During the debate over whether to invade Iraq, or whether to stay in Afghanistan, many people looked back to World War II, describing it as a good and just war — a war the U.S. knew it had to fight. In reality, it wasn't that simple. When Britain and France went to war with Germany in 1939, Americans were divided about offering military aid, and the debate over the U.S. joining the war was even more heated. It wasn't until two years later, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war against the U.S., that Americans officially entered the conflict.
But from 1939 through 1941, Americans were deeply divided between interventionism and isolationism.
"It's so easy, again, to look back and say, 'Well, all the things that the isolationists said were wrong,' " author Lynne Olson tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. " ... But back then, you know, in '39, '40 and most of '41, people didn't know that. People had no idea what was going to happen."
Olson's new book, Those Angry Days, shines the spotlight on the national debate over whether to go to war in Europe. President Franklin Roosevelt led the interventionist charge, while aviator Charles Lindbergh became an unofficial leader of the isolationist movement.
Because of Lindbergh's fervent isolationism, history has sometimes remembered him as a Nazi sympathizer, but Olson says that accusation is not quite accurate.
"He certainly was a racist in the sense that he thought people of northern European descent — i.e., whites — were inherently superior in every possible way to people who were not white, and the Germans obviously shared that view," Olson says.
Still, when the U.S. entered the war, Lindbergh wanted to fly for his country. Roosevelt wouldn't allow it, but Lindbergh's friends arranged for him to serve as a civilian consultant testing planes in the South Pacific.
"Charles Lindbergh was never happier than in a cockpit," Olson says. " ... He didn't really like politics at all, but [the cockpit] was his place."
On the question of Lindbergh's Nazi sympathies
"He admired the Germans' technological expertise. Bottom line: Charles Lindbergh was a technocrat. That's what he was really interested in, and the Germans were experts in technology. And he also admired what the Germans had done in terms of reviving country, and he certainly was sympathetic with Germany. Often he would say, 'You know, I don't approve of what they're doing to the Jews. I don't approve of their denial of freedoms,' but you never really got the sense that he felt very strongly about that."
On Americans not feeling connected to World War II Europe
"They looked on it kind of like a movie. ... It was something that just didn't affect them. We didn't have the technology. We didn't have the instant communication. We didn't have the ability to travel — the ability to travel quickly — to Europe that we have now. And so most Americans — not all, but most Americans, especially those who lived in the heartland — really didn't feel that they had anything in common with Europe. They hadn't been there. They thought this was a distant place that they really had nothing to do with, and they felt that way until 1940."
On the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, the first peacetime conscription in U.S. history
"The conscription bill was one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation, at least in the beginning, because we only had had a draft twice in our history before: the Civil War and World War I. The idea of a standing army was anathema to most Americans, as it had been to the Founding Fathers. We just didn't do that. I mean, that was not in the American scheme of things, and a group of private citizens said that we needed — in order to be a well-prepared country, in case we had to get into this war or even to defend ourselves — ... a standing army. We needed a draft. We needed to draft a million young men to be prepared in case this war ever touched our shores."
On why many students opposed U.S. intervention in World War II
"Students felt strongly because they were going to be the ones, you know, on the front lines if we got into the war, and they felt incredibly strongly that the first world war hadn't worked and that all these young Americans had been killed, and they didn't want to be next. You know, when I was doing research on the book, that whole subject reminded me a lot of Vietnam in the '60s. There was a very big anti-war student movement before World War II. And we think of World War II as a good war, but, you know, that's in hindsight. It turned out in many ways it was a necessary war for us, but that wasn't clear back then and certainly not to a lot of Americans. And so these kids were basically saying, 'Hell no, we don't want to go to war. This is something we absolutely do not want to do.' And this major isolationist organization ... America First was founded by a bunch of Yale students — Yale law students and Yale undergraduates — and among them were young men who went on to have incredibly illustrious careers. ... Gerald Ford was a Yale law student, and he was one of the founders of America First. Potter Stewart, who later went on the Supreme Court, was also a founder. Sargent Shriver, the first head of the Peace Corps, was a founder, as was Kingman Brewster, who later became president of Yale and, quite ironically, U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. Among the students who supported America First were John F. Kennedy, who was a Harvard senior, and Kurt Vonnegut and a young prep school student named Gore Vidal."
