The Irony of "The Plot Against America"

The book and mini-series imagine Pres. Charles Linbergh dispersing Jews to the hinterlands, but FDR was the one who actually favored that.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

I have a new blogging gig over at the Times of Israel. You can find my first, autobiographical post, here.

My post today starts as follows:

The late Philip Roth is my favorite novelist, and his novel The Plot Against America, now a widely-praised HBO mini-series, is an excellent, disturbing book. The book posits an alternate history in which an isolationist, antisemitic Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR for the U.S. presidency in 1940, and proceeds to enact a series of increasingly draconian antisemitic measures. Among those measures are sending Jewish youths out to the country to live with Gentile families to become "real patriotic Americans," away from the implied malevolent of their families, the Jewish community, Jewish culture, and Judaism.

The irony in the title of this post arises from the fact that while Lindbergh, while an isolationist not above antisemitic smears in his campaign to keep the U.S. out of World War II, never actually advocated anything remotely like the policies depicted in Roth's book, FDR did.

I also note that "even as the reputations of traditional American heroes ranging from Thomas Jefferson to Woodrow Wilson have suffered due to their racism, FDR, depicted as the hero of the Great Depression and World War II, has thus far emerged relatively untarnished."

You can read the whole thing here.

I plan, of course, to continue blogging at the VC, but future posts that may be of more interest to a primarily Jewish audience rather than the VC's broader audience will likely wind up at TOI.

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  1. FDR has definitely been let off the hook for his racism. There’ s even a highly misleading quotation on his memorial in DC which makes him sound like a friend to black people, which he clearly wasn’t.

    But having said that, there is a larger truth on World War II, similarly to how there is a larger truth on the Civil War with respect to Lincoln, who was also pretty clearly a racist.

    World War II was not fought to save Jews, but it undoubtedly did save hundreds of thousands of them, and indirectly gave rise to international recognition of the State of Israel, which saved millions more.

    And thus, FDR, even if he didn’t think much of Jews, did something monumental for the Tribe, just as Lincoln, despite his views about blacks, accomplished something monumental for black Americans.

    1. We do let our myths off the hook, though we do better than many.

      It’s good to adulterate our founding figures with some humanity.

      Recognizing someone was a deeply flawed human doesn’t mean that their historical legacy is lessened.

    2. My impression is that Lincoln’s racial prejudices are acknowledged more often than FDR’s, even though Lincoln had much more of an excuse given societal attitudes in 1860 than FDR had in 1940. In fact, with FDR, even when his lack of concern for civil rights is acknowledged, it’s almost always accompanied by the apologia that he couldn’t do anything because of the Southern wing of his party. Yet when I’ve asked FDR apologists among historians for evidence that FDR *wanted* to promote civil rights, but was thwarted, no one has provided me any evidence that he this was true.

      1. FDR apologists among historians

        Even in high school I learned that the New Deal was basically sold leveraging the fact that it was focused on poor whites.

        Seems odd that FDR defenders, presumably liberal, are not also noting that he’s racially problematic.

        1. >Seems odd that FDR defenders, presumably liberal
          No, it is not really odd. Samantha Bee and Joe Biden are okay with racial integration for poor whites and black but Hell or high water will come before they allow their children to attend a “diverse” school.

          1. NIMBY ain’t the same as whitewashing history.

            There’s a lot of enthusiasm to note the racism or latent homosexuality or whatnot of historical personages.

      2. Professor, read your intro blog at TOI. Mazel Tov! I am a regular TOI reader. Looking forward to reading your posts at TOI.

    3. “There’ s even a highly misleading quotation on his memorial in DC which makes him sound like a friend to black people, which he clearly wasn’t.”

      He wasn’t much of a friend to Asian-Americans, either.

      1. Which is pretty widely known, I’d argue moreso than Lincoln’s racial prejudices.

        1. I’m not so sure of that. Anecdata, so take it for what it is worth. In the mid-2000s, I would assign “Farewell to Manzanar” to upperclassmen in a unit on memoirs and routinely found that 80% or more of my students didn’t know the history of Japanese internment. Fast forward to the mid-2010s and a different institution in a different state and I found much the same lack of knowledge about FDR and the Japanese internment camps.

