On the silver screen: “The Plot Against America”: Democracy besieged

By Bill Simons

Well before the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. media provided extensive coverage of aggression in Asia, the German blitzkrieg of Europe and the bombing of British cities. Fanning isolationist sentiments, the aviator hero and chief spokesman of the anti-interventionist America First movement Charles Lindbergh proclaimed, “The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.” 

Violence against European Jewry escalated and antisemitic incidents increased on the American home front. Several pundits predicted that Lindberg would capture the 1940 Republican presidential nomination and defeat incumbent Franklin Roosevelt in the November election. 

History followed a different course. Wendell Willkie, an internationalist, captured the Republican nomination. Willkie generally waged a principled but losing campaign, including support for the Roosevelt administration’s peacetime draft and destroyers-for-bases agreement with Britain. “The Plot Against America” by the acclaimed Jewish-American writer Philip Roth posits a plausible counter history. 

Roth’s 2004 historical novel elicited kudos, as did the HBO adaptation of “The Plot Against America.” The six-part television series, each segment approximately an hour in length, originally aired in 2020, two years after Roth’s death. The video is currently available on several streaming services. There are significant differences between the novel and the video. This column examines the video version.

An exceptional film, “The Plot Against America” meticulously recreates the material culture of the early 1940s, surrounds its fictional plot with attention to historical detail, and features an outstanding cast, led by the Jewish-American actress Winona Ryder (Horowitz). Compelling, significant, and disturbing, “The Plot Against America” synthesizes an epic and intimate story. 

In the speculative alternative history of “The Plot Against America,” Lindbergh, tall, handsome and not yet 40 when he assumes the office of the presidency in 1941, ensures peace for the United States by negotiating friendly accords with Germany and Japan. He lauds Hitler’s Third Reich for halting the advance of Soviet Communism. Under the guise of promoting social integration, Lindbergh’s secretary of the interior, Henry Ford, the automobile manufacturer, oversees the Just Folks program, which recruits teenage Jewish boys from urban areas to live with rural Gentile families during the summer. 

Subsequently, Ford introduces a modern Homestead Act that “voluntarily” relocates Jewish families to the small towns of the American interior by providing employers with incentives to decentralize their businesses. FBI agents monitor dissidents. When a wave of American pogroms attacks Jewish synagogues, neighborhoods and people, Lindberg fails to condemn the violence. With the president flying solo, his plane mysteriously disappears. 

Amidst rumors of a Jewish conspiracy, Acting President Burton K. Wheeler imposes martial law. Prominent Jews and critics of governmental policy are summarily arrested. Escaping from involuntary confinement, First Lady Anne Lindbergh delivers a courageous radio address, calling for Wheeler’s removal, a return to the rule of law and a new presidential election. 

Two Jewish American leaders, the fictive Conservative Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf of Newark, NJ, and a ramped-up version of the historical Walter Winchell, an influential newspaper/radio journalist, lead divergent and antagonistic movements amidst the rising wave of antisemitism in Lindbergh’s America. Brash, abrasive and unflinching, Winchell mounts a campaign for president, skewering fascism at home and abroad. Deriding Lindbergh as “the lone ostrich,” Winchell is undeterred when uniformed brownshirts launch violent attacks at his rallies. Assassination finally silences Winchell. 

In contrast, Bengelsdorf, an assimilationist and accommodationist, supports Lindbergh and his programs. A Southerner by birth whose German-Jewish ancestors fought for the Confederacy, the ambitious rabbi tells co-religionists that he can counter antisemitism through his personal relationship with Lindbergh. By promoting the Just Friends and Homestead initiatives, the anti-Zionist Bengelsdorf aspires to accentuate the Americanism of Jews and to eradicate tribal stereotypes that promote antisemitism. Bengelsdorf, however, knows a secret that ultimately leads to his incarceration: Lindbergh’s young son, supposedly murdered a decade ago, is a German captive, and the boy’s survival necessitates the elder Lindbergh’s collaboration with the Nazis. 

The macro events of “The Plot Against America” imperil the Levin family of Newark. Wife to Herman, mother to Sandy and Philip, and younger sister to Evelyn, Bess Finkel Levin is strong, loving and frightened. Cognizant of the growing menace, her response evolves from futilely trying to shield her sons – particularly the young and anxious Philip – from hard truths to unsuccessfully arguing for relocation to Canada to sheltering a Jewish boy, whose mother was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, in the besieged Levin home. 

A minor labor union official and substitute teacher, Evelyn Finkel, Bess’ attractive, 40ish older sister, long remained single so she could care for her frail, widowed mother. Following her mother’s death, Evelyn marries Rabbi Bengelsdorf, adopts his appeasement strategy and becomes the New Jersey Just Folks director, enticing her nephew Sandy to participate in the program. 

Attending a Lindbergh White House dinner with Bengelsdorf, Evelyn accepts an invitation to dance with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. Hysterical for her own safety after Bengelsdorf’s arrest, Evelyn seeks refuge with Bess’ family. Outraged that Evelyn’s role in Bengelsdorf’s disastrous collaboration with Lindbergh contributed to physical danger menacing the Levin family, Bess throws her once beloved sister into the street. 

Bess’ husband Herman has a brutal fistfight with his nephew Alvin, prompted by mutual recrimination about the insufficiency of each other’s stance against antisemitism. This is despite Alvin losing a leg in combat – and secretly collaborating with the British in Lindbergh’s demise – and Herman, at great risk, driving to Kentucky to rescue an orphaned Jewish boy. 

At film’s end, former President Franklin Roosevelt, the icon of American liberalism, runs in the special election following Lindbergh’s disappearance. Hopeful Rockwellian images of Americans of all races voting, accompanied by Frank Sinatra’s musical paean to democracy, augur catharsis. Then, an unsettling final fadeout depicts the stealing and burning of ballots. 

In 2022, continuing attempts to delegitimize the last presidential election and the resurgence of domestic antisemitism sadly render “The Plot Against America” prescient. As in the early 1940s, so today: American democracy, still the last best hope of humanity, is fragile and requires defense.

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.