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Originally published Sunday, June 9, 2013 at 5:05 AM

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“Those Angry Days” the debate over America’s entry into WWII

Lynne Olson’s “Those Angry Days” chronicles the years before America entered World War II, with colorful portraits of advocates who argued forcefully for entering the war, and for staying out of it.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight over World War II, 1939-1941”

by Lynne Olson

Random House, 496 pp., $30

Declaring war on Japan for attacking Pearl Harbor was the last of many steps the U.S. government took over more than two years to join the Allies in World War II. There was the decision to sell weapons to the favored side, and then to donate them, and then to convoy them. There was the imposition of a military draft. In “Those Angry Days,” Lynne Olson tells the story of the political battle over those steps.

Olson’s focus is on people, which makes the story more colorful, though sometimes at the expense of a deeper look at the ideas they represented. The book’s subtitle frames it as a contest between President Franklin Roosevelt and aviation celebrity Charles Lindbergh. It was that and more.

The war Americans argued about getting into was not with Japan, which Olson hardly mentions until after page 400. It was with Germany. Really, the argument was about America’s role in the world.

On one side were the interventionists. They argued that the Nazis had to be stopped, and that America had to do it. The anti-interventionists — their enemies called them isolationists — remembered the trenches of World War I, and thought, “Never again.”

Lindbergh had lived in Germany and was sympathetic to German complaints about World War I’s punitive settlement. He had also inspected Germany’s air force, and believed Britain couldn’t defeat it. Adolf Hitler’s government had given him a medal, and for accepting it and for his opposition to the war Lindbergh was called a Nazi. He wasn’t, as Olson shows, but it was said that in trying to keep America out of the war he was doing the Nazis’ work.

Franklin Roosevelt had promised in the election of 1940 to keep out of the war, while ordering actions that tended to put America in it. Olson portrays FDR as crafty, smearing the isolationists rather than debating them. He secretly wiretapped them and allowed a British propaganda and dirty-tricks group to operate unchecked, all the while raising an alarm about a Nazi influence that wasn’t real.

Olson portrays other colorful characters: anti-Nazi journalist Dorothy Thompson, aid-to-Britain advocate William Allen White, declare-war advocate Herbert Agar and pro-British politician Wendell Willkie, who won the Republican nomination for president in 1940 with the help of the Eastern media. On the anti-aid side was a senator from the Pacific Northwest, Burton Wheeler, D-Mont., who charged that FDR’s foreign policy aimed to “plow under every fourth American boy.”

Olson includes popular-culture figures, too, from Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), who nastily caricatured isolationists as pals of the Nazis, to Captain America, who began his comic-book career in March 1941 with a sock to the jaw of Hitler.

More of “Those Angry Days” is about the side favoring involvement in the war. Olson, who wrote “Citizens of London” (2010) about Americans who fought for Britain, is clearly on that side, as are most historians. Given America’s wars since then, and the arguments over them, readers may find the less well-known anti-war side the more fascinating. Both sides’ arguments and tactics will be recognizable to people who think about different wars and different enemies.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.

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