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. During the controversy over whether to invade Iraq, many people look back to World War II, describing that as the good war, the just war, the war we knew we had to fight. We've seen so many stirring World War II films and heard so much praise for the so-called greatest generation, and we forget that when Britain and France went to war with Germany in 1939, Americans were divided over whether we should offer them military aid.
The debate was far more heated over whether we should go to war. And we didn't go until two years later, after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war against the U.S. My guest Lynne Olson has written a book about the isolationists and the interventionists who were on opposite sides of the debate over entering the war. It's called "Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941."
It's one of several books she's written about World War II. Lynne Olson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write about the period when right before America entered the war, when Americans were divided over whether or not to fight in World War II?
LYNNE OLSON: I had written a couple of books before this book, about Britain during the early years of World War II and about how it stood alone against Hitler. And the U.S. was kind of an off-scene participant. You know, it was waiting to find out what was going to happen to Britain. It was the only country that could possibly save the British, and yet it spent years debating about what to do.
And I decided that it was about time to look at the U.S. and to really examine that time because when we talk about World War II, we really usually think about Pearl Harbor and what happened after that. Most Americans don't really know the incredibly interesting history that went on before that in the two years leading up to World War II.
GROSS: So your main focus is on President Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh. FDR, OK, he's president of the United States, pretty obvious why you choose him. Lindbergh?
OLSON: Lindbergh, as it turns out, was the unofficial leader of the isolationist movement in the United States. The isolationists basically thought we should stay out of World War II, we should not get involved in that European war, that what we should do is to be ready to defend our own country, and that's all. And Lindbergh, he was not a formal leader of this movement, but because of his fame, you know, he really became the one that everybody looked to and the one that Franklin Roosevelt was most concerned about.
GROSS: And he was such a famous aviator. He did the first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. And he had lived in Europe during part of the 1930s and made visits to Germany, where he was shown state of the art air force stuff that Germany had. And what was his assessment?
OLSON: He was blown away by it, which is exactly what the Germans wanted him - how they wanted him to feel. It was really a PR ploy on the part of the head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering. Charles Lindbergh was the most - as you say the most famous aviator in the world, and he wanted Lindberg to basically be a mouthpiece and tell the rest of the world, particularly Europe, that the Luftwaffe was an overwhelming power and that no country could really go to war successfully against Germany because they would be vanquished.
And Charles Lindbergh played into that. He was incredibly impressed by the German air force; the size of it, the technological advancements that he had made, and he did in fact say that the German air force was overpowering and that nobody really could stand up to it.
GROSS: And he actually sounded pretty sympathetic to the Nazi ideology.
OLSON: You know, that's really interesting. I'm not so sure it was the Nazi ideology. He admired the Germans' technological expertise. Bottom line, Charles Lindbergh was a technocrat. That's what he was really interested in. And the Germans were experts in technology. He also admired what the Germans had done in terms of reviving country, and he certainly was sympathetic with Germany.
Often he would say, you know, I don't approve of what they're doing to the Jews, I don't approve of their denial of freedoms, but you never really got the sense that he felt very strongly about that.
GROSS: My impression from your book is what he agreed with, with the Germans was that white Europeans were superior in every way to anyone else.
OLSON: Oh absolutely, you're absolutely right, which was not an unpopular view back then. But he certainly was a racist, in the sense that he thought people of Northern European descent, i.e., whites, were inherently superior in every possible way to people who were not white. And, you know, the Germans obviously shared that view.
GROSS: So why did he think that America should not intervene in World War II?
OLSON: He basically thought that the Germans were too strong and that the rest of Europe should make peace with Germany, should basically come to a negotiated peace with them, that the U.S. should stay out of any European entanglements. It went along somewhat with that racist white ideology belief that he had that America should, if it got into war, should side with European countries, the white countries. It should not enter into a war in which European countries were fighting each other. It should stay out. It should defend itself, it should arm enough so that we can defend ourselves against any invader, but we should definitely stay out of the war that was raging in Europe.
GROSS: My guest is Lynne Olson. We're talking about her new book "Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941." It's interesting to go back to 1939, when no one had an idea of what the outcome of the war would be or even if the United States would enter that war.
And you're right about how Americans didn't consider World War II to be their war. They didn't feel connected to it. Try to tell us what that climate was like then, when Americans didn't feel connected to World War II.
