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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