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America's Fierce Quarrel over Entry into World War II (INTERVIEW)

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First rally.

The December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor suddenly embroiled America in the Second World War and citizens instantaneously united to achieve victory.

In the preceding two years, however, Americans were deeply divided about the role of the United States in the world and whether the country should enter the war to fight Hitler. President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported intervention on the side of Great Britain, the only anti-Nazi democracy in Europe after the fall of France in June 1940, but his public pronouncements were often contradictory or simply mystifying. Like a majority of Americans in the late 1930s, Charles Lindbergh, the world-famous aviator and national hero, was a staunch anti-interventionist and an unofficial leader of the movement to keep America out of the war.

Historian Lynne Olson captures this fractious time in her new book Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and American’s Fight over World War II, 1939-1941 (Random House). She focuses on the FDR-Lindbergh feud as the president sought to aid Britain -- and to undermine Lindbergh’s reputation in the process -- while Lindbergh, in increasingly strident attacks, accused the president of leading the country into war and destroying representative government.

As she chronicles this battle of wits between the two most well known men in America, Ms. Olson also details the activities of people on both sides of the issue, from diplomats and military and political leaders to journalists, secret agents, and Hollywood directors. She traces the erosion of isolationist sentiment in the months before Pearl Harbor and how the national debate laid the groundwork for immediate public unity following the Japanese surprise attack that drew the country into war.

Kirkus Reviews honored Those Angry Days with starred review, and many readers have been enthusiastic about Ms. Olson’s depiction of the human side of the intervention debate.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright wrote: “With this stirring book, Lynne Olson confirms her status as our era’s foremost chronicler of World War II politics and diplomacy. Those Angry Days tells the extraordinary tale of America’s internal debate about whether and how to stop Hitler. Filled with fascinating anecdotes and surprising twists, the text raises moral and practical questions that we still struggle with today.”

And historian Sally Bedell Smith commented: “Deeply researched and scrupulously even-handed, Lynne Olson’s groundbreaking history vividly captures a previously unexplored period of 20th century America. . . With fresh insights and riveting new details, Olson examines the shifting alliances and intrigues, the passions that divided families, and the compromises and campaigns that galvanized America to give vital assistance to Britain when it was threatened with massive defeat by Nazi Germany.”

Lynne Olson is a reporter and writer who spent seven years with the Associated Press as a national feature writer in New York, a foreign correspondent in AP’s Moscow bureau, and a political reporter in Washington. She left the AP to join the Washington bureau of the Baltimore Sun, where she covered national politics and eventually the White House. She later taught journalism for five years as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.

Ms. Olson’s other books include The Murrow Boys (with her husband Stanley Cloud); Freedom’s Daughters; A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II (with her husband Stanley Cloud); Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England; and Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour.

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Robin Lindley: What inspired you to write Those Angry Days on the prewar debate about intervention?

Lynne Olson: I had written several books about the early days of World War II in England. In the last several years I’ve been drawn to that period and that place because of the drama of it. England was the last country standing against Hitler and nobody expected it to survive but, in the last second, Churchill came to power and pretty much singlehandedly rallied the British people to fight on when Hitler launched his Blitzkrieg in Western Europe. And I wrote about that.

A number of aspects of this time intrigued me. My first book was about Edward R. Murrow and his hiring of correspondents who created CBS News. Of course, Murrow’s big moment was in London during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz in the early days of the war. That really got me started. My husband and I wrote that book and loved doing it.

And I always wanted to do a book about London during the war. I had done a lot of research on London and it seemed such an amazing place: romantic, dramatic.

My book before Those Angry Days was Citizens of London about three Americans who were in London during the war, one of them being Murrow.

After writing all of these books about Britain and how important it was and what it went through in the early days, I decided to take a look at the actor standing backstage, the United States because the United States was the only country that could save Britain during this incredibly dangerous time when it was trying to fend off Hitler. There was no way Britain could do it alone, which Churchill knew very well. For a few critical months and years the US dithered about whether to save Britain and whether it would get into the war.

So after doing all of those books on England, I decided it was time to look at the United States and what it was doing.

You note that the debate between isolationists and interventionists was extremely acrimonious before the Pearl Harbor attack? Probably younger Americans don’t have a sense of the bitterness of that debate and the strength of the isolationist movement.

It’s not just younger Americans who don’t have a good idea of it. I think it’s most Americans. I certainly didn’t realize how incredibly violent and bitter that debate was.

The issues of isolationism and interventionism have been covered in great detail, and a number of books about this period were told from an issues or policy point of view. One reason I wrote the book is because there wasn’t much written about what went on in terms of the human element.

