NOTE: there are no spoilers in this blog post
Philip Roth is my favorite author. I've read most of his books (not all) and in some
instances, I've read them several times. Many
hold up well. Others, not so much.
I read Roth's 'Plot Against America,' when it was first published in 2004. And over the weekend, I finished watching the HBO mini-series based on the book. 'Plot Against America' was not one of the Roth books I have read more than once, so, I remembered it only in broad strokes. I watched the series and then went back to refresh my memory and compare what the differences between the book and the movie.
There are a few important things to know about Philip Roth that are important. First, virtually every book is autobiographical. In 'Plot' the main character (in the book) is named Philip Roth. In the movie, the main character is named Philip Levin. In real life, Philip's father, mother and brother were named Herman, Bessie and Sandy, respectively and this is the case in the book. The real Philip Roth did, in fact, have a cousin named Alvin who lost a leg in the war and a friend named Seldon, both of which are included in the movie and the book. However, in real life, Alvin didn't fight for Canada--he fought for the US.
The literary conceit of the movie and the book is this: Charles A. Lindbergh becomes the Republican candidate for president in the election of 1940. He runs against the incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In real life, Lindbergh was not the candidate; Roosevelt ran and won against Wendell Willkie. But the results of the election are less important than the impact Lindbergh's candidacy has on America.
Lindbergh was the leader and most prominent member of the America First political party that advocated for immigration quotas, for isolationism and for essentially a racially pure America by which they meant White Anglo Saxon Protestant Christians. America First was profoundly antisemitic and xenophobic. Lindbergh's antisemitic and Nazi proclivities have been the subject of debate. Some observers and historians think he was neither an antisemite nor a Nazi sympathizer. This school suggests that Lindbergh was merely anti-war rather than pro-Nazi. I disagree on both counts.
Lindbergh was without question an antisemite. Here is an actual quote from Lindberg (recounted in the movie accurately) from an American First rally in 1941:
It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race.
No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy both for us and for them. Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.
Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastations. A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not.
Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.
If this isn't antisemitsm the entire idea of antisemitsm has no meaning. Lindbergh did visit with Nazi leadership in the late 30s. There is no evidence that he favored the annihilation of European Jewry, however, he certainly supported appeasement and opposed all efforts to intervene for any reason, including the Holocaust. So, for me, although Lindbergh did not come out and say, 'let's kill the Jews,' his silence and stance toward Germany essentially makes him a Nazi. He didn't pull the trigger, but he certainly drove the getaway car.
The reason Roth found Lindbergh an good candidate for this kind of history was that Lindbergh was a genuine American hero with legitimate accomplishments. Obviously, he was the first pilot to complete a solo crossing over the Atlantic. But, his solo flight was far more substantial than the pair of aviators who completely the world's first transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland--a trip of 'only' 1900 miles or so. Lindbergh, on the other hand, flew from Long Island to Paris--the same basic trip so many people make today from JFK to Charles DeGaulle, a flight of about 3600 miles.
Lindbergh used his fame for many noteworthy and good things. For example, he was a proponent of air mail and with his support, air mail became popular. He was interested in science writ large and supported many noteworthy scientific projects. And of course, he suffered the tragedy of the kidnapping and murder of his son, Charles, Jr. He was a complicated man and his legacy would be easier to categorize if he had merely flown across the Atlantic and then used his fame in the America First movement. This is the reason Roth chose Lindbergh rather than event a fictional character.
Some have pointed to 'Plot's' parallel's with today's political climate, even going so far as to say that Lindbergh is a stand-in for President Trump. However, this quite obviously cannot be true because 'Plot' was published in 2004. One could argue that the creative team that brought 'Plot' to life manipulated the project in a particular way. Yet, the screen adaptation adheres rather closely to the book with one exception: the end. I wont' spoil that for you here, but, that is the most significant change to the book. You be the judge.