'Those Angry Days': America before the 'good war'

Lynne Olson expertly re-creates the contentious years before the U.S. joined World War II

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Political passions grew so strong in the years just before the Civil War that a South Carolina congressman named Preston Brooks almost beat Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner to death inside the U.S. Capitol. That was in 1856.

Historian Lynne Olson writes that tensions were once again running hot 84 years later as Congress considered the first-ever peacetime draft. Stormy debate on the proposed legislation during the humid summer of 1940 led to verbal skirmishes on the floor of the U.S. Senate and a fistfight in the House of Representatives.


By Lynne Olson
Random House ($30).

Ohio Rep. Martin Sweeney warned that the Roosevelt administration would use conscription to get the United States into the war raging in Europe. When Rep. Beverly Vincent "muttered loudly that he refused 'to sit by a traitor,' " Sweeney took a swing at him. Vincent "responded with a sharp right to the jaw that sent Sweeney staggering," Ms. Olson writes in "Those Angry Days." "It was, said the House doorkeeper, the best punch thrown by a member of Congress in 50 years."

The fight between Sweeney and Vincent could serve as a symbol for America in the years between the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Think of it as an era of bad feeling. On one side were the interventionists, led by President Franklin Roosevelt, and on the other were isolationists, who included aviator Charles Lindbergh. In rhetoric that echoes the language of the 21st century's liberal-conservative split, each side often saw the other as not just wrong, but as evil. That is not to say bad intentions were absent. Anti-Semitism, Ms. Olson demonstrates, was a motivation for some isolationists, including Lindbergh.

Ms. Olson, a former journalist whose most recent book was "Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour," draws on contemporary newspaper stories, magazine photo essays, opinion polls, memoirs of major and minor players and anecdotes involving average Americans. She successfully captures the sometimes poisonous atmosphere of those contentious years. In just a few pages, for example, she catches the spirit of the "grim and grisly" 1940 Democratic convention. Democrats had acquiesced to FDR's decision to run for an unprecedented third term, but many rose in near-revolt against Henry Wallace, Roosevelt's pick for vice president. In the minds of his Democratic opponents Wallace had two strikes against him. He had been a registered Republican until 1936, and he was too liberal for many Southerners. "The mood was so ugly and hostile that [presidential adviser Harry] Hopkins would not allow Wallace to give an acceptance speech for fear of causing a riot," Ms. Olson writes.

As we struggle with the questions of how to best end U.S. participation in war in Afghanistan and how far to intervene in civil war in Syria, it is valuable to be reminded that decisions that seem obvious in retrospect sometimes passed by the narrowest of margins. On Aug. 12, 1941, for example, a measure to extend the term of service for draftees beyond 12 months squeaked through the House of Representatives by a single vote. The vote proved critical in gearing up the U.S. Army for overseas service.

Some readers may lodge at least one objection to the book's lengthy subtitle: "Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941." Roosevelt, occupying what his distant cousin Theodore called a "bully pulpit," holds center stage for much of the book. Lindbergh, on the other hand, disappears for long stretches in the text. Lindy's name easily could have been replaced in the subtitle by that of Montana Sen. Burton Wheeler, Ohio Sen. Robert Taft or Col. Robert McCormick, the publisher of the Chicago Tribune and a longtime Roosevelt hater. All were influential leaders of the isolationist movement.

The need for U.S. participation to defeat the Nazi threat seems clear now to almost everyone but pundit Pat Buchanan, but in 1939 and 1940 memories of American deaths in what was "The Great War" remained painful. Many Americans of intelligence and good will, including John F. Kennedy, Sargent Shriver and Gerald Ford, backed or joined groups like "America First" that favored neutrality in the new European quarrels.

The stakes could not have been higher during "Those Angry Days." Ms. Olson, nevertheless, plays fair with both sides. The result is fast-moving, balanced and gripping history.

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.


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