U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Plot Against America and the Terror of the Unforeseen: Part One

“The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”[1]

American novelists have long depicted ambivalent or even terrifying parts of our national experience, most often loneliness and isolation, that dark twin of individualism, or with only a little less frequency, the specter of authority and authoritarianism, the sinister companion to a mass democracy. In his book Writing the Republic: Liberalism and Morality in American Political Fiction (2007) Anthony Hutchison has identified the latter as a central theme of the American political novel after 1945. As he shows, Melville struck the mold with Moby Dick, and several other novels were cast from it. In his reading, a republican narrative form has often characterized American political fiction, such that a conflicted narrator views autocratic or dictatorial figures with a certain measure of reflective detachment. The narrators tend to show rather than necessarily judge the central figures. They are immersed in and yet somehow above the monomania or unalloyed ambitions of the autocrat. This can often mean their undoing. Think here about Ishmael and Ahab in Melville’s masterpiece or Jack Burden and Willie Stark in Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.


On the morning of November 9, a former student of mine sent me an email, thanking me for assigning Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America in my Depression and War class this past spring. As the days unfolded since then, I continually went back to thinking about that novel and the alternate history it portrays. Roth describes what could have happened rather than what did happen, a freedom that historians sometimes indulge with writers of fiction, at least as a kind of parlor game with students or with other historians. It can sometimes be an exercise to think about historical causation or even nomothetic historical arguments, usually expressed in conditionals or “if—then” statements: “If Lincoln had survived the Civil War, then Reconstruction might have gone this way” or “when people do this, this often happens” and so on. I’m unsure about those kinds of games these days. History is now on our front porch, so to speak, and it’s an unwelcome visitor. Nonetheless, “alternate” histories seem to me a good way to cope with the stubborn feeling of unreality that has characterized recent events. Maybe more than ever, our historical consciousness is challenged by “the terror of the unforeseen.”

In The Plot Against America, Roth imagines a scenario where the America First movement seizes control of the Republican party in 1940, choosing Charles Lindbergh for their standard-bearer. He easily defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the general election. Among FDR supporters, the reaction is first disbelief and then shock and alarm. In his first acts as president, Lindbergh makes peace agreements with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and those two nations roll across Europe and the Pacific pretty much untrammeled as the major events of the novel unfold. (Roth relays international information most often in abbreviated, clipped prose meant to describe newsreel accounts that the main characters go to see at the local movie house.) Domestically, the Lindbergh administration grows more and more sinister as American Jews become the target first for harassment, then aggressive assimilation, then state-sponsored resettlement programs. Owing to an incredible sequence of events involving, of all people, Walter Winchell, the rule of law begins to unravel, and pogroms sweep across several major American cities.

From that fantastical historical backdrop, the novel is primarily an intimate portrait of a Jewish American family and its enclave in Newark, New Jersey. The protagonist is Philip Roth, eight or nine years old as the events of the novel take place. He has an older brother named Sandy and his parents are Herman and Bess. The other major characters are a cousin named Alvin and an aunt named Evelyn.

The author’s choice of a child protagonist lends the novel its emotional and moral weight. It fits the republican narrative form. The mind of the child is the reflective reconstruction of a childhood by an adult narrator after the fact. (At one point the novel, the narrator refers to events as recent as 1968.). But the choice to tell the story from the perspective of an obscure Jewish family means that the story moves relatively seamlessly from world-historical and national events to picaresque boyhood adventures and intimate, private details of family life. Little Philip is not precisely detached from nor entirely above the creeping authoritarianism that threatens he and his family. Rather, small things like his relationship with his beloved stamp collection take on outsized significance. Like any child, his sense of scale is off. He struggles to understand what truly matters and why, and tragically, his family nearly unravels at the same time as his parents try to figure things out, to deal with the terror of the unforeseen. That makes Roth’s novel far more compelling and morally challenging than say, shopworn advice-column nostrums or sardonic jokes about how to deal with political disagreements at Thanksgiving dinner. That sort of thing is a luxury the Roths can’t enjoy. For countless Americans right at this moment, the scenario is much the same.

It means that every character in the family, including little Philip, have to make choices about what to do as the political nightmare descends upon them, and these decisions have profound implications for themselves and for their immediate and extended family.

Some of the narrator’s observations are chilling if read by contemporary lights. As Lindbergh becomes increasingly likely as a possible Republican nominee, his more inflammatory statements stoke the American Firsters and others besides:

For many America Firsters there was no debating (even with the facts) Lindberg’s contention that the Jews “greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our, press, our radio, and our government.” When Lindbergh wrote proudly of “our inheritance of European blood,” when he warned against “dilution by foreign races” and “the infiltration of inferior blood” (all phrases that turn up in diary entries from those years), he was recording personal convictions shared by a sizable portion of America First’s rank-and-file membership as well as by a rabid constituency even more extensive than a Jew like my father, with his bitter hatred of anti-Semitism—or like my mother, with her deeply ingrained mistrust of Christians—could ever imagine to be flourishing all across America (14).

