What if America had adopted an isolationist stance during World War II? Or, worse, what if the American president had openly supported Adolph Hitler, and signed a pact of agreement with the Nazis declaring America would not enter the war? What would America have looked liked if the "Greatest Generation" had never existed? Philip Roth
addresses this alternate history in his latest novel, The Plot Against America
, in which he imagines the 1940 election of Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh, the aviator famous for being the first man to traverse the Atlantic on a solo flight, was also an open supporter of Hitler and the Nazi party. (Roth supplements the novel with a real chronology of Lindbergh's life, including several quotes indicating his Nazi sympathies.) Yet, Lindbergh remained tremendously popular in the States. This dichotomy (a vocal proponent of dictatorships gaining a following in the land of the free) is the bouncing point for Roth's novel.
In classic Roth style, The Plot Against America is narrated by a young boy from urban New Jersey, in this case a youthful version of the author. As the novel opens, young Philip describes his Jewish neighborhood as like any other ethnic enclave in the city; the residents being ten times more likely to buy a racing form at the newsstand than a copy of the daily Yiddish paper. They were Jews, certainly, but they were American first. "Our homeland was America" states Roth, "Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed."
The story is restricted mainly to the Roth family and their close circle of relatives and friends, explaining how the Lindbergh presidency directly effects their livelihood. The Roths are quickly introduced to the new America when they take a family vacation to Washington, D.C. soon after the election, encountering their first bout with anti-Semitism as they are turned away from the hotel at which they had reservations. But has the hotel really instituted a policy of turning away Jewish clientele, or have they just made a mistake? It is clear to Philip's father to be in the first category, but throughout the novel, the Roths run into situations that may or may not be part of a larger undercurrent of discrimination, and Roth (the author) often leaves it up to the reader to determine when anti-Semitism against the Roths is real, and when it is just perceived as a result of the climate of heightened tension among Jews.
While many of the Roths' early conflicts in the novel may not be a direct result of anti-Semitic policy, it becomes clear that President Lindbergh's support of Hitler and the Nazi Party comes to lend validation to widespread anti-Semitic feelings that are already hedging under the surface of American society. The effect on the Roths is intensified by the family's close relationship to Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, a prominent Jewish leader, who is also a supporter of Lindbergh and a member of the president's cabinet. Bengelsdorf is engaged to Philip's aunt Evelyn and the rabbi and his wife try to convince the Roths of the legitimacy of the Lindbergh plan for America, claiming the president's best interest in wanting to empower Jews through assimilation into the larger American culture.