The Plot Against America forms an interesting companion piece with Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. Both novels address the possibility of a fascist taking control of the presidency in America. Lewis was writing in the mid-1930s about events only a year or two in the future. Lewis’s novel is speculative, still uncertain how events in Europe might affect his home country, whereas Roth, who published The Plot Against America in 2004, is writing about the period just before America enters World War II, and is therefore writing an alternative history from the perspective which understands the judgement of history has laid upon Hitler’s Nazis and fascism.
Nevertheless, there is a strong element of speculative fiction in Roth’s novel, too. HBO produced a limited series adaptation of the book last year, suggesting its themes have become more relevant to modern audiences. When the book was published during George W. Bush’s administration, some aspects of the novel may have seemed extreme. Was it believable that a well-known American celebrity who had never held any public office could gain the presidency; a celebrity with purported links to overseas strong-man leaders? Could we take seriously allegations that the American president had ties to overseas interests which were potentially compromising him? These are some of the broad premises of Roth’s novel. A comparison between the fictional presidency of Charles Lindbergh and that of Donald Trump is an opportunity afforded by Roth’s text, making HBO’s decision to adapt Roth’s novel more than a coincidence. Trump’s ‘America First’ policy is derived largely from the very real organisation, the America First Committee, supported by the very real Charles Lindbergh prior to America’s entry into the war. Lindbergh famously delivered a speech in Des Moines in 1941, advocating American isolation, in which he argued that America had no place in a European war which he believed America might lose. Likewise, Trump ran on a platform of American isolation, in which he sought to reduce America’s commitment to overseas conflicts.
Yet it is obvious, given Roth’s publication date, that he is not writing about Trump. Instead, the plot against America is devised by Nazi Germany (or by Jews, according to some characters’ perspectives). The main perspective in the novel, however, is a fictionalised version of Philip Roth himself, living as a child during the early 1940s with his father, Herman, his mother Bess, his brother Sandford (‘Sandy’) and their cousin, Alvin. Philip witnesses the bewildering events that lead to the Lindbergh presidency, and the increasingly violent persecution of Jews in America.
The real-life Lindbergh had gained his celebrity as an aviation hero. He made the first non-stop solo flight from New York City to Paris in his plane, the ‘Spirit of St Louis’. The flight was a milestone for aviation, suggesting what might be possible. Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow, also suffered a terrible loss in 1932 when their son was abducted from their home and eventually found murdered. The papers called it ‘The Crime of the Century’, and it naturally gained the Lindberghs a great deal of sympathy. It is this fame and sympathy which make the fictional journey of Lindbergh into the White House a relatively smooth one. Running on his isolationist platform against Roosevelt, he denies Roosevelt a successive third term, signs pacts with Germany and Japan, and would seem to have saved America from a terrible fate.
Yet elements of Lindbergh’s real history pervade the plot and make Herman uneasy. Lindbergh had left America after the death of their son, Charles, and had spent some time in Germany, meeting with Hitler and even offering praise to Hitler’s air force. He was at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and Hitler awarded him the Service Cross of the German Eagle in 1938, a gold medallion with swastikas, an honour he refused to give up, even though he willingly renounced his army commission when President Roosevelt questioned his loyalty. Herman believes Lindbergh is an anti-Semite, even though many Jewish families in their Newark neighbourhood begin to accept Lindbergh, despite their uneasiness about his purported anti-Semitism and his constant denunciation by one of America’s most popular radio broadcasters, Walter Winchell.
Roth’s novel, therefore, is a curious blend of real history and fiction, seamlessly fused at the point where he breaks from historical reality and at the point where historical reality is once again imposed. Lindbergh’s personal fame and tragedy are integral elements of the plot, and Roth masterfully balances the historical judgement on Lindbergh, between Nazi sympathiser and patriot. More than anything, the novel reminds us that history is not just a narrative of what happened, but that events in that narrative were once accompanied by uncertainty and a myriad of other possibilities that could just as easily have formed the record. Philip reflects upon the experience of living through history:
…as Lindbergh’s election couldn’t have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way around, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as “History”, harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.
