The True History Behind ‘The Plot Against America’

Philip Roth’s classic novel, newly adapted by HBO, envisions a world in which Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 presidential election

smithsonianmag.com
Charles Lindbergh, Walter Winchell and Franklin D. Roosevelt (L to R) are among the public figures fictionalized in Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. (Photo illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Getty Images )
SMITHSONIANMAG.COM | March 16, 2020, 7 a.m.

The Plot Against America unfolds in a world much like our own. Set in Newark, New Jersey, on the eve of World War II, Philip Roth’s 2004 novel finds its protagonist, a fictionalized version of the 7-year-old author himself, leading a banal existence punctuated by nightly radio news broadcasts, dinners with his all-American Jewish family and neighborhood excursions undertaken to fill the halcyon hours of summer vacation. Then, the writer-narrator recounts, “[T]he Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed.”

What follows is an alternate history penned in the same vein as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a 1962 novel recently adapted for television by Amazon Studios. Like High Castle, The Plot Against America—the subject of a new HBO limited series of the same name—poses the age-old question of “What if?” But while the former depicts a world in which the Axis powers won the war, the latter places its departure from the historical record prior to the conflict’s peak, envisioning a virulently isolationist United States that nevertheless ends up entangled in international affairs.

Seamlessly blending truth and imagination, The Plot Against America pits aviator Charles A. Lindbergh against incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. Voters’ choice, argues the Spirit of St. Louis pilot and fervent “America Firster” in a trailer for the series, is not between Lindbergh and Roosevelt, but “between Lindbergh and war.”

Roth’s account of a celebrity-turned-politician winning the presidency on a platform of fearmongering and “othering” proved more prophetic than he could have predicted.

“It’s a story of an American dystopia,” explains “The Plot Against America” showrunner David Simon to Variety’s Will Thorne. “It seems startlingly prescient in that it anticipates a politician who seizes upon a very simple message and is able to activate the worst fears and impulses of a significant number of Americans. He gets them to relinquish not only power, but some of the most essential bulwarks of self-governance.”

While the Roth family, renamed the Levins in the HBO show, and many of the characters mentioned in The Plot Against America are based on real people, much of the narrative is entirely contrived. From the true extent of Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic views to the rise of the “America First” movement, here’s what you need to know to separate fact from fiction ahead of the six-part series’ March 16 premiere.

Is The Plot Against America based on a true story?

Philip and Sandy Levin
Philip (left, portrayed by Azhy Robertson) and his older brother, Sandy (right, portrayed by Caleb Malis) (HBO)

As Roth wrote in a 2004 essay for the New York Times, “To alter the historical reality by making Lindbergh America’s 33rd president while keeping everything else as close to factual truth as I could—that was the job as I saw it.”

The main conceit of The Plot Against America is a fictional Lindbergh presidency. Set between June 1940 and October 1942, the novel opens with the aviator’s unexpected bid as the Republican Party’s nominee and proceeds to envision how the war would have unfolded if the United States had not only stayed out of the fight, but colluded with the Axis powers and instituted Nazi-inspired restrictions on Jewish Americans’ freedom.

Roth’s book features prominent public figures—including Roosevelt, gossip columnist Walter Winchell, non-interventionist Democratic senator Burton K. Wheeler, New York City Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, industrialist and avowed anti-Semite Henry Ford, and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop—in roles ranging from key players to cameo appearances. In line with the author’s goal of adhering to reality whenever possible, sentiments shared by these individuals are actual quotes or plausible fabrications built on the existing historical record.

Philip Roth
Author Philip Roth in the Newark, New Jersey, neighborhood where he grew up (Photo by Bob Peterson / The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images)

Lindbergh, for example, really did accuse Jews of being “war agitators.” He also cautioned against “the infiltration of inferior blood” and “dilution by foreign races.” He did not, however, declare, as he does in the book, that with the German invasion of the U.S.S.R., “Adolf Hitler has established himself as the world’s greatest safeguard against the spread of communism and its evils.”

Of the work’s central characters, most are dramatized versions of real people. Young Philip (played by Azhy Robertson in the HBO series) and his immediate family members borrow their names from Roth’s actual relatives: Herman (Morgan Spector), family patriarch and insurance salesman; his mother, Elizabeth, or “Bess” for short (Zoe Kazan); and older brother, Sandy (Caleb Malis). But while Philip’s cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle) and aunt Evelyn (Winona Ryder) play major roles in both the book and the show, neither has a direct real-life counterpart. Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a conservative rabbi who attracts the Jewish community’s ire for his steadfast support of Lindbergh (Ben Cole), is also fictional.

What time period does The Plot Against America cover?

