Sunday, November 13, 2016

Book Review: 1941

One of the myths of American history that I internalized a long time ago was the United States was blissfully neutral, more or less, during the late 1930's and the first two years of World War II, and it was up to FDR to find ingenious ways to help the Allies until Pearl Harbor. Marc Wortman's 1941 is a study of what American was like during that fateful year, and more importantly what our attitudes toward the conflagration going on around the world at the time were like. It turns out that the commonly held myth had a kernel of truth, but only a kernel. Few Americans had any illusions that war was coming, and almost all wanted to see Hitler defeated. It was merely a question of when and where, and a majority of Americans did not want to go to war at that moment. Japan barely registered on the national radar (although it most certainly did on the government's), which was one reason that Pearl Harbor was the shock that it was.
The book outlines the steps that FDR took, little by little, to keep Great Britain in the war, often subverting the will of Congress and stretching legal precedents into pretzels to do so. That he managed to break tradition by winning a third term while undertaking some hugely unpopular measures is nothing short of miraculous, in retrospect, and one of the unsung heroes--patriots, if you will-- of our nation's history was his 1940 Presidential election opponent, Wendell Willkie, who put aside his own ambition and that of his party in the interest of what was the right and correct policy to undertake, public opinion be damned. And history has not judged most of FDR's opponents very kindly. Charles Lindbergh, Charles Coughlin, various isolationist polticians, and some members of his own administration look ridiculous and slightly sinister in retrospect, and that's only because they were, and serve in this day and age as warnings of what holding petty and selfish values dear at the expense of larger, moral-driven concerns look like to our children. It's easy to forget that on December 6, 1941, what a divided nation we were--and the side of right was on the side of the minority. And there's a lesson in that for those of us in 2016 America.

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