Philip Roth revisits an era when America's pluralist future was far from certain.
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"Let America Be America Again." John Kerry's campaign slogan, introduced last summer, subtly captured many people's fears that the country we thought we knew—humane, pluralistic, a light to the world—is in danger of being taken away from us. Philip Roth's new historical novel, The Plot Against America, resounds with echoes of today's politics, not simply because its president campaigns in a flight suit, but because it depicts a country on the brink between a bright future of progress and a dark path of intolerance.
In The Plot, the election of the aviator Charles Lindbergh, an anti-Semite and Hitler admirer, to the presidency triggers a series of personal and political nightmares in the life of a middle-class Jewish family. "What's history?" Herman Roth, the narrator's father, at one point lectures young Philip. "History is everything that happens everywhere. Even here in Newark. … Even what happens in his house to an ordinary man—that'll be history too someday."
Roth ratchets up the book's realism by sketching his wild tale strictly within the confines of the historical record. The gossip-monger Walter Winchell's voice wafts from the radio on Sunday nights, while the anti-Semitic radio preacher Charles Coughlin rallies his minions. The literate, feisty PM magazine fights for the liberal cause. And pogroms roil Northeastern cities—as also happened, lest we forget, in real life. From 1942 to 1944, gangs of young Irish Catholics, inflamed by Coughlin's broadcasts, systematically assaulted their Jewish neighbors in Boston, New York, and elsewhere, to the general indifference of the local authorities, forcing some Jews set up vigilante committees, just as Newark's Jews do in The Plot.
With this attention to historical detail, The Plot Against America recreates a dimly remembered time when a vastly different future for America—one far meaner toward the Jews—loomed as a real option. And by choosing to revisit an era when "Israel didn't exist yet [and] six million European Jews hadn't yet ceased to exist," the book underscores how much Franklin Roosevelt's presidency and World War II represented a true turning point in both American and American Jewish history—and in the migration of American Jews from the culture's periphery to its center.
After all, things might have turned out very differently. In the 1930s the United States had not yet become the (largely) liberal and tolerant society of today. Anti-Semitic venom still issued freely in mainstream political discourse, from the mouths of columnists like Westbrook Pegler, congressmen like J. Parnell Thomas, the chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, as well as celebrities like Lindbergh. Although the quasi-fascist American right—the Coughlinites, the Henry Ford admirers, the Ku Klux Klan, the Liberty Lobby, even elements of the Republican Party's Midwestern, isolationist "Old Guard"—were certainly a minority after being routed by FDR in 1932, his victory also made them more strident, vocal, and fearsome. Spouting conspiracy theories that ascribed great power to FDR's Jewish advisers, such as Bernard Baruch and Henry Morgenthau, these reactionaries saw the New Deal as a step on the road to socialism. When Roosevelt broke precedent to seek a third presidential term in 1940, they grew convinced that it was he who aspired to be a dictator.
For other Americans, however, it seemed plausible in the 1930s that the fascist ideologies that devoured Germany and Italy might get a foothold here too. Enlightened circles buzzed with talk about the failure of liberal democracy to cope with the Depression, labor unrest, international hostilities in Europe, and the challenges of administering large-scale industrial societies. Leading thinkers, and not just on the right, looked fondly toward Mussolini and other strongmen who whipped their countries into order, while the central planning of Soviet communism held new allure for many on the left. Even liberals had to admit that democracies, with their need for compromise and their restraints on executive power, often responded too slowly to sudden crises and left too much power in the hands of the uninformed or the disengaged. "Representative democracy seems to have ended in a cul-de-sac," lamented the left-wing political theorist Harold Laski. "At no time since the rise of political democracy," editorialized the New Republic in 1937, "have its tenets been so seriously challenged as they are today."
Nor was the mounting unease about the precariousness of democracy confined to highbrow circles. Sinclair Lewis had a popular hit with his 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here—a clear ancestor to Roth's Plot—which featured a demagogic Huey Long-like senator named Buzz Windrip who gets elected president and installs himself as dictator. Much more cartoonlike than Roth's novel, It Can't Happen Here similarly posited that if fascism were to overtake America, it wouldn't be externally imposed through a sudden coup but would insinuate itself with the complicity of an American majority. Impressionable, overly admiring of strong leaders, harboring their bigotries, the Babbitts of It Can't Happen Here sanction censorship and concentration camps—the latter ostensibly to shield the new regime's critics (including real figures such as Raymond Moley and Heywood Broun) from potential assailants. "You heard of judges, army officers, ex-state governors … Jewish lawyers who had been ambassadors, being carted off to the common stink and mud of the cells," Lewis wrote.
But if Lewis' dystopia seemed remotely conceivable in 1935, it obviously no longer did after Roosevelt's revolutionary presidency and the American victory in World War II. Not only was fascism discredited, but Roosevelt had welcomed Jews into the American fold like no president before. As Roth describes it in The Plot:
There was something about the inherent decorum of the delivery [of his speeches] that ... bestowed on our family a historical significance, authoritatively merging our lives with his as well as with that of the entire nation when he addressed us in out living room as "fellow citizens."
Although the United States certainly didn't enter World War II to stop the Holocaust—on the contrary, FDR's reputation has suffered of late because of his failure to do more—the adoption of Hitler's defeat as the nation's defining mission bestowed on American Jews an unprecedented sense of belonging.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.
Photograph of Charles Lindburgh from Corbis.