“The situation is extraordinary,” Col. Edward House told Woodrow Wilson after visiting Europe in May 1914. “It is militarism run stark mad.” This perception of mad Europe was strengthened after 1918 because the war that was supposedly fought to make the world safe for democracy produced instead a continent torn by fascist tyranny. For many Americans, Europe’s behavior in the interwar period seemed proof enough that their intervention in 1917 had been a mistake and that a second “rescue” mission in 1939 would compound the folly. Isolationists assumed that American economic strength made it possible to ignore Europe. They clashed head-on with Franklin Roosevelt, who understood that an increasingly complex global economy meant that Europe’s problems were also America’s.
The most famous isolationist was Charles Lindbergh. He carried weight for the simple fact that he was an American hero, thus demonstrating that celebrity is no substitute for wisdom. In Lynne Olson’s book, Lindbergh emerges as a pigheaded man unaware of his limitations, a man the columnist Dorothy Thompson called “a sombre cretin . . . without human feeling.” Though he did not understand international relations, that did not stop him from imposing his warped and naive vision of the world on his fellow Americans.
“Those Angry Days” is not, however, simply a hatchet job on Lindbergh. Roosevelt also fares badly. Olson feels that the president was a consensus, not a conviction, politician. While he understood that American interests were threatened from the beginning of the war, his obsession with opinion polls prevented him from providing the leadership the crisis demanded. As a result, the United States went to war by fits and starts; through conniving and manipulation, Roosevelt gradually increased aid to Britain while maintaining the pretense of neutrality. He insisted that Lend-Lease and other measures of assistance were motivated not by altruism, but by the desire to defend American interests. Interventionists of sturdier morality, however, argued that since American aid was proof of American interest, the president should have the courage to commit fully to the fight. Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, attacked the hypocrisy of pandering to isolationism: “I’m saving my scalp/Living high on an Alp/Dear Lindy!/He gave me the notion!”
Lindbergh was undoubtedly the most famous isolationist, but his importance is overstated in “Those Angry Days.” His prominence presumably arises from Olson’s desire to make her story more marketable. As a result, we get a lot of irrelevant tittle-tattle about the Lindbergh family, at the expense of serious analysis of American isolationism. This is a pity, since Olson is a competent historian with the skills of a great storyteller. While “Lindbergh” in the title will undoubtedly lend this book prominence at airport shops, giving the flyer less emphasis would have resulted in a more honest book.
This raises an important issue about the state of history today. Authors like Olson dominate the popular market. While most are accomplished dramatists, they often fall short when it comes to expert analysis. Academic historians, on the other hand, possess the skills to get to the core of a historical problem, but are often unable or unwilling to communicate with readers beyond academia. (I’ve known colleagues who measure the intellectual worth of their books by how few copies are sold.) Clark is that rare breed of academic — one who combines meticulous research with the instinct of a novelist. Academics should take note: Good history can still be a good story.
is professor of history at the University of St Andrews.