Randall Beach: Author shows 1941 was a time of heroes and villains in America
WOODBRIDGE >> Marc Wortman’s compelling new book “1941: Fighting the Shadow War” describes an amazing night in New Haven (Oct. 30, 1940) when the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh spoke to an overflow crowd at Yale’s Woolsey Hall while, across town, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a much smaller and subdued group at Union Station.
Lindbergh, a staunch isolationist opposed to the U.S. entering World War II, assured the students that no nation was capable of attacking America from across the ocean. This was 14 months before the Japanese onslaught at Pearl Harbor.
While 3,000 people at Woolsey Hall were cheering for Lindbergh, a sparse gathering huddled under umbrellas at New Haven’s train station to hear the president assure them that, although more young Americans were being called into the Army, it did not mean we were on our way to war. Roosevelt was choosing his words carefully, as he was running for a third term.
But as Wortman makes clear in his scrupulously researched 341-page book (Atlantic Monthly Press), Roosevelt spent the period before Pearl Harbor engaged in a “clandestine shadow war” unknown to most Americans.
The “duel” he describes between Lindbergh and Roosevelt is a key element of this book.
When Wortman, a New Haven resident, launched his national book tour recently at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven in Woodbridge, he told the audience how surprised he was to learn the depth of Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism.
“He kept hundreds of little black books, which were his journals,” Wortman noted. “They’re at Yale’s Sterling Library because he donated his papers to Yale. I was shocked as I read through them.”
Some of that material had been published before, but passages in which Lindbergh conveyed his feelings about American Jews were not included. Wortman quoted everything he considered relevant.
“He was absolutely obsessed with the Jews,” Wortman told us in his talk. “He thought Jews had an outsized influence in America. He was convinced they were pushing the U.S. into the war against its will.”
Wortman’s research also revealed Lindbergh telling reporters he was “intensely pleased” by all he had seen during his trips to Germany. As for Adolf Hitler, Lindbergh praised his “character and vision.” He added, “He is undoubtedly a great man.”
When I spoke with Wortman before his talk, I mentioned these statements, which had also shocked me. But Wortman cut Lindbergh a little slack: “My view of Lindbergh is that his anti-Semitism wasn’t in any way directed at any specific individual. He wasn’t the kind of person who would say, ‘I won’t work with this person because he is Jewish’ or ‘I won’t sit next to that person because he is Jewish.’ It was about global issues.”
As for Lindbergh’s calling Hitler “a great man,” Wortman said Lindbergh was praising him for rejuvenating German industries, especially aviation. “It was not for murdering Jews.”
Wortman said Lindbergh liked Germany so much that he was planning to move there before the war escalated.
And so Wortman’s book is about heroes and villains. I think it’s fair to call Lindbergh one of its villains, along with the famed architect Philip Johnson, who, Wortman noted, was delighted by Germany’s invasions of other European countries. “He was an ardent supporter of fascism,” Wortman said.
The heroes of that period included Roosevelt. Referring to FDR, Wortman said “a man in a wheelchair” (he had polio) faced down the isolationist majority in America, albeit often in secret.
But Wortman also wants the world to remember one of Roosevelt’s closest advisers, a man not known by many Americans today.
“Harry Hopkins was the real hero,” Wortman told us. Then he looked around the JCC auditorium and its audience of about 70, including many who had lived through the World War II years. “How many of you know who he was?” Only a few hands were raised.
“Harry Hopkins was the man who saved civilization,” Wortman said. “He was FDR’s most trusted confidant. Because FDR was in a wheelchair, he couldn’t do much traveling. So he sent Hopkins out after writing letters (to world leaders such as Britain’s Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin) that said: ‘Treat Harry as if I were there myself.’”
“Harry Hopkins kept the British in the fight and he did the same for the Soviets,” Wortman said, noting Hopkins met with Churchill in January 1941 and with Stalin in July 1941, one month after Germany invaded Russia.
“This was when the civilization of Europe appeared to be on the brink of destruction,” Wortman told us. “He (Hopkins) saved the world.”
There is yet another hero in Wortman’s book: the journalist William Shirer, who, after reporting on the alarming developments while in Germany, returned to America in the spring of 1941 to publish his book “Berlin Diary.”
“He became like a Paul Revere,” Wortman told us. “He was telling people what he had seen: that the Nazis didn’t want to just conquer countries. Hitler wanted land and he wanted the people on that land gone: Jews and anybody the Nazis considered inferior races.”
Wortman noted the concentration camps set up to carry out genocide had not yet been created. “But word was out that the Germans were out to kill the Jews. And the U.S. didn’t react when millions could have been saved.”
This was a terrible example of Roosevelt not being a hero.
Wortman in his book provides many examples of how the president remained mindful of the fact that 85 percent of Americans in 1941 did not want us to enter World War II. “Memories of the meat grinder trenches of World War I were still fresh in people’s minds,” Wortman said at the JCC.
The America First Committee, which was the leading isolationist group at that time, had a student chapter at Yale; one of its members was Kingman Brewster Jr., later to be a Yale president and, ironically, a U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. Those were the students who invited Lindbergh to speak at Woolsey Hall.
“The America First rallies had a Trump-esque quality to them,” Wortman said, referring to leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. “There was a strong anti-foreign element. And there were street fights at them” as happens at some Trump rallies.
Meanwhile, Roosevelt, not wanting England to fall to the Nazis because of what it might lead to here, was quietly ordering U.S. naval forces farther and farther out into the ocean, patrolling for German war vessels.
“We were deep into the combat zone well before Pearl Harbor,” Wortman said.
In April 1941, he noted, a U.S. ship fired upon a German U-boat. “We were caught up in an undeclared war. Americans were in combat. Americans were dying.” Wortman called Roosevelt’s decisions “constitutionally dubious” because Congress had declared America was neutral.
Although there was that confrontation in April 1941, Wortman quoted Roosevelt as saying, “I’m not going to fire the first shot” that would put America into the war. “And so he brought our Navy ships farther into the sea to have them fired upon. But it turned out the first shots were not fired by the Germans.”
Wortman finished his presentation at the JCC by reading from one of his final chapters describing the uneventful activities people were engaged in at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 6, 1941.
Wortman ended that chapter by quoting one of the residents: “It was a quiet Saturday night. And all seemed normal.”
Contact Randall Beach at email@example.com or 203-680-9345.