OLSON: They looked on it kind of like a movie.
GROSS: It was the war in Europe. It wasn't quite the world war yet.
OLSON: No that's right. It was something that just didn't affect them. I mean, we didn't have the technology. We didn't have the instant communication. We didn't have the ability to travel quickly to Europe that we have now. And so most Americans - not all, but most Americans, especially those who lived in the heartland - really didn't feel that they had anything in common with Europe.
They hadn't been there. They thought this was, you know, a distant place that they really had nothing to do with. And they felt that way until 1940. The people on the East Coast, you know, there were a lot of people who had traveled to Europe, to England, who had been educated there, who had done business there, and they had a very different commitment to Europe and to England.
But the rest of the country really, really didn't have that same feeling.
GROSS: And I think there was a lot of skepticism about entering World War II in part because when America entered World War I and lost about 50,000 soldiers there, after the war a lot of people thought what was this for, what was this about, what was the purpose of that war? And before Americans really understood what Hitler was up to, there was a lot of feeling, right, like let's not get involved in another war like World War I.
OLSON: World War I was an incredibly unpopular war after it was over in this country. Right, you know, the fact that we had lost 50,000 young men, and we got nothing from it. You know, it was fought supposedly to make the world safe for democracy, and instead democracy had given way to Adolf Hitler. And our European allies basically stood by and let Hitler gain power.
And so the thought was, you know, we went to war once to save you, we're not going to do it again. I mean, there's no reason for us to do this. And there was also a lot of anger, I think, at the British because the British had mounted an incredibly sophisticated propaganda campaign during World War I to get us in. And Americans were very suspicious of England and feared that they were going to try to do that again.
GROSS: A lot of families in America were divided about whether to enter the war or not, including Charles Lindbergh's family.
OLSON: Yes, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, his wife, had grown up in the East. She had grown up in the New York area. She was the daughter of a very prominent banker, a partner of JP Morgan, who later became an ambassador and a senator. So she came from, you know, Eastern, European, establishment background, which was very internationalist, which was very pro-British.
And she herself had been that way before she married Charles Lindbergh. And now she was married to, you know, the major proponent of isolationism in the country and supported his beliefs, although I don't think she ever really bought into them totally. But her family, virtually every member of her family was on the other side, as were her friends and those people who she had grown up with.
Her mother was a big spokesman for the idea of giving aid to Britain to allow it to survive. And her sister Constance, who was really her best friend, was married to a man named Aubrey Morgan, who as it turned out was one of the British government's top propagandists in the U.S. So he was basically trying to get America into the war, you know, the war that Charles Lindberg was desperately trying to keep us out of.
GROSS: You know what? Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about your book. My guest is Lynne Olson. She's written several books about World War II. And her new book is called "Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II," and it's about the fight in America over whether or not to enter the war. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lynne Olson. We're talking about her new book, which is about the debate in America in 1939 to 1941 about whether or not to enter World War II. The book is called "Those Angry Days."
So a little chronology: In 1939, Germany invades Poland, then Britain and France fulfill their promise to Poland to protect its borders, so they declare war on Germany. But Britain and France don't really have the military power to match Germany's, and so FDR has to think about is he going to help them or not, and does he have the power to help them? What was some of the American legislation constraining FDR at that point from helping by sending arms to England and France?
OLSON: Congress had passed a series of what they called Neutrality Acts in the mid-1930s. They basically were aimed at keeping us out of foreign wars. And one of the acts basically said you cannot sell weapons, the U.S. could not sell weapons to any belligerent country, any country at war.
And FDR wanted to amend that act so that we could sell weapons to Britain and France when they got into the war, as long as they paid for those weapons in cash and took them away in their own ships. There was tremendous opposition in Congress on the part of the isolationist members of Congress, and it really was the first big test of what this country was going to do.
It was the first kind of confrontation between the isolationists in Congress and the White House.
GROSS: So what was that first confrontation?
OLSON: The White House and the administration had put forward legislation to amend the Neutrality Act so that Britain and France could in fact buy weapons from the U.S., and it was introduced. Members of the Congress, particularly in the Senate, put up a big, big fight to keep that from passing. It eventually did pass but there was still a lot of hesitancy on the part of Members of Congress in terms of, you know, whether we should in fact help Britain and France.
GROSS: And then after that legislation there was the Lend-Lease Act. Would you describe the importance of that in kind of -not only in helping Britain but also in setting the stage for us entering the war?
OLSON: The Lend-Lease Act was one of the most important pieces of legislation that was passed, you know, before we got into the war, and actually it was one of the most important wartime bills ever passed. Basically, the Lend-Lease helped us win World War II, and it was designed to allow the president, to allow Franklin Roosevelt, to lend or to lease equipment, planes, ships to whatever country he thought needed to have them.
So in other words, it really was kind of a blank check to Britain and then later to the Soviet Union, to our allies, to provide them the desperately needed weapons - ships, planes, et cetera - that they needed.
GROSS: One other bit of legislation I want to mention, and that's the Conscription Act, which for the third time in American history created a draft. Was that a very unpopular piece of legislation?
OLSON: The conscription bill was one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation, at least in the beginning, because we only had had a draft twice in our history before: the Civil War and World War I. The idea of a standing army was anathema to most Americans, as it had been to the founding fathers. We just didn't do that. I mean, that was not in the American scheme of things.
And a group of private citizens basically said in order to be a well-prepared country, in case we had to get into this war or even to defend ourselves, we needed a standing army, we needed a draft. We needed to draft, you know, a million young men to be prepared in case this war ever touched our shores.
And initially, it was incredibly unpopular, especially with the millions of young men who would be the ones who would be drafted, and also their parents and Members of Congress. It was also unpopular in the beginning with FDR because it was introduced, or it was suggested in the middle of the 1940 presidential campaign, and that was the last thing he wanted. I mean, that was an incredibly controversial thing to be discussing in the middle of a campaign.
So he wasn't really thrilled with it, and neither was General George Marshall, who was the head of the Army. Nobody was really interested in it except this group of private citizens who wanted it.
GROSS: We've had a lot of debates in the past few decades in the United States over whether or not to enter a war or how deep into that war to get. I mean, after World War II, the big debate over Vietnam and then, you know, the debate about whether to intervene in the war in Bosnia. And then you've got Iraq and Afghanistan, debates over whether to bomb Iran or not.
Let's look more at the debate over World War II. It was a big isolationist movement. The main isolationist group was called America First. And it surprised me to read that this was actually started on a Yale campus, and, you know, most of the members who started it were students. Why did the students feel so strongly?
OLSON: I think that students felt strongly because they were going to be the ones, you know, on the front lines if we got into the war. And they felt incredibly strongly that the First World War hadn't worked and that all these young Americans had been killed, and they didn't want to be next.
You know, when I was doing research on the book, that whole subject reminded me a lot of Vietnam in the '60s. I mean, there was a very big anti-war student movement before World War II. We think of World War II as a good war, but, you know, that's in hindsight. It turned out in many ways it was. It was a necessary war for us.
But that wasn't clear back then, certainly not to a lot of Americans. And so these kids were basically saying, hell no, we don't want to go to war. This is something we absolutely do not want to do. And this major isolationist organization, as you said, America First, was founded by a bunch of Yale students, Yale law students and Yale undergraduates.
And among them were young men who went on to have incredibly illustrious careers, including a president of the United States, a Supreme Court justice.
GROSS: Name them, name them.
OLSON: OK, Jerry Ford, Gerald Ford was a Yale law student. He was one of the founders of America First. Potter Stewart, who later went on the Supreme Court, was also a founder. Sargent Shriver, the first head of the Peace Corps, was a founder, as was Kingman Brewster, who later became president of Yale and quite ironically U.S. ambassador to Great Britain.
Among the students who supported America First were John F. Kennedy, who was a Harvard senior, and Kurt Vonnegut, and a young prep school student named Gore Vidal. So it was a very, very popular organization among students in 1940.
GROSS: The big interventionist group arguing that we should be part of the war was called the Century Group. What was that group about, and who were the illustrious people in that group?
OLSON: There were a couple of interventionist groups that were very active. The Century Group was kind of the extremist group. It's called the Century Group because most of its members were members of the Century Club in New York, which is one of the top private men's clubs, or it was all men back then. And many members of the group were prominent members, leaders of the media, and they included Henry Luce, who had founded Time and Life and Fortune magazines.
