Friday, April 22, 2016

A Nation at War With Itself - Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

When FDR ran for an unprecedented third term, his outraged cousin Alice quipped that his initials stood for ‘Führer, Duce, Roosevelt.’

Richard Snow, Wall Street Journal

Marc Wortman’s engrossing book opens on Sept. 18, 1939, with two American reporters driving through a shattered, corpse-strewn Polish countryside on their way back to Germany. They are surrounded by jubilant German troops heading home from a campaign that, although it would ignite World War II, has lasted only three weeks. The German Ministry of Propaganda put the two correspondents together. They ride in a silence that is anything but companionable. One is the journalist William Shirer, who is appalled by the swift victory. The other is Philip Johnson, today remembered as a beacon of modern architecture but then a rich young fascist sympathizer, acting as a kind of freelance reporter, who was delighted by everything he saw. The year before, both men had been impressed by the weeklong Nazi Party rally, but, Mr. Wortman says, “Shirer’s hell in Nuremberg was Johnson’s Olympus.”
The fundamental disagreement between these two Americans is emblematic of the deeply divided nation to which they will eventually return. For Mr. Wortman’s “1941: Fighting the Shadow War” is soon transformed into an absorbing world-wide epic set in that pivotal year, as viewed from an America that was at once moving toward the conflict and hellbent on staying clear of it.
Johnson, who had apparently made contact with Nazi agents, came home to proselytize the supposedly inevitable triumph of their cause. Shirer remained in Berlin, sending cautious, heavily censored reports until he finally left, smuggling out a diary that, had he been caught with it, might well have cost him his life. Once published over here by Knopf in the spring of 1941, his “Berlin Diary” powerfully ratified his conviction that America needed to grapple with the Nazis. He shared this view with President Franklin Roosevelt, who wanted to help the Western democracies but had to move cautiously in a country where many thought he was on the way to dictatorship.


By Marc Wortman
Atlantic Monthly Press, 409 pages, $27
When FDR ran for his unprecedented third term, in 1940, his evilly humorous relative Alice Roosevelt Longworth said, “I’d rather vote for Hitler.” To her, “FDR” stood for “Führer, Duce, Roosevelt.”Frank Knox had run for vice president on the Alf Landon ticket in 1936, accusing Roosevelt of heading “straight into Communism, Nazism, Fascism, or whatever ‘ism’ the fancy of the moment dictates it to be called.” But now, with Hitler’s panzers blasting away the dikes of civilization, Knox declared: “I would do anything the President wanted me to do, from putting a gun on my shoulder up.” FDR wanted him to become the secretary of the Navy. He did.
Strong voices spoke against American war leanings. Some simply hoped to prevent the country from joining a catastrophe for which it was unprepared (we had the 18th largest army in the world, with fewer men in the field than Bulgaria) and in which they believed it had no stake. Others were spurred by darker impulses. Charles Coughlin, the immensely popular “radio priest”—he sometimes received a million letters a day—inveighed against Wall Street but was hardest on what he called the “closely interwoven relationship between Communism and Jewry.” After all, it was the “international conspiracy of Jewish bankers,” Coughlin claimed, that had polluted the Stock Exchange. 
Charles Lindbergh, who may have gotten off rather lightly in the national memory, was firmly in Coughlin’s camp. “ ‘Democracy’ as we have known it is a thing of the past,” he said, and “one of the first steps must be to disenfranchise the Negro.” He concluded with: “Were it not for the Jews in America, we would not be on the verge of war today.” The famous aviator, by far the most prominent member of the anti-interventionist America First Committee, drew big crowds, and when the temperature rose to an uncomfortable level in one crowded hall, he believed that Jewish saboteurs had the ventilators “turned off intentionally.”
In this fraught atmosphere, Roosevelt shrewdly, cautiously and perhaps unconstitutionally sent more and more help in the form of war materiel and, as soon as he could, warships, to the Allies—or Ally, as it were: By the spring of 1941, Britain was standing alone against Hitler. That changed abruptly on June 22, when, in the largest military assault ever, three million German troops swarmed into Russia across an 1,800-mile front. 
This twist further complicated feelings in America—is Nazi fascism worse than Russian communism?—but also helped cast a light on the Jews that did not show them as wily manipulators. Behind the German advance came newly formed “police” units under orders to kill every Jew they could find. British intelligence smoked out the ongoing atrocity, and, unfurling it to the world in August 1941, Winston Churchill said: “We are in the presence of a crime without a name.” He was right. It would be three years before a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin combined the ancient Greek word genos(meaning race or tribe) and the Latin cide (killing).
As the summer of 1941 cooled into fall, polls showed the U.S. citizenry increasingly willing to help Britain and Russia—but not to send their sons to do it. The thunderclap of Pearl Harbor put an end to that reluctance. FDR and his high lieutenants had been more worried about Germany than about Japan—America was by then fighting a shooting war with U-boats in the Atlantic—but Mr. Wortman finds room for the increasingly futile, largely insincere peace negotiations with the Japanese empire—along with FDR’s first secret meeting with Churchill and countless other stories of figures famous and obscure.
Mr. Wortman’s brisk narrative takes us across nations and oceans with a propulsive vigor that speeds the book along like a good thriller. This might cause readers to overlook its importance. That would be too bad, because in our current fractious political year, it is tonic to be reminded of how, when the chips were down, the hard-core Republican Frank Knox responded to the strenuously Democratic president he had lately despised.
Mr. Snow is the author of “A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of World War II.”

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