The novel’s alternate timeline is fairly straightforward, particularly toward the end of the novel, when Roth shifts from a first-person narrative to a day-by-day, newsreel-style account. Lindbergh soundly defeats Roosevelt in the November 1940 presidential election and, just weeks after his inauguration, meets Adolf Hitler to sign a so-called “Iceland Understanding” guaranteeing peaceful relations between the U.S. and Germany. A similar “Hawaii Understanding” paves the way for Japan’s unimpeded expansion across Asia.

The Jews of America find themselves subjected to increasing anti-Semitism and thinly veiled restrictions on their livelihood. The Office of American Absorption, established to encourage “America’s religious and national minorities to become further incorporated into the larger society,” indoctrinates Jewish teenagers by sending them to the country’s rural heartland for summer “apprenticeships”; an initiative dubbed Homestead 42 similarly relocates urban Jewish families, framing forced relocation as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Some, like Philip’s parents, are convinced the government is attempting to “lull [Jewish Americans] to sleep with the ridiculous dream that everything in America is hunky-dory.” Others, like his aunt Evelyn and older brother, decry these fears as the result of a “persecution complex.” Needless to say, the Roth parents prove correct in their assessment of the situation, and before the end of the book, readers are treated to a dystopian vision of a country plagued by pogroms, fascist totalitarianism and the unmitigated reversal of the very rights Herman Roth previously cited as exemplars of America.

Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf
The fictional Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) attracts the Jewish community's ire for his support of Charles Lindbergh. (HBO)

But The Plot Against America’s break from history is only temporary. By December 1942, Lindbergh has been vanquished, FDR is back in office, and the U.S.—reeling from a surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—has entered the war on the Allies’ side. Despite this late arrival, the Americans still manage to secure victory in Europe by May 1945.

In truth, the “America First” mentality that enables Roth’s version of Lindbergh to win the presidency was fairly widespread prior to Pearl Harbor. At its peak, the America First Committee, founded by a group of isolationist Yale University students in 1940, swelled to 800,000 members recruited from all regions of the country. Lindbergh emerged as the movement’s biggest proponent, but other well-known figures were also involved with the committee: Among others, the list includes Walt Disney, Sinclair Lewis, future president Gerald Ford and future Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart.

America Firsters argued against U.S. involvement in the war, presenting themselves as the “pinnacle of American patriotism and American traditions,” says Bradley W. Hart, author of Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States. Members emphasized defense over offense and attempted to paint themselves as patriots “interested only in preventing” the number of “gold star mothers”—those whose children died in service—from growing, according to Hart. Though many members held anti-Semitic sentiments and sympathized with the Nazis, such opinions became an increasing liability as the war in Europe raged on.

During the first half of the 20th century, anti-Semitism was fairly widespread across the United States, manifesting at “every level of society and across the country,” writes historian Julian E. Zelizer in the Atlantic. Automotive titan Henry Ford published a propaganda paper blaming “the Jews” for all of society’s ills, while radio personality Father Charles Coughlin regularly spouted anti-Semitic sentiments to his audience of some 30 million weekly listeners. Even institutions like Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton enacted anti-Semitic policies: As Zelizer writes, all four universities imposed quotas on the number of Jewish students admitted.

America First Committee meeting
General view of a large crowd attending an America First Committee (AFC) rally circa 1941 in New York City (Photo by Irving Haberman / IH Images / Getty Images)

The America First Committee’s efforts culminated in a 1941 speech Lindbergh delivered at a rally in Des Moines, Iowa. The aviator accused three groups—the British, the Roosevelt administration and American Jews—of “agitating for war.” Predicting that the “Jewish groups in this country … will be among the first to feel [war’s] consequences,” he argued that the “greatest danger to this country lies in [Jews’] large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”

Critics roundly condemned Lindbergh’s words as anti-Semitic. Writing for the New York Herald Tribune, columnist Dorothy Thompson expressed an opinion shared by many, declaring, “I am absolutely certain that Lindbergh is pro-Nazi.” Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie called the speech “the most un-American talk made in my time by any person of national reputation.”

The America First Committee officially disbanded three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Why Charles Lindbergh?

In May 1927, 25-year-old Charles A. Lindbergh skyrocketed to fame after completing the first successful non-stop, solo transatlantic flight. (As Bess tells her husband in a “Plot Against America” trailer, “To most people, there’s never been a bigger hero in their lifetime.”) Dubbed “Lucky Lindy” and the “Lone Eagle,” he became an international celebrity, garnering his influence to promote the field of aviation. In 1929, he married Anne Morrow, daughter of a prominent American financier and diplomat; shortly after, the couple welcomed a baby boy, whose kidnapping and murder three years later sparked a media circus.

