Before I began my research for Those Angry Days, I knew that Charles Lindbergh had been a major supporter of the American isolationist movement before Pearl Harbor. But I had no idea that he was, in fact, the unofficial leader of that movement, nor was I fully aware of his status as Franklin Roosevelt’s main enemy in the fight over America’s involvement in World War II. As the two most famous men in the country, Lindbergh and Roosevelt both had an enormous impact on public opinion, and they took advantage of that fact as they battled each other for Americans’ hearts and minds. Their duel was bitter, brutal, and utterly fascinating, and I decided to make it the central focus of my book about America’s debate over its wartime role.
On the surface, the two men could not have been more different. Roosevelt was a natural politician, who, from the beginning of his career, loved shaking hands, slapping backs, working a crowd, and cultivating the press. Full of exuberance and joie de vivre, he used his extraordinary charm and charisma to bedazzle everyone he met. Being around FDR, Winston Churchill once memorably said, was like opening your first bottle of champagne.
Charles Lindbergh couldn’t have been more different. A loner all his life, he was an aloof, emotionally reticent man who was uncomfortable around people and regarded conversation, in the words of his wife, “as though it were a business transaction or a doctor’s pill that he has to take.” He scorned politics and hated the press.
Yet the aviator and the president were more alike than most people realized. For all his apparent sociability, Roosevelt was, like Lindbergh, essentially a reserved, self-sufficient figure. In the view of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., FDR was “glittering, impersonal, superficially warm, basically cold.” There were other similarities. The two men were both strong-willed and stubborn, believing deeply in their own superiority and having a sense of being endowed with a special purpose. They were determined to do things their own way, were slow to acknowledge mistakes, did not take well to criticism, and insisted on being in control at all times.
Even before the pre-Pearl Harbor debate, they already had a history with each another. In early 1934, Lindbergh, in what Gore Vidal called “a mano a mano duel,” challenged Roosevelt’s cancellation of air mail delivery contracts granted by his predecessor, Herbert Hoover. Lindbergh won that round, and FDR never forgave him. In the isolationist-interventionist fight, though, Roosevelt was on surer ground. A masterful politician, the wily — and sometimes ruthless — president would end up giving the political neophyte a wrenching lesson he would never forget, one that contributed to the tarnishing of his reputation for generations to come.