  2. I hope you will continue blogging here, even including links to your new blog posts. Well, if your new blog will be daily, no need, but otherwise it would be interesting. I know where you stand, you make it obvious, and that’s worth a lot; too many bloggers try to hide behind a barrel and waffle too much for my tastes.

    1. Second this. I want to see the “Libertarian Answer” to Israel’s Law of Return and prohibition on interfaith and homosexual marriage. Surely, a multi-cultural society respects the freedom of the individual more than a mono-cultural society.

  3. Meanwhile, the Jewish community’s historic loyalty to the Democratic Party to a large extent descends from the community’s strong affection for FDR.

    You make some reasonable points, but this is a serious stretch.

    I’d add that while the quote about the “distribution of aliens” certainly encompasses Jews it sounds more like general xenophobia to me, and the heirs of that line of thought are not Democrats.

    1. The Democrats are not bigots? You live in a wonderful world.

      1. Read it again, Á àß.

        1. Ooooh, a challenge from a bigot!

          “the heirs of that line of thought [while the quote about the “distribution of aliens” certainly encompasses Jews it sounds more like general xenophobia to me] are not Democrats”

          Certainly seems to be saying Democrats are not bigots. Of course, maybe your out is that xenophobes are not bigots, which just confirms they *are* bigots, and since you don’t recognize that, also confirms that you are a bigot.

          1. Xenophobia is is not a driving force in Democratic policy ideas, as it is for Republicans, at least the Trumpist wing.

            I didn’t say there are no Democrats who are bigots. There certainly are some.

            1. NO!

              The Trumpists expect people to act like AMERICANS and really don’t care about skin color or accents as long as they are AMERICANS….

              1. “Trumpists” are people whose political thinking most closely mirrors Trump’s own political thinking? And they “really don’t care about skin color or accents as long as they are AMERICANS”?!

                For 5 years, Trump maintained without any evidence that Obama was born outside the US and ineligible for the presidency. When Trump stood accused of civil fraud to the tune of $25M or more, he didn’t complain that he couldn’t get a fair trial from a native-born judge of Hispanic heritage? He did tell a Chinese-American CBS reporter to go ask her “nasty” question of the Chinese government? Trump never labelled Mexico a country of criminals and rapists? And Trump’s followers, who are freer to express themselves than he is, do not include a disproportionate number of xenophobes among them?

          2. Is anyone here arguing FDR wasn’t a bigot? General xenophobia is bigotry.

            Bernard is not saying no Dems are bigots, but if you want to hear about third world shitholes and dusky hordes, that’s not the party you apply to.

            1. But come on, S0.
              Some of those places are shitholes. More pity to those who live there.

              1. If it didn’t come with a hefty heaping of blame on those people, I might agree.

                The xenophobia ain’t on the Dem side these days.

                1. Well, it’s either the people or the dirt making those places shitholes. If you want to argue it’s the dirt, be my guest, I’m interested to hear that case be made.

                  1. Or history, Brett.

                    Way to prove Bernard right.

                    1. No, all we’ve proved here is your tendency to interpret disagreement in the worst available way. Not that THAT really needed demonstrating at this point.

                      What does it MEAN to say that it’s the people? That’s the question you’d ask, if “Oh, you’re a bigot.” weren’t your reflex. If you wanted to engage.

                      It doesn’t mean that they’re biologically inferior. I mean, they might be on average, if there’s endemic disease or malnutrition, or heavy metal poisoning, but that’s not generally what you’re looking at as a cause, it’s generally an effect, instead..

                      What it means to say that it’s the people, is that it’s their culture. Their habitual ways of thinking and behaving.

                      THAT is what makes the difference between a successful and unsuccessful society, a nice place to live or a shithole. How the people behave!

                      If you could take a shithole country, Somalia for instance, and just swap out it’s population for Norwegians, it would stop being a shithole country so fast your head would spin. It would become Norway with different weather and geography. Contrariwise, if you replaced Norway’s population with Somalis, the next thing you knew you’d have poverty, civil war, and terrorism.