They included several CBS commentators, many top editors of New York newspapers, including the New York Herald Tribune. And they had tremendous influence because they used their media, particularly Luce and Time and Life, to promote the idea that we had to get into war.
The Century Group said that the only way that America would mobilize to help England survive and to help, you know, the allies was if we got into war ourselves. So in June 1940, they were already saying we should declare war against Germany. They knew it probably wasn't going to happen right away, but they were out there fighting for that.
GROSS: Lynne Olson will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Lynne Olson. We're talking about her new book, which describes the debate between American isolationists and interventionists over whether to enter World War II. It's called "Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941." After England went to war with Germany, it needed America's help and wanted America to enter the war.
Now I was surprised to read that the British sent over someone named William Stephenson to head British intelligence activities in America, and his group was called the British Security Coordination group and part of his goal was to get America to join the war. So what was that effort like, that British effort in America?
OLSON: Oh, to me that's one of the most interesting parts of the book. The British Security Coordination was this kind of inane, bland name for this covert British operation which involved spying, wiretapping, making up stories, forging documents, all designed to get the United States into the war on Britain's side. It was based in Rockefeller Center, had more than a thousand employees, top-secret, nobody really knew about it except FDR, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, and a few others. And so basically there were all these British agents who were - as I said - working very, very hard to do whatever they needed to do to get us into the war. And among the things that they did, they dug up dirt on American isolationists. They wiretapped and spied on members of Congress who were isolationists. They planted British propaganda in American newspapers. I mean, it was an extraordinary campaign and all totally illegal.
GROSS: But did FDR give it his blessing because he wanted America to go to war?
OLSON: FDR gave this group his blessing because they were doing his work, which is basically to discredit American isolationists. I don't think quite frankly that he ever really wanted to go to war, certainly in the sense of sending troops to Europe. But he certainly wanted to help England. He certainly wanted to provide them all the aid that he could so that they could survive. And he would do anything he could to discredit those who were working against that.
GROSS: So is there an example of some either dirt that this British group dug up or information that they forged that will show what they were up to?
OLSON: A couple of months before we got into the war, FDR produced a map that he said showed that Latin America was going to be divided up into five German vassal states. In other words, that Germany planned to come over and establish German states in Latin and South America. And he said this map was a German map and proved it. Well, it caused all sorts of great furor in the country. And it turned out actually, that that map was a forgery, that the British had forged it and had slipped it to FDR. There's no sign that FDR knew it was a forgery. He apparently thought it was real, it was accurate, but in fact, it was a forgery of the British.
GROSS: So we've been talking about bugging that the British did in the United States. But the FBI was involved in bugging too. Who was the FBI bugging?
OLSON: The FBI was bugging pretty much anybody they thought was suspicious. FDR had given J. Edgar Hoover a very vague directive to investigate fascist, pro-fascist groups, communist groups in this country. And Hoover, as was his wont, took that directive and ran with it. He basically bugged anybody he thought might pose a security threat to the U.S. And he was doing this to hundreds of thousands of people. Most of them didn't pose a security threat. I mean he would both people who subscribed to foreign language newspapers, considering them a security threat. So he had a list of, as I said, hundreds of thousands of names of people that might be taken into detention if we got into war. So, you know, basically he did whatever he wanted to do.
GROSS: The movie studios play a very interesting role in the period that you write about - 1939 to 1941. They start off wanting to protect their interests in Europe. They don't want to alienate Germany and Italy. They want their movies shown in European markets because it meant money. So what was the movie studios' initial attitude toward how the war in Europe should or shouldn't enter into movies?
OLSON: The studios' attitude initially, was to stay away, as far away from the war in Europe as possible because they didn't want controversy. They wanted to retain their profits. They wanted to keep Germany and Italy as good markets. And it really wasn't until 1940, '39 and '40, when Germany and Italy no longer showed most American movies, and it was becoming really clear that Hitler was a true threat to the security not only of Europe, but of the world, that the movie studio heads started considering making movies. It was really the fall of France, I think, in 1940 that made them decide that, OK, we can start making anti-Nazi, anti-German films. But once they did in 1940, then there was a flood of them. It still wasn't the majority, you know, it was just a tiny minority of the movies that Hollywood made. But some of those movies had a great impact, I think, on the American public.
