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Book details fight over U.S. intervention in WWII

JERRY HARKAVY, Associated Press

Publication: The Day

Published March 31. 2013 4:00AM

The bitter feelings that divided the nation during the Vietnam buildup and the Iraq invasion have become fading memories. But far fewer Americans still recall the even more passionate debate over our stance toward Nazi Germany during the first two years of World War II.

That tumultuous time between the invasion of Poland and the attack on Pearl Harbor gave rise to a conflict at home that pitted isolationists against interventionists. Larger-than-life figures, from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to aviator Charles Lindbergh, were leading players in that ferocious battle in which the stakes couldn't have been higher.

In "Those Angry Days," journalist-turned-historian Lynne Olson captures that period in a fast-moving, highly readable narrative punctuated by high drama. It's an ideal complement to her previous books about Britain's Tory rebels who brought Winston Churchill to power and Americans who assisted England while it stood alone against a triumphant Germany.

The question of whether to intervene on Britain's behalf, and even to amend neutrality laws by shipping vitally needed supplies to the beleaguered nation, was one that divided families and friends.

Olson presents as a prime example the poignant story of celebrated author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who was caught between her husband's leadership of the campaign to keep America out of the war and the efforts of her mother and sister on behalf of intervention.

Roosevelt, according to the author, was overly cautious and hesitant, preferring to follow public opinion rather than lead it. "He was intimidated by congressional isolationists, whose strength he tended to exaggerate, and was loath to challenge them," Olson writes.

Pioneering a tactic that would be used by subsequent presidents, Roosevelt sought to discredit his opponents by questioning their patriotism and went on to enlist the FBI to wiretap their phones and seek derogatory information that could be used against them.

One figure who stands tall is Republican Wendell Willkie, whose break with his party's isolationism strengthened his bid for president. The author conveys the excitement of the 1940 convention that chose Willkie as the unlikely GOP nominee and the campaign that ended with FDR's election to an unprecedented third term.

The book is filled with profiles of fascinating figures on both sides of the debate: syndicated newspaper columnist Dorothy Thompson, a leading voice for intervention; Burton Wheeler, a progressive Democrat who broke with Roosevelt over the war and led the isolationist cause in the Senate; and British ambassador Lord Lothian, who promoted support for his country and helped get the president to devise the Lend-Lease program that kept Britain afloat.

Arrayed against the interventionists were many high-ranking military officers and the America First movement, whose anti-Semitic strains came to the surface in a Lindbergh speech that left him discredited among many Americans who once glorified him.

The fight over intervention mobilized the public to take part in the debate and, in the end, helped to educate Americans about the need to prepare for entry into the war.

"It was a robust, if tumultuous, example of democracy in action," Olson writes.

"Those Angry Days" is popular history at its most riveting, detailing what the author rightfully characterizes as "a brutal, no-holds-barred battle for the soul of the nation." It is sure to captivate readers seeking a deeper understanding of how public opinion gradually shifted as America moved from bystander to combatant in the war to preserve democracy.

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