"When you look back at history, what actually happened looks like it had to happen, that it was inevitable—but it wasn’t."

By Mark Roosevelt
President of Antioch College

I learned a powerful, if seemingly simple, lesson from a college history professor of mine, Bernard Bailyn. The lesson is that when you look back in history, what actually happened looks like it had to happen, that it was inevitable—but it wasn’t. In fact, most everything could have been different. Understanding why it happened as it did, and not some other way, is at the core of historical inquiry.

Unfortunately much of history tends to be written in a manner that depicts the actual outcome as inevitable. Incredibly close elections (think John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960) are depicted as if they were the inevitable result of certain trends in American life. Important stories such as the triumph of the “Patriots” over the “Loyalists” in our war for independence from Great Britain, the outcome of the Civil War,  American involvement in World War II, and the Cuban Missile Crisis are often described as if circumstances and individuals came together to execute a result preordained by some unknown shaper of human destiny. Even though at some level we know this is clearly not so, our minds tend to absorb it that way.

Of course understanding why things came out the way they did is complex. It takes hard work, digging through original materials, open-minded analysis, and the willingness to reconsider. Partly through close examination of many taped conversations of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, historian Sheldon Stern has argued persuasively in The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths versus Reality that almost everything most people think they know about the Cuban Missile Crisis is mistaken. This is especially true about the events leading up to the crisis, which most see as having arisen nearly out of the blue due to provocative acts taken by dangerously unstable Soviet leadership. In fact, having argued in the 1960 election that there was a significant missile gap and that America was at an increasing disadvantage in the arms race, our newly elected president, John Kennedy, and his unpredictable and aggressive brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were hell bent on being seen as hawkish guardians of American security. Immediately after he took office, consistent with his campaign rhetoric, JFK approved placing Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy, significantly increasing our ability to hit Soviet targets in a first strike. With that in mind, Khrushchev’s decision to place Soviet missiles in Cuba was not in fact an out-of-the blue unilateral act of aggression, but more a clumsy, blustery response to the Jupiter missiles and other American actions. Stern’s analysis of the taped deliberations within the Administration reveals that our elected and military leaders understood this context. But you would not learn this from most history textbooks and certainly not from popular movies, and it is not the story held in our collective “American Memory.”  

And what about World War II? With hindsight, the grotesque, over-the-top, almost cartoonish militarism of Japanese imperialism and the even more evil-demon, ghoulish horror show of their Nazi allies appear doomed to go down to defeat in a world supposedly moving in some “arc” towards justice. But clearly it could have been otherwise, at least for a long period of time.   

It was possible, if not probable, that America could have remained on the sidelines long enough for the Germans and Japanese to consolidate their gains and remake the map of world power. What forces convinced a massively reluctant American public that aiding the allies, preparing for war and then entering it after the Japanese strike on Pearly Harbor – on two fronts – was both necessary and right?

Philip Roth has given us a fictional alternative reality to America’s entry into the War in his remarkable novel The Plot Against America. Written from the point of view of Philip Roth at seven years old, The Plot Against America tells what happens when isolationist hero Charles Lindbergh is nominated by the Republican Party and defeats FDR in the 1940 presidential election. The novel captures the potential for America to succumb to its darker sides, sliding slowly into fascism and institutional anti-Semitism. These were among the undercurrents of the influential “America First” isolationist movement led by such disparate figures as Kingman Brewster, Sinclair Lewis and Henry Ford, and whose student chapters included future president John F. Kennedy.

The novel opens: “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.”

Lindbergh is the central figure of the novel and was indeed a major figure in American life following his heroic 1927 flight across the Atlantic in The Spirit of Saint Louis and the tragic death of his son at the hands of a kidnapper five years later. And although he did exert enormous influence, he was “unrealized” in the sense that his potential influence and power was even greater and could have set American on a very different path.  

Like Joseph Kennedy Lindbergh tended to see the British as the past and the Germans as the future. His faulty moral compass did not register that a Nazi future might be organizationally efficient but horrific in ways that matter a great deal more. While not a Nazi himself, he was susceptible to the flattery of Nazi officials, and, as an airman, he was impressed by the potential dominance of the German air force. He was committed to strict neutrality and worked with the many American military figures opposed to FDR’s plans to aid the British war effort and initiate a peace time draft. The charming, handsome and aloof Lindbergh was fundamentally naïve and unschooled in the ways of politics. Yet, as the 1940 election loomed, had he been a candidate, he would have made a far more likely Republican nominee than the one who actually emerged, Wendell Willkie, and perhaps a far more likely winner.

As recounted in Lynne Olson’s new book Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 Willkie’s candidacy is one of those unlikely yet influential events that tipped the scales of history.  In 1940 FDR was popular but unsteady following the defeat of his plan to “pack” the Supreme Court with New Deal supporters, and he was especially wary of taking steps towards war preparation that might endanger his reelection. No other president had ever sought a third-term and with that “power grab” as a background, he knew that his many enemies might galvanize the electorate around an agenda of “peace above all else.”

Willkie won the Republican nomination over the far better known Robert Taft, Thomas Dewey, and Arthur Vandenberg. He was certainly an unlikely candidate to lead a Republican Party that had grown increasingly conservative and isolationist, for he was neither. A former Democrat, he was the only major party candidate for president who had never held major elected or appointed public office or high military rank. He had spent his career as a lawyer and a businessman and had supported many New Deal programs while opposing others as anti-business. He began the campaign as more of an internationalist than FDR, claiming, in fact, that FDR had not been aggressive enough in preparing the nation for war.  A married man, it was well known that he was in love with another woman, and Willkie made little effort to hide that fact. 

At times during the campaign Willkie faltered in his disposition not to demagogue the issue of war preparation, changing his mind about his earlier commitment to support a draft and accusing FDR of having a secret plan to join the Allied effort as soon as he was reelected.  But considering the other alternatives, explored in The Plot Against America and Those Angry Days and on display on the radio and across the country up to and even past the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Willkie campaign was an example how politicians can run campaigns within certain boundaries in times when such boundaries are badly needed.

A week after the election, Willkie said, “We have elected Franklin Roosevelt president. He is your president. He is my president.” And he spent the next four years (sadly his last, as he died in 1944) working with FDR. He supported the 1941 Lend-Lease bill sending military equipment to the British and traveled abroad as FDR’s personal representative to Britain, China and the Soviet Union. He spoke out for civil rights for African Americans and worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to found Freedom House.    

In a December 1, 2012 New York Times article headlined “When Partisans Became Partners,” Williams College historian Susan Dunn wrote of the Roosevelt-Willkie partnership. She ends the piece recounting a story about FDR overhearing his aide Harry Hopkins disparaging Willkie. FDR snapped saying, “Don’t ever say anything like that around here again. Don’t even think it.  You of all people ought to know that we might not have had Lend-Lease or Selective Service or a lot of other things if it hadn’t been for Wendell Willkie. He was a godsend to this country when we needed him most.”  

But we know it did not need to be that way. Histories such as Olson’s and Dunn’s, as well as Roth’s novel, show how close we came to a much darker journey. Wendell Willkie is part of an unlikely story. And although he died having been repudiated and humiliated by the Republican Party, he deserves our respectful attention today for displaying qualities sorely lacking in most of our present-day “leaders.”

Dunn suggests that Willkie was at peace with his choices. He told a friend, “If I could write my own epitaph and if I had to choose between saying, ‘Here lies an unimportant president’ or ‘Here lies one who contributed to saving freedom at a moment of great peril,’ I would prefer the latter.”