Roth effectively turns history as it is written – the ‘epic’ – upon its head, to offer, instead, the ‘disaster’. In this iteration, we see the thin line between what was and what might have been. What if America had attempted to appease Hitler as had Chamberlain? What if racist elements in American society were imbued with legitimacy? But Roth understands that historical hindsight is too easy a vantage from which to swat down his own historical enemies. The Nazis were the bad guys, yet Nazi rallies were held in New York at the time and they found their supporters. It’s easy to write a historical novel (or alternative history) in which they are the bad guys. Not so easy when one writes about a man some consider, still, to be an American hero. As a Jew casting Lindbergh as a Nazi sympathiser, Roth has been accused of slandering Lindbergh’s memory, although I think a considered reading of the novel repudiates this position. I think Roth has attempted something else, something I will call ‘historical ambivalence’. I mean that he understands the precariousness of events as they unfold: things might go either way, as the young Philip understands. Lindbergh’s policy of appeasing Hitler actually seems to be working until he disappears on a flight in his famous ‘Spirit of St Louis’. His presidency is popular and Herman must struggle against the overwhelming opinion that says he is wrong.
Likewise, this ‘ambivalence’ can also be applied to individuals. In the real timeline, the America First Committee was disbanded after the attack on Pearl Harbour, and despite his isolationist views, Lindbergh trained pilots and even flew combat missions against the Japanese once America entered the war. And Walter Winchell, who was a staunch critic of Lindbergh’s isolationist policies, becomes a lone public critic in Roth’s world where most are enamoured of Lindbergh’s presidency. His radio broadcasts are inspirational to opponents of Lindbergh in Roth’s reality. Yet in real life, Winchell survived the war and became a far right exponent against Communism and supported Senator McCarthy’s investigations into un-American activities in the 1950s. Roth records in his postscript that Winchell died in 1974 and his funeral was only attended by his daughter. But in Roth’s reality, Winchell is saved from ignominy. He is martyred in a political killing and his funeral is attended by thirty thousand mourners, including some of the most prominent individuals of the time. It’s a stark reminder that history as it is lived is always conditional and we can never be assured of whether we have taken the right course. A legacy is for the future to judge and our paths are many.
Roth ensures we understand this by inserting himself into the story as a first person narrator. His perspective is limited, with some hindsight offered by a more mature narrator. Roth’s home situation captures all the uncertainty of the times. Alvin, his cousin has lost his leg, having left the country to fight Hitler’s forces. He is vehemently against Lindbergh, as is Herman. But Sandy’s loyalties have been compromised by the Just Folks program, one of a number of policies designed to divide Jews and undermine their social cohesion. Having spent time at a farm in Kentucky with a Christian family, he has eaten pork and bacon and has become a public advocate for Lindbergh’s policies, a source of conflict in the family home. For his part, Philip has been the unwitting instrument by which his neighbours, Seldon and his mother, have been forcibly moved. As a result, Seldon faces a lonely childhood, despised by other children in his new school, while Philip agonises over his responsibility for Seldon’s fate, to the point that he fantasises about changing places to assuage his own sense of guilt. Could Philip have seen what would befall his neighbours? To what extent is he responsible as an individual for the outcome of history?
While The Plot Against America deals with the wide sweep of history and its possibilities, the novel is an intensely personal account, for the most part, about growing up in the shadow of history, and its impacts. The first chapter might be a struggle for some readers. Its focus is mainly on establishing the premise of the novel and therefore relies heavily upon exposition. But the second chapter, in which the family travels to Washington and experiences the reality of living as Jews under the new regime, is dramatic and well told, and a gives a good sense of what the rest of the novel will feel like. Becoming familiar with the key aspects of Charles Lindbergh’s life will also add to the experience of reading the novel. It might seem like a bit of an effort, but Roth is a great writer, and it is well worth it.