As a semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in New Jersey during the 1930s, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America delivers a vivid account of how this major American writer perceived the formative influences in his life. From childhood, it seemed to him that Jews in America faced myriad threats. His prize-winning novel depicts for that time and place the cruel destiny of the eternal Jewish outsider. These early years seared Roth’s artistic sensibility and defined it.
Written by David Simon and Ed Burns, the HBO miniseries of The Plot Against America remains faithful to Roth’s novel. But that is ultimately the problem with this lush rendering. But more on that in a bit.
Through six weekly episodes, the trials of the Levin family, with young Philip as the protagonist, unfold in an atmosphere of relentless hostility toward the Jewish community in Jersey. Safety exists within the tribe, buttressed by an inner circle consisting of family members and widening outer circles of Jewish support networks. Disaster ensues from the failure to understand and to adhere to this timeless defense system.
Unfortunately for the Levins, they have one such uncomprehending Jewish relative in their midst, Philip’s misguided aunt, Evelyn. Heedless of the fundamental realities in Jewish life, she bears moral responsibility for the family’s misfortunes. In an early sign of her defective character, Evelyn is shown to be involved with a married Italian man. That relationship ending over his unwillingness to seek a divorce, she next takes up with Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, a courtly southern Jew who eventually becomes her husband. Though an eminently presentable suitor, he tragically turns out to be the story’s paramount Jewish antagonist.
Far from merely misunderstanding the community’s defense system, Rabbi Bengelsdorf wants to overturn it. He thinks that it is high time for them to become fully integrated into American society. They have been self-sequestered as a culture for so long that in their present state of mind it is impossible for them really to belong as Americans. It seems to him that they need to reinvent themselves. The opportunity for them to do so arises in the political context imagined by Roth.
As a historical novel about the circumstances and personalities involved in America’s intervention in the Second World War, The Plot Against America departs from the actual chronology of the period in one crucial particular: Charles A. Lindbergh, not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wins the presidency in 1940.
Roth speculates about how America and the fate of the Jews would have been altered by such a political outcome. Bengelsdorf, “koshering Lindbergh for the goyim” as his Jewish consigliere, is the link between the little world of the Levins and the big world of national politics. This linkage works well dramatically as a literary device, but much less so as a means of portraying the history of the period. No Nazi worthy of the name would have created the Bengelsdorf-led “Office of American Absorption” to bring Jews into intimate contact with gentile civilization. The Lindbergh-sponsored fresh-air program for Jewish youths, which Evelyn ecstatically promotes within her family, is one of the many instances of inappositeness that undermine the historical credibility of the novel.
For Roth, Lindbergh is the human symbol of Nazism, American style. The entire intellectual force of the novel issues from this conjecture. Reason exists, however, to doubt its validity. Lindbergh suffered from many human flaws, which have been amply documented by his biographers. His favorable ideas concerning eugenics, for example, though once commonly accepted, have not stood the test of time. Moreover, his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, was certainly right in predicting that the medal he accepted from Hermann Goering in 1938 would be his albatross. Regarding Jews, however, Lindbergh’s attitudes ill fit the Nazi straitjacket fashioned for him in The Plot Against America.
In the bibliographical postscript that Roth wrote for the novel, he cites Wayne S. Cole. This scholarly citation notwithstanding, he appears to have learned nothing from Cole’s generally supportive biography of Lindbergh or his balanced history of the anti-interventionist America First movement. On Lindbergh and the Jews, Cole urges caution about sweeping judgments. He joins the chorus of Lindbergh critics who lament his notorious Des Moines, Iowa, speech of September 11, 1941, criticizing Jews for their influence over the media and in the interventionist movement. Yet even in that address, Cole points out, Lindbergh expressed sympathy for the Jews undergoing Nazi persecution. The complexities of the Lindbergh case do not lend themselves to the requirements of a streamlined movie treatment.
