiling debate erupted across the US, pitting two of the nation's most admired men against each other. Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941, captures a forgotten battle over the country's role in the world and the lives of American soldiers.
The Monitor's Danny Heitman called "Those Angry Days" an "absorbing chronicle." Olson has plenty of experience writing about international affairs: In 2010, I wrote in the Monitor that there was "plenty to appreciate" in Olson's previous book, "Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour."
In an interview, I asked Olson about the fiery movement against the war, the bizarre personality of Charles Lindbergh, and the lessons of the big debate today.
Q: It took the United States more than two years to enter World War II. Why were Americans so unwilling to protect Europe – including friends like the UK and France – from a rampaging Germany?
A: The US has had an isolationist tradition from the beginning. There was an old idea that we had established ourselves as a country to get away from Europe and stay away from all the entanglements in Europe and the rest of the world.
We got into World War I, but that was an anomaly, and most Americans believed the result was not very good: We'd gone into a war to save the UK and other allies from Germany, to make the world safe for democracy, and it didn't work. We got Adolf Hitler.
We were quite slow in coming around to the idea that this was a different threat that Hitler was posing, that we probably should get in.
Q: What surprised you the most about this great debate over whether the US should enter the war?
A: This debate was bitter and passionate.
Most Americans don't really know that much about this period of 1939-1941. We skip over it and go straight to Pearl Harbor.
Actually, it was a very hard-fought nasty fight that really involved millions of Americans. That really surprised me.
Also, a large group of military leaders – many if not most of the high-ranking officers in the Army, Navy and Air Force – were trying to sabotage FDR's policy, especially helping England.
I thought there would be a fair amount of militarism in the military, but a lot of the big brass in the military were very much against going into the war. They thought we should focus on defending ourselves.
They leaked information from within their own services to isolationist members of Congress and to Charles Lindbergh.
Q: Who were the isolationists, those who wanted the US to mind its own business?
A: The isolationist movement was very complex.
When people think of isolationists, they think of Midwesterners – conservatives, mostly Republican – who lived in a part of the country that didn't have much to do with the rest of the world.
In fact, isolationists were found in every spectrum of the political landscape.
Many were pacifists. They believed war would destroy the domestic reforms of the New Deal, and civil liberties would be severely curbed.
College students were also against the war. Now we think of World War II as the good war, the just war, the war that we had to get into. But back then, there was an anti-war movement on college campuses, just like during Vietnam, made up of young men who knew they would be on the front lines.
One of the interesting things I discovered is that the America First organization, the most influential isolationist group in the country, was founded by campus leaders who were mostly Republican but certainly not conservative.
They included men who went on to have illustrious careers: Gerald Ford, Sargent Shriver, Potter Stewart.
Q: What was President Franklin Roosevelt up to during this time?
A: His main goal was to help keep Britain afloat and surviving.
In the summer of 1940, Great Britain was vastly outnumbered and very close to going down to defeat. He didn't want to go war, certainly in terms of sending an army, but FDR was intent on keeping Britain alive by sending as much aid as he possibly could.
Q: Lindbergh himself is a complicated character. What did you find intriguing about him?
A: He's one of the strangest, most conflicted men I've ever written about.
Q: Was he truly a bigot?
A: He was a racist and felt the white race was superior to every other, and we shouldn't get in a war in other countries that were the right race.
Q: What about his sympathy toward the Nazis?
A: He'd been very impressed by Germany when he went there to visit in the 1930s and he felt they couldn't be beaten. He was a real technocrat and saw that the Germans as being technical experts. He had no empathy for human beings at all. He was really blinkered.
The weird thing about all this is that he hated politics and hated publicity. But he felt that he had to try to do everything to keep the US out of the war, and he was willing to enter this publicity cauldron to do that.
Q: Could he have landed in the White House?
A: There was all this speculation about his running for president, and Philip Roth wrote a novel based on that, but he never would have done it.
He was an independent guy who valued his own beliefs, and he would not bow or kowtow to anybody. That's the way he felt.
Q: One of the amazing things about Lindbergh, who seems callous and robotic, is the fact that he landed a warm and sensitive wife. Anne Morrow Lindbergh would become a celebrity herself, beloved for her many books. She'd live into the 21st century. Did she bear the burden of all the humanity in their marriage?
A: It's a very strange relationship.
She was really his opposite. He was tone deaf to other people; she was very emotional and sensitive, a reader and a brilliant writer.
He valued action, she valued the life of the mind.
At the beginning, she had a major inferiority complex. She got tired of his control of her life, but could never really do anything about it.
Q: To make matters even more complicated, her family supported the British. How did that play out?
A: She was really caught in the middle. While she was supporting Lindbergh, her mother was a big activist in the interventionist movement and her sister Constance was married to one of the biggest British propagandists in New York.
Q: Now we think of Lindbergh as misguided and brainwashed. But what about the other side of the story? Was he actually onto something?
A: Part of what Lindbergh was saying was perfectly understandable. Then the racist and anti-Semitic comments really hurt him.
Q: Did he ever have any second thoughts?
A: There is no sign that he regretted anything he said.
It's just extraordinary. Even after the war, when the Holocaust and all the atrocity came to light, he refused to admit this was a necessary war for the US to be in. He kept insisting we should have not gone to war. He never could acknowledge, as far as I know, that he was wrong.
However, Anne did say that they had been very blind to what Hitler was doing.
Q: What do you think of him personally?
A: I certainly don't admire him, but I have some sympathy for him.
He was never happier then when he was in a cockpit, and that's where he should have remained. But he was caught up in this world of celebrity in his mid-20s and had absolutely no preparation, nor the personality for it.
Someone said to me, "Nobody was less equipped to be Charles Lindbergh than Charles Lindbergh. No one was less equipped to be the most famous man than him."
He never could cope with it, and then the kidnapping and murder of his son created this huge psychological wound that he never recovered from.
I feel somewhat sorry for him, but it doesn't excuse the reprehensible things he did.
Q: How does the battle over getting into World War II matter now?
A: It's always important to understand the complexity of history, to know that things are not often what they seem.
What impressed me was how this was a really full-throated national debate. This debate did not just go on in the White House and Congress. It went on in classrooms and bars and beauty parlors. People were actively involved on either side.
It was bitter and nasty, but it was a real exercise in democracy.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.