                      That’s what it means to say that it’s the people that make a shithole country that way, not the dirt.

                      History? Well, sure, history contributes to culture, so it’s in there. But it’s the history of the people, after all.

                      And this has nothing to do with Norwegians being paler than Somalis. It has to do with what’s going on in their respective heads.

                      This is why us “bigots” are concerned about immigration from shithole countries. It’s not the dirt on their shoes we’re worried about, it’s the thoughts in their heads. Because it’s not like you move here, they stop you at the border, reboot you, and do a fresh install of “American”. Culturally you enter being what you were when you left your home country.

                      And, yes, you assimilate into the country you move to. But the country you move to assimilates into you, too. It’s a mixing process, and the end product is somewhere in between.

                      So, every time you consider whether to let an immigrant in, you have to ask, “Do we want to become more like their home country?” And if the answer is no, it’s a shithole, you’d better look very closely to make sure they’re an exception to their culture, not representative of it.

                    2. all we’ve proved here is your tendency to interpret disagreement in the worst available way. Not that THAT really needed demonstrating at this point.

                      Pot. Kettle. Do you have any self-awareness at all?

                      Your comments routinely ascribe the worst motives to those who disagree with you. You virtually never concede that they disagree in good faith. It’s always part of some leftist plot or “march through the institutions” or something.

    2. Well, you may say that Jews were loyal to the Democrats because of Jews’ general liberalism, but it didn’t seem to affect the Jewish vote much when Adlai Stevenson ran with a Jim Crow segregationist, and in 1960 it would have been pretty hard to figure out who the more liberal presidential candidate was… and the Democrat was the son of a notorious antisemite (which Nixon also turned out to be, but we didn’t know that then). Jews still went overwhelmingly for the Democrat.

      1. But the narrative posited is about party loyalty, not individual races.

        If you want a liberal party post-FDR, the Dems were the one, Dixiecrats or no.

      2. Well, you may say that Jews were loyal to the Democrats because of Jews’ general liberalism, but it didn’t seem to affect the Jewish vote much when Adlai Stevenson ran with a Jim Crow segregationist.

        And Eisenhower ran with a McCarthyite red-baiter, also a racist, who, among other things, labelled Stevenson a Communist. So maybe staking your claim on Nixon’s vast moral superiority over Sparkman isn’t such a sound bet.

        I’m willing to go with general liberalism as the explanation. You stick to the FDR theory, which sort of suggests that Jews are really stupid. I do get the impression that you think that the general liberalism of Jews is a massive blunder. I disagree.

        and the Democrat was the son of a notorious antisemite

        Sins of the fathers?

        (which Nixon also turned out to be, but we didn’t know that then)

        Oddly, my father knew. Wonder how?

        Actually, as I recall, the fact that Kennedy was Catholic generated a certain amount of support for him among Jews, as he was seen as a standard-bearer for the idea that a member of a minority religion could rise to very high political office.

        1. Sins of the fathers?

          Funny you should say that. At some point in the early 1980s, National Lampoon printed an item with the heading, “Proof that the Sins of the Father Are Visited on the Sons.” Immediately under that heading was a photo of Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., which was labeled, “A Fascist Asshole.” Under that was a row of photos showing Joe Jr., JFK, RFK, and Teddy, which were labeled “Dead,” “Dead,” “Dead,” and “A Bum,” respectively. I have to confess that I chuckled.

      3. DB, Kennedy had a mildly equivocal record on red baiting, and an unfortunate foot-dragging tendency toward black civil rights. Nothing about his personal style suggested that was on account of personal bigotry, instead of a tactic to avoid political inconvenience from Southern segregationists. To white liberals who favored black civil rights, Kennedy was a frustration, but not a monster. Other than his father, what evidence do you have evidence for John Kennedy’s antisemitism?

        Nixon on the other hand, was a full-on McCarthyite, and otherwise pretty easy to read as a general-purpose bigot, even in 1960. Among liberals making the decision then, it was not a close choice at all, not because they thought Kennedy was so liberal, and certainly not because he was heir to FDR, but because they thought Nixon was miles to the right of Kennedy.