I like to write books about people and people make history. All of my books are written and told through the eyes of human beings. And that’s what I wanted to do with this book. And I found that there wasn’t that much written about what was going on in this country and what people were doing.

When I was doing research, I was struck by what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote about this controversy in his autobiography. He had lived through many contentious periods, but [he wrote that] this two year time, 1939 through 1941, was the bitterest and most contentious that he had lived through -- including Vietnam, Watergate, the McCarthy period -- and I was very impressed by that. He called it “those angry days,” and that’s where the title comes from.

The more I got into the research, I found he was absolutely right. From President Roosevelt on down, for many people it was a very angry time.

The isolationist movement at the time was very strong. What’s your sense of why this movement became so predominant?

Traditionally, the U.S. had always been an isolationist country up to that point. People who came to the U.S. to settle were getting away from Europe, including the quarrels and wars over there. There was a sense that they didn’t want to get involved with Europe again.

We got involved in World War I, and Wilson promised that we were getting into the war to make the world safe for democracy. Instead the world got Adolf Hitler, and I think Americans just didn’t want to get involved again.

That feeling was very strong in the United States. In fact, most of the country was isolationist from 1939 and going into 1940. The mood began to change toward the end of 1940 and into 1941. But at the beginning of this period, most Americans had no desire at all to become involved in the war.

And this national hero, Charles Lindbergh, became a major figure in the isolationist movement. As you describe, he was a reclusive but prominent celebrity.

Charles Lindbergh was probably the first flying celebrity, and he was really the most famous man in the world, hard as it is to understand why. His solo flight across the Atlantic was an extraordinary event. People were looking for heroes in the late 1920s when he flew across the Atlantic. And they saw him: a handsome, unassuming, decent, polite man who had done an amazing thing nobody else had done.

He took over the world in a way, and he hated the publicity that resulted from it. He was very private and reclusive and always had been. And the more he resisted the press and publicity, the more people were interested in knowing more about him.

After one of my talks, a person gave me the best description of Charles Lindbergh I’ve ever heard. He said “No one was less suited to be Charles Lindbergh than Charles Lindbergh.” And that’s absolutely true. He hated everything about [his celebrity].

At the same time, he used his that celebrity and popularity. He decided in the late thirties that the United States should stay as far from this war as possible.

After the kidnapping and murder of his son in the early 1930s, he’d had it with America and the press and this rapacious interest in him. He took his wife and his other son to Europe to live for several years.

When Lindbergh was in Europe, he took several trips to Germany. The German government had invited him to come and see what they were doing with their air force. They wanted him to come away with idea that the Luftwaffe and the rest of the German military was unbeatable -- that it was so powerful that in the case of any future war, nobody could possibly beat Germany. And the propaganda ploy worked. He bought into it. He told Britain, France and the United States that they should avoid war with Germany, and they should agree to a negotiated peace and give Germans anything Germans wanted because there was no way they could possibly beat Germany.

When war did break out in September 1939 and Britain and France declared war against Germany after German invaded Poland, he came back to the United States and was determined to do everything he could to make sure the US stayed out of the war.

Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh lived in Britain and France before the war, and he was enamored with Germany and its technology. What were his feelings about France and Britain?

He appreciated that they took him and his family in. They provided a refuge for them when they needed it. They did not hound them the way Americans had. But Lindbergh was a very detached and unemotional person. Human feelings were not that important to him. He was basically a technocrat. He was not impressed by British and French technology or their military. He thought time had passed them by and that they could not pose a threat to the Germans.

He was impressed by the Germans and their expertise, and there was an affinity between him and the German military and aviators. And he was impressed by how well he thought Germany was governed in terms of its prosperity. He didn’t look beyond to what a totalitarian state it had become. He refused to pay attention or acknowledge what Germany was doing to the Jews. He was a very blinkered person. He just looked at their technology and military mastery and that was all that concerned him.

It seems that he and Anne both thought that time had passed by Britain and France and even democracy, as Anne suggested in her book Wave of the Future. Is it too strong to call Lindbergh a Nazi sympathizer?

There were elements of the Nazi philosophy he liked. Certainly I don’t think he was a Nazi. Roosevelt called him a Nazi, but I don’t think he was. I wouldn’t go as far as to call him a Nazi sympathizer, but he did speak of the idea that democracy was a thing of the past.

I know he did not like many aspects of our democracy. He equated American democracy with what had happened to him. It was a very personal feeling. He felt that the press had too much power and had violated his privacy, which they had. He felt that was wrong. I think he admired that fact that Germans controlled their people.

At the same time, he talked about how much he disapproved of what they were doing to the Jews. He said several times that he did not want Germany to win a war, but he felt there was no way Germany could be stopped. I find him the strangest, most complex historical figure I’ve written about. It’s hard to pin him down.

