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How World War II almost broke American politics

Joshua Zeitz writes:

The story of how Americans surmounted their fractured political culture to mobilize for D-Day remains a trenchant example, in our own age of discord and division, of how a country desperately wanting for consensus can rally together in a moment of common purpose.

“Our bond with Europe is a bond of race, and not of political ideology,” the famed aviator and outspoken isolationist Charles Lindbergh told a national radio audience in October 1939. “Racial strength is vital, politics is a luxury.” Urging listeners to close ranks with Germany in a common struggle against “Asiatic intruders”—Russians, Persians, Turks and Jews—who would defile America’s “most priceless possession: our inheritance of European blood,” Lindbergh tapped into a deep well of popular nativism. It was a theme he hammered relentlessly from his perch as a spokesman for the America First Committee, an anti-interventionist organization that marshaled considerable support from prominent names in business and industry to oppose aid to Britain and France. The “three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration,” he intoned in a speech two years later.

It wasn’t just Lindbergh. The anti-interventionist movement enjoyed widespread support in 1939 and 1940, and Lindbergh’s brand of anti-interventionist politics—bordering on being pro-Nazi, and laced with a conspiratorial distrust of Jews—was common in circles opposed to Roosevelt’s domestic and foreign policies. The America First Committee ounted among its ranks outspoken anti-Semites such as Avery Brundage, the former head of the U.S. Olympic Committee who had visited ignominy upon the athletic community when he booted two Jewish runners from the track team at the Berlin games in 1936. In Kansas, the America First state chairman told followers that first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the leading liberal light in FDR’s White House, was Jewish that and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a “half-Jew.”

Even the most respectable opponents of Roosevelt’s mobilization policy verged on extremism. In an editorial titled “A Plea for Realism,” the Wall Street Journal argued in 1940 that “our job today is not to stop Hitler,” who had “already determined the broad lines of our national life at least for another generation.” Instead, Americans would better direct their focus to “modernize our thinking and our national planning,” a none-too-subtle nod to Nazi state planning and central power. [Continue reading…]

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