Tragic Real-Life Twist to HBO’s “Plot Against America”

by Rafael Medoff

In HBO’s recent adaptation of the Philip Roth novel “The Plot Against America,” American Jews are coerced by President Charles Lindbergh to move to rural parts of the country so they will become “Americanized” and shed their Jewish ways. In real life, however, it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who wanted to do just that.

In the novel and television series, Lindbergh is elected president in 1940 on a platform of keeping America out of Europe’s war. But his agenda soon expands beyond isolationism.

The fictional Lindbergh administration regards cultural and religious differences —especially Jewish ones— as undesirable, even dangerous. Jewish teenagers are enticed by the “Office of American Absorption” to spend their summers on farms in the midwest. Sandy, the elder brother of the narrator, 9 year-old Philip Roth, returns from his months in Kentucky shorn of his Newark (read: Jewish) mannerisms and attitudes.

Then the “Absorption” office comes up with another scheme: large East coast companies are compelled to transfer their Jewish employees to cities in the south and west that have few Jewish residents. Phillip’s father quits his job in order to keep their family from being relocated.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was, in real life, a vocal advocate of similar social engineering. During his campaign as the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate in 1920, FDR told an interviewer from The Brooklyn Eagle that “the foreign elements” had  crowded into one district and they have brought congestion and racial prejudices to our large cities.” The result, Roosevelt asserted, “is that they do not easily conform to the manners and the customs and the requirements of their new home.”

Population resettlement was the answer, according to FDR. “If we had the greater part of the foreign population of the City of New York distributed to different localities upstate we should have a far better condition,” he told the interviewer.

Roosevelt returned to the problem of immigrant assimilation in a column he wrote for a Georgia newspaper, the Macon Daily Telegraph, on April 21, 1925. “[F]or a good many years to come European immigration should remain greatly restricted,” the future president wrote. “We have, unfortunately, a great many thousand foreigners who got in here and who must be digested. For fifty years the United States ate a meal altogether too large—much of the food was digestible, but some of it was almost poisonous.” He added: “The United States must, for a short time at least, stop eating, and when it resumes should confine itself to the most readily assimilable foodstuffs.”

Long after becoming president, FDR continued to view immigrants, and especially Jewish immigrants, as problematic and in need of dispersal.

At a private White House luncheon on May 22, 1943, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill discussed their plans for the postwar world. The status of the Jews came up in the conversation. FDR sympathetically cited a plan that his senior adviser on population issues, Isaiah Bowman, had concocted for dealing with the Jews.

Vice President Henry Wallace, who was present, wrote in his diary that Roosevelt told Churchill “the best way to settle the Jewish question” was “to spread the Jews thin all over the world.” Wallace continued: “The president said he had tried this out in [Meriwether] County, Georgia and at Hyde Park on the basis of adding four or five Jewish families at each place. He claimed that the local population would have no objection if there were no more than that.”

The Jews were not the only immigrants whom President Roosevelt thought should be “spread thin.” He was also deeply concerned about what he saw as the inability of Asians to become fully American. “Japanese immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population,” he wrote in that Georgia newspaper in 1925.” Anyone who has traveled in the Far East knows that the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results.”

At a press conference on November 21, 1944, FDR was asked by a reporter whether the 130,000 Japanese-Americans whom he had put in detention camps would be permitted to return their homes when the war ended.

A good deal of progress has been made in scattering [Japanese-origin citizens] through the country, and that is going on almost every day,” Roosevelt replied. In language almost identical to that which he used when discussing the Jews, he said: “[I]n the Hudson River Valley or in western Georgia which we all know, in one of those countries, probably half a dozen or a dozen families could be scattered around on the farms and worked into the community. . . . And they wouldn’t—what’s my favorite word?—discombobulate the existing population of those particular countries very much.”

In “The Plot Against America,” it is Franklin Roosevelt, as leader of the opposition, who eventually saves America from Lindbergh’s creeping fascism. It makes for entertaining television, but it’s fiction. 

Mark Twain famously remarked that “truth is stranger than fiction.” In this case, the truth of what the liberal FDR had in mind for Jews as strange, if not stranger, than what the reactionary Lindbergh carried out in Phillip Roth’s fiction.

(May 2020)