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The Elbert Files: D.M. and Lindbergh


Des Moines plays an interesting, if distortive, role in “The Plot Against America,” the current HBO miniseries based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel of the same name.

The book and the miniseries tell an imagined history in which aviator Charles Lindbergh rides a wave of America First isolationist fears to the Republican nomination in 1940 and defeats President Franklin Roosevelt. 

The plot centers on Roth’s own Jewish family and is told through the eyes of the author as a boy growing up in New Jersey.

There are three references in the opening chapter to Lindbergh’s “Des Moines speech,” which, according to Roth’s storyline, launched the famed flyer’s political career. 

The book is an interesting piece of fiction with “brilliant” writing that is “confounding and illuminating,” according to reviews. 

While the story is based on real history, the context of the Des Moines speech is a blatant distortion. 

This is not surprising because few Iowa political events have generated as much debate about intent as Lindbergh’s Sept. 11, 1941, speech to 8,000 at the Des Moines Coliseum.  

In Roth’s novel, the Des Moines speech occurs in 1940 a couple of months before the Republican nominating convention and positions noncandidate Lindbergh to step onto the floor of a deadlocked convention and capture the Republican nomination for president. 

The fictional Lindbergh rides anti-war sentiments to victory over Roosevelt and goes on to create a dystopian America. 

The actual events were quite different. 

Lindbergh’s Des Moines speech occurred 10 months after Roosevelt’s reelection, less than three months before Pearl Harbor led the United States into World War II. 

A little-remembered piece of history is that Lindberg’s Des Moines visit occurred the same day Roosevelt effectively declared war on German submarines in the North Atlantic after a U-boat fired unsuccessfully at a U.S. destroyer. 

Roosevelt’s nationwide address announcing the German attack and U.S. response was broadcast by radio to the gathering at Des Moines’ Coliseum less than an hour before Lindbergh spoke. 

Newspapers reported that a sizable portion of the Des Moines audience was Roosevelt admirers, and that following the president’s address emotions were amped-up on both sides.   

“Even the minister arising to give the invocation was not spared [from taunts], although the crowd quieted when his purpose became apparent,” the Des Moines Tribune reported. 

Lindbergh’s speech elicited choruses of cheers and boos and is often remembered for its anti-Semitic language, although Lindbergh contended then and later that was not his intent. 

All he wanted to do, Lindbergh said, was name the three groups pushing the U.S. to war: the British, who, he noted, were being bombed by Nazi Germany; Jews who were being persecuted by Nazis; and supporters of Roosevelt, who, Lindberg contended, needed a war to justify his own “dictatorial procedures.”

Lindberg said he was not attacking either the Jewish or the British people. He said he understood and admired both groups, despite the fact that “the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war.”

In the end, however, the aviator left what author Susan Dunn described as an “unambiguous message that Jews living in the United States constituted a wealthy, influential conspiratorial foreign ‘race’ that had seized ‘our’ media and infiltrated ‘our’ political institutions.”

That’s the message Roth seized on and used to drive his narrative in “The Plot Against America.” 

For Roth, it was irrelevant that “booing drowned out the cheers, forcing” Lindbergh repeatedly to “stop, wait out the catcalls, and start his sentences over,” as Dunn wrote in her 2013 history of the 1940 election. 

The real story, Dunn wrote, was the opposite of Roth’s storyline: “America First never recovered from the calamity of Lindbergh’s stop in Des Moines.”

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