Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941

  • Lynne Olson
  • Random House
  • 576 pp.
  • Reviewed by Eugene L. Meyer
  • April 23, 2013

In the lead up to Pearl Harbor, American isolationists and interventionists clash over the nation’s role in WWII.

Lynne Olson will be appearing at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on Saturday, May 18, 2013.


You know the story: After years of deep domestic division and noisy debate, the United States, led by its courageous president, enters the war against fascism, fighting both Germany and Japan to the finish in order to save the world for democracy. This narrative persists in the popular mind nearly 75 years after the war began in Europe.

But, in this well-crafted and deeply researched new book by Lynne Olson, the story is much more complicated, and the presumption that America would ultimately have gone to war against fascism in Europe much less certain. In fact, by Olson’s lights, it appears that had Japan not attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt might have been content to remain on the sidelines.

By then, the United States had become a passive ally of Great Britain, lending limited support, even after the German Luftwaffe’s bombing blitz of England. Public opinion had shifted towards intervention, but FDR, whatever his sympathies, resisted the impulse.

Olson’s title, Those Angry Days, refers to the years 1939 to 1941, when Americans were divided between isolationists and interventionists but increasingly tilting towards entering the war against Germany. A former wire-service reporter and the author of five other books, Olson tells the story principally through two larger-than-life figures: Charles A. Lindbergh, whose solo trans-Atlantic flight had made him a national hero, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was seeking to balance his interventionist instincts with political caution as he sought — and won — an unprecedented third term in 1940.

FDR, usually ranked among our greatest presidents, emerges from these pages as less than heroic. Lindbergh, the country’s most prominent isolationist, comes across as essentially clueless, blind to the evils of Nazism and its threat to the United States, uncaring about its victims, a less than genteel anti-Semite whose prejudice was far more in the mainstream than out of it during the prewar decade.

This is a page-turner of a book. Even though the outcome is well known, the back story is not. And within its pages are many surprising, even shocking details which upend the traditional narrative that has placed many of our recent historical figures on a pedestal. 

To start with, Sargent Shriver, Jack Kennedy, Kingman Brewster, Potter Stewart, Gerald Ford, Kurt Vonnegut, Gore Vidal and Norman Thomas were all early supporters of America First, the leading organization opposing U.S. support of the countries fighting Nazism, much less U.S. entry into what was then known as the European War.

For his part, FDR was reluctant to get ahead of the political curve after Congressional Democrats and Republicans joined to defeat his scheme to expand the Supreme Court by appointing more justices who would support his domestic programs, including Social Security, which he felt was threatened. This despite his landslide reelection in 1936. 

Thus, FDR hesitated to hand over to Britain surplus World War I destroyers, finally agreeing to do so in return for British bases in the Caribbean. He succeeded in pushing through Congress the Lend-Lease program to assist the Allies, but implementation was maddeningly slow. He won a peacetime draft but then was ambivalent about extending it. His public pronouncements were often bold, but just as often his follow up was less than vigorous. 

And sometimes, he said nothing at all. Even after a German U-boat sank the Reuben James, a World War I destroyer accompanying a convoy of merchant marine ships in the Atlantic, with the loss of 115 American lives, FDR was oddly silent.

Supporting the isolationist view was a cabal of State Department and military men, who after losing the battle ultimately stepped up to do their patriotic duty to win the war. Undoubtedly, they influenced FDR’s actions. But the president’s innate caution and his overriding concern over politics were just as important, Olson suggests. 

When it came to FDR’s relationship with Lindbergh, however, the president could be scathing, accusing him in one speech of outright disloyalty. Married to Anne Morrow, whose family did not share her husband’s world view, Lindbergh and his wife went in 1937 to Nazi Germany, where he was impressed with the Nazi regime and accepted a medal from Hermann Goring. The medal, which he received but never wore, left a lasting stain on his reputation. 

Then, addressing an America First rally in July 1941, he singled out “the Jews” for criticism as warmongers whose loyalties were suspect. In fact, as Olson points out, American Jews were very much reluctant to speak out for intervention, fearing an anti-Semitic backlash.

Beyond the two protagonists, many colorful characters weave in and out of the drama. Democrat Burton K. Wheeler, the irascible anti-war senator from Montana, turned from an early New Deal supporter to a harsh critic of the administration. On the other side, members of the Eastern Republican establishment — including Wendell Willkie, a Hoosier turned Manhattanite who ran unsuccessfully against Roosevelt in 1940 — were increasingly internationalist, urging FDR to act just short of going to war. Willkie took the aggressive stance FDR did not, both as candidate and thereafter. His stature grew as FDR waffled. 

On the issue of intervention, opposition and support did not break down along partisan lines but more along a geographical divide, with areas physically removed from the coasts, notably the Midwestern states, being the most isolationist. All that would change, however, with the Japanese attack on the American fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, which we learn occurred after FDR rejected pleas to move it to the Atlantic in support of convoys bound for Britain. 

Ultimately, one concludes, it was only Pearl Harbor that drew America into the war. FDR famously called December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.” On December 8, Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan but managed to say nothing about Germany and Italy. For three days, Britain waited. Then, on December 11, Hitler declared war on the U.S., forcing FDR to reciprocate. Lindbergh was silenced, the arsenal of democracy launched. Lindbergh’s public image was forever tarnished, while FDR’s quickly soared to iconic levels. 

But Olson’s reporting leaves one to wonder: If Germany hadn’t declared war on the United States, would America have gone to war in Europe? The answer seems to be maybe, or even probably not.

Eugene L. Meyer is a former Washington Post reporter and editor and an author who freelances for regional and national publications.


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