There is a fascinating, if not eerie, precedent to the turbulent political times in which we are living.
There was a time in our nation’s history when the president’s opponents thought him the personification of evil and a tool of a foreign government, when friends shunned one another socially because of differing political views, and when people dressed in outlandish costumes and took their protests to the streets and the halls of Congress.
It was a time when the nation was more divided than it has ever been since our founding, and that includes the Vietnam War.
That time was 1939-41 and those tumultuous years are examined in great detail in “Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941,” by journalist and historian Lynne Olson.
Published in 2013, the book provides a look back at a time few now remember and which has been largely overshadowed by the national unity that came out of World War II.
This is not a book for those whose reading attention span extends only to the 140 characters of a Twitter treatise. Instead, it is a lengthy, highly detailed chronicle of two unsettling years that are remarkably similar to what is happening today.
That is so wonderfully apparent in a quote from the book attributed to former Attorney General Francis Biddle who said that the political divide in those years “gave the country a sense of disunity and a feeling that the administration did not know where it was going.”
Olson writes that from 1939-1941 the country was largely split among isolationists and interventionists. The isolationists were opposed to any U.S. involvement in the war in Europe despite the threat of the Nazi juggernaut that was gobbling up large chunks of the continent and was attempting to bomb Great Britain into submission.
Channeling their future Donald Trump, the isolationists even formed a group called “America First.” Many of its members were from Middle America and vehemently opposed immigration, particularly of European Jews, despite the horror of the ongoing Holocaust.
Among the isolationists, Olson writes, the most high profile was Charles Lindbergh, he of the solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 and a certified national hero.
But there were others who opposed any U.S. involvement in another war in Europe so soon after World War I. They included future presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford and future Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart.
Olson notes that 70 percent of Americans opposed U.S. involvement in the war and “there was such an anti-military feeling in the country that many officers did not wear their uniforms in public.”
The interventionists were seen as liberal elites with close ties to Europe, especially to England. The isolationists, Olson writes, “resented the power and influence of members of the East Coast elite, who were seen as arrogant and condescending, intent on dominating mainstream America even though they were totally isolated from it.”
She notes that The New Yorker magazine put its effete arrogance on display in its debut issue when it told readers it was written “not for the old lady from Dubuque. It was not concerned in what she is thinking about.”
Neither side took any prisoners in the increasingly acrimonious two-year debate.
According to Olson: “In early 1941, a harsh debate between isolationist and interventionist congressmen ended in an unseemly brawl on the floor of the House. On the lawn outside the Capitol, demonstrators threw a rope around a tree branch to hang the straw effigy of a senator who favored aid for Britain. The wife of a Washington columnist who endorsed such aid received a package in the mail one morning. Opening it, she found a tiny black coffin containing a paper skeleton. The skeleton was labeled ‘Your husband.’”
Mothers opposed to the idea of their sons being drafted into military service when the subject of universal conscription was raised dressed all in black, covered their faces with veils and planted themselves in the halls of Congress. Whenever a member of Congress perceived as being even the slightest bit on the side of the interventionists approached, they began wailing and moaning.
At least they handled their protests with some dignity and class, unlike today’s demonstrators, who parade around in hats and costumes sporting vaginas, as did Michael Moore during one march. Of course, that was a bit redundant for him.
Lindbergh, the all-American boy hero opposed to war at all costs, was so demonized by the interventionists, Olson writes, that streets named in his honor were renamed, books about him were banned and plaques commemorating his historic flight were taken down.
Letter writers — practitioners of an ancient form of social media — showed him no mercy. In today’s social media parlance, they “absolutely destroyed” him. Olson notes that one letter writer called the once-celebrated aviator “an utterly disgusting yellow-bellied traitor.” Another said that he “should be tied with a long chain and dropped in the middle of the Atlantic, where his body will no longer contaminate the U.S.A.”
One letter was addressed simply: “Dear Nazi Lindbergh.”
President Franklin Roosevelt, meanwhile, waffled on the issue of providing aid to Great Britain in its time of need and dithered over whether the U.S. should do anything that might draw it into the war on the side of England and France.
Roosevelt was dynamic and decisive when it came to the nation’s domestic social and economic agendas, approving numerous programs to help lift the nation out of its Great Depression ennui.
But when on prewar international affairs, he was maddeningly indecisive, Olson writes, concerned little about what his supporters thought and more about how any actions he took would be viewed by Republicans and others who opposed him in his campaign for an unprecedented third term.
As a result, Roosevelt wavered on such vital topics as increasing armament production to counter the increasing Nazi threat, the Lend-Lease program to provide much-need aid to a beleaguered Great Britain and conscription to bulk up America’s rather anemic military forces.
Can you say “Barack Obama?”
During the 1940 presidential campaign, Roosevelt’s political opponents portrayed him as a pawn of socialists and the Soviet Union, willing to sacrifice England and much of Europe to Nazi Germany through his indecisiveness.
Democratic strategists, in turn, tried to paint Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie as a tool of big business “who planned a Fascist-style takeover of the government if he were elected.”
Despite a long and bitter campaign, once Roosevelt was re-elected Willkie was gracious in defeat, Olson notes. Rather than sending his minions out to try to delegitimize Roosevelt, Willkie went on radio and told the American public: “We have elected Franklin Roosevelt president. He is your president. He is my president. We all of us owe him the respect due to his high office. We give him that respect. We will support him.”
They handled things with a great deal more class back then than we do today.
The end to “those angry days” came, of course, on Dec. 7, 1941, when the U.S. declared war on Japan after it attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. Shortly thereafter, Germany declared war on the U.S., even though Adolf Hitler had been reluctant to anger Americans enough to draw them into the war.
Olson notes that once this occurred, Time magazine wrote the following: “The war came as a great relief, like a reverse earthquake that in one terrible jerk, shook everything disjointed and distorted back into place. Japanese bombs had finally brought national unity to the United States.”
Oh, for the days of a little common sense, a bit of dignity and just a touch of unity.
Ron Martz is a Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator whose commentaries appear monthly. He lives in Northeast Georgia.