Thursday, January 16, 2014

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

Narrative force is a key element in Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 (Random House, 2013), Lynne Olson’s account of the national debate over intervening or remaining isolated in the early days of the Second World War.  Representing the two sides of the debate are Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh.  Olson traces in interesting detail the development of the opposing sides of the debate from the 1920s on, describing Roosevelt’s rise to power and Lindbergh’s shift from American aviation hero to increasingly controversial German apologist and isolationist spokesman.  The challenge for the writer of a book such as this is that the facts are already there.  They can’t be changed to suit the needs of the story.  Of course, the writer can bend and burnish elements of the story so as to give it color, but only within bounds, and he or she cannot change the facts.  A novelist can fabricate events.  A documentary writer can only select and edit them.  Olson’s challenge is to take preset events and people and to bring out their interest, if it is already there, or to find within them what makes them relevant to the present day.  Olson is an excellent nonfictional narrativist.  She writes well, evokes her characters effectively, and clearly explains the issues that made those days so angry.

The parallels in this book between America in the pre-World War II 1930s and the present day are striking.  The debate over involvement in WWII was fierce, furious, and sometimes nasty.  Lindbergh comes to us as a not especially intelligent and sometimes clueless articulator of viewpoints that are, in retrospect, contemptible.  But there were many Americans, including leading members of Congress, who agreed with him.  Roosevelt comes across at moments as a scheming politician, telling the citizenry one thing with the intent of doing something else.  While he was assuring voters that he had no intention of getting America involved in the Second World War, he was in fact looking for ways to provide support, including military support, to the European allies, especially the British.  He was a consummate Machiavellian.  He was also, at times, an indecisive procrastinator unable to recover from judicial and legislative setbacks suffered during his second term.  In the end, following Pearl Harbor, he emerged as the great wartime leader we remember today, while Lindbergh gradually withdrew from public life.

Lindberg was, according to Olson, a controlling father and husband.  He wanted to mold his wife and children in his own image, though he often went months without seeing them.  He couldn’t understand why some of his speeches against interventionism provoked outrage and threats against his family.  Olson identifies a growing rift, personally and politically, between Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow, a gifted and talented writer who did what her husband wanted even as she had misgivings about his views and wrote in one of her novels about an ambitious young woman struggling against a domineering husband.  Olson tries to present Morrow sympathetically, but in some of her writings she clearly sought to defend and explain the attitudes her husband was expressing openly.

In the end, when he died, Lindbergh left behind in addition to his own children with Morrow seven children from relationships with three other women.  They didn’t learn their father’s identity until decades after his death.  His arrogance, egotism, and political wrongheadedness make him the least sympathetic of the people in this book.

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