Review: 'The Plot Against America' by Philip Roth
A review of Philip Roth's new novel, 'The Plot Against America', which is about what might have happened if F.D. Roosevelt had been defeated in 1940 by the anti-war aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Review: 'The Plot Against America' by Philip Roth
published by Houghton Miffin, New York, 2004
I like Philip Roth's robust writing style. It reminds me of Hemingway and Miller. There is a connection between attitude and style. Honesty isn't as easy as we like to think. Roth's strength has always been honesty about sex, violence, and family life. There is a shadow of this honesty in this novel, but this shadow is overshadowed by an agenda. This leads to bad politics and plot.
'The Plot Against America' is about what might have happened if the anti-war aviator Charles Lindbergh had stood against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 and won the presidency: the US government negotiates with Nazi Germany and persecutes Jews, including Philip Roth's family. Before Pearl Harbor, there was a conservative isolationist movement in the USA consisting of Americans who didn't see why they should die in wars between European powers. Roosevelt did see why, and he won the 1940 election and pushed America into war.
This novel tries to convince us that 'War is Peace'. Roosevelt, the man who supported Britain's declaration of war on Germany by supplying her with guns, who provoked the Japanese, who used every trick in the book to drag a reluctant America into a massacre, is tarted up as a good guy, whereas Lindbergh, who wanted to keep America out of the war, is an accomplice of Nazi aggression.
It is true that Lindbergh was anti-semitic. He was also anti-black and anti-Asian. Anti-semitism is taken out of context, arbitrarily separated from other prejudices and given special importance. It never occurs to Roth to step outside of being Jewish and take a more generically human perspective. I know this is possible, as I've done it myself. I could use my own family's experience to excuse support for the Allied side during World War II - my mother was a refugee from German bombing - but I have risen above this and adopted a more balanced view. Both sides committed war crimes on an unimaginable scale. There is nothing to choose between Germany and Russia, Japan and America, Fascism and Democracy. Whining about the Nazis when you support the Allies is chutzpah. On page thirteen, Roth is outraged that Lindbergh accuses the Jews of supporting war. On page fifteen, he describes his Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey as being one hundred percent pro-Roosevelt - in other words, pro-war!
To his credit, Roth reproduces one of Lindbergh's actual speeches in an appendix. Lindbergh argued that both the British and Jewish 'races' had good reasons for wanting America to enter the war, but that Americans had equally good reasons for staying out (page 388). A bit archaic, but not quite the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Lindbergh believed in the significance of race. So did almost everyone at the time. Today, only the American left still considers race important. Roosevelt supported the Eugenics movement which led to the sterilization of perhaps 60,000 people. There's not much to choose between Lindbergh and Roosevelt in racism. But in Roth's imaginary 1940 election, there was one significant difference. Lindbergh was against war.
I regard Roosevelt as the greatest war criminal in history - greater even than Stalin or Hitler. It was Britain which started world war two, the worst conflict in history, by declaring war on Germany. Chamberlain announced 'this country is now at war with Germany' as though it were a fait accompli and he could do nothing about it. He claimed he had to attack Germany because Germany attacked Poland. Bad luck Poland, but is it my problem? In any case, Russia also attacked Poland a few days later, and Chamberlain didn't declare war on Russia. On the contrary, Britain allied herself with a country similar to Nazi Germany. Even an average person, stupified by democracy, should be able to see the absurdity of allying with Stalin against Hitler. Stalin also murdered millions of people in concentration camps, but not many of them were Jewish, so it's OK. Britain found itself batting from a sticky wicket, and called on the colonies. Faithful retainer Franklin D. Roosevelt supplied arms - an act of war - and risked American merchant seamen's lives among the U-boats. Pearl Harbor is still a hotly contested topic today. There is no room here to go into it, but it was certainly not an unprovoked attack. But Roosevelt's greatest crime was this: in 1943 he persuaded Churchill to adopt the policy of 'unconditional surrender'. This was his offer to Hitler and Tojo: "Here's the deal - you surrender, we occupy your countries, then we hang you". This insanity prolonged the war and condemned millions to death.
Roth makes some good points about the futility of compromise, about the need to stand up to violence, about the cowardly tendency we all have to blame the victim. The journalist Walter Winchell is accused by more moderate Jews of 'playing into the hands' of anti-semites by being too extreme. A common mistake. Always defend extremists on your own side. Grovelling to authority gets the Jewish leaders as little as it got Yasir `Arafat. There is a clear analogy between the Jews who collaborate with Lindbergh's regime and European Jews who thought they could ingratiate themselves with the Nazis. Chief among these were the Zionists (see Lenni Brenner - http://www.marxists.de/middleast/brenner). For some reason, Roth misses the opportunity to discredit Zionists by imagining them collaborating with an anti-semitic American government.
As a child, Roth is acutely aware that an African American was featured on a postage stamp before a Jew, and that there was only one Jewish baseball player in 1942. He is right to say there was anti-semitism in pre-war America, but he takes it out of context. There was all sorts of racism. The biggest lynching in American history claimed the lives of eleven Italians ( http://www.niaf.org/milestones/year_1891.asp). But anyone with a brain, and a heart, can see that the overwhelming racism issue in the USA is anti-black racism. Roth ignores this completely. This is not only politically insensitive, it leads to some implausible events. He imagines anti-Jewish riots with the complicity of Lindbergh's government. Jews are attacked in their cars driving through the midwest. But hang on a minute - how do the rednecks know they are Jews? Perhaps this is one of the reasons racism tends to focus on black people - they're easy to spot. Roth views the Ku Klux Klan and other American racist organizations as being primarily anti-semitic. This is not true.
Jewish identity colors his view of the whole world. On page 157, he describes with horror Japan's 1942 offensive in the Pacific. Doesn't he know that the British and the Americans also ruled with 'all the righteous cruelty of the racially superior', from the Philipines to Tasmania? The Japanese showed that racism is not the prerogative of the white man. Roth could easily see this, but his typically Jewish obsession with the evils of Nazism leads to a similar one-sidedness in his view of Germany's ally.
It is well known that the Allies did nothing to stop the Germans killing Jewish and other civilians. They could have bombed the railroads leading to the concentration camps, but instead, bombed German cities, adding to the holocaust rather than subtracting from it. I don't know if this made German anti-semitism worse, but certainly, bombing doesn't bring out the best in people. Take my family for example. They still think Roosevelt was a good guy.
Towards the end of the novel, Roth's hypersensitivity gets the better of him, and the novel races from plausibility to paranoia and unintended comedy. Not satisfied with amalgamating anti-war conservatives with pro-Nazis, he throws in the whole history of anti-semitism. Lindbergh's government ends up not only taking orders from the Nazis, but spreading old Russian stories about child sacrifices and so on. I won't spoil the reader's enjoyment by telling how Roth explains the true story of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. I will reveal that he tries to get his revenge on the Germans by imagining them committing crimes as fantastic as any that anyone has alleged against the Jews.
'The Plot Against America' is a fun read, and deservedly popular. I expect most of its readers agree with its pro-war politics. Yet its timing is odd. Fascism in America today hasn't come from the isolationist right, but from the war party, subordinated to Israel by the American Jewish lobby. The continuing importance of world war two is illustrated by the fact that 'appeasement' is used to insult opponents of the 'war on terror'. The answer to these taunts should be that appeasement was right then, and it's right now. It's close to the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the second world war. It's a tribute to the propaganda machine in which Roth is a small wheel that most people see Roosevelt as a hero. But we have our media too - Antiwar.com being the most prominent. One day, we'll bury the war party and burn their flag.
Jay Knott, Thanksgiving, 2004
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