Those Angry Days – Book Review
When Americans reflect on World War II, we normally think of the Greatest Generation or perhaps the “last good war.” We might picture the iconic images of B-17 bombers flying to Germany or Rosie the Riveter building those very same planes. For Americans, World War II began with Pearl Harbor and ended with the atomic bomb. Only rarely do we Americans consider the period before we formally entered the conflict. Prior to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “day of infamy speech,” America was a nation divided into two camps, each vying to form public opinion and influence political power. The first group, dubbed the isolationists and led by famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, wanted to preserve America’s neutrality. The second movement, known as the interventionists, argued for the United States to bring its formidable military and economic might against Nazi Germany. Lynne Olson’s aptly named Those Angry Days describes how each side, isolationist and interventionist, attempted to control America’s destiny before our inevitable entry into WWII.
Those Angry Days begins its story with Charles Lindbergh’s meteoric rise to fame following his successful solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. A national hero, Lindbergh was ill at ease with his fame and sought to reclaim his privacy. The tragic kidnapping and death of his son in 1932 and the sensational murder trial that followed eventually led the Lindberghs to seek refuge in England. They spent several years touring Europe, and Britain, France and Germany gave Lindbergh numerous opportunities to observe their respective military and industrial readiness. Lindbergh’s time abroad left him with two key conclusions: Britain and France were nations in decline and Germany was the rising power in Europe. Although Lindbergh abhorred the Nazi’s political views, he was convinced of their ultimate victory on the battlefield. His views mirrored those of other isolationists who believed US involvement in World War I had been a mistake – and one not to be repeated a second time. Ultimately, Lindbergh would become the leading figure of the premier isolationist group called the America First Committee.
Although most consider FDR the face of the interventionist movement, Olson paints a different picture of the president. Confident in public, FDR was less certain of just how far America would back his proposed increases to US military readiness or support for Britain’s war effort. Even after his election to an unprecedented third term in 1940, Roosevelt’s apparent ambivalence continued to frustrate key interventionist leaders pushing for immediate US action. True, FDR did press for institution of the draft, the transfer of obsolete destroyers to England, Lend-Lease and other measures, but fell short of outright military involvement. Even a series of naval actions between US destroyers and German U-boats in the fall of 1941 failed to push FDR into asking for a declaration of war. It was only in the aftermath of Imperial Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that Roosevelt went before Congress to ask for a formal declaration of war.
The sub-title to the book, Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II is a bit misleading in one regard. FDR and Lindbergh may have personified the opposing movements contesting American’s future, but everyday Americans participated in the discussion with just as much passion and vigor. Olson captures the very essence of their involvement in the debate, moving beyond the dry historical facts and focusing upon the human element of the story. She weaves a complex tale of the political maneuvers, propaganda and raw emotion each side brought to bear to determine which path America would take. She skillfully describes the politicians, government officials, news reporters, editors, military figures and other personalities who fought, cajoled and argued for isolationism or intervention. At nearly 500 pages, Those Angry Days is a lengthy but engaging read guaranteed to keep the reader up late into the night.
Olson’s work is more important than simply recording an interesting, if overlooked, era of American history. This story is of particular importance for Americans today. We are rapidly entering a post-Global War on Terrorism age where the United States again faces a critical choice. Will America remain the world’s lone superpower, or will economic realities force our return to isolationism? Suddenly, 2013 looks very similar to 1939. Which path will Americans chose this time around?
Major Christopher J. Heatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 1997. He has held a variety of assignments in special operations, Special Forces, armored, and cavalry units. His operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Kuwait, Mali, and Nigeria. He holds master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the School of Advanced Military Studies.
The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.