Thursday, August 15, 2013

1940: FDR, Wilkie, Lindbergh, Hitler--the Election and the Storm
by Susan Dunn
Yale University Press

This very readable history is structured like a suspense novel--will FDR break precedent and run for a third term?  Can he pacify the public and his political opponents about keeping America out of war, while following his conviction that the U.S. is in fact threatened by the European war and must help England hold off the Nazis?  Will he win the 1940 election, and save the nation from delusional isolationists and fans of fascism as the wave of the future?

The fact that we know the answers really doesn't detract from the drama.  The stakes are that high, and Susan Dunn is that skillful a writer.  In the course of her narration she describes the political complexities of the late 30s, and highlights the fascinating people of the time--not only the obvious FDR and people like Harry Hopkins but notably the playwright Robert Sherwood, who became FDR's chief speechwriter.

On the other side she details just how intense the opposition was from congressional isolationists and FDR-hating Republicans, but also FDR's own ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, father to the future and non-isolationist President John F. Kennedy.  And the real wild card: the aviation hero Charles Lindbergh and his writer wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  Both were not only isolationist but believed that fascist governments like Hitler's and Mussolini's were the wave of the future ( which was the title of Morrow Lindbergh's best-selling book.)

FDR's delicate dance in preparing the U.S. for the possibility of war is especially dramatic as Dunn describes the weakness and unpreparedness of U.S. forces.  The national reaction to World War I was understandable horror but the idea that a European aggressor could simply be ignored was contrary to the technological capabilities of the time.  American culpability for the botched treaties at the end of the first world war that virtually guaranteed a second was largely outside the scope of this book.

Dunn's portrait of FDR as a master politician--and world leader-- is nuanced and informed.  It comports with the work of other historians.  I did miss however any description similar to William Manchester's, of FDR sitting on his boat for hours in absolute silence, and then emerging to lay out not only the Lend-Lease plan that helped save England, but exactly how he could sell it to Congress and the nation.  Perhaps the story is apocryphal, but it's a good one.

Her book however provides a fuller portrait than usual of FDR's 1940 Republican opponent, Wendell Wilkie, before and during his somewhat quixotic campaign, and  afterwards when he surprisingly became a valuable ally to FDR in the early days of the war. Yet Dunn's description makes this a believable and somewhat consistent twist. In a sad coda she describes how the two became friends, and died within a year of each other, Wilkie at age 52, FDR at age 63.

Dunn does not pretend total objectivity--she obviously finds the isolationists and Nazi apologists delusional. This is a very absorbing book about a fascinating and important time.  Taken together with Manchester's description of the 1936 campaign, it's clear that a great deal of what's going on now is not as unprecedented as it may seem, however outrageous and sad.  Today's climate crisis deniers sound a lot like those isolationist Congressmen, refusing to believe the facts.  The political hypocrisy of congressional Republicans voting down FDR's requests for military spending and then criticizing him for a weak military is also way too familiar.

This book is not only eye-opening history, it's a page-turner, too.

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