GROSS: An example that I found really fascinating, and this is when the Hollywood studios were still trying to maintain some kind of foothold in European markets, including Germany and Italy, MGM had optioned a play by Robert Sherwood, and wanted to adapted it into a movie, and the play was called "Idiot's Delight." Describe what the play was and describe how the movie turned out.
OLSON: The play was about a group of tourists who were caught in an Italian hotel, I think, a hotel on the border of Italy, when the Italians had started bombing, I believe it was Paris. I can't remember. But anyway, they were caught there. And the story is about, you know, the interaction between these tourists. And when the play was optioned to make a movie, MGM said it couldn't be Italy because they didn't want to offend Mussolini. And also they couldn't speak Italian because that would offend Mussolini, so they spoke in Esperanto. And...
GROSS: In an unnamed country.
OLSON: In an unnamed country. And this movie had absolutely no connection to the play that Robert Sherwood had written. And he was asked later on if he had a collaborator on this movie. And he said yes, I had one, and that was Mussolini.
GROSS: Because it was so angry about how the adaptation turned out.
OLSON: Oh yeah. Exactly. Exactly.
GROSS: And for all that, Italy banned the movie anyway.
OLSON: Italy banned the movie anyway, so It didn't make any difference.
GROSS: if you're just joining us, my guest is Lynne Olson and we're talking about her book "Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941." And the fight she's referring to is the fight over whether or not America should enter World War II.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR , and if you're just joining us, my guest is Lynne Olson. Her new book is called "Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II." And it's about the fight in America over whether or not we should join World War II.
Before we entered the war, a document was leaked that was a blueprint for total war, about an all-out confrontation with Germany. What was this document and who leaked it?
OLSON: The document actually was a contingency plan that the military had come up with, had just designed, that basically outlined the various ways the U.S. could get into the war, or what the U.S. should do in various scenarios. It wasn't clear at that point yet that we were going to get into the war, but it was something that the military do all the time, to be ready in case of war. And what this document did was to outline, you know, how many troops we would need, planes, ships, you know, in these various scenarios - if we would fight Germany, if we would fight Japan. So it wasn't a blueprint for war in the sense that those who leaked it claimed. It was leaked to the Chicago Tribune and published as if it were, you know, FDR's top-secret plan, definite plan to get into the war. And it was leaked, and this did not come out until years later, and in fact, never has officially been confirmed. But it was leaked by the head of the American Air Force, General "Hap" Arnold, who basically had fought all along to keep American planes away from the British.
In other words, he wanted the planes for his own Air Force. The Air Force had been sorely understaffed and under-sourced. It was pitiful in its strength. It had no strength at all, and had very few modern planes. And he did not want them to be given to England, he wanted them for his own Air Force. So he had fought the administration long and hard on that. And he also thought that this contingency plan called the Victory Program, shortchanged the Air Force in favor of the Navy. And so for all those reasons he was basically trying to sabotage this plan. And he secretly passed - he didn't do it, but through a go-between - passed a copy of this top-secret contingency plan to senator named Burton Wheeler, who was the top isolationist leader in the Senate. And Burton Wheeler secretly leaked that plan to a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
GROSS: So once that plan was published what was the impact?
OLSON: It was, it had a huge impact. Everybody in Congress was in an uproar. The isolationists were really happy because they thought they had caught Roosevelt in a bald-faced lie. Roosevelt had said he did not want to get the U.S. into war, and here they said, here, we have a plan that shows you definitely want us to get into the war. Not only do you want the U.S. to get into the war, you plan to send millions of troops over to Europe. But again, this was not, you know, a cast in iron plan. This was just a contingency plan. So initially, it had a great impact but it came out, it was published only a couple of days before Pearl Harbor, so obviously once Pearl Harbor happened, everybody forgot about the controversy over this plan.
GROSS: And you say one of the most surprising things about this plan is that it hadn't been written until a couple of months before it was leaked. You were surprised that there wasn't a contingency plan before that.
OLSON: Yeah. I mean, you know, it was actually ordered by FDR just a few months before Pearl Harbor so, you know, until it actually was written and it came out, it was actually finished in September - just three months before Pearl Harbor - we had no real plan for how we would conduct a war. And as a result of that, our industrial production had been really pitiful. You know, we have not turned out the planes, you know, the ships, etcetera, that we would've needed for an all-out war. And so, thank God we actually had that plan in September. So once we got into the war, you know, it was immediately implemented - or it started being implemented - and as a result we were able to turn out the millions and millions of planes, ships, etcetera, that we needed.
