Book relates pre-war enmity between FDR, Lindbergh

Book relates pre-war enmity between FDR, Lindbergh

When bombs fell on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, they did not just drag America into World War II. They fractured the disunity that preceded that day, instantly ending a fiery debate between internationalists and isolationists highlighted by a bitter feud between two popular men: President Franklin Roosevelt and famed aviator Charles Lindbergh.

Their mutual animosity was emblematic of the political fight over getting in or staying out of World War II, a long-running battle in which no personal attack, however inaccurate or hurtful, was off limits.

U.S. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, an interventionist and FDR ally, suggested Lindbergh, a worldwide hero when he completed the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927, was a Nazi sympathizer. He called Lindbergh a "menace to the country and its free institutions."

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Burton Wheeler, an isolationist Montana Democrat, attacked FDR's plan to provide military aid to Great Britain as akin to the administration's farm policies that discouraged planting of crops because "it will plow under every fourth American boy."

Those dark years before World War II are mostly forgotten, swept away by the national fervor that reflected the nation's mood from 1941 to '45. But the discord was as bitter as at any time in our history, and the story is captured in Lynne Olson's magnificent book, "Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh and American's Fight over World War II, 1939-1941."

It will be an eye-opener for those who have only a passing acquaintance with the details of this country's entry into World War II.

Americans of all stripes had strong opinions, and public debate often ended in fisticuffs.

Roosevelt cautiously led the debate, careful to avoid getting too far ahead of public opinion as he warned his countrymen about the dangers posed by German dictator Adolf Hitler. Lindbergh was this country's most prominent isolationist, contending that America had no national interest at stake.

In hindsight, the case for intervention appears unassailable. Hitler was a monster who had to be stopped. His allies were equally repugnant.

But the facts at the time were not so clear. Starting in 1937, Hitler began attacking and conquering countries. His persecution of the Jews was widely known, but the totality of his evil was unclear.

To many people, it looked like just another in a long line of European wars. Burned by their experience in World War I, which had settled nothing, millions of Americans felt that there was no reason to make the same mistake again.

FDR knew better. He saw one American ally, France, swiftly defeated by Germany and another, Great Britain, fighting for its life. He knew that if our friends went down there would be no one to stand with us when and if Germany put America in the cross hairs.

Those were the policy questions; but this story is about people, principally FDR and Lindbergh.

It's also about lesser-known, but equally interesting, participants, including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Time magazine publisher Henry Luce, British Ambassador Lord Lothian and Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie.

The book contains some surprises.

For all his vaunted leadership skills, FDR was uncharacteristically timid about sharing his true feelings with the public. Concerned about dropping poll numbers as the 1940 election approached, FDR let others in his administration call for a military draft while he posed as a vehement opponent of U.S. entry into the war.

"I have said this before but I shall say it again, and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars," FDR said just days before the 1940 election against the GOP's equally interventionist Wilkie.

FDR spoke while planning to use U.S. ships to protect British ships bringing badly needed supplies to that nearly defeated nation, an act tantamount to a declaration of war against Germany. U.S. Navy ships exchanged gunfire with German submarines, unofficially entering the war well before the Dec. 7, 1941 date.

Germany's role in the U.S. debate also is revealing. Hitler was determined the U.S. remain neutral, instructing his submarine commanders not to fire on U.S. ships no matter what the provocation. He was apoplectic when they sometimes defied his orders.

(Hitler made his own mistakes, most prominently invading the Soviet Union in June 1941. He not only opened up an unwinnable two-front war but took his eyes off his goal of defeating Great Britain.)

But Lindbergh was the most prominent face of isolationism. Like many others, he thought Great Britain had no chance to defeat Germany; his major fear was that Germany's military might was superior to that of the U.S.

Lindbergh spoke at rallies all over the country in favor of his isolationist policies and angrily resigned his military commission when FDR labeled him a "copperhead," the term used for disloyal northerners during the Civil War.

Lost in the debate over war and peace was Japan, a German ally intent on conquering Asia and dominating the Pacific. The Japanese were growing increasingly unhappy with FDR-ordered sanctions that restricted their ability to make war, particularly the termination of American oil sales to Japan.

Everything changed when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war on the U.S.

"Now (war) has come and we must meet it as united Americans, regardless of our attitude in the past," said Lindbergh.

Still embittered by their past disagreements, FDR attempted to keep Lindbergh on the sidelines during the war. But the famed aviator found a way into the fracas by advising American pilots on how best to use their aircraft and flying military missions himself. FDR didn't know it, but he and his fiercest adversary were finally on the same side.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at or at 351-5369.

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