Q and A on writing Those Angry Days
Q. Most of your books have focused on World War II. In Those Angry Days, you look at the two years before America got into the war. Why was this period so important for the country? Why should we care about what happened then?
A. During those years, there was a hard-fought debate in America about what its role should be in World War II. Should the country forsake its traditional isolationism and come to the aid of Britain, which by 1940 was on the brink of defeat by Hitler? Or should it go further and enter the war? That debate, as it turned out, was crucial in deciding the future of America and the role it would play in the world from then on. Millions of people, from college students to housewives to Wall Street lawyers, were swept up in what turned out to be an extraordinarily tumultuous struggle involving the whole country.
Q. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh are the main characters in Those Angry Days. Why did you put them at the center of the story?
A. They were the two most important figures in the debate. FDR wanted America to aid Britain, while Lindbergh, who became the unofficial leader and spokesman for the country’s isolationists, was vehemently against the idea and accused the president of trying to lead America into war. As the two most famous men in the U.S., they both had a huge impact on public opinion. Their rivalry was personal as well as political, and it turned very bitter. Roosevelt did everything he could to destroy Lindbergh’s reputation, while Lindbergh accused Roosevelt of working to undermine democracy and representative government.
Q. You also focus considerable attention on Lindbergh’s wife, Anne. Why are you so interested in her?
A. Anne Lindbergh was caught in the middle of this incredibly nasty fight. She was the daughter of a former J.P. Morgan partner and had grown up as part of the East Coast establishment, which tended to be pro-British and interventionist. Because she supported her husband in his isolationism, she found herself estranged from virtually all her old friends and acquaintances, who looked on Lindbergh, in Anne’s words, as “the anti-Christ.” It took an enormous emotional toll on her. Particularly painful was the split within her own family: her mother was a leading activist for interventionism, and her sister, Constance, worked with her husband, a top propagandist for the British government in New York.
Q. Other historians have examined the pre-Pearl Harbor struggle between U.S. isolationists and interventionists. What makes your book different?
A. Historians have discussed the issues of isolationism and interventionism in detail but most of the discussions have been dry and academic. They don’t focus on the human story of the period — the ferociousness of the fight, the nail-biting suspense over whether Britain would be saved, the extreme polarization in the country that ripped apart friendships and fractured families. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who as a young man was caught up in the debate, made that point when he said: “Though historians have dealt with the policy issues, justice has not been done to the searing personal impact of those angry days.” (As you probably gathered, I took the book’s title from Schlesinger’s quote.)
Those Angry Days is also different because it challenges the idea, which is still widely believed, that the U.S. public remained strongly isolationist until Pearl Harbor. In fact, by December 1941, most Americans had come to the conclusion that defeating Hitler was “the biggest job facing their country” and were ready to get into the war.
Another bit of conventional wisdom that I question is the view that Franklin Roosevelt, knowing full well that America must enter the war but hamstrung by strong isolationist public opinion, skillfully edged the country toward intervention by indirect methods. Actually, it’s far from certain that the president ever wanted or intended that America go to war.
Q. What surprised you most in doing your research?
A. First, what a brutal conflict it was. FDR said it would be “a dirty fight,” and he did a lot to make it so. For example, he authorized the FBI to wiretap and investigate Lindbergh and a number of his other critics, who were branded as subversives, fifth columnists and even Nazis. Roosevelt also allowed a covert British intelligence operation to operate in America that carried on its own dirty tricks campaign, spying on antiwar groups, digging up political dirt on congressional isolationists, and planting propaganda in U.S. papers.
In return, FDR’s opponents portrayed him as a dictator who was responsible for destroying free speech in America and rushing it into war without the consent of the people. A group of high-ranking military officers, including Hap Arnold, the Air Corps chief of staff, supported Roosevelt’s isolationist opponents and worked to sabotage his policies. Just before Pearl Harbor, Arnold was implicated in the leak of one of the administration’s most closely guarded military secrets.
Another thing that surprised me was the crucial role that ordinary Americans played in the debate and its outcome. Millions of people became involved in the fight, which, for all its bitterness and anger, was a real exercise in democracy. Citizens’ movements on both sides ended up having a considerable impact on U.S. foreign policy. At Yale, antiwar college students–among them a future U.S. president and Supreme Court justice — founded the America First Committee, which became the nation’s most influential isolationist organization. Interventionist groups, meanwhile, mounted campaigns to educate and mobilize American public opinion in favor of aiding Britain and entering the war. They also played a key role in several important government decisions, including selling destroyers to Britain and instituting the first peacetime draft.
Among the many people involved in all this were Dr. Seuss, soon to become the country’s most beloved writer of children’s books; future presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford; and future novelists Kurt Vonnegut and Gore Vidal.
Q. Are there any parallels between the United States now and during the time you write about?
Absolutely. The period I describe in Those Angry Days is eerily similar to these angry days we’re experiencing today. Just like now, the country was in the midst of facing critical challenges and was deeply divided politically. The polarization in Washington was extraordinary. The same bitter split that currently separates certain sections of America — the “red-state, blue-state” divide — was very much a factor at that time, too: the East Coast was the main bastion of interventionist sentiment, while the center of isolationism was America’s conservative rural heartland.
At the same time, it’s important to point out a key difference between then and now. First of all, even with all the polarization, there were politicians who were willing to do what they thought was right, who defied their party and put the interests of their nation –and its survival–ahead of personal ambition and partisan advantage. Interestingly, almost all these rebels were Republicans. They included Wendell Willkie, the 1940 GOP candidate for president, who supported much of FDR’s foreign policy, and Henry Stimson and Frank Knox, arguably the Republican Party’s most respected senior statesmen, who joined Roosevelt’s cabinet and were read out of their party for doing so. Theirs was an example of cooperation and compromise that cries out for emulation now.
Q. In the book, you mention another difference between now and the pre-World War II period — the way in which this country goes to war. Can you talk about that a bit?
A. In those two years I write about, this country engaged in one of the most vigorous debates in its history. As I said earlier, millions of private citizens were involved in that discussion. It became very nasty, especially toward the end, but everyone got a chance to make his case, and, as a result, the pros and cons of U.S. involvement in World War II were carefully and thoroughly weighed against one another. By the time of Pearl Harbor, the American people were aware they would have to pay a heavy price if they entered the war, but most had come to the conclusion it was probably necessary. That psychological and emotional preparation was one major reason, in my opinion, for the immediate unity of the country once war was declared against Japan, Germany, and Italy.
By contrast, most of the wars America has waged since then, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, have been undertaken by the executive branch of our government with little or no consultation with — or input by– the public or Congress. This is certainly not what our Founding Fathers had in mind and has not only resulted in considerable national disunity and dysfunction but presents a real danger to our democracy.