Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Plot Against America

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:Philip Roth (2004)
This 2004 novel marks Philip Roth's foray into the field of alternative history fiction. He imagines what would have happened to the United States if Charles A. Lindbergh, the famous transAtlantic aviator, celebrity, anti New Dealer, and political activist on behalf of the isolationist "America First Committee" had been elected President of the United States in the 1940 Elections. With FDR denied a third term in office, Lindbergh, in Roth's imagining, commits to meeting Hitler in Reykjavik, Iceland to sign a non-aggression tact with Hitler early in 1941 ("The Icelandic Understanding') and with the Japanese Empire shortly after. America is effectively out of the war and England and the Soviet Union fight Hitler alone.

Lindbergh was also strongly anti-Semitic, and shared at least some of the racial views of the nazi regime. Here are his remarks at an America First Rally in Des Moines, Iowa, in September of 1941.

"It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race.
"No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy both for us and for them. Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.
"Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not.
"Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government."

The focus of the novel is on a Jewish-American family, The Roths, who live in a working class section of Newark, New Jersey in 1940. Philip is a seven year old grade-school kids who has an older brother, Sandy, and a strong, doting mother. Herman Roth, the father, is an insurance salesman making the princely sum of fifty dollars a week.


When "Lindy" takes over at the White House--after a whirlwind campaign where he literally barnstorms around in a airplane from Coast to Coast--the family is torn apart by the new policies that are pushed through Congress by the new administration. One of those policies comes from the newly formed (OAA) Organization of American Absorption--the "Just Folks" program, which ships Jewish kids out of urban environments like Newark to farms in rural states like Kentucky. Sandy goes to Kentucky and lives with a gentile family. Soon his attitudes and those of his father clash.

Later a "Homestead 42" law evicts Jews from their homes to be resettled all over America. "The Good Neighbor Program" puts non-Jewish families into these old neighborhoods. It is clear President Lindbergh's policies are a shadow of the Nazi Nuremberg Laws. The casual anti-Semitism that characterizes American bigotry turns more and more virulent. In the real
America of this time, Jewish people were restricted from many hotels and severe quotas kept them from entering private universities. In Roth's book, these restrictions get more severe, a scenario that plays on Thomas Caryle's "great man" view of history where a single leader at the right moment can remake a nation for better, or much worse.

Jewish Americans are gripped in fear. Many leave for Canada, but Herman Roth refuses to leaves his country. Philip's older cousin goes off to the Canadian Army to fight the Nazis, and comes home having lost a leg. One of Philip's aunts marries the prominent Jewish American Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who is a collaborator with the new White House regime. He is in attendance with his wife early in 1942 when Foreign Minister Joachim Von Rippentrop is invited for a State Dinner.

Finally, prominent Jewish-American leaders lash out against the tide that is turning against them. Led by the famous New York newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster Walter Winchell, a campaign against Lindbergh's policy gains traction on the East Coast and heads into the more isolationist parts of Middle America. More and more violence and anti-Jewish pogroms erupt. Nazi leaders in America and Klu Klux Klansmen in the ranks of storm-troopers bent on preserving their gains. The Roth family is literally under siege.

This book also relies on Roth's gifts for telling a detailed series of character studies and telling situations. He balances intimate family relations with larger events quite expertly. I found this book highly enjoyable.


  1. Thanks....This looks like it will make interesting reading, Doug. Great review!

    I was also drawn to a few of his other book titles. As he won two National Book awards, it seems he is well thought of.

  2. Y'know, Doug, I read this when it came out, and it left me absolutely flat. The character development was cardboard and the whole "I'm flying away" scenario at the end was implausible.

    Roth is Jewish; it would be impossible to write this story without addressing Lindbergh's anti-semitism - but Roth addresses the issue with all of the subtlety of hitting us in the head with a shovel.

    On the positive side, he creates a scenario which I've long considered a distinct possibility - had Lindbergh run for president, a more-likely scenario would have been a serious multi-year delay in rearming America - giving the Germans and Japanese time to create unbeatable militaries when the war finally did start in say, 1943.

  3. Thanks Cassandra. I think Philip Roth is a fine writer. "The Human Stain" is an excellent take on the themes of puritanical notions of sexuality and racial sensativity in America. One of his earliest works, "Goodbye Columbus" is worthy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The GreatGatsby".

  4. You raise good points, Will. But politics in America as you know is not always very subtle. Luckily the GOP put off nominating a "hero" to run against FDR so we didn't have to see anti-Semitic virulence come into full flower--having such a figure as Lindbergh as a leader might have been like letting a rabid dog off its leash.

    Roth's grasp of ultimate military outcomes might have been off--but I think the strength of the book lies less in how World War II would have gone than in the crisis within America triggered by a full-blown demagogue in the White House. When it comes to the history of World War II, and more likely "what-ifs" I would agree there are likely more plausible historic outcomes that could be debated about.

