Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424
The Plot Against America is a novel of alternative history which takes place in the 1940s. It is one of Philip Roth's "Roth novels" in which, though it is fiction, the author makes himself and his family the protagonists, rather than use his Zuckerman or Kepesh personas.
The premise of the novel is that in 1940, Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator, is elected president of the US, ousting Franklin Roosevelt from office. Lindbergh, in Roth's depiction, is openly pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic, as the actual Lindbergh in fact was. The focus of the novel is the reaction of Roth's family and other Jewish people to this situation in which they fear, understandably, that Lindbergh will initiate domestic policies similar to those of Hitler. Though this doesn't quite happen, there are subtle (and sometimes not subtle) changes in the way Jews are treated, including plans to indoctrinate Jewish children with "non-Jewish values" by placing them with Gentile families. There is also a subplot about Roth's cousin who has enlisted in the Canadian army to fight against the Nazis. He is wounded and returns to the US with his leg having been amputated. This can be viewed as a symbol of the damage done to the Jewish community and to the US as a whole by the aberrant events taking place.
Several other subplots involve both historical and fictional characters and events. The (real-life) journalist Walter Winchell, who was Jewish, is depicted as an outspoken opponent of Lindbergh and is assassinated in the novel. In the end, a restoration of actual historical events occurs after Lindbergh's plane disappears and FDR is restored to the presidency. The US is attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor and then joins the Allies against Germany and Japan as actually occurred in 1941. A speculative explanation of the Lindbergh presidency is offered, premised on the idea that Lindbergh was a victim of blackmail by the Nazis, who are alleged to have been holding his son (the famous Lindbergh baby actually kidnaped and killed) hostage.
The meaning of alternative history stories is that history is not an inevitable process and that anything "could have happened." "Isolationism," partly rooted in anti-Semitism in the "America First" movement, was an actual phenomenon during World War II. The allegation, made by the historical Charles Lindbergh and others, was that there was a "Jewish conspiracy" to force the US into the war in Europe. Roth's novel combines this fact with speculative fiction which is pessimistic in the extreme, but then reverses itself and gives an optimistic conclusion to the story.
Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 211
The Roth family—Herman, the father; Bess, the mother; Sandy, the elder son; and Phillip, the younger son and narrator—lives in Newark, New Jersey. They support FDR's run for a third term as president, and they are quite distressed when Charles Lindbergh, the famed aviator, wins instead, because he wants to keep the U.S. out of WWII and seems to have a worryingly close relationship with Hitler and the Third Reich. The story follows the family's life as they attempt to navigate a country and world that seem increasingly hostile to Jews: they are openly discriminated against in the nation's capital and kicked out of their hotel room; their older son is relocated in what seems like an attempt to alienate him from his family and indoctrinate him into Christianity; the government attempts to forcibly relocate the entire family; they care for Herman's nephew, Alvin, who returns from the war missing a leg and very despondent; and they ultimately save the son of their former neighbor when his mother, the boy's only living parent, is viciously murdered for her faith. Life for them is not easy, and they become estranged from various relatives who judge their choices; however, they ultimately hold onto their principles and survive the Lindbergh presidency.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 718
In the 1940 of Philip Roth’s reimagined history, many Americans are so afraid that President Franklin D. Roosevelt is leading the country into the war in Europe that the Republican Party nominates not Wendell Wilkie but Charles A. Lindbergh, the hero who was the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean solo. To the great consternation of American Jews, Lindbergh wins the election. Jews are concerned because Lindbergh not only has admired the German Luftwaffe but also has accepted a medal from Adolf Hitler himself, a clear sign of his pro-German sympathies.
As nine-year-old Philip Roth narrates events, the Roth family—including Philip’s father and mother, Herman and Besse, and his older brother, Sandy—and their friends in the Jewish section of Newark, New Jersey, are terribly upset by this turn of events and fear the worst. They suspect that the kinds of anti-Semitism that Hitler has propounded and is rapidly carrying out in Germany and in the parts of Europe that he has conquered will, under Lindbergh’s administration, begin to happen in the United States. The first experience that they have of this intolerance comes during a trip to Washington, D.C., where they are expelled from their hotel despite their confirmed reservations. This outrage is followed by a scene in a cafeteria where the family experiences anti-Semitic slurs. Worse events are still to follow.
Not all Jews believe as Herman Roth believes. A rabbi, Lionel Bengelsdorf, supports the new administration and soon becomes head of the Office of American Absorption. This new office is established to promote Lindbergh’s plan to disperse Jews from enclaves, such as the one in which the Roths live in Newark, to other parts of the country, thereby promoting their assimilation into the American mainstream. After years of working for an insurance company, Herman Roth is reassigned to Louisville under this plan, but rather than accept the assignment, he resigns and goes to work instead for his brother’s produce business. Sandy Roth, meanwhile, is enticed into a program called “Just Folks,” another attempt to foster Jewish assimilation, and spends the summer on a farm in Kentucky with a typical “American” family. He comes back with a southern accent and views quite opposed to those of his father. A neighbor’s family, the Wishnows, is forced to accept the reassignment and goes to Danville, Kentucky, a town near Louisville. Later, Mrs. Wishnow is killed in a violent attack against Jews as she tries to drive home one night.
Roth brings in many historical characters: Father Coughlin, the extremist Catholic priest who fulminates against Jews; Walter Winchell, the Jewish newspaper reporter whose Sunday night radio broadcasts the Roth family and their friends dutifully listen to each week, and who at one point runs for president against Lindbergh, only to be assassinated for his efforts; the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who is honored by a state dinner at the White House by President and Mrs. Lindbergh; Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York City, who is an eloquent spokesperson and a champion of civil rights; and many others. The picture of the United States under the Lindbergh administration is a very grim, even terrifying one. Although Roth insists he intended no allusion to politics in the twenty-first century, his novel clearly posts a warning for what might happen should American civil liberties suffer increased depredations, using the Iraq War as a pretext or an excuse.
Roth even brings into The Plot Against America the notorious kidnapping case of the 1930’s, in which the Lindberghs’ infant son was stolen. In this imagined reconstruction of events, the baby is not killed (as he was in actual fact) but taken by the Nazis and brought up in Germany as a good member of the Hitler Jugend. Events at the end of the novel culminate with the disappearance of Lindbergh himself and subsequent anti-Jewish riots in many cities across the United States in which 122 Jews lose their lives. Lindbergh, however, has not been kidnapped but has fled to Germany, using the Spirit of St. Louis for his escape, and is never seen again. Eventually, law and order are restored (thanks in part to the efforts of Mrs. Lindbergh), the Democrats take over Congress, and Roosevelt wins his unprecedented third term as president.