The Plot Against America, David Simon and Ed Burns’ HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel, offers a terrifying history of an alternate America in which fascist elements take control of the government in 1940. But the single most shocking moment in the miniseries’ first episode is entirely true to life: Charles Lindbergh’s Des Moines speech.
In both the book and the TV series, Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the presidential election of 1940, running on a platform of explicit isolationism and veiled anti-Semitism. In real life, the two frequently sparred through the press, with Lindbergh, a national hero of trans-Atlantic aviation who openly admired Nazi Germany’s military power, making the case that the U.S. should stay out of what he characterized as a European war. Lindbergh’s opposition was couched in the language of strategy, the idea being that interfering in a conflict overseas would leave the country vulnerable to a domestic attack. But his addresses, which were national news because of his enormous celebrity, were full of language stressing that this struggle was one that concerned them, and not us. “These wars in Europe are not wars in which our civilization is defending itself against some Asiatic intruder,” he said in 1939. “This is not a question of banding together to defend the white race against foreign invasion.”
In public, Lindbergh took care not to note which races he thought were not worth defending, although in his journals earlier that year, he expressed concern about the influx of Jewish refugees. “Imagine the United States taking these Jews in in addition to those we already have,” he wrote, according to A. Scott Berg’s biography, Lindbergh. “There are too many in places like New York already. A few Jews add strength and character to a country, but too many create chaos. And we are getting too many. This present immigration will have its reaction.”
But in Des Moines, Iowa, Lindbergh let the mask fall. On Sept. 11, 1941, in a speech entitled “Who Are the War Agitators?” he cited three main forces driving the U.S. toward war: the British, the Roosevelt administration, and the Jews. “It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany,” Lindbergh said.
The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race. No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy both for us and for them. Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.
Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastations. A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.
I am not attacking either the Jewish or the British people. Both races, I admire. But I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war.
Berg, who often struggles to frame Lindbergh in the best possible light, writes that Lindbergh “thought he was showing his sympathy for a long-persecuted tribe,” but The Plot Against America gives him no such benefit of the doubt. It’s clear that Plot’s Lindbergh, who is only heard over the radio in the first episode but will later be played by Ben Cole, sees Jews as, at the very best, something other than American, eventually reviving the Homestead Act to resettle them out of the Northeast. And while it’s Cole’s voice, and not Lindbergh’s, that we hear in the first episode, you can hear both him and the roar of the crowd in extant recordings from that day.
The idea that Lindbergh—faced with a mass of people cheering his America First rhetoric and booing mention of “agitators”—didn’t know what he was saying and, to whom, beggars belief, and the virulent contemporary reaction against the speech makes it clear that it was understood then as it is understood now. The bombing of Pearl Harbor later that year ended all question of U.S. entry into World War II, and Lindbergh eventually flew dozens of combat missions against Japanese forces. But the Des Moines speech was a permanent stain on his once-gleaming reputation, and Philip Roth was not the only person who never forgot it.