Of course, Roth (the novelist) took these statements from the historical record, specifically Lindbergh’s Des Moines speech from September 1941. Once the historical record departs though and Lindbergh wins the nomination and then the presidency, the candidate backs off from those statements and even secures the support of one Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, who assures voters that Lindbergh is no Nazi sympathizer. (As Phil’s cousin Alvin shrewdly puts it, “Koshering Lindbergh for the goyim.”) Bengelsdorf’s collaboration hits especially close to home for the Roths, as he eventually marries Philip’s aunt Evelyn, who becomes her husband’s steadfast supporter. At a contentious engagement dinner at the Roth home, Bengelsdorf assures Herman (Philip’s father) that “Admittedly, before his becoming president he at times made public statements grounded in anti-Semitic clichés. But he spoke from ignorance then, and he admits as much today” (110).

This continues into the Lindbergh administration, as Bengelsdorf is tapped to head the OAA (Office of American Absorption). Under its auspices the regime starts programs like the idiomatically frightening “Just Folks,” where young, promising Jewish youth spend time with Gentile farming families in the South and the West, encouraging their assimilation. With the cooperation of American big business, the administration eventually adopts a resettlement program, “Homestead 42,” where Jewish families are gradually and quietly relocated from their ethnic enclaves to corporate outposts in the South and West.

The election, the administration and its policies divide the Roth family. The narrator describes Herman (the father) as a social type, one of those strong Jewish American men “ruthlessly obedient to their idea of fair play” (255). (Reading the book this time around, I found him vaguely reminiscent of Khizr Khan and his copy of the Constitution.) Herman insists, for example, in the immediate wake of the election that the family follow through on a planned trip to Washington DC. “One reason my parents decided to keep our long-laid plans to visit Washington was to convince Sandy and me—whether or not they themselves believed it—that nothing had changed other than FDR was no longer in office. American wasn’t a fascist country and wasn’t going to be…There was a new president and a new Congress, but each was bound to follow the law set down in the Constitution” (55). The trip becomes menacing as Herman is verbally attacked as a “loudmouth Jew” on two occasions, and the family is unceremoniously kicked out of their hotel accommodations.

Things get worse. After Lindbergh fetes Joachim von Ribbentrop at the White House in the summer of 1942, the Tirshwells, neighbors from down the way, decide to move to Canada. Even FDR emerges to condemn the visit. Herman is incredulous, even as his wife Bess, constantly vigilant about the safety of her family, wants to flee the country. “There is still a Supreme Court,” he says, “and it is there to look after our rights. There is Justice Douglas. There is Justice Frankfurter. There is Justice Murphy and Justice Black. They are there to uphold the law. There are still good men in this country. There is Roosevelt, there is Ickes, there is Mayor LaGuardia. In November there is a congressional election. There is still the ballot and people can still vote without anybody telling them what to do.” “And what will they vote for?” my mother asked (197).  Rather than keep his views to himself, Herman makes no bones about his objections to the administration for anyone who will hear him, including Rabbi Bengelsdorf. Not surprisingly, he and his family are eventually chosen for relocation. Faced with the decision to relocate or lose his job, Herman resigns, taking a back-breaking manual labor job from his unscrupulous brother Monty. The family fortunes plummet in the offing.

For most of the novel, Philip’s older brother Sandy embraces Lindbergh and the administration’s policies, becoming a poster-boy for the OAA and Bengelsdorf’s collaboration, spending time in the “Just Folks” program in Kentucky. To little Phil’s astonishment, his brother takes it in with relish, eating bacon, ham and sausage while there, adopting a Southern twang after he returns. That could seem harmless enough, but Sandy becomes a traitor in his own home, adopting the more virulent rhetoric of OAA supporters like his aunt Evelyn, calling his father’s open hostility to Lindbergh and Bengelsdorf the “paranoia” of “ghetto Jews,” an eerily similar logic to earlier Nazi condemnations of Ostjuden (227). (Bengelsdorf is a German Jewish American with family roots in the nineteenth century American South.)[2]

Little Philip’s cousin Alvin early on takes a radical tack. He and Herman disagree mightily. Alvin refuses Herman’s faith in the American system and the rule of law. He resolves to fight against fascism and moves to Canada following the election, enlisting in the Canadian army in the war against the Nazis in Europe. He returns from the fighting in France gravely wounded, having lost a leg to a grenade. After a long convalescence in Canada, he returns to live in the Roth family home, sharing a bedroom with Philip. This is where the novel gets interesting, particularly for the relationship that develops between Phil, Alvin, and Herman.

I’ll continue the story in my next post with more on the family romance in the novel and with the various “plots” that it portrays.

[1] Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 114. Succeeding references to this book in parenthesis.

[2] In my mind anyway, one of the real flaws in the novel is that Roth doesn’t play out completely Sandy’s collaboration. Other events bring him back into the family fold, but essentially, Sandy loses interest in the OAA once he develops an attraction to girls. From there he’s no longer the same focal point, the family romance loses some of its completeness, and the novel speeds to a conclusion that suffers from being almost too tidy. Roth saves it with a good dose of ambivalence at the end, but Sandy’s return rises merely to the prodigal.

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  1. I remember liking Hutchison’s book. I think I’ll have to crack it open again. Looking forward to the next installment(s).

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