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The Plot Against Imagination - Riffs and Licks
The Plot Against Imagination
I just finished Philip Roth's latest novel, The Plot Against America, and I have to say I was much less than impressed, especially given that I read it immediately following Five Days In Philadelphia: The Amazing "We Want Willkie" Convention Of 1940 and How It Freed FDR To Save the Western World, by Charles Peters.

The latter book is a nonfiction account of the 1940 Republican National Convention, at which Wendell Willkie won the presidential nomination in a showdown with Robert Taft and Thomas Dewey. The point of the book is that the latter two, like many right-wing Americans, wanted the U.S. to stay out of the war in Europe and instead reach an accommodation with Hitler. (To be fair, many on the left believed this as well; from the signing of the Hitler-Stalin friendship pact in 1939, most American Communists supported Hitler.) Willkie, however, hated Hitler and even as he campaigned against Roosevelt, supported him on instituting the draft and providing aid to Britain.

Peters makes a convincing argument that American opinion was so deeply divided that had FDR's Republican opponent made participation in the European war a campaign issue, we would not have supported Britain through 1940 and 1941 and they would not have lasted till our already belated entry into the war. Remember that all during the Blitz, as London was being bombed halfway to rubble and Britons were saving ration coupons to buy jam, the U.S. was mostly oblivious, going on as if nothing were wrong. In his book about the 1939 World's Fair, David Gelertner points out that in the second year of the fair (1940) many country's pavilions were either missing (Czechoslovakia, Poland) or full of Nazi propaganda (Vichy France).

If Peters takes a glass-half-full look at reality, Roth creates a glass-half-empty fictional world. His novel is a poorly executed alternate history (one of those books that demonstrates why writing SF, or at least writing it well, is harder than writing mainstream fiction) in which Charles Lindbergh sweeps that same Republican convention by storm (in reality, he expressed no wish to get involved in electoral politics), defeats FDR, and keeps the U.S. out of the Second World War. Lindbergh, who was in actual history a staunch supporter of the Nazis and a rabid anti-Semite who dropped his objections to the war only after the Pearl Harbor attacks, here signs a compact with Hitler in Iceland and institutes programs to move Jews from urban ghettos into the American heartland to speed assimilation.

Peters' view of the American public is probably too rosy: he mentions a "lovely idealism abroad in the land" that allowed FDR to get the country ready for its second horrific war in 25 years, but in reality it was a long struggle (Lend-Lease passed Congress by only one vote) and it wasn't until many American lives had been lost in a brutal surprise attack that we actually got involved.

Roth's picture may not be too negative -- it's not too hard to picture an accomplished demagogue whipping up the already rampant anti-Semitism of the time -- but his colossal failures of imagination leave us with a shallow and narrow novel chiefly interesting not for its view of history but for the loving portrayal of growing up in a Jewish neighborhood of Newark in the 1930s. But as alternate history, this book fails miserably. After setting up a all-too-possible version of events leading to a pseudo-fascist U.S. government (less compellingly, however, than Sinclair Lewis did in It Can't Happen Here, mentioned a while back in this space), he speedily disposes of the Lindbergh government, has the U.S. enter the war, and assumes a modern world that's not so different from ours (Robert Kennedy, for instance, is still assassinated in 1968, though with a head shot).

He blithely writes about Britain staunchly resisting the Nazis, though FDR had to push Lend-Lease so hard in 1940 because Britain had no cash left with which to buy arms. Had the U.S. not provided assistance, it's very hard to imagine Britain having lasted even until December 1941, never mind longer. And without Britain to provide staging for D-Day and defend the Middle East, would the U.S. have been able to win the war? Without a draft? Without the massive military buildup Roosevelt started years in advance? Without a Western Front, would Hitler's invasion of Russia have succeeded? What then? It's a literal failure of imagination, as if Roth could only get so far before running out of gas, and I finished the novel feeling nothing so much as frustrated.

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lalinguabella From: lalinguabella Date: August 16th, 2005 06:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
"American communists supporting Hitler"? OMG, sounds like my worst nightmare!

It's so strange to think, in these modern times of mass, instant communication, that people didn't know what was going on in the UK back then. It breaks my heart. It's always amazing to me to think that the fate of the world hinged on one little decision, and from a semi-disinterested party, in this case (if it really wasn't a campaign issue).

These books sound interesting. Hopefully I can check them out of the library--'cause I'm moving home soon! Back to the good ol' USofA :)
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: August 17th, 2005 01:39 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm not sure we've been introduced, but thanks much for the comment. I'm not sure the issue was that people didn't know what was going on, so much as they didn't want to think too much about it. bobhowe made the interesting point the other day that in the 1930s, there were still a significant number of people who remembered the last of the wars against the native Americans. Perhaps they weren't so ready to start condemning genocide? And many of the things that Roth's character is so incensed about in Nazi Germany (attacks, deadly riots, abrogation of civil rights) were being perpetrated by most Southern states against blacks at the time, so again, perhaps it wasn't a comfortable thing for people to consider.
lalinguabella From: lalinguabella Date: August 17th, 2005 09:19 am (UTC) (Link)
oh! silly me. sorry 'bout that. long story. see below:

our "friends" are friends: rednoodlealien and rosiebird are real-life friends of 1urecognize and youknowhow, who are my real-life friends. One day I was reading 1urecognize's "Friends' Page", and you and I commented on the same post, and I liked your style. I read your own blog and cleverly anticipated more interesting posts, and consequently promptly added you to my own "Friends' Page" (without asking).

