America was a much angrier place in the years before World War II than I realized. It had only been twenty years since the end of the last war. The thought of getting involved in another one, especially in Europe, was very hard to accept. Even after Hitler was on the march, even after the Germans took France, many Americans believed we should stay out of the war. Some were even opposed to providing assistance to Great Britain, arguing that we should remain completely neutral. They hoped the British and Germans could negotiate an end to the war. If that didn’t happen, they were willing to see Germany conquer all of Europe rather than fight another war.
There was an amazing level of animosity between these “isolationists” and the “interventionists” who wanted us to do whatever we could to stop Hitler. Organizations were formed; mass meetings were held; national radio broadcasts were delivered. Insults were hurled and friendships were destroyed. There were student protests. As the most famous isolationist, Charles Lindbergh was branded a Nazi sympathizer and a traitor.
But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, we all had somebody else to be angry with. When President Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war, even the isolationist Republicans in Congress gave him a standing ovation.
Those Angry Days is an interesting book, even though the author spends too much time on Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh (it really seems as if the author would have liked to write a book about them). Aside from the incredible amount of controversy over our involvement in the war (controversy that began before 1939, despite the book’s subtitle), the most surprising part of the story is President Roosevelt’s unwillingness to force the issue. He was clearly an “interventionist” who wanted to help the British, but, according to the author, he vacillated and procrastinated. He feared public opinion, even when most of the public were in favor of intervention. He made stirring speeches but didn’t follow through. It drove Churchill crazy. If you can believe Those Angry Days, it was only after Pearl Harbor that Roosevelt went back to being the strong leader he’d been in the early years of the Depression.