The Plot Against America
Dust jacket of first U.S. edition
The Plot Against America is a novel by Philip Roth published in 2004. It is an alternative history in which Franklin D. 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. The narrator and central character in the novel is the young Philip, and 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. 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. The novel depicts the Weequahic section of Newark which includes Weequahic High School from which Roth graduated.
The novel is told from the point of view of Roth as a child growing up in Newark, New Jersey, as the younger son of Herman and Bess Roth. It begins with aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, who is already criticized for his praise of Hitler's government, joining the America First Party. As the party's spokesman, he speaks against US intervention in World War II and openly criticizes the "Jewish race" for trying to force US involvement. After making a surprise appearance on the last night of the 1940 Republican National Convention, he is nominated as the Republican Party's candidate for president.
Although criticized from the left and feared by most Jewish Americans, Lindbergh musters a strong tide of popular support from the South and the Midwest and is endorsed by Conservative Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf of Newark. Lindbergh wins the 1940 election over incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt in a landslide under the slogan "Vote for Lindbergh, or vote for war." Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler is Lindbergh's vice president, and Lindbergh nominates Henry Ford as Secretary of the Interior. With Lindbergh now in the White House, the Roth family begins increasingly to feel like outsiders in American society.
Lindbergh's first act is to sign a treaty with Nazi Germany and Hitler that promises that the United States will not interfere with German expansion in Europe, known as the "Iceland Understanding," after where it is signed, and another with Imperial Japan that promises noninterference with Japanese expansion in Asia, known as the "Hawaii Understanding." The new presidency begins to take a toll on Philip's family. Philip's cousin Alvin joins the Canadian Army to fight in Europe. He loses his leg in combat and comes home with his ideals destroyed. He leaves the family and becomes a racketeer in Philadelphia. A new government program, the Office of American Absorption (OAA), begins to take Jewish boys to spend a period of time living with exchange families in the South and Midwest to "Americanize" them. Philip's older brother Sandy is one of the boys selected, and after spending time on a farm in Kentucky under the OAA's "Just Folks" scheme, he comes home showing contempt for his family, calling them "ghetto Jews."
Philip's aunt, Evelyn Finkel, who is his mother's younger sister, marries Rabbi Bengelsdorf and becomes a frequent guest of the Lindbergh White House and is even invited to a dinner party for German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. That causes further strain in the family. A new version of the Homestead Act of 1862, called Homestead 42, is instituted to relocate entire Jewish families to the Western and Southern United States. Many of Philip's Newark neighbors move to Canada. Philip's shy and innocent school friend, Seldon Wishnow, an only child, is moved to tiny Danville, Kentucky, with his widowed mother, Selma. In protest against the new act, the radio personality Walter Winchell openly criticizes the Lindbergh administration on his nationwide Sunday night broadcast from New York and is fired by his sponsor. Winchell then decides to run for president in 1944 and begins a speaking tour. His candidacy causes anger and anti-Semitic rioting in the South and the Midwest, and mobs begin targeting him. While addressing an open-air political rally in Louisville, Kentucky, on October 5, 1942, Winchell is shot to death. Winchell's funeral in New York City is presided over by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who praises Winchell for his opposition to fascism and pointedly criticizes Lindbergh for his silence over the riots and Winchell's assassination.
As he is returning from delivering a speech in Louisville on October 7, 1942, Lindbergh's plane goes missing. Ground searches turn up no results, and Vice President Wheeler assumes command. The German State Radio discloses "evidence" that Lindbergh's disappearance and the kidnapping of his son were part of a Jewish conspiracy to take control of the US government. That announcement causes further anti-Semitic rioting. Wheeler and Ford, acting on that evidence, begin arresting prominent Jewish citizens, including Henry Morgenthau Jr., Herbert Lehman, and Bernard Baruch as well as Mayor LaGuardia and Rabbi Bengelsdorf. Seldon calls the Roths when his mother does not come home from work. They later discover that Seldon's mother was killed by Ku Klux Klan members who beat and robbed her before setting fire to her car with her in it. The Roths eventually call Sandy's exchange family in Kentucky and have them keep Seldon safe until Philip's father and brother drive there and bring him back to Newark. Months later, Seldon is taken in by his mother's sister. The rioting stops when First Lady Anne Morrow Lindbergh makes a statement that asks for the country to stop the violence and move forward. With the body searches for President Lindbergh called off, former President Roosevelt runs as an emergency presidential candidate in November 1942 and is re-elected. Months later, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and the US enters the war.
