Viewpoints: A sharply divided America is nothing new

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11A

The year was 1939, Nazi Germany was threatening to envelop all of Europe, and the United States was sharply divided.

On the one side were interventionists who believed we had a moral obligation to come to the aid of our allies and whose cause was championed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. On the other side were isolationists, led by a pro-German American hero, Charles Lindbergh, who adamantly opposed any involvement in what they saw as a war to be settled in Europe by Europeans.

Sometimes, it is good to be reminded that as divided as the country is right now and as brutal as the public dialogue is on issues from gay marriage to immigration and gun control, divisiveness is nothing new to the American psyche.

One significant difference now, of course, is that in this age of the Internet, social media, bloviating radio talk show hosts and 24-hour cable news channels, differences are exaggerated, emotions are exploited and hostility and nastiness get instant transmission. But seldom if ever have we been without controversy.

Even before we were a nation, the Tories of the 1700s sided with King George and attacked George Washington and the Founding Fathers for fomenting revolution. In 1860s, U.S. citizens took up arms against each other over slavery and states' rights, producing hundreds of thousands dead and a president assassinated.

The Joe McCarthy era created an anti-Communist hysteria that produced blacklists of actors and writers. Even the new movie "42" about the integration of baseball by Jackie Robinson reminds us that race was an overpowering and divisive issue at the mid-point of the last century.

In the 1960s, the Vietnam War had the country torn apart, and there were student protests and angry conservative reaction. The differences were more often than not reflected in peace symbols vs. "America, Love It or Leave" bumper strips.

But almost lost to history because of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, and the outbreak of World War II, is the fact that the country for two years was engaged in a savage struggle over whether we should involve ourselves in the fight to stop German aggression.

In retrospect, it hardly seems possible that something so obvious – the evils of Nazism – could have produced such sharply divided opinions on whether that evil constituted a threat to the United States.

The isolationists, calling themselves American Firsters, considered themselves super patriots, not unlike the tea partiers of today. Just as the tea party embraces the vitriolic Rush Limbaugh as their patron saint, many of the isolationists embraced Father Charles Coughlin, a rabble-rousing Catholic priest whose weekly radio show was heard by 40 million listeners. He routinely denounced what he called the "anti-Christian conspiracy" of Jews, Communists, President Roosevelt and the British.

"America isn't going to be any too comfortable a place to live in during the immediate future," Roosevelt Cabinet member Harold Ickes wrote his diary, "and some of us are going to be ashamed of the excesses that will be committed against innocent people. Some of our super patriots are simply going crazy."

Among others on the opposite side was the Century Group, a pro- allied interventionist organization made up of media figures, intellectuals and business executives. And while it never became a huge grassroots organization, it exerted extraordinary influence.

This previously unexplored and acrimonious period in our history is the subject of a new book by Lynne Olson, a best-selling author and former Moscow correspondent for the Associated Press and White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. It is appropriately titled "Those Angry Days."

Long before we color-coded states red or blue to reflect their political leanings, Olson found a similar pre-World War II division which she described as an enormous gulf of knowledge and understanding between the country's heartland and the East Coast.

For two years, there was a bitter clash of personalities. Roosevelt, under pressure from all sides, sought to marshal support for aid to Great Britain and his friend, Winston Churchill. In the process of opposing intervention, Lindbergh saw his heroic reputation smeared as a Nazi sympathizer.

But once the Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor and Germany followed with a declaration of war against the United States, the American Firsters virtually disappeared.

Olson writes that the American people found common cause in the belief they were fighting a just and necessary conflict to save Western civilization. In so doing, they coalesced as never before in history.

"Much of the credit for that feeling of unity must be given to the two-year public debate over the war," she writes, "which, despite its unseemly acrimony, helped educate Americans about the need to ready themselves for entry into the conflict."

Once the war ended, there was no way that sense of unity could be sustained. A Pew Research Center study during last year's presidential election found that Americans are as polarized as they've been in the last quarter-century over beliefs, value systems and political identity, too frequently expressed in vitriolic rhetoric. These are our angry days.

It is not necessarily true that history repeats itself, but it does have some striking similarities.

William Endicott is a former deputy managing editor for The Bee.

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