Missing in Roth’s portrait of Lindbergh as the anti-Semitic Nazi in the White House is the real story of his political education. Nazism had nothing to do with it. As Gore Vidal observes in “Lindbergh: The Eagle Is Grounded,” one of his Last Empire essays,“To understand the son’s politics…one must understand C.A. and his world.” His father, Charles August Lindbergh, Sr., served from 1907 to 1917 as a congressman from Minnesota. A friend and ally of Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, the elder Lindbergh belonged to the progressive wing of the Republican Party. La Follette led the movement in the Senate to oppose American intervention in the First World War. In Why Is Your Country at War (1917), Congressman Lindbergh described his own view of the conflict and the lessons we needed to learn from it.
The war came primarily because of “the failure in some respects of the existing civilization.”Lindbergh Sr., thought that intrinsic defects in the corporate capitalist system made war inevitable. For his interpretation of history, he did not go to the school of Karl Marx. His frequently cited and quoted teacher in Why Is Your Country at War was John Ruskin, who from the conservative premises of his Christian faith outlined in Unto This Last (1862) thought that modern capitalist society constituted the greatest threat to mankind in the history of the world. As with many of Ruskin’s disciples, he adhered to fundamental aspects of this anti-capitalist critique without retaining its Christian vocabulary. In his secular fashion, he updated Ruskin for 1917. The real cause of the war lay in “the economic systems practiced.” American intervention in the conflict had occurred for the same reason.
Young Charles, aged fifteen when his father wrote Why Is Your Country at War, witnessed in admiration fiery speeches that the Congressman made on the campaign trail. An attempted lynching of the candidate in May 1918 by an armed mob gave the younger Lindbergh an approximate idea of the limits of free speech in the country then allegedly in the process of making the world safe for democracy. Indeed, the speeches that Lindbergh gave for the America First movement, fancifully reduced by Roth and the filmmakers to a Nazi fellowship, bore a striking resemblance to his father’s declamations during the previous world war. Lindbergh’s political ideas stemmed from the conviction that the tragedy of the First World War did not warrant repetition. One did not have to be a Nazi for wanting to stave off the catastrophe that from 1939 to 1945 would claim fifty million lives and lead to the enslavement of Eastern Europe under a Stalinist tyranny.
An even greater feat of historical reengineering performed by Roth concerns the part in his story played by Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler. This portrayal never rises above the level of character assassination. Wheeler will not be recognized in The Plot Against America by anyone familiar with his long record as a progressive Democrat, prosecutor of corruption in the Teapot Dome scandal, champion of free speech and worker rights, and resolute opponent of the Ku Klux Klan and religious bigotry. As Lindbergh’s vice president, he flits in and out of the novel as an egregious spokesman for the administration’s era of good feelings with the Nazis. He is seen to aid and abet anti-Jewish riots that occur across the country.
To fix the label of anti-Semite on Wheeler requires a steadfast aversion to historical research. Frank C. Hanighen, the co-author of a storied work of investigative journalism about the international armament industry, Merchants of Death (1934), tackled the issue of Wheeler and anti-Semitism, in an exhaustively researched June 1941 article for the progressive magazine Common Sense. It seemed odd to him that an anti-Semite would have two Jews, Max Lowenthal and Ed Cooper, as prominent members of his staff. After examining speeches in which Wheeler had defended Jews against their anti-Semitic adversaries, Hanighen concluded that the charge of anti-Semitism against him was entirely motivated by politics: “A glance at Wheeler’s record renders absurd the charge of bigotry.”
The national nightmare imagined by Roth ends when Lindbergh mysteriously disappears, Wheeler is overthrown, Bengelsdorf and Evelyn get their comeuppance, and America goes to war under FDR one year later than in real historical time. As television, The Plot Against America benefits from some powerful acting performances and a dazzling exhibition of period automobiles, décor, and fashion, but it confirms the general rule of not going to the movies for history.
Richard Drake is the Lucile Speer Research Professor in Politics and History at the University of Montana, and the author of Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism (2018).
This review first appeared on The American Conservative May 5, 2020.