Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Those Angry Days

I just finished reading the very excellent book by Lynne Olson, Those Angry Days.  This book was very insightful as the author tracked the two major movements of pre-WW2 America—the isolationists and the interventionists—focusing on the two major figures of each: Charles Lindbergh and Franklin Roosevelt, while thoroughly interweaving the lives of other significant players of that era.

Interestingly, the two were remarkably different, ideologies notwithstanding.  Lindbergh was conviction driven, caring little where popular opinion was on the topic of America’s involvement with the European conflict.  Roosevelt was at the other extreme.  Paralyzed even by a minority of public opinion against him.

I won’t review the book in a traditional way, but will offer some personal insights I gleaned, which may not make a lot of sense unless you’ve read the book.

Lesson 1—overcome past defeats

Franklin Roosevelt, frustrated by Congress blocking many of his policies in the late 1930s and by the Supreme Court’s adverse decisions to him regarding many lawsuits arising from his New Deal policies, set out to change the nature of the Court by expanding its number to 15 and consequently getting to appoint the new judges—favorable to him and his policies.  Roosevelt (fortunately) was soundly defeated in this attempt and it cost him politically.  This setback caused him to behave timidly in the future, when the country, did in fact, need his leadership in European involvement. 

While we need to learn from our defeats and failures, we should never be paralyzed by them.  Roosevelt was.  Even when public opinion was overwhelmingly on this side on such issues as Lend-Lease, transport escort, or even direct aid to England, he refused to act.  Our passivity can cause as much harm as over aggressive reaching.  Olson gave me a different, heretofore unknown, view of Roosevelt--that off a timid, sheepish, poll-driven leader.

Lesson 2 – listen to others, especially your spouse

Charles Lindbergh increasingly gave speeches in which his isolationist viewpoints were trumped and overshadowed by certain provocative statements, which were highlighted and recommended to be deleted by his wife Anne.   He ignored her insights, only to be haunted by them.  While his view was the wrong one, in my opinion, and would ultimately lose in 1941, he did cause Americans to think through various issues.  It was unfortunate that many of his valid objections were overshadowed by unwise and unnecessary statements.

Lesson 3 – Americans were bitterly and deeply divided over the issue of involvement in the European crisis.

Still reeling from the effects of World War 1, most Americans opposed involvement at the outset of Hitler’s expansion.  One of the reasons I enjoy history so much is that it puts the present in a context.  And while we may believe that only now are we so bitterly partisan, such is not the case.  While the issue of isolation/intervention was not strictly along party lines (though close), the two camps were bitter opposed to each other. 

Lesson 4 – the fight to persuade America was brutal

I was especially intrigued to learn about Britain’s spying and propaganda machine inside America.  Smearing, bribing, etc.  The role of the media was paramount in the struggle to sway America.  In the squabbling of today, we think we’ve descended to a new level of conflict.  Perhaps.  But the descent couldn’t be as steep as some would have us think.


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