This is a fine book about the domestic battle from 1939 to 1941 between Americans who favored supporting England and other Western democracies against the threat of Hitler’s Germany and those who believed America should isolate itself from the difficulties in Europe and hide behind the big oceans that separated our nation from Germany in the east and Japan in the West.
It is difficult today to understand how passionate Americans on both sides of this dispute were and how strong the appeal of isolationism was. Looking back, we take it for granted that America was steeling itself for war, building it military, and taking other critical steps to defeat Nazi Germany.
In reality, this was one of the most dangerous periods in our country’s history. The U.S. began to prepare for what became WWII by the narrowest of margins and then only fitfully. Even FDR was unnerved by the powerful isolationist spirit in the country and overcame it only in fits and starts.
Olsen focuses her volume on President Roosevelt and the leader in the isolationist movement, the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, who helped create America First, the main isolationist group. Many names that were to become prominent in WWII are here, as well as less familiar figures like Burton K. Wheeler, a Montana senator and key leader of the isolationist caucus in Congress.
This is an enjoyable read, though I have a few minor disagreements with it, most notably her treatment of the 1940 GOP national convention that nominated Wendell Willkie. Like many other historians, Olsen depicts Willkie’s nomination was the result of a spectacular p.r. offensive launched by the editor of the FORTUNE, Russell Davenport.
In reality, Willkie’s improbable march to the nomination was quarterbacked by a man mentioned on just one page by Olsen – the Connecticut GOP national committeeman, Samuel Pryor, Jr. He was an internationalist who nonetheless later became one of Lindbergh’s closest friends (Lindbergh built his Hawaii home on Pryor’s estate and Pryor arranged for Lindbergh to be flown in 1974 from New York to Hawaii so he could die at home). Pryor methodically laid the foundation for Willkie’s nomination long before Davenport joined the Indianan’s bandwagon and drew on his national contacts to create a network of key party leaders in Massachusetts, Indiana, Colorado, New York and other states that made Willkie’s victory possible. But if you are interested in the history of WWII, that’s another story that shouldn’t keep you from picking up this interesting book.