        1. I don’t know where you guys are getting this stuff from. My understanding is that, despite JFK’s famous call to MLK in prison, Nixon had a liberal record on civil rights, more so than JFK did, in Congress. He was also in charge of shepherding the 57 civil rights act through Congress, for which he one accolades from MLK, among others.
          And I’m quite sure that Nixon never called Stevenson a Communist. He was a red-baiter, but if you believe liberal American Jews’ self-image of American Jewish history, a supporter of Jim Crow would be far more egregious.

          As for JFK’s dad, of course his father being antisemitic didn’t make JFK antisemitic, but it surely gave Jews a reason to be suspicious of JFK. Think “Charles Lindbergh’s son” to tie things together.

          Anyway, the point is simply that Jews were loyal Democrats in national elections even when there was no clearcut choice as to which ticket was more liberal.

          1. Nixon was a “bad” guy because he was on the wrong team. Does it have to be more complicated? Nixon got America out of Vietnam and signed the EPA into law! Try getting a modern Republican to do that.

          2. During the debates on the 1957 Civil Rights Act, JFK lined up with Southern segregationists in trying to get the bill to include a provision that a jury trial be required for charges of criminal contempt issued against voting registrars for defying court orders to stop violating voting rights. At the time, the state of the law was that jury trials were not constitutionally required in cases of criminal contempt, so the provision Kennedy was supporting would have given a special advantage to segregationists violating the voting rights of black citizens.

          3. Nixon described Stevenson as “having a Ph.D. from the Acheson College of Cowardly Containment.”

            I’m sure you have a legalistic defense but don’t waste your time.

            I’ll find more if you like.

            1. I’m curious what you think this means, beyond Nixon disagreeing with Stevenson on foreign policy.

            2. I’m betting you’ll have trouble coming up with any that come up to the level of the ones regularly issued against Trump and his supporters, to the effect that they are “Putin’s cock holster,” “Russian agents,” etc.

        2. Yet it was Nixon who supported Israel when it really needed it — during the 1973 Yom Kippur War when Nixon promised to replace everything Israel lost.

          But for that, there well may not be an Israel today….

        3. How does Nixon’s “full-on McCarthy[ism]” compare to the Russian panic of people like Stephen Colbert, accusing Trump of being “Putin’s cock holster,” Hillary Clinton, accusing Tulsi Gabbard of being a “Russian asset,” or Judge Emmet Sullivan, accusing Michael Flynn of treason?

          1. Well, let’s see. Colbert is a comedian. Clinton, who by the way did not call Gabbard a “Russian asset,” but rather said that an unnamed Democratic candidate was the “favorite of the Russians,” is not an office-holder, and Sullivan is a judge.

            All three were one-off comments. So, no, not remotely comparable. Take the whatabouttery elsewhere.

          2. And here’s another thought – McCarthyism ruined careers and lives. It wasn’t just a matter of throwing some insults.

            None of your examples is within a zillion miles of that.

  4. While it’s unfortunate I disagree with a lot of your opinions, you always have an interesting take, which I appreciate. I hope you’ll continue to let your opinions be heard far and wide.

  5. “sending Jewish youths out to the country to live with Gentile families”

    That actually was done — but to Indian and Eskimo children.
    And do not forget that the Jewish-owned New York Times essentially ignored the Holocaust. History is complicated….

    1. Do you really have to bring up Elizabeth Warren now? She lost and Biden is going to win. Also, how many instances of mass murder go without historical reflection or rememberance because they didn’t appeal to the New York Times’ Hebrew sensibilities? I doubt we’ll see any new articles about the Holodomor, Khmer Rouge, or the dangers of Communist ideology but we get yearly, and sometimes monthly, articles about the Shoah and how Donald Trump is the next Hitler.

  6. The opportunity costs are always interesting to investigate:

  7. “The irony in the title of this post arises from the fact that while Lindbergh, while an isolationist not above antisemitic smears in his campaign to keep the U.S. out of World War II”

    That’s one way to put it!

