Recently I visited the World War II tunnels under the White Cliffs of Dover. As a retired historian this fostered further interest on my part in examining the events surrounding Dunkirk and the German aerial blitz over England in 1940. Coincidentally, Lynne Olson, the author of a number of books dealing with the United Kingdom and the war, published her most recent effort, THOSE ANGRY DAYS: ROOSEVELT, LINDBERGH AND THE FIGHT OVER WORLD WAR II, 1939-1941, a survey of American policy toward events in Europe in the 1930s culminating with its entrance into the war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Olson as she has done in all her previous books presents a cogent and well written narrative that explores the role of those who sought to prepare for what they perceived to be the coming war with Germany and provide the British with the necessary assistance once war broke out following the German invasion of Poland in September, 1939. Further, Olson examines the role of the isolationist movement during the period, a group that sought to keep the United States out of the war at seemingly all costs. In her narrative Olson incorporates all of the main characters in this, at times, nasty debate ranging from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Charles Lindbergh. Other than a few minute details there is not much that is new here, but the book is an excellent synthesis of available primary and secondary materials and the author has prepared a smooth narrative that captivates the reader.
A number of important subjects and themes are explored. The discussion of the evolution of American public opinion toward the war in Europe is interesting, particularly how the British under the leadership of William Stephenson and his network sought to influence decision making in Washington. The role of Charles Lindbergh as he evolves from a national hero to a political partisan involved with isolationists at home and manipulated by Hitler’s government abroad is fascinating. The election of 1940 is accurately described and the fear felt by FDR for the candidacy of Wendell Willkie takes the reader inside both presidential campaigns. Wilkie is treated as a principled man. Despite his feelings about the New Deal, he supported the interventionist movement and he was an essential component politically as the Roosevelt administration sought to gain the passage of important legislation, i.e., the Destroyer Base Deal, Lend-Lease, and conscription in Congress.
Olson correctly points to Roosevelt’s attempt to alter the make-up of the Supreme Court in 1937 as his worst domestic political error that heavily impacted his ability to prepare the United States for the approaching conflict and provide assistance to the British after 1939. This defeat lessened FDR’s confidence in his own decision-making, reduced his influence on Congress, and saw his own popularity with the American people decline. This hamstrung attempts to alter the Neutrality legislation of the mid to late 1930s and was a boon to the political opposition led by the likes of Senators Burton K. Wheeler and William Borah, Robert Woods, the head of Sears Roebuck, Henry Ford, and Charles Lindbergh.
The passage of HR 1776, better known as Lend Lease is vividly presented in exacting detail. Olson’s description of the vituperative politics of the period through the eyes of the main characters is enlightening. The actions taken by Wendell Willkie and Lord Lothian, the British Ambassador to the United States, who died shortly after the bill was passed is detailed and reflects an author in total control of their material. Olson observes correctly that the passage of the bill was FDR’s most important prewar political victory and her choice of quotes is wonderful, i.e., Eric Sevareid, the CBS correspondent’s description of opponents of Lend Lease as “tobacco-chewing, gravy stained, overstuffed gila monsters, who nestled in their bed of chins, would doze through other speeches, then haul up their torpid bodies and mouth the old, evil shibboleths about King George III, the war debts, Uncle Sap, and decadent France (were) very dangerous men,” is also illustrative of the negativity, nastiness, and partisanship of the period.
Over the years some have argued that FDR sought to involve the United States in a war against Germany well before December, 1941. Olson’s argument to the contrary is right on as she states that FDR plodded along and took baby steps toward preparing the United States for what he was convinced would be a war to defeat Nazi Germany. FDR read the polls assiduously and was always afraid no matter what the political polls may have reflected that he was too far out in front of what the American people would support. Olson’s examination of the politics behind expanding the undeclared naval war in the North Atlantic highlighted by decisions of how much area the United States would defend in convoying merchant shipping is illustrative of FDR’s fears, as was his approach to the conversion of the US economy from domestic to military production.
There are numerous other areas that Olson explores ranging from the role of Hollywood in the propaganda war against Germany, the influence of anti-Semitism on American politics, the infighting within the American military establishment, and intimate portraits of the most important historical characters. Olson’s examination of events and the attendant research contribute to a well thought out and deeply interesting portrait of the United States and England as both faced the coming war and its final outbreak in 1939 and 1941. As a side note if anyone is interested in reading a counter factual historical novel dealing with this topic they should read THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA by Philip Roth who conjectures of what might have happened if Lindbergh had sought the presidency in 1940 and defeated Roosevelt, just food for thought.