  5. I have to agree with you there.

    Personally, I believe the anti-semitism would have been contained - we simply didn't have the history and the political-culture of Europe at the time. The greatest problem would have been Lindbergh's founding-membership of "America First", and the overwhelming need to put an end to the depression.

    FDR's third term was unprecedented, and it was very controversial at the time - nearly half the country wanted someone else; they were not please with FDR's policies, (look up the American Liberty League if you want a bit of an eye-opener there); we have Lindbergh's reluctance to run to thank more than anything else.

    I doubt he'd've been a demagogue; I doubt he would have turned America into a fascist-state - while the German-American Bund was very active at the time, many more also saw the danger. Lindbergh's greatest 'contribution' would have been isolationism - which would have cost us the war, whenever it occurred.

  6. Thanks for the review Doug, Mr Roth is of course a giant of American literature and his theme here is an interesting concept.

    It seems strange to me that an isolationist should also be a pioneer of international aviation, unless it was everybody else that should have been isolated.... while he flew around the globe schmoozing equally high flying Nazis?

    The title of the book seems however, to suggest that support for the Nazis was somehow a betrayal of what America stands for.... and the further implication is that the FDR administration was the apogee of the American freedom-loving spirit

    The story does make you wonder though, how things could have been any better for Prescott Bush, or Averell Harriman under a Lindbergh administration than they were under the FDR third term?

    A thought provoking scenario and a good interview of Philip Roth (apparently by a normal person as well......rather than some amber coloured peroxide clothes horse).....this is an important political discourse I think even if Mr Roth himself chooses to play the detached and driven artist role, it is great to see he is not starving in a garret or insane with tertiary syphilis.....nothing awful except a haunting fear.

    It seems to me Roth is exorcising demons here but it is telling that he wouldn't say anything very controversial about the Bush government....maybe the sound of the Gestapo boots on the imaginary stairs haven't ever gone away....and lets face it ....why on earth would they?

    Another book to put on the list, I'll look out for it Doug, an interesting plot indeed

  7. I really don't know here. This is a novel in the vein of "It Can't Happen Here" and I seriously think it could. We almost had an American Mussolini in Huey Long and the KKK was a very serious force in politics. Wendel Wilkie had to deal with it in his career several times. The times were very delicate and we could have either gone communist or fascist. The idea that "it can't happen here" speaks of an American exclusiveness that we are beyond the same petty happenings of other countries. We can't have a fascist state in America because we aren't that way. Well, as you have put so many times here, it IS happening and if we don't get off our duffs its likely to succeed this time.

    Fortune really smiled that the right in the country at the time was so fractured and disorganized. They have learned their lesson this time and have come back with a vengeance.

  8. How far an anti-Semitic card could be played in America for real was something that I thought about while reading this book. In some parts of America, it might have caught on, but, as you say Will, other places would have seen people offering resistence.

    I'll have to look up the American Liberty League. It was certainly an era for popular movements for and against the tide of war. FDR campaigned on a "I Hate War" platform and prevailed--but without a mandate for aiding Britain and its Commonwealth with anything like what was needed. The Lend-Lease and Conscription Acts were near-run things from what I'v read.

    I often wonder if Hitler would forced the issue by early 1942, say, even if the Pearl Harbor attack had not occured--America was a weak nation militarily but you can read in the newspapers of the time how every day people were thinking about war and the preporation for it.

    Would Germany have patiently waited for our envitable rearmament, given what happened on the Western Front in 1918?
    Depth charges and torpedoes were exchanged betwen American convoy ships and German U-boats on a couple of occasions around Iceland in 1941. (The USS Greer incident on September 3, 1941 is an example.) Well, there's another alternative -history scenario in there somewhere.

    Perhaps the real Lindbergh would have behaved better than this fictional one. But we got into the war late enough as it was given the powers that were surely, sooner or later, going to come pressing us like a vise.

  9. I read Sinclair Lewis' novel a couple years back Stephen. The character in the book who takes over America and turns it over to jackboot thugs is surely based on Huey Long--a very intelligent and totally authoritarian personality, also outlined succesfully in Robet Penn Warren's "All the King's Men". We were fortunate to be spared whatever might come from him.

    Yes, American Exceptinalism is a very shaky thing these days I'm afraid.

  10. You're welcome AA. I think its worth a read.

    I believe Lindbergh's father was a one-term Congressman in 1916-18 or so, and an vote for isolationism in the First World War. That explains the paradox to a degree. After he and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, left America when their first son was found dead, he fell under the influence of a eugenicist French doctor named Alexis Carrel. It was a short trip from there to flying about and accepting medals from Herr Goering.