    A. Regularly engaged in such fun rhetoric as calling Jews “war agitators.”
    B. Used language like “inferior blood” to refer to Jews.
    C. Was one of the well-known Hitler enthusiasts in the U.S.
    D. Was a well-known proponent of the America First movement (so were quite a few people, including ol’ Disney himself).
    E. Want a doozy- check out his speak at a rally in Des Moines; you know, where he said that the Jew would feel thebrunt of the war, because they wanted it, and that the greatest threat to ‘Murika was the Jews and their control of movie, press, and government. Ahem
    F. He was good buddies with Nazis, and was (in)famous for accepting a medal from Gohring in 1938.
    G. How about another quote? “It seems that anything can be discussed today in America except the Jewish problem.”

    Heck, all you have to do is google him and how is he described?
    “Charles Augustus Lindbergh (February 4, 1902 – August 26, 1974) was an American aviator, military officer, author, inventor, activist, and Nazi sympathizer.”

    Nazi Sympathizer.

    But sure. Nazi sympathizer with a profoundly disturbing history has a few anti-Semitic smears.

    Guy who defeated Hitler? Now, that’s the real problem!

    Balance is always good; this isn’t balance, just the usual DB BS.

    1. Lindbergh made antisemitic comments. FDR pressured the Dominican Republic not to admit 100K Jewish refugees as planned, for fear they would eventually come to the U.S. Lindbergh was more overtly antisemitic, FDR’s antisemitism was much more consequential.

      1. And btw, despite Wikipedia, Lindbergh’s reputation as a Nazi sympathizer is in historical dispute:
        “Although Lindbergh was unashamedly pro-German and an anti-Semite, Olson told the BBC he was no Nazi sympathiser.” Olson, btw, is author of Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941.

        1. Not sure I understand this defense. If you describe someone, in the 1930’s, as pro-German and antisemitic, it is hard to swallow the notion that the individual was not pro-Nazi.

      2. But your ‘acts versus words’ formulation is merely degenerate true – Lindberg wasn’t President.

        1. Well, Loki complained about “balance.” I’m talking about historical reputation. Lindbergh has a (deserved, as I understand the history) reputation as an antisemite because he made antisemitic comments that were well-publicized. FDR tended to make his antisemitic comments privately, but his antisemitic instincts cost several hundred thousand Jews their lives. He does not have a historical reputation as an antisemite, or for that matter as a racist, despite racist policies. So Lindbergh has gone down in history as a bigot, and FDR, though his bigotry was far more consequential has not. That’s the imbalance.

          1. From your take, it looks like Trump could learn a lot from FDR. How much kvetching and obstruction would be eliminated if Trump laid off Twitter for a few weeks and just issued Obama-style executive orders from his golden throne?

          2. And, as Loki points out, the “imbalance” is an illusion because Lindbergh never faced the decisions that FDR faced.

            By your argument the fact that Lindbergh never appointed a Jew to the Supreme Court, or as Treasury Secretary, counts against him.

            In fact, of course, FDR had other Jewish advisors as well, and established, belatedly, the War Refugee Board. On the general question of refugees he also had to deal with an antisemitic State Department. All that doesn’t excuse other, negative, acts, but let’s have a bit of context.

            Is there the slightest evidence that Lindbergh ever did or said anything positive about Jews?

            1. You are using the Nazi standard for antisemitism, as I explained in a previous post (for the record, FDR was clearly prejudiced, and seems to have been in the (1) camp as far as antisemitism goes). Once we don’t use the Nazi standard of hating any and all things Jewish, we understand that their is no contradiction between having Jewish advisors or appointing Jews to high positions and being an antisemite (see also Richard Nixon):

              It seems to me, though, that one or both of the following two things make someone antisemitic, and not just prejudiced: (1) one believes in anti-Jewish conspiracy theory, e.g., that Jews run the banks, control the government, etc.; or (2) one affirmatively wishes harm to Jewish people in general, though one almost always makes exceptions for “good” Jewish people (even leading German Nazis often had a favored Jewish acquaintance for whom they arranged an exit visa before the Holocaust began). You don’t need to publicly acknowledge your antisemitism, nor, like the Nazis, consider Jews subhuman, beyond redemption, and marked for extinction.

