David Simon’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, premieres on HBO Monday night. In the story, set in 1940, a school-age Jewish boy named Phillip Levin (Azhy Robertson) watches as the election of isolationist pro-Nazi aviator Charles Lindbergh to the American presidency fuels a terrifying explosion of anti-Semitism in American culture. Phillip’s family splinters, with his father (Morgan Spector) refusing to be silent about Lindbergh’s Nazism, while his aunt (Winona Ryder) marries a rabbi (John Turturro) who works for the Lindbergh administration.
Evaluating a counterfactual scenario for historical plausibility may seem a bit ridiculous, but there are better and worse counterfactuals—the best have the ability to make you see your own timeline anew. How successful, then, is Roth’s vision of an America gone off the rails? We asked four historians of the period to weigh in. Our conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Warning: Spoilers below!
If you’re comparing The Plot Against America to other recent works of TV that depict a counterfactual history around Nazis in America, like Hunters or The Man in the High Castle, I think far and away the most plausible point of divergence is that in The Man in the High Castle, FDR gets assassinated in February of 1933 in Miami. That would have put John Nance Garner into the presidency as a Southern conservative, and most likely Garner would have taken a very hands-off approach to a lot of the domestic fascism that existed in the 1930s—which FDR, with J. Edgar Hoover’s cooperation, really ended up putting under surveillance and suppressing to a large degree—certainly by the late 1930s and early 1940s. I think [the fascist] presence would have been a lot more pronounced had FDR not been president.
So, I think the idea in Plot Against America that FDR continues to be president throughout the 1930s, then loses to Lindbergh in 1940, when America’s already on a war footing … to me, that’s just not plausible. Definitely not as plausible as the idea that America goes to the far right absent FDR in 1932.
Of course, this raises the whole question of contingency and determinism in history (and great individuals versus deep structural forces), but in this instance, and with somebody like Donald Trump today, I think it’s pretty obvious to see how having an incompetent or self-interested person at the helm versus a responsible person who’s there for the national interest—it makes a difference.
Rebecca Onion: What do you think about the ending of the novel Plot Against America, the idea that Hitler was using Lindbergh’s kidnapped baby to force him to bring Nazism to America?* Was Hitler conceiving and executing schemes like that?
The concept plays into this idea that Hitler was the master strategist at the top of a pyramid of Nazi functionaries—the puppet master, the string-puller who had his hand in every agency. That was a model of history that was very popular in the 1950s, the idea that he was an omniscient dictator.
Most historians have now adopted a much more chaotic view of the Nazi political system, whereby Hitler was a lazy leader who woke up at noon or 1 o’clock, every day, and allowed a lot of policy measures to be determined by government agencies. A much more chaotic system of making decisions. There’s no way in hell he could have had the foresight to manipulate American figures to try to implement a master plan like this.
Roth, to my mind, didn’t really invest a ton of thought in the plausibility of his premise. In the novel he just kind of uses a whole succession of news headlines to bring to a close what had already been a 400-page novel, in about 30 pages. I think he just ran out of gas.
But the bit of that that’s a bit too neat, and upbeat and redemptive, was believing that America’s democracy would recover from a setback like this one, after the plot was revealed, and restore the happy narrative of American progressivism after three years of trauma. I think most people realize how atrophied our democracy might actually have become in that scenario.
The precipitating incident in the book and the show is that Lindbergh somehow wins the 1940 election, and in my professional opinion, that’s wildly implausible. Lindbergh was a prominent figure within the America First Committee, or at least one of their most cherished celebrities, but he wasn’t the leader of the organization, and the idea that he would get the Republican nomination in 1940 kind of beggars belief.
Even if he were far more charismatic in real life than he actually was, you’d need him to be a much more talented celebrity figure at that point. He was all right if you happened to already share his point of view, but he didn’t generally set people on fire.
Meanwhile, in real life, there were very loud voices opposing aid to Britain, let alone actual U.S. intervention. There was the Hearst newspaper chain and the Associated newsreels—that’s media saturation there, already, for the idea. Colonel McCormick, who had the Chicago Tribune and the radio station WGN, was opposed to intervention. The Daily News, in New York City, was massively against it.
So there were these powerful voices in real life pushing against Roosevelt’s interventionist policy—and Roosevelt still won the 1940 election by a landslide! Roosevelt basically faced that kind of campaign that Roth is imagining, and beat it by a lot.
The precipitating incident in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is actually much more plausible. In real life Roosevelt was almost assassinated in February 1933—a very close thing, the guy standing next to him was killed. And if he’d been killed, John Nance Garner, vice president–elect, would have become president, and Garner owed his place on the ticket to being in William Randolph Hearst’s pocket. And Hearst was on this idea, “Let’s let the fascists do their own thing, and not bother them,” that America First policy. If Garner had been president, you wouldn’t have got nearly as much of a New Deal. You wouldn’t have had somebody who was as ardently anti-Nazi from the get-go as Roosevelt was.
If you look at the Roth novel, the kinds of programs the Lindbergh administration puts in place to relocate Jews … now that is plausible. The Lindbergh part, not plausible, but if you stipulate some other fascist or whatever anti-Semite, a person who’s charismatic and could have got the nomination and been reasonably administratively competent, there’s good reason to believe that Americans might have accepted these kinds of programs. If you look at polls from the late 1930s, you see Americans were anti-Semitic. You have to remember Roosevelt was pushing hard for Jewish refugees to be accepted in America, and the polls were against it. There were a substantial number of Americans who wanted to see Jews deported, or at least … just leave. So, the idea that you could have had a successful anti-Semitic relocation program, that’s quite plausible.