As an epilogue, Philip's aunt, Evelyn, confides a theory of Lindbergh's disappearance, the source for which was First Lady Lindbergh, who disclosed the details to Evelyn's husband, Rabbi Bengelsdorf, shortly before the First lady had been forcibly removed from the White House and held prisoner in the psychiatric ward at Walter Reed Army Hospital. According to Evelyn, after the Lindberghs' son, Charles, was kidnapped in 1932, his murder was faked, and he was then raised in Germany by the Nazis as a Hitler Youth member. The Nazis' price for the boy's life was Lindbergh's full co-operation with a Nazi-organized presidential campaign by which they hoped to bring the Final Solution to the US. When Lindbergh informed them that the US would never permit such a thing, he was kidnapped, and the Jewish conspiracy theory was put forward hoping to turn the US further against its Jewish population. Philip admits that Evelyn's theory is the most far-fetched and "unbelievable" but "not necessarily the least convincing" explanation for Lindbergh's disappearance.
Roth stated that the idea for the novel came to him while he was reading the unpublished galleys for Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s autobiography in which Schlesinger makes a comment that some of the day's more radical Republican senators wanted Lindbergh to run against Roosevelt. The title appears to be taken from that of a communist pamphlet published in support of the campaign against Burton K. Wheeler's re-election to the US Senate in 1946.
The novel depicts an antisemitic United States in the 1940s. Roth had written in his autobiography, The Facts, of the racial and antisemitic tensions that were a part of his childhood in Newark. Several times in that book, he describes children in his neighborhood being violently attacked simply because they were Jewish.
Literary significance and criticism
Roth's novel was generally well received. Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post, exploring the book's treatment of Lindbergh in some depth, calls the book "painfully moving" and a "genuinely American story."
Blake Morrison in The Guardian offered high praise: "The Plot Against America creates its reality magisterially, in long, fluid sentences that carry you beyond skepticism and with a quotidian attentiveness to sights and sounds, tastes and smells, surnames and nicknames and brandnames—an accumulation of petits faits vrais—that dissolves any residual disbelief."
Writer Bill Kauffman, in The American Conservative, wrote a scathing review of the book and objected to its criticism of the movement of which Lindbergh was a chief spokesperson, which is sometimes referred to as isolationist but Kauffman sees as antiwar, in contrast to Roosevelt's pro-war stance. He also criticizes its portrayal of increasing American antisemitism, in particular among Catholics, and for the nature of its fictional portrayals of real-life characters like Lindbergh, claiming it was "bigoted and libellous of the dead," as well as for its ending, featuring a resolution to the political situation that Kauffman considered a deus ex machina.
Many took the novel as something of a roman à clef for or against the George W. Bush administration and its policies, but though Roth was opposed to the Bush administration’s policies, he denied such allegorical interpretations of his novel.
In 2005, the novel won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction given by the Society of American Historians. It won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and came in 11th for the 2005 Locus Awards.
The Plot Against America depicts or mentions many historical figures:
- Bernard Baruch
- Louis D. Brandeis
- Charles Coughlin
- William O. Douglas
- Meyer C. Ellenstein
- James A. Farley
- Edward Flanagan
- Henry Ford
- Leo Frank
- Felix Frankfurter
- Joseph Goebbels
- Ben Grauer
- Hank Greenberg
- Frank Hague
- Bruno Richard Hauptmann
- William Randolph Hearst
- Adolf Hitler
- J. Edgar Hoover
- Harold L. Ickes
- Fritz Julius Kuhn
- Robert M. La Follette Jr.
- Fiorello H. LaGuardia
- Meyer Lansky
- Herbert H. Lehman
- John L. Lewis
- Charles A. Lindbergh
- Anne Morrow Lindbergh
- Henry Morgenthau Jr.
- Vincent Murphy
- Gerald P. Nye
- Westbrook Pegler
- Mary Phagan
- Joachim Prinz
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
- Leverett Saltonstall
- Gerald L. K. Smith
- I.F. Stone
- Dorothy Thompson
- Jacob Thorkelson
- Joachim von Ribbentrop
- Henry Wallace
- Burton K. Wheeler
- David T. Wilentz
- Wendell Willkie
- Walter Winchell
- Abner "Longy" Zwilman
In addition, after the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, reviewers noted the presence in The Plot Against America of a character who bears a resemblance to Trump. The cousin, Alvin, goes to work for a Jewish real-estate developer whose description closely matches Trump. Roth was interviewed in The New Yorker about similarities between his novel and the election of Trump. Roth responded, "It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero ... Trump is just a con artist."