GROSS: So Charles Lindbergh is one of the main characters in your book and he's one of the leading isolationists in the late '30s and early '40s, arguing against America's intervention in the war. But, of course, you know, he's a famous aviator and once World War II actually starts he wants to fight in the war. He wants to fly planes in the war but he's persona non grata as far as the White House is concerned. So what does he get to do in World War II?
OLSON: He gets to be a civilian consultant in World War II. This was not his idea. I mean, he did want to fly. He did want to join the military and Roosevelt absolutely would not have it. So he had a lot of friends in the military - from the top on down. And so they basically said well, why don't we bring you to the Pacific and let you fly as a civilian consultant and test planes and we'll do it that way. And he said well, you know, the White House won't like that. And they said well, why does the White House have to know? And that's what happened. He went to the Pacific, flew missions, actual missions, and basically he was a combat pilot. But he was also testing planes to try to make them better, in terms of range, in terms of safety, etcetera. But he flew a number of missions and this was where he was happiest. Charles Lindbergh was never happier than in a cockpit. That's really where he shone. I mean, he didn't really like politics at all, but this was his place. And he was absolutely in seventh heaven, you know, during this I think it was like five months that he was in the Pacific. He couldn't have been happier.
GROSS: The oddest part of the Charles Lindbergh story, which you write briefly about in your book is from 1957 to '75, when he ends up having seven children with three different women, all German, in Germany. He used pseudonyms in those relationships. That is so odd.
OLSON: That's so very odd. I don't think anybody quite understands what happened. He used to fly a lot after the war. He had a lot of business connections, and so he would spend most of his time away from home, flying all over the world. And during that period that you talked about, he had these permanent relationships with these three women, and had seven children by them. And it was all incredibly secret, top secret. These women would write to post office boxes and...
GROSS: So the women knew who he was, but their children didn't?
OLSON: That's right. The women knew who he was. One of the women was his secretary, who had done a lot of his work, you know, business dealings in Germany. But they kept it secret from their children. And one set of children discovered, after their mother died, discovered who he was, and that's when it became public. But as far as we know, his wife didn't know. Anne Lindberg didn't know. And his children here in the United States didn't know until after, you know, this story was broken.
GROSS: Do you find it interesting how little we seem to remember about the period that you've just written about in your new book? When a lot of people didn't want to go into war in World War II, and there was a lot of resistance to the idea, because now it's all like, oh, it's the greatest generation who fought the war - not to take away from that. But, you know, there's so many World War II films that were, you know, just, like, all about the patriotism that we needed and the sacrifices we needed to make - or the sacrifices that we made, you know. And we kind of collectively forget about that period when there was so much reluctance to enter the war.
OLSON: I think that's absolutely true, and that's one reason that I wrote the book. I mean, it's like those two years almost never happened, you know, that we got into the war, and then everything was fine. It was the good war. It was the necessary war. And what I tried to do in this book was to show the uncertainty, that this was a really difficult decision, and that it wasn't, you know, cut and dried, that people who were isolationists had good reasons for, you know, thinking that we should stay out of the war - at least at that period. I want to make people think, you know, that war is awful, and that you really have to explore why you should get into it.
GROSS: And also, you never know, when it starts, what the outcome is going to be.
OLSON: Absolutely. Absolutely. It's so easy, again, to look back and say, well, you know, all the things that the isolationists said were wrong. And, in fact, most of them were. I mean, we didn't - we lost hundreds of thousands of men, but not nearly as many as the isolationists feared. You know, another thing that the isolationists said was that our economy would collapse totally. In fact, you know, our economy got this enormous boost. You know, there was a boom during the war. Most Americans really did quite well during the war. But back then, you know, in '39, '40 and most of '41, people didn't know that. People had no idea what was going to happen.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us, Lynne Olson. Thank you.
OLSON: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Lynne Olson is the author of "Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindberg, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, we remember former New York Times Supreme Court reporter and columnist Anthony Lewis. He died yesterday at the age of 85. We'll hear an excerpt of our 1991 interview. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.