And of course, in real life, we had anti-Japanese relocation policies, right? So yeah, that part is quite believable.
So you think Lindbergh, in 1940, his celebrity was not strong enough to get people to vote for him? Thirteen, 14 years after the famous flight? I wonder if we are in some way projecting our own obsession with celebrity, backward onto 1940, to believe that it would have been possible.
I’ll go you one better. I think we are projecting back our particular polished-up version of Lindbergh. Lindbergh’s gotten off really easy—there are roads named after him and airports named after him. Dude was very Nazi-friendly! Remember, he received a medal from Hitler’s regime, which he refused to give back even after Kristallnacht, as far as we know. By way of contrast, he resigned his position in the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve because he didn’t like Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy. That guy was not an American hero.
How realistic is the point of departure in Roth’s scenario—Lindbergh’s defeat of FDR in the 1940 election—given what was actually going on at that time in the United States?
I think unfortunately it’s very realistic. In 1940, the U.S. was a deeply, deeply divided country, in a way that I don’t think it had been since the Civil War. This is something that we tend to forget today because we have this narrative that Pearl Harbor happens, the country unifies as we fight the “good war,” we win, we defeat Nazism—and that’s certainly true after Pearl Harbor. But before Pearl Harbor, there was this really deep divide.
And Lindbergh really capitalized upon the deep-seated isolationist, noninterventionist sentiment in the Midwest—but it was really a national movement too.
The reason why it didn’t happen in real life is because Lindbergh isn’t really all that interested in conventional politics. But he did have these very deep political views, and I think in a lot of ways the United States was quite fortunate that he didn’t really see himself as a politician. He saw himself more as some sort of a truth teller, or a sage, but never really saw himself as, in some way, lowering himself to conventional politics.
What do we know about the real-life Lindbergh’s connections to right-wing groups?
We don’t really know the answer to that as far as I can tell. He always disavowed any connection to them himself, but that doesn’t mean that they disavowed connections to him. And so, when you go through the archival record of groups like the Silver Legion or the German American Bund, you see references to Lindbergh being this sort of mystical figure who’s going to come back and sweep America in a totally new direction.
In terms of his own connections, we don’t really know of any connections beyond the America First Committee, which is not necessarily on the far right. But he was certainly seen by those far-right groups as being in league with them, to some extent.
To a lot of people in America, Lindbergh represented the very picture of manliness and modernity—also someone who’d been victimized because of the kidnapping and tragic death of his son [in 1932]. He was a very romantic, modern figure. Performing this amazing feat of flying across the Atlantic, then going off to Nazi Germany, he’s pictured with [Nazi and commander in chief of the Luftwaffe Hermann] Göring … you can see why these far-right groups are thinking, “This is our guy.”
In the ’30s and early ’40s, what kind of power did anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi groups really have in the United States?
The German American Bund had an unknown number of members—probably it was under a hundred thousand. It depends on what source you’re looking at; there was a lot of document destruction that went on, later on. So it wasn’t a group that had electoral power. It could have had power in its regional strongholds—this was a group that was very regionally concentrated in places like Michigan, heavily German American areas, with almost no appeal at all in the American South, because there weren’t many German Americans down there and the Ku Klux Klan had its stronghold there.
The Bund was probably the largest of these groups. So it was not going to win any elections, but what really surprised me in writing my book was the depth of anti-Semitism that existed in the United States. I cite some polling in there that suggests that probably 1 in 3 Americans harbored some sort of what we would now consider to be anti-Semitic views.
Was Charles Lindbergh a person who could have, in the right circumstances, stepped in and become president of the United States?
People think of Lindbergh as this great pilot hero, when in fact he was an anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi sympathizer. But he wasn’t a crazy sympathizer; he fit in to what I would call the most dangerous kind of anti-Semites and haters, which is he was a very genteel anti-Semite. Kind of in the British tradition, where you don’t denigrate people openly but then … he gave a very famous speech in Iowa where he said: “Look, there are certain groups in America that are pursuing their own interests, and they aren’t American interests. These people should not have their interests supersede the interests of Americans.” He was talking about Jews, who were worried about Hitler and wanted to swing the country toward an anti-fascist ideology, while somebody like Lindbergh is accepting the Service Cross of the German Eagle from the German government.
How did people react to that speech, at the time?
I’ve been on the road for 2½ years now with Hitler in Los Angeles, and the question I get more than anything else is “Why don’t we know this story?” I think part of the answer is that my generation of historians have to say “mea culpa.” We committed what we call in history the teleological sin—that is, knowing how things turned out, you read history and write it backward as though it was inevitable. And in this case, because Germany lost the war, historians and intellectuals thought, “Well, we don’t really have to deal with the history of fascism and Nazism in America because it never really took hold.”
So my generation of historians, and subsequent ones, when we looked at the ’30s, ’40s, into the ’50s, we focused on left-wing radicalism and not on right-wing hate groups. And it has only been since Charlottesville that Americans have been suddenly asking, wait a minute, is this unusual? Has this just come out now, or has this always been with us? And that’s the answer, that hate groups have always been with us.
Americans like to think about how Pearl Harbor came and we as a country put our antipathies and hatreds aside for a moment to cooperate in defeating Hitler and Mussolini. But that’s not true; anti-Semitism went up every year after Pearl Harbor, not down, and it continued into the postwar era.
So Philip Roth was on to something, I think, about the American character, something we have wanted to ignore but keeps popping up.
Correction, March 17, 2020: This piece originally included language implying that the ending of the miniseries is the same as the ending of the novel. The endings are not the same.