    From the ever-handy Wikipedia:
    "In 1935, Carrel published a book titled L'Homme, cet inconnu (Man, The Unknown), which became a best-seller. The book discussed "the nature of society in light of discoveries in biology, physics, and medicine".[2] It contained his own social prescriptions, advocating, in part, that mankind could better itself by following the guidance of an elite group of intellectuals, and by implementing a regime of enforced eugenics. Carrel claimed the existence of a "hereditary biological aristocracy" and argued that "deviant" human types should be suppressed using techniques similar to those later employed by the Nazis."

    I happen to like Katie Couric, the interviewer in the piece, although some people really deride her for whatever reason. And Mr. Roth, having survived a serious bout with depression in the early 1990's, has indeed been producing great fiction these last ten years or so--his most prolific period for whatever reason.

    And his views on Bush the Younger are quite healthy.

    I forgot to mention in the review that the American Jew-Hater and scourge of unionism, Henry Ford, was Secretary of the Interior in the novel.

    In real life, in early 1942, after he was denied the reinstatement of his Army Air Corps commission by Roosevelt, Colonel Lindbergh went to work at the Ford Motor Company Plant in Willow Run, Michigan, as an aircraft adviser to Ford for the war effort.

    I'll bet they made a very nice couple.

    However great really was the fear Jewish-Americans had at this time, I believe the fear was not without foundation. Personally I think FDR was the right leader for his time and a great President. The fact that his faults are to this day always brought up by the Far Right in the media is proof positive he did some things right!

  11. Thank you Doug, I really must put him on my list of books to read. When scanning through the book club lists it is great to have a name to look out for.

  12. I would like to say, that after watching a documentary on racialism in the car industry in Detroit, in its hey day. This book that you have reviewed shows how easy it is for hate of one's fellow man to colour what happens to a place. If the country gets into the hands of sympathisers to racialism, I believe it will eventually experience its downfall as Germany did. Having said that, when you think the we won WW ll and the state we are in now and the way things have turned out for Germany, it really makes one wonder if something is a slightly wrong. A friend of mine had no trouble finding work in Germany, whereas there was nothing in the USA or the UK, Mmmmm, something isn't quite right about that, or does it say they have grown up as a people?

    I guess we can't help thinking about the what ifs, there are many of these books about at the moment, a few pretty grim and others excellent.

    Hahaha, I was thinking about this as I was logging off and came back.

    Thanks again, Doug.

  13. Henry Ford subscribed heavily to Adolf Hitler's rhetoric and indeed a lot of Ford's writings found their way into Germany. Ford published several books and a weekly newspaper which railed against the Unions and so forth and subscribed to the same style of rhetoric of Nazism. There were many in the movie industry, such as Walt Disney and others which subscribed to Fascist sympathies. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, most was forgotten. However, in spite of pleas, FDR refused to reinstate Lindberg's commission and he sat out the war as a civilian.

  14. Thank you. I'm simply returning the favor Cassandra.

  15. Do you remember by chance what the title of the documentary was?

    I think you're right about turning to radicalism and the tendency to offer scapegoats in place of real solutions. The capacity people in large numbers have for not changing their own ways, and letting "the other" take the blame are just the first steps on the road to a nation convulsed in political witch hunting, foreign wars, constant suspicions of disloyalty setting neighbor against neighbor, etc.

    It does seem that Germany has weathered the recent ecomonic crisis much better than most nations, so I'm not surprised your friend found work easier to get there. I don't know much about German economics, but it seems investment banking regulations are tougher there and wilder speculations schemes are discouraged, along with large public sector debts. This may well reflect an adversion to radicalism in society at large, not just politics. It could be German governments after WWII have learned their lesson in avoiding extremes leading to boom and bust economic cycles. It was after all the Great Depression that brought Hitler to power and with it all those simple and ultimately calamitious "soultions" to Germany's problems.

    It is a point in our current international economic affairs well worth pondering, Cassandra---the electorate of Middle Europe may well have "grown up" a bit more than our respective democracies. Ironic, eh?

  16. Thanks for pointing all these important points of pre-WWII history I left out in the review, Stephen.

    I don't believe the huge Ford industrial plants around Detroit were fully unionized until the middle of the war---after Henry Ford, Sr., was pushed out of his board seat. Ford was doing a lot of business with the defense industry of course, and the political pressure was intense.

    How interesting that Ford and Lindbergh were both given medals by the German government in the 1930's.

    I read Henry Senior also kept the Ford plants in Vichy France up and running after the fall of the Third Republic to Hitler in 1940.

    Disney's politics are worthy of a blog in itself. He certainly was a strange duck politically.

    Lindbergh did eventually get to the Pacific Theatre of War and trained pilots for aerial combat against the Japanese in the islands in and around New Guinea.He was only a private-sector advisor officially and not entitled to rank.

    And , yes, Roosevelt never restored his commission, which I think was right given that the younger man never fully retracted his thinly veiled threats about American Jews and others prior to Pearl Harbor and given his reluctance to dissolve his former ties to Axis leaders leading up to open war with Germany's ally.