Side note: It usually irritates me when folks around here ask "can I add you as my friend?" because it sounds so 2nd grade (and I'm a Libertarian...that whole "do what you want, who am I to care" thing), so I didn't think to ask you... but I will now. :)

Can I? Huh? Can I? :P

Regarding the actual content of your response:

Yeah, it's amazing how many people, both in the US and abroad, have forgotten our very own not-so-distant, not-so-savory past. But you might have just shown me the parallel in the US's past that explains why the Germans, and indeed many Euros, are war-phobic.

So, what's the shelf-life on war-phobia these days? Looks like 75 years, give or take, if you use the US as an example. But somehow I don't see the Euros changing their ways in the next decade. Then again, I guess that all depends on how much of the current trend of violence gets perpetrated upon them instead of US.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: August 17th, 2005 01:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
Side note: It usually irritates me when folks around here ask "can I add you as my friend?" because it sounds so 2nd grade (and I'm a Libertarian...that whole "do what you want, who am I to care" thing), so I didn't think to ask you... but I will now. :)

Can I? Huh? Can I? :P
Of course, you're welcome to, and I will do the same. I'm not a libertarian, and while I agree that it does sound a bit like elementary school (should I fold rings out of gum wrappers for everyone on my friends list?) I also think it's a nice way to let someone know that you're reading their stuff, which I find enjoyable.

In any case, I think war-phobia has fundamentally changed. A century ago, war memories involved hometowns burned and pillaged, sons and brothers buried in mounds of bodies in Pennsylvania and Virginia, massacres in the Plains states. In Europe, war meant utter devastation and the destruction of an entire generation. Now, war means nothing to most of those espousing it; it's a remote event happening to people they don't care about, not even as interesting as the average video game. I'm sure they feel heartfelt sympathy for the casualties (the American ones, at least) but this war doesn't strike anywhere near as close to home, literally, as wars of the past.
lalinguabella From: lalinguabella Date: August 17th, 2005 02:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
gotcha. welcome and all. :)

BTW, in case there are any others like me who've "freinded" you without notifying you, you can easily see that on your profile. Just click on the little person icon beside your username, and it lists your friends as well as users who you're a friend of. so, in other words, it wasn't a secret! ;)

on the same token, people here in Europe didn't get the whole impulse that spread through the US after 9/11...the impulse of "we gotta DO something!". Even if it didn't ultimately work out that way in the end, that was a very real home-turf motivational factor that led us to send our troops into harm's way.

now that the terrorists have begun targeting the "old countries" here instead of simply limiting themselves to those who, through their policies, were "asking for it" (i.e., US), the attitudes here in Europe are changing. The uber-peaceful, lassiez-faire countries are staring back in horror, jaws agape at the murders in the Netherlands. The UK, traditionally one of the most immigrant-friendly places in Europe (aside from the Netherlands), is now forced to rethink that policy. Things like terrorist bombings and murders on their soil is redirecting the European focus from the atrocities of wars past and turning them to face the questionable future of excessive pacifism and an irrational level of tolerance. It's been interesting to be here during this time, to observe this shift. I just wonder how far they will take it.
bobhowe From: bobhowe Date: August 18th, 2005 12:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is an interesting thread which demands far too much cerebral processing power at 7:53 a.m.

The one thing that leaps out at me <GAH!> is that as far as I can tell from your post, both books assume an American victory in World War II as a foregone conclusion—a point of view they share with many other novels and popular histories of the period. At the time it was certainly not a given that the Allies would prevail.

Wars are decided by who comes first, with the most. The United States certainly brought the largest industrial capacity to the war, but its laggard response to the rise of the Fascists in Europe could have meant that we were beaten by the schoolyard bullies while we were still taking our jacket off.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: August 18th, 2005 01:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
...its laggard response to the rise of the Fascists in Europe could have meant that we were beaten by the schoolyard bullies while we were still taking our jacket off.
Exactly, and this is my central problem with Roth's book. The U.S. looked the other way for far too long as the Nazis gained power, and the real-life history of refugee Jews turned away from U.S. shores, of American business leaders buddying up to Hitler and his crew, and so on, is horrifying enough. As you say, if we had delayed much longer we could quite conceivably have lost the war. Yet Roth proposes a much longer delay, with much less help provided to Britain, and then wraps it up essentially with, "And they all lived happily ever after." It trivializes the close call we had, and if he meant to generate any sense of urgency around what is happening today, he didn't do so.
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