Wasn’t Lindbergh anti-Semitic and a believer in eugenics?

You’re right about eugenics. And you’re right about the anti-Semitism, but whenever anyone says that I feel compelled to jump in and say that he was reflecting an attitude that was incredibly very much part of the American fabric at that point.

The overt anti-Semitism of the remarks he made in his notorious September 1941 speech was not unusual in the country. From people in the State Department and Congress to boardrooms to law offices -- it was quite rampant at the time. He was anti-Semitic, but so was much of the rest of the country.

He dared to say in public what many people said in private. And there were many other Americans who shared those views.

Were his remarks a reaction to the Jewish prominence in communications and film and business?

That was one of his main talking points when he talked about Jews, and it was a common belief, but it wasn’t accurate at all.

In that speech in Des Moines in September 1941, he said that Jews controlled the media in this country. In fact, at that time, it was a tiny fraction of newspapers, radio outlets, etc., that were owned by Jews. And those that were owned by Jews often did not project a pro-Jewish view.

Lindbergh said Jews wanted us to get in the war because of what the Nazis were doing to the Jews in Europe. But in fact many of the media outlets that were owned by Jews, including The New York Times, were very careful not to say much about this [situation]. The publisher of The New York Times said he wanted to be much more outspoken about the need for the U.S. to get prepared for war and get into the war, but he felt he couldn’t do it because he was Jewish and, if he did it, it would provoke more anti-Semitism than there already was.

The same was true of Hollywood movies. Hollywood got into the game fairly late in making anti-Nazi, pro-war films. Part of the reason was because many of the studio heads were Jewish and they feared that if they were outspokenly pro-war and interventionist it would provoke a stronger wave of anti-Semitism.

How would you characterize the relationship of Lindbergh and FDR before the war began in Europe?

Actually, they had a history. In 1934, FDR had a run-in with Lindbergh. At that point, FDR was at the height of his powers. He had come in [in 1933] and immediately instituted a lot of New Deal reforms to help the country during the Depression. He had the great confidence of the American people and, at that point, he could do no wrong.

About a year after he took office, Roosevelt cancelled the contract that the federal government had made with several airlines in the country for airmail delivery. He said he did it because of fraud in the contract process. The contracts had been given out under his Republican predecessor Herbert Hoover, so it was something of a political move.

Charles Lindbergh, who was still incredibly popular seven years after his flight, publically criticized Roosevelt for [cancelling the airmail contracts] because he had not given the airlines a chance to respond. Roosevelt [decided] that the Army Air Corps, the predecessor of the Air Force, should start delivering the mail. Lindbergh, who had been an airmail pilot himself, said that Army pilots didn’t have the expertise to do it because it was extremely dangerous. They had to fly in primitive planes in all kinds or weather: blizzards, thunderstorms. And they didn’t have the equipment to do it.

As it turned out, Lindbergh was correct. There were a number of crashes and many deaths of Army pilots. This was the first public relations black eye that Roosevelt had. He quickly signed new contracts with the airlines and they began delivering mail again.

This was something neither Roosevelt nor Lindbergh forgot. Roosevelt did not like being sent up like that.

Fast-forward five years, and Lindbergh returned from Europe to the US. Roosevelt knew what a potentially formidable adversary he could be, and he knew that if Lindbergh got involved in the fight over interventionism, he was going to have a tough time with him.

Roosevelt was eventually able to marginalize the isolationists.

Yes. He was very good at his campaign to discredit the isolationists, and he succeeded in the end. There’s no question that he certainly wanted to help England and send as much aid as possible. I don’t think he wanted the U.S. to go to war, or to send troops. He was dancing on a tightrope to do as much for England as he possibly could while trying to forestall American entry into the war. And that’s what he was trying to do for two years.

Also, he certainly did not mind public pressure, and he basically wanted to follow public opinion. But he was very willing to have interventionist groups put pressure on him so he could do what he wanted to do. He was an extremely wily and incredibly good politician. We finally did get into the war, but up to the very end, I’m not sure he wanted to do it.

Roosevelt, on the one hand, seemed to be dithering and indecisive at times, but on the other hand, he took action to aid England without consulting Congress. Some see this dithering as perhaps intentional and an expression of the beginning of the modern imperial presidency. How do you see Roosevelt at this time?

A number of historians think [the dithering] was intentional, but I think much of it was not. I think he really was uncertain about how far he could go. He was not in the greatest political shape. He had suffered a couple of devastating political defeats just as Hitler began his march to war. And he was also running for re-election in 1940, and he didn’t want to do anything to damage his chances.

It was a very controversial thing he was doing by running for a third term, something no president had ever done before. It was not popular among many people and was seen as violating a sacred tradition.