Overwhelmed by the publicity, the family fled to Europe. While living abroad, Lindbergh, acting at the U.S. military’s request, made multiple trips to Germany to assess the country’s aviation capabilities. He was impressed by what he encountered: As historian Thomas Doherty says, Nazi Germany shared Lindbergh’s admiration of “Spartan physicality” and aviation-centric militarism. In 1938, the American hero attracted intense criticism for accepting—and later declining to return—a medal from Nazi military and political leader Hermann Göring.

After moving back to the U.S. in April 1939, Lindbergh became a key figurehead of the America First movement. He spoke at rallies, denouncing the war as a European affair with no relevance to the U.S., and soon shifted from isolationism to outright anti-Semitism. Among his most patently bigoted remarks: Western nations “can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood” and “It seems that anything can be discussed today in America except the Jewish problem.”

Radio broadcaster Walter Winchell emerged as one of Lindbergh’s most steadfast critics, updating Lindy’s “Lone Eagle” nickname to the “Lone Ostrich” and arguing that the aviator gave up the country’s goodwill to become the “star ‘Shill’ for the America First Committee.” Roth’s fictionalized Winchell takes a similarly irreverent approach, decrying Lindbergh as “our fascist-loving president” and his supporters as “Lindbergh’s fascists.” But while The Plot Against America’s version of Winchell defies the reviled commander-in-chief by staging his own presidential bid, the real journalist never ran for office.

Charles Lindbergh and Burton K. Wheeler
Charles Lindbergh (right) and Senator Burton K. Wheeler (left) at a May 23, 1941, "America First" rally in New York (Getty Images)

During the 1930s, Lindbergh and his other Plot Against America presidential rival, Franklin D. Roosevelt, were arguably the two most famous men in the country. But while many respected the pilot, few viewed him as a viable political candidate. According to Hart, an August 1939 poll found that just 9 percent of Americans wanted Lindbergh, whose name had been raised as a potential alternative to Roosevelt, to run for the nation’s highest office. Of these individuals, less than three-fourths (72 percent) thought he would actually make a good president.

Though Roosevelt personally supported America entering the conflict, he “hedged and waffled on war” while campaigning during the 1940 presidential race, says Susan Dunn, author of 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler—The Election Amid the Storm. “At the same time that he was speaking against American involvement in war,” adds Dunn, “his administration was preparing for possible war” by instituting a peacetime draft and formulating lists of priorities in the event that war broke out. Like Roosevelt, his real-life Republican opponent, businessman Wendell Willkie, was an interventionist and anti-fascist, though he, too, toned down these views on the campaign trail.

There was no love lost between Roosevelt and Lindbergh: The president likened the pilot to the “Copperheads” who had opposed the American Civil War, labeling him a “defeatist and appeaser.” Lindbergh, in turn, called the Roosevelt administration one of three groups “agitating for war” and accused it of practicing “subterfuge” to force the U.S. into “a foreign war.”

The president’s distaste for Lindbergh continued well beyond the United States’ 1941 entry into the war. Though the pilot attempted to volunteer for the Army Air Corps, he was blocked from doing so and forced to settle for a consulting position with Henry Ford’s bomber development program. Later in the war, under the auspices of United Aircraft, he was stationed in the Pacific theater, where he participated in around 50 combat missions despite his official status as a civilian.

Lindbergh’s reputation never fully recovered from his pre-war politics. Once the aviator accepted a medal from Göring, says Doherty, “the universal affection Americans had for Lindbergh dissipates, and people divide[d] into camps. There are still a lot of Americans that will always love Lindbergh, … but he becomes an increasingly provocative and controversial figure.”

Charles Lindbergh enrolls in America First Committee
Charles Lindbergh (left) enrolls as a member of the America First Committee. (Getty Images)

Whether the pilot actually came to regret his comments is a point of contention among scholars. Though his wife later claimed as much, he never personally apologized for his comments. Roth, writing in 2004, argued that “he was at heart a white supremacist, and … did not consider Jews, taken as a group, the genetic, moral or cultural equals of Nordic white men like himself and did not consider them desirable American citizens other than in very small numbers.”

Though Lindbergh is The Plot Against America’s clearest antagonist, his actual actions, according to Roth, matter less than what “American Jews suspect, rightly or wrongly, that he might be capable of doing”—and, conversely, how supporters interpret his words as permission to indulge their worst instincts.

As Roth concludes, “Lindbergh … chose himself as the leading political figure in a novel where I wanted America’s Jews to feel the pressure of a genuine anti-Semitic threat.”

About the Author: Meilan Solly is Smithsonian magazine's assistant digital editor, humanities. Website: meilansolly.com. Read more articles from Meilan Solly and

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus