Phillip Roth’s 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America,” has been made into a six-part TV series and shown recently on HBO in the United States and Great Britain. David Simon wrote the script for the television version and directed the production. Simon’s earlier credits include “The Wire,” “Treme” and “Murder: Life on the Streets,” all serious-minded and well received productions. On this occasion, Simon tackles another exceptionally serious subject.
Before the 1940 presidential election, the two-term incumbent, Franklin D. Roosevelt, is challenged by the Republican nominee, Charles A. Lindbergh. Lindbergh, or “Lucky Lindy,” shy and handsome, is a national hero because of his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. World War II is underway in Europe, and Lindbergh campaigns against American involvement. He defeats FDR, and, true to his word, the US stays out of the fighting. President Lindbergh pursues a policy of reconciliation with Nazi Germany and meets Hitler in Iceland to cement their friendship. Von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister, visits Washington and is feted at a state dinner at the White House.
At home, Lindbergh appoints a cabinet composed of far-right types, led by Secretary of State Henry Ford, the automobile manufacturer, a blatant racist and anti-Semite who often refers to “kikes” and “niggers.” President Lindbergh’s vice-president is Burton K. Wheeler, a senator from Montana who shared the president’s non-interventionist perspective.
Much of the story revolves around the administration’s policy of better integrating Jews into American society. Instead of living in largely Jewish neighborhoods, Jewish families are to be dispersed throughout the country to live side by side with their fellow Americans. This policy is promoted by a Reform rabbi, up from the South, who leads a congregation in Newark.
Against the background of growing anti-Semitism throughout the country, Roth’s story is told largely through the eyes of a Jewish family, husband (an insurance agent), wife and two children living in this New Jersey community. What this family witnesses is a growing number of their friends and neighbors fleeing to Canada as Jews come under increasingly threatening conditions. For example, The German American Bund carries out violent attacks on young Jewish men in the Newark area.
By 1942, the situation has become calamitous. The Klan has risen again. The anti-fascist radio commentator and gossip columnist Walter Winchell decides to challenge Lindbergh and run for president. Although he doesn’t go out of his way to advertise the fact Winchell is Jewish, anti-Semitic gangs disrupt his campaign rallies. Eventually, Winchell is assassinated at a campaign stop in Louisville. His killing sets off popular protests, ones that are violently repressed by the police.
At this point, President Lindbergh disappears. Vice-President Wheeler becomes the acting president. No one seems to know what happened to Lindbergh. What has happened is a coup d’etat. Pro-Nazi elements in the country, including the FBI, have kidnapped Lindbergh and are seeking to impose a Nazi-like regime. Anti-Jewish rioting breaks out throughout the country. The Jews are blamed for Lindbergh’s disappearance. The Jewish family in Newark finally decides to head for Canada, but their escape is foiled when the border is sealed.
The coup fails when Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the first lady, goes on the radio to denounce Vice-President Wheeler and those responsible for her husband’s disappearance. There’s what appears to be a return to normality. Franklin Roosevelt comes out of retirement, reenters politics and runs for president. As the story ends, Roosevelt seems to be on his way to winning the election, but what appear to be FBI agents are shown collecting ballots already cast and burning them.
This then is the story told by Roth and as modified by Simon. How closely does it approach reality?
To begin with the obvious, Roosevelt was elected to a third term in 1940, defeating the GOP nominee Wendell Wilkie. Charles A. Lindbergh, the son of a German-American congressman targeted for verbal and physical abuse after American entry into World War I, became a spokesman for the America First Committee (September 1940—December 11, 1941). In 1936, Lucky Lindy visited Nazi Germany and received an award from Herman Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, for his contributions to aviation. In a speech in Kansas City in 1940, Lindbergh warned against American entry into the war in Europe, claiming that Jews and English people were pushing the United States into the conflict. Isolationist sentiment was widespread in the country until 1941 when public opinion began to shift in an interventionist direction.
Lindbergh married Anne Morrow, the daughter of the American Ambassador to Mexico. Together they had a son. In 1933, the infant was kidnapped from their New Jersey home and killed by a German émigré who was later tried and executed for the murder. The event made headlines throughout the United States and Europe. A naturally shy person, after this episode Lindbergh largely withdrew from public life — except for his America First campaigning. Following Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh volunteered to fly combat missions in the Pacific, but his request was ignored by FDR and the war department. Anne Morrow Lindbergh went on to have a career as a writer.
Burton K. Wheeler was reelected to the Senate from Montana. He delivered speeches before the war decrying Jewish control of the radio networks and Hollywood. He demanded that something be done to limit Jewish domination before it was too late.
The most prominent Reform rabbi in these years was Rabbi Stephen Wise, spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel in Manhattan. Wise acted as a conduit receiving cables from Switzerland from Richard Lichtheim, head of the World Jewish Congress, about Nazi plans for the extermination of European Jews. Wise passed this information on to FDR. He also made repeated appeals to the president for help. But Roosevelt largely ignored Wise’s pleas.
Almost needless to say, Walter Winchell never ran for public office. He was essentially a gossip columnist for the isolationist tabloid The New York Daily News. He also had a popular Sunday night radio show in which he offered “scoops,” to his listeners presumed amazement. After the war, he achieved substantial notoriety for his anti-communist crusading. In his column, he specialized in identifying prominent figures in politics and the entertainment industry as “pinkos” and communist sympathizers. Rumor had it, Winchell’s assistants accepted bribes to delete the names of individuals he had intended to labels as “reds.”
A Plot Against America?
Was there a right-wing “plot against America?” Surprisingly, the answer is yes. A retired Marine Corps general, Smedley Butler, reported to the House Committee on Un-American Activity, chaired by John McCormack and Samuel Dickstein, that he had been approached in 1935 by a group of Midwestern businessmen about the prospects of seizing power in Washington. Known as the “Business Plot,” the scheme never went much further, but it was at least given some consideration by some relatively powerful individuals at the height of the Depression.
The FBI did not collude with the Nazis. In fact, J. Edgar Hoover’s “G Men” broke up a German spy ring and arrested its members. The film, “The House on 92nd Street,” made during this era, captures this effort.
The one element in “The Plot Against America” that comes closest to capturing the reality of the US in 1940 was the high level of anti-Semitism. Until Pearl Harbor, Fr. Charles Coughlin delivered nationwide talks on NBC every Sunday evening (sponsored by the Ford Motor Company) in which he blamed the Jews and President Roosevelt for virtually every ill that had befallen the US since the beginning of the Depression. He expressed admiration for Franco’s new regime in Spain and the achievements of Mussolini and Hitler. Fr. Coughlin told his millions of listeners that the Jewish philanthropist Bernard Baruch was really the man behind the throne — in this regard he played the role of bogeyman currently performed by George Soros. After Pearl Harbor, the Detroit Archdiocese forced “the radio priest” off the air.
During the 1930s, there were approximately 100 anti-Semitic organizations active throughout the country. Aside from the Coughlinite Social Justice and Christian Front organizations, the most prominent included William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts, the German American Bund, Gerald Winrod’s Defenders of the Christian Faith, and the Black Legion. After Pearl Harbor, these organizations disintegrated or were disintegrated by the authorities. The leaders were prosecuted for sedition, many members of the Bund were identified as “enemy aliens” and imprisoned.
But in 1940, before American entry into the war, members of these pro-Nazi organizations roamed the streets of Boston (Joe McWilliams and his Coughlinite band of Christian Mobilizers), New York and Los Angeles attacking Jewish passersby, beating Jewish schoolchildren and desecrating synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.
Pearl Harbor did not put an end to things. Historian David Wyman writes in “The Abandonment of the Jews”: “During the war several of the minor demagogues remained vocal and new ones came forward. … It was during the war too that anti-Jewish hatreds that had been sown for years ripened into some extremely bitter fruits. Epidemics of serious anti-Semitic actions erupted in several parts of the United States, especially the urban Northeast.”
These manifestations of anti-Semitic violence did not occur in a vacuum. Public opinion polling done before and during the war revealed that high percentages of Americans were suspicious of and hostile toward American Jews. By 1940 some, 15% of respondents told interviewers they would be willing to support an organized campaign to fight the Jews and reduce their presence in American life. So, despite the many fantasies of “The Plot Against America,” the story does offer viewers a strong dose of the truth.
*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
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