So Roosevelt was very nervous and careful about what he did. A number of important programs were enacted in 1940 in the course of the presidential campaign. On all of them, he was reluctant to engage in this fight. One was conscription, the draft, and he wanted to stay as far away from that as he could, but again, was pressured into doing it, and he did. He supported it and it passed in September 1940, and as a result, we had the army that we had at the time of Pearl Harbor. If we hadn’t had that, we couldn’t have invaded North Africa less than a year later. So he deserves credit for it, but an awful lot of other people pushing him to do it. He was not the overarching, guiding figure in that he was responding to pressure that was put on him.

And didn’t FDR promise to keep the US out of war in the 1940 campaign?

Yes he did. And [FDR’s Republican opponent] Wendell Willkie, who was very supportive of Roosevelt’s foreign policy, was under great pressure to say he wouldn’t get into a war that Franklin Roosevelt was trying to get into. Conversely, FDR felt compelled to say “On no, I’m not going to send your boys into war.” And that was not a shining hour for either of them. When push comes to shove, politics breeds craziness. So both of them were guilty of that.

But after Willkie was defeated, he supported Roosevelt in everything he did in terms of Lend Lease, for example. And his support of Roosevelt was key in getting a lot of these programs [to aid the Allies] through.

You describe how both the British and U.S. operatives worked to undermine the isolationist movement before Pearl Harbor was attacked?

One of the things that Roosevelt did in 1940 to 1941 was to sanction a very illegal British intelligence operation in the U.S. that was designed to counteract Lindbergh and the other isolationists. It was basically a dirty tricks campaign.

There were hundreds of British agents in this country and their goal was to get the U.S. into the war. One of their ways to do it was to cast doubt on the isolationist movement. So they were tapping phones and they were inserting articles into American newspapers about the isolationists and they were spying on isolationists in Congress and elsewhere. Roosevelt allowed this to happen. Again, we were supposedly a neutral country then, and this was all quite illegal.

The administration kept up this drumbeat to do everything it could to undermine and undercut the isolationist movement, America First, and Lindbergh.

The interventionists increasingly portrayed Lindbergh as a Nazi sympathizer before Pearl Harbor. What happened to Lindbergh in the months before and then after the U.S. entered the war?

Lindbergh was the most popular figure in the isolationist movement. He was the speaker that everybody wanted. He was crossing the country trying to rouse the troops against intervention. But after he gave his speech in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1941 he lost his influence because of his extremely controversial remarks about the Jews. Withering criticism came from all parts of the country, including from people who supported his right to speak before. Wendell Willkie had supported his right to speak, but he totally condemned what Lindbergh said. And it ended the influence of America First, which was the most influential isolationist organization up to that time.

Basically, the isolationist movement was tremendously damaged as the result of Lindbergh’s remarks. Pearl Harbor happened three months later. By that time, isolationism was spent force and not just because of Lindbergh.

Because of this great debate in the country, the American people came around to the idea that we’d have to get into the war even though most did not want to get into the war. They decided that, if Hitler was to be defeated, we’d have to join the fight. When Pearl Harbor happened, we were an interventionist nation in that we saw it as our duty to get into the war.

With Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh disappeared immediately from the public stage. He issued a statement saying that he had thought we should not get into the war, but war was here and he supported Roosevelt and the government. He did not appear in public again during the war. He did not criticize Roosevelt or the government on the conduct of the war.

Lindbergh wanted desperately to get into the fight himself, but the president and the administration wanted nothing to do with him. In a surreptitious move, his friends in the American military—and he had many military friends—arranged for him to go to the South Pacific as a civilian aviation consultant to test new fighter planes and help improve them. While he did this, he actually flew combat missions against the Japanese and shot down at least one plane that we know of, and came close to being shot down himself.

I’m sure the White House eventually found out about this, but the Air Force allowed it. They encouraged Lindbergh. So he did get a few months of combat flying and, from all accounts, that was the happiest he’d been in a long time. Basically, he was a pilot and the place he belonged in was in the cockpit.

Is there anything you’d like to add about your book or what you hope readers take from this history?

One thing that struck me as I did the research was the role of ordinary Americans in this debate. It was not just the White House and it was not just Congress. It was millions of people from all over the country who were involved in classrooms and barbershops -- everywhere.

Americans had a huge stake in this war and they got involved on both sides. They let their members of Congress know what they felt. They had rallies. They wrote letters to the editor. They were thoroughly educated about the pros and cons of the war -- much more so than any other war we’ve had in this country.

They actually had their say, and that’s a very important thing to remember the next time we think about going to war.

Thank you for your words and for your revealing account of the angry days preceding America’s entry into the Second World War.