Imagining Lindbergh's America; in Provocative Novel, Philip Roth Rewrites History of WWII Years

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 10, 2004 | Go to article overview

Imagining Lindbergh's America; in Provocative Novel, Philip Roth Rewrites History of WWII Years


Byline: Merle Rubin, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

From the lost suburban paradise mourned in "American Pastoral" to hollow halls of a degraded academe in "The Human Stain," Philip Roth's recent novels have pondered the trajectory of mid-20th-century American history. Although some critics have contrived to find in these two impressive books and the much weaker one published between them, "I Married a Communist," a grand epic trilogy, it detracts nothing from Mr. Roth's achievement to note that the novels in question are not cut from the same cloth and differ from one another in ambition, quality, style, and scope.

Mr. Roth's new novel, "The Plot Against America," is neither as momentous as "American Pastoral" nor as richly inventive as "The Human Stain." Mr. Roth's aim here is more limited: He has set himself a task, an elaborate game of what-if, played out in the parallel universe of "alter-histoire." What if the wildly popular aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, an outspoken isolationist decorated by the Nazis, had been elected U.S. president in 1940?

It's certainly a provocative idea, and Mr. Roth has succeeded most brilliantly, not only in extrapolating a plausible sequence of historical events from his hypothetical premise, but also in creating a realistic portrait of how this turn of events might have affected an ordinary, lower-middle-class Newark, N.J. Jewish family: his own.

Reading here of Lindbergh's successful campaign against Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one can only feel retrospectively grateful that the real-life Lone Eagle turned down the opportunity to run. As Mr. Roth shows, Lindbergh's iconic status as a national hero, his laconic, unassuming style, and his simplistic outlook make him well-nigh irresistible to the majority of his fellow countrymen.

"My intention in running for the presidency," he tells cheering crowds, "is to preserve American democracy by preventing America from taking part in another world war. Your choice is simple. It's not between Charles A. Lindbergh and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It's between Lindbergh and war." (One can't help recalling Winston Churchill's bitter judgment on his countrymen at the time of the Munich Agreement in 1938: "You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.")

Almost everyone seems to love the new president, who flies everywhere in his own little plane, unaccompanied by Secret Service men. Nor do most folks seem perturbed by the fact that their new president signs peace accords giving the green light to Adolf Hitler and Emperor Hirohito. The only people who don't seem to share in the general euphoria are the Jews - and not even all of them. Some, like the character Philip's vivacious Aunt Evelyn and her fiance, the pompous, glibly ingratiating Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, are proud to count themselves Lindbergh supporters.

"I have encountered considerable hostility from members of the Jewish community for allying myself in the 1940 election with the Lindbergh campaign," Bengelsdorf remarks. "But I have been sustained by my abhorrence of war." Not so Philip's father, Herman, a hard-working insurance salesman, who is so galvanized by his "sense of an impending disaster" as to forget his usual awe of Bengelsdorf's superior erudition and give the rabbi a piece of his mind:

"Hitler is not business as usual, Rabbi! This madman is not making a war from a thousand years ago. He is making a war such as no one has ever seen on this planet. He has conquered Europe. He is at war with Russia. Every night he bombs London into rubble and kills hundreds of innocent British citizens. He is the worst anti-Semite in history.

"And yet his great friend our president takes him at his word when Hitler tells him they have an 'understanding.' Hitler had an understanding with the Russians. Did he keep it? He had an understanding with Chamberlain. Did he keep it? …

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