              Given those definitions of antisemitism, there is no particular reason that an antisemite couldn’t support a Jewish candidate for president. If one believes in anti-Jewish conspiracy theory, for example that many or most of the world’s Jews plot to control world governments to benefit Israel at the expense of their home countries, one can still believe that Sanders has shown himself to be an exception, that despite being Jewish he is not controlled (unlike many Gentile politicians!) by the “Jewish lobby.” And if one wishes harm to the Jewish people, one can make an exception for a “good Jew” like Sanders–especially if one believes he is more likely to create or allow harm to other Jewish people than his presidential rivals.

              Sure, a literal Nazi almost certainly wouldn’t support someone of ethnic Jewish heritage, much less a self-identified Jew, for president under any circumstances. But literal Nazis are only a small fraction of the world’s antisemites. [end quote]

              Again, Lindbergh made a couple of outrageous antisemitic speeches at the height of the fight over US entry into WWII. FDR knowingly consigned several hundred thousand Jews to an unknown but known-to-be-bad fate purely because he thought the US already had too many Jews, so much so that he pressured the D.R. not to accept refugees for fear they would wind up in the U.S. The question is not, “whose antisemitism was more deeply felt personally,” as we have no way of answering that question in any event. But if the question is, “whose antisemitism was historically more significant,” the answer is obvious.

    2. Lindbergh was just a celebrity, FDR was President and his racism and Jew hating [genteel as it might be] influenced policy.

      [And yes, he had Jewish cabinet members and advisors, those were the right kind of Jews]

    3. This was also the era of the eugenics movement.

    4. Of course, loki, you know full well that unless you add “H. Was a liberal,” Bernstein cares not a whit about Lindbergh’s antisemitism.

  8. The Times of Israel.

    Where Hugo Schwyzer found refuge. You can look it up.

  9. “of more interest to a primarily Jewish audience”

    I’m not Jewish, but news of the Jewish community interests me. For whatever reason, Jews have to try really hard if they want to be boring.

    1. Personally, I would like to see some articles that contrast the political views of American diaspora with Israeli Jews. One group supports a multicultural, multiracial liberal democracy with no established religion and the other supports a democratic nation state with strong Jewish institutions. That’s perfect fodder for kvetching in my opinion.

  10. An often unremarked underside to Shechter poultry was that it was a kosher butcher, and the rules (particularly the rules prohibiting inspecting or pre-selecting the chicken in any way) effectively made kosher butchering illegal. It required the consumer to accept all risk that the chicken would later be found non-kosher and to buy it at full price regardless of whether it was kosher or not.

    And this fact – the fact that it essentially outlawed the kosher meat business – was why the Shechters were willing to go bankrupt to fight it.

  11. the quote you rest this on:

    when he was the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 1920, FDR has this to say about New York’s immigrant population, surely referring primarily to Jews:

    They have crowded into one district and they have brought congestion and racial prejudices to our large cities. The result is that they do not easily conform to the manners and the customs and the requirements of their new home. Now, the remedy for this should be the distribution of aliens in various parts of the country. If we had the greater part of the foreign population of the City of New York distributed to different localities upstate we should have a far better condition

    would have nothing to do with Italians or Irish or Poles or….

    No, ‘obviously’ just the Jews



    1. Well, it might help to know that FDR expressed the same sentiments about Jews specifically privately in the 1930s, but this was a blog post, not a lengthy historical essay.

      1. (And I was citing the reviewer, who was aware of the context).

      2. Well, it might help to know that FDR expressed the same sentiments about Jews specifically privately in the 1930s, but this was a blog post, not a lengthy historical essay.

        DB, let’s see that quote. And maybe something to show the context in “the 1930s,” was alike with the context from the earlier remark, in 1920. That looms large, because without context the 1920 quote itself dos not include enough information to discern the meaning you ascribe.

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