On January 18, 2018, it was reported that The Wire creator David Simon would be adapting a six-part mini-series adaptation of The Plot Against America. The news was first announced in a New York Times journalist Charles McGrath's interview with Roth, who noted that Simon had visited Roth, who stated he "was sure his novel was in good hands." Filming took place in Jersey City, New Jersey. It premiered on HBO on March 16, 2020.
- Business Plot
- Hypothetical Axis victory in World War II: an extensive list of Wikipedia articles regarding works of Nazi Germany/Axis/World War II alternative history.
- It Can't Happen Here: 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis in which a demagogue defeats FDR in 1936 and establishes totalitarian rule.
- Yardley, Jonathan (October 3, 2004). Homeland Insecurity. The Washington Post. Washington, D.C.: The Washington Post Company. p. BW02.
- Berman, Paul (October 3, 2004). "The Plot Against America". The New York Times. New York City: New York Times Company.
- Morrison, Blake (October 2, 2004). "The Relentless Unforeseen". The Guardian. London, England: Guardian Media Group. Retrieved July 21, 2010.
- Kauffman, Bill (September 27, 2004). "Heil to the Chief". The American Conservative. Washington, D.C.: American Ideas Institute.
- West, Diana (October 11, 2004). "The unnerving 'Plot'". Townhall.com.
- "Best Fiction". The Daily Telegraph. London, England: Telegraph Media Group. December 8, 2004. Retrieved January 3, 2011.
- "Society of American Historians Prize for Historical Fiction (formerly known as the James Fenimore Cooper Prize)". Society of American Historians. Retrieved January 6, 2020.
- "Sidewise: Past Winners and Finalists". Sidewise Awards for Alternate History. Retrieved January 6, 2020.
- "John W. Campbell Memorial Award Finalists". Center for the Study of Science Fiction. Retrieved January 6, 2020.
- "sfadb: Locus Awards 2005". science fiction awards database. Retrieved January 6, 2020.
- The Plot Against America discussed on "Trumpcast" (March 2017)
- "Philip Roth E-Mails on Trump" (January 2017)
- Holpuch, Amanda (January 16, 2018). "David Simon adapting Philip Roth's The Plot Against America for TV". The Guardian. Retrieved April 20, 2018.
- Schaub, Michael (January 16, 2018). "David Simon is adapting Philip Roth's 'The Plot Against America' for television". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 20, 2018.
- McGrath, Charles (January 16, 2018). "No Longer Writing, Philip Roth Still Has Plenty to Say". New York Times. Retrieved April 20, 2018.
- "HBO series based on Roth's 'Plot Against America' filmed in Jersey City with Winona Ryder and John Turturro. Next up: Newark". April 12, 2019.
- Lawrence, Derek (December 19, 2019). "See Winona Ryder, John Turturro in first look at David Simon's The Plot Against America". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved December 19, 2019.
- Bresnan, Mark. "America First: Reading The Plot Against America in the Age of Trump." The Los Angeles Review of Books. September 11, 2016.
- Rossi, Umberto. "Philip Roth: Complotto contro l'America o complotto americano?", Pulp Libri #54 (March–April 2005), 4–7.
- Swirski, Peter. "It Can't Happen Here or Politics, Emotions, and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America." American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History. New York, Routledge, 2011.
- Stinson, John J. "'I Declare War': A New Street Game and New Grim Realities in Roth's The Plot Against America." ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews #22.1 (2009), 42–48.
- Charles, Ron. "Lucky Lindy Unfortunate Jews", review in Christian Science Monitor, September 28, 2005. CSMonitor.com, accessed September 27, 2014.
- Gessen, Keith. "His Jewish Problem", review in New York Magazine, September 27, 2004. NYMag.com, accessed September 27, 2014.
- Kakutani, Michiko. "BOOKS OF THE TIMES; A Pro-Nazi President, A Family Feeling The Effects" review in The New York Times, September 21, 2004. NYTimes.com, accessed September 27, 2014.
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