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Oct 7, 2004 11:11 pm

Thomas Fleming: Review of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America

Thomas Fleming, in the WSJ (Oct. 7, 2004):

[Mr. Fleming is the author of "The New Dealers' War" and "The Illusion of Victory, America in World War I."]

Fact: The year is 1940. Britain stands alone against the military might of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. President Roosevelt is running for an unprecedented third term. Should America enter the war to rescue Britain? A majority, still deeply disillusioned with the U.S. experience in World War I, oppose sending a single soldier to Europe. The GOP candidate, Wendell Willkie, gains in the polls when he begins attacking FDR as an interventionist. A shaken Roosevelt promises the mothers of America that he will never send their boys to fight in a foreign war. He wins a narrow victory.

Fiction: In Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America," the year is also 1940. Instead of Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate is the legendary Charles Lindbergh, a frequent spokesman for America First, the nation's leading antiwar group. In his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, Lindbergh accuses American Jews, along with a British propaganda apparatus and the Roosevelt administration, of trying to push the U.S. into a war that most Americans do not want to fight.

In fact, Lindbergh made a similar speech in the fall of 1941. He was immediately assailed by liberals as an anti-Semite and covert supporter of Hitler, igniting a media firestorm. Similar accusations are hurled in "The Plot Against America." The narrator, a nine-year-old character named Philip Roth, is upset to discover that he now hates Lindbergh, formerly one of his heroes, for attacking FDR, whom his devoutly Democratic father, Herman Roth, has taught him to love. Young Phil is even more upset when Lindbergh wins in a landslide.

How plausible is the scenario of Mr. Roth's novel? Not very, although it cannot be entirely dismissed. There were certainly sentiments in American culture at the time--about Germany and Britain and about American Jews--that Lindbergh could have exploited had he chosen to. But Lindbergh's political views were far more antiwar than anti-Semitic.

Mr. Roth is attempting the kind of alternative history that has become popular among novelists and historians. It is not idle to ponder what would have happened if the antiwar impulse in the U.S. had triumphed before Pearl Harbor.

In the novel, one of President Lindbergh's first moves is a summit conference with Adolf Hitler to sign a nonagression pact with Germany. Ten days later, he signs a similar "understanding" with Japan. When Hitler invades Russia in June 1941, Lindbergh hails him as a crusader against the world's premier evil, communism. Meanwhile the president assures Americans that he will build a military force second to none, making them invulnerable to attack. Most Americans applaud.

If you accept the idea of a President Lindbergh, this America First solution to the world crisis is within the realm of the possible. Just what would have followed, in Britain and on the Continent, is another question, which Mr. Roth never explores.

For the novelist, a grand political narrative is less important than its intimate effects, and here, for a while, Mr. Roth captures our interest. Lindbergh's policy creates turmoil in the Roth family and most of their middle-class Jewish section of Newark, N.J. "All the Jews could do was worry," reports a frightened Phil, who tries to gain admission to a local orphanage to escape his Jewish identity.

Not all the Jews in the novel worry. Phil's stylish aunt becomes the wife of one of Newark's leading conservative rabbis, who hails Lindy as an American messiah for his program to advance the cause of assimilation. Soon the rabbi and his wife are working for a new federal bureau, The Office of American Absorption, which sends Jewish children to the Midwest and South to acquaint them with "heartland life." Herman Roth's employer, an insurance company, decides to transfer him and other Jewish workers to jobs in the heartland too, ostensibly to stir the melting pot. Suspecting a sinister motive, he declines and works as a laborer instead, adding to his son's anxiety....

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