The Plot Against America
by Philip Roth
“And as Lindbergh's election couldn't have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, 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.” ― Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
In 2004 Philip Roth, having twice won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer among many other awards, published an alternative historical novel starring none other than himself and his family. Set in Newark, New Jersey as were several of his earlier novels, including American Pastoral, this genre was a departure for the author. It is an alternative history in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by Charles Lindbergh. The novel follows the fortunes of the Roth family during the Lindbergh presidency, as antisemitism becomes more accepted in American life and Jewish-American families like the Roths are persecuted on various levels. Roth based his novel on the isolationist ideas espoused by Lindbergh in real life as a spokesman for the America First Committee, and on his own experiences growing up in Newark, New Jersey.
In Roth's story, as the decade of the thirties nears its end, many Americans are so afraid that President Franklin D. Roosevelt is leading the country into the war in Europe that, rather than Wendell Wilkie, the Republican Party nominates Charles A. Lindbergh, the hero who was the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean solo. Surprising many, especially concerning American Jews, Lindbergh wins the election. Jews are concerned because Lindbergh not only has admired the German Luftwaffe but also has accepted a medal from Adolf Hitler himself, a clear sign of his pro-German sympathies.
A nine-year-old Philip Roth narrates events centering on the Roth family -- his father and mother, Herman and Besse, and his older brother, Sandy. They and their friends in the Jewish section of Newark, New Jersey, are terribly upset by the election and fear the worst. They suspect that the kinds of anti-Semitism that Hitler has propounded and is rapidly carrying out in Germany and in the parts of Europe that he has conquered will, under Lindbergh’s administration, begin to happen in the United States. The first experience that they have of this intolerance comes during a trip to Washington, D.C., where they are expelled from their hotel despite their confirmed reservations. They are instead sent to a hotel that will accept Jews. This outrage is followed by a scene in a cafeteria where the family experiences anti-Semitic slurs.
Not all Jews believe as Herman Roth believes in the growing danger. A rabbi, Lionel Bengelsdorf, supports the new administration and soon becomes head of the Office of American Absorption. This new office is established to promote Lindbergh’s plan to disperse Jews from enclaves, such as the one in which the Roths live in Newark, to other parts of the country, presumably promoting their assimilation into the American mainstream. After years of working for an insurance company in Newark, Herman Roth is reassigned to Danville, Kentucky under this plan, but rather than accept the assignment, he resigns and goes to work instead for his brother’s produce business. Sandy Roth, meanwhile, is enticed into a program called “Just Folks,” another attempt to foster Jewish assimilation, and spends the summer on a farm in Kentucky with a typical “American” family. He comes back with a southern accent and views quite opposed to those of his father. A neighbor’s family, the Wishnows, is forced to accept the reassignment and also goes to Danville, Kentucky. Later, Mrs. Wishnow is killed in a violent attack against Jews as she tries to drive home one night.
The novel includes several noted historical characters: Father Coughlin, the extremist Catholic priest who fulminates against Jews; Walter Winchell, the Jewish newspaper reporter and media celebrity whose Sunday night radio broadcasts the Roth family and their friends dutifully listen to each week, and who at one point runs for president against Lindbergh, only to be assassinated for his efforts; the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who is honored by a state dinner at the White House by President and Mrs. Lindbergh; Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York City, who is an eloquent spokesperson and a champion of civil rights; and many others. The picture of the United States under the Lindbergh administration is a very grim, even terrifying one. Although Roth insists he intended no allusion to politics in the twenty-first century, his novel clearly posts a warning for what might happen should American civil liberties suffer increased depredations.
Roth even brings into The Plot Against America the notorious kidnapping case of the 1930’s, in which the Lindberghs’ infant son was stolen. In his imagined reconstruction of events, the baby is not killed (as he was in actual fact) but taken by the Nazis and brought up in Germany as a good member of the Hitler Jugend. Events at the end of the novel culminate with the disappearance of Lindbergh himself and subsequent anti-Jewish riots in many cities across the United States in which 122 Jews lose their lives. Lindbergh, however, has not been kidnapped but has fled to Germany, using the Spirit of St. Louis for his escape, and is never seen again. Eventually, law and order are restored (thanks in part to the efforts of Mrs. Lindbergh), the Democrats take over Congress, and Roosevelt wins his unprecedented third term as president.
Using young Philip as narrator and central character in the novel gives it a compelling perspective. The care with which his confusion and terror are rendered makes the novel as much about the mysteries of growing up as about American politics. I thought the narrative presented a realistic portrayal of the fears, both psychological and physical, of the close-knit Jewish community. However the themes of confusion and a fear in the face of the growing evil in Europe heightened by the isolation and change within America are universal as they mirrored similar feelings during our own very real history of Cold War and subsequent events. This is a very good novel from the pen of one of the great literary lions of our lifetime.