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Interview with Lynne Olson

Lynne Olson, author of “Those Angry Days,” stopped by somuchsomanysofew to discuss her book and its exploration of the extreme polarization in the United States over the very idea of entering the war, an aspect forgotten by many people today. 

Author Lynne Olson

Author Lynne Olson

Four of the books you’ve co-written or written focus on this specific period in World War II, when England was fighting alone.   You’ve explored it from the point of view of the American journalists stationed in London, the Polish fighter pilots who joined the RAF, the men who brought Churchill to power, and with Those Angry Days you’ve come stateside to explain what was going on in the U.S. that was keeping us out of the fight.  What is it about this particular aspect of the war that you find so compelling?I’ve been fascinated with both the place (Britain) and the period (the early days of World War II) ever since my husband, Stan Cloud, and I wrote our first book, The Murrow Boys, about Edward R. Murrow and the correspondents he hired to create CBS News before and during the war. Several scenes in the book take place in London during the Battle of Britain and the 1940-41 Blitz. In doing research for that book, I got caught up in the story of Britain’s struggle for survival in the early years of the war – and the extraordinary leadership of Winston Churchill and courage of ordinary Britons in waging that fight. I discovered that there were still a number of stories about the period that remained largely unknown and untold, so I decided to tell them myself.

Having focused so much on Britain in my previous books, I decided it was time, in my latest one, to take a look at the very bitter debate going on in the United States during 1939-1941 about what its role should be in World War II. It turned out to be an extraordinary story — one that I realized I didn’t know very much about and one that I don’t think most Americans do. That debate, as it turned out, was crucial in deciding the future of the United States, especially the role it would play in the world from then on.  

As you’ve been touring with this book, have you faced a lot of surprise from readers?  Specifically, that FDR was so reliant on polls, that Lindbergh held so many views which would make him wildly unpopular today? 

I think what’s been most surprising to readers is the extreme polarization in this country over the very idea of entering the war. Today, we think of World War II as the “good war” — a necessary conflict to save Western civilization from the evil of Nazi Germany.  And that’s all true. But in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor, the extent of that evil was not as obvious as it is now. The passions on both sides were really at a fever pitch.

As you indicate, there’s also considerable surprise about FDR’s caution and procrastination in taking bold, decisive steps that would move the country closer toward intervention. When most Americans think of FDR now, we think of his bold leadership, which he certainly did show in the first years of his presidency and then again after the United States got into the war. But during those critical years — 1939 to 1941 — while he was very forceful in his calls for action to help Britain and end German aggression, he sometimes dilly-dallied in making such action a reality. He tended to exaggerate the power of congressional isolationists and was quite reluctant to challenge them.

As for Charles Lindbergh, there’s no question that many of his views — on the role of Jews in our society, on race, on the importance of America remaining an isolationist country — would be anathema to a large proportion of Americans today. But what surprised me is how much those views reflected the mood of a significant segment of the population back then, a much greater percentage of the country than would be true now.

You see that scene in movies and tv shows of a sleepy America strolling home from church, or cheering at the Army-Navy game, suddenly stunned in to war.  But in fact it had been a topic of ferocious debate for almost two years by then.

By December 1941,  most Americans, I think, believed that the country was going to have to enter the war at some point. The big questions were: when and under what circumstances. I don’t think the majority of people in this country would have been surprised if  our entry into the war had been triggered by a major incident involving Nazi Germany. After all, Hitler and the Nazis were regarded then as the biggest, most immediate threat to the United States and the world. Almost no one in the U.S. expected an attack on American soil by the Japanese.  Getting into the war itself wasn’t unexpected; what shocked Americans were the stunning events that finally catapulted us into it.


Those Angry Days


Anyone who finds today’s political climate too divisive and longs for the civility of earlier times would be well-served by full immersion in historian Lynne Olson’s most recent venture, Those Angry Days, which chronicles in lively, absorbing detail the climate in the United States in the two years before it entered the war.  As in her earlier, excellent Citizens of London:  The Americans Who Stood With Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour, Olson presents a vast, compelling cast of characters full of passionate conviction.  Front and center are the men of the title:  Franklin Roosevelt who, though derided by his enemies as a “dictator,” was often  worryingly reliant on public opinion as parsed for him by the pollsters, and Charles Lindbergh, a proud, private man who could not keep himself out of the limelight except when he was 10,000 feet above it.

As countries swiftly fell to Hitler, leaving only England as the last hope of freedom in Europe, Americans faced the critical question of what the role of the nation was to be in this turbulent world.  The isolationists argued that Britain and France (who had dragged us into World War I, which was supposed to have made the world safe for democracy and had instead cost 50,000 American lives) had “repeatedly demonstrated an inability to settle their own disputes . . . we must be ready to fight for the defense of our own nation, but for nothing and no one else.”  The interventionists held that too much was at stake for America to evade its international responsibility:  Hitler was intent on world domination and we would face him eventually, and how could we stand by as Nazi Germany “threatened to wipe out Western civilization as we know it?”

“As momentous as it was, the passionate prewar battle over America’s destiny has largely disappeared from the national memory,” Olson writes, and goes on to quote General George Marshall:  “People have forgotten the great hostility of that time.”

How hostile was it?  A debate over conscription came to blows on the floor of the House of Representatives.  During the presidential campaign of 1940, Republican candidate Wendell Willkie was “pelted with everything from rotten eggs, fruits, vegetables, rocks and lightbulbs to an office chair and wastebasket . . . The New York Times ran a daily box score of the number of items thrown and those that found their target.”

As aid to Britain was eked out both by private committees and cautious, narrow legislation (the Destroyers for Bases act, the Lend-Lease act), coalitions opposing Roosevelt’s foreign policy sprang up across the country.  The most prominent one was founded at Yale, where students including Mayflower descendent Kingman Brewster (future U.S. ambassador to Britain), Sargent Shriver (future head of the Peace Corps), McGeorge Bundy (future National Security Advisor), and Potter Stewart (future Supreme Court justice) founded America First to provide a “rallying point for resistance” against “being stampeded into war by the Roosevelt administration.”  America First’s somewhat elitist origins were given huge financial support by the captains of industry who made their fortunes providing for middle America – men like Sterling Morton (of the salt), Jay Hormel (of the meat), Henry Ford, and the founder of Quaker Oats.  The darling and spokesman of America First was Charles Lindbergh, whose speeches at their rallies attracted thousands of supporters and protesters.

When war finally was declared, Lindbergh’s offer of services was initially shunned by both the military and private industry, who were afraid of being associated with him.  Henry Ford took him on as a technical consultant; Lindbergh advised on the B-52 and the P-47 fighters.  Eventually, he served as a civilian consultant in the Pacific without the knowledge of the White House.  As a civilian combatant, he flew fifty combat missions while “squadron leaders . . . looked the other way.”

Lindbergh is merely the most prominent “character” in this history which includes deft, thorough portrayals of Wendell Willkie, the British ambassador Lord Lothian, Robert McCormick, the Anglophobic publisher of the Chicago Tribune, J. Edgar Hoover who, at Roosevelt’s orders, launched his phone-tapping career by targeting isolationists, and the sophisticated yet naïve, suffering yet oblivious Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  Olson’s prodigious research is matched only by her intellectual curiosity.  This is a hefty tome but well worth the read; you couldn’t possibly be in better hands.

Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II
Lynne Olson
History, Random House, 2013
576 pages