A new HBO series, The Plot Against America, has arrived in the UK on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV – telling the tale of an alternative history in which 1940s America descends into a fascist state as World War II wages on in Europe.
The drama, which is based on Phillip Roth’s 2004 novel of the same name, stars Winona Ryder and Zoe Kazan as members of a working class Jewish family – who watch on and react as popular aviator Charles Lindbergh gains power.
Being an alternative history it is, of course, predominantly a work of fiction. Nevertheless, there is also a lot of fact amongst the fiction, with true life figures appearing prominently in the series – none more so than Lindbergh, which makes the drama all the more potent, showing just how easily the US could have been on a very different side of history.
Read on for the true story behind the series.
When is The Plot Against America set?
The series begins in 1940, shortly after the fall of France, with the US currently focused on the upcoming Presidential election, often regarded as one of the most important in the nation’s history.
Much of what we see on screen is an accurate depiction of 1940s America – the US was still recovering from the Great Depression, which had wreaked economic havoc throughout the country.
The portrayal of attitudes in the US towards intervention in what they still regarded as a ‘European War’ are also very true to life. Much of American politics was characterised by a staunchly isolationist stance at this time, and even Franklin D. Roosevelt occasionally espoused isolationist rhetoric in his bid to appease a section of the population.
Writing in the New York Times at the time of the book’s release, the now late author Phillip Roth claimed, “I imagined something small, really, small enough to be credible, I hoped, that could easily have happened in an American presidential election in 1940, when the country was angrily divided between the Republican isolationists, who, not without reason, wanted no part of a second European war – and who probably represented a slight majority of the populace – and the Democratic interventionists, who didn’t necessarily want to go to war either but who believed that Hitler had to be stopped before he invaded and conquered England and Europe was entirely fascist and totally his.”
Who was Charles Lindbergh?
At the time when the series is set, Lindbergh was one of America’s most popular and well-loved public figures, nicknamed Lucky Lindy and hailed as a national hero.
His reputation had been gained due to his exploits as an aviator, making the first non-stop flight from New York City to Paris in 1927 at the age of just 25 and being the first ever recipient of Time Magazine’s now iconic Person of the Year award.
He gained further public sympathy after a horrific incident in 1932, when his infant son was kidnapped and murdered – a case which dominated headlines for months.
Despite this reputation as an All American hero, however, there was a much darker side to Lindbergh as well – which became increasingly clear as his commentary on political matters gained traction.
Lindbergh made anti-semitic remarks on several occasions and was about as staunchly isolationist as it was possible to be – a matter made abundantly clear during his famous Les Moines speech, which appears during the first episode of The Plot Against America, heard by the Herman Levin on the wireless. (The actual speech took place in 1941, a year later than the events of the episode.”
In the speech, Lindbergh opined, “We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction,” while also saying of the country’s Jewish population, “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio.
At various other points in his role as spokesman of the non-interventionist America First Committee he made comments – including warning against “dilution by foreign races” – that led many to portray him as a Nazi sympathiser, while he was also a champions of eugenics throughout his life.
This reputation was not aided by comments made by his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who described Hitler as “a very great man” and wrote in a 1939 diary entry that “A few Jews add strength and character to a country, but too many create chaos. And we are getting too many.”
A Scott. Berg, who wrote a Pulitzer prize winning biography of Lindbergh has asserted that although Lindbergh wasn’t a supporter of Nazi Germany, his political naïveté and comments made it easy to make the case that he was – while also pointing out that he was far too willing to make excuses for Hitler as late as 1939.
Did Lindbergh consider running in the 1940 US Presidential election?
No – this is where the fiction starts on the series. Although Lindbergh very much involved himself with political affairs he stopped short of actually running for the Presidency, with the Republican nomination for the 1940 election going to businessman and former Democrat Wendell Willkie.
What actually happened in the 1940 US Presidential Election?
The election pitted Wendell Wilkie against the incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had already held the presidency for two terms and was aiming to be the first man to win a third.
Roosevelt had originally intended to step down, but the situation in Europe prompted him to reconsider – although during the campaign trail he promised no involvement in foreign wars, no doubt an attempt to appease the huge swathes of the country who had been taken in by isolationist thinking.
In the end the election resulted in a comfortable victory for Roosevelt, winning in 38 states and gaining 55% of the popular vote, although this was slightly less dominant than his margin in his previous two election triumphs.
Roosevelt would go on to hold the presidency until his death in 1945 – having finally brought the US into the war following the bombing of Pear Harbor by Japanese forces in 1941.
Which other real life figures appear in A Plot Against America?
Most of the characters that appear in the series are fictional, but several are based on real figures, with the Levin family heavily based on Roth’s own and many of them even sharing names with his real relatives.
Others, such as Aunt Evelyn, played by Winona Ryder and conservative rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) are completely fictional – however there are also a range of public figures that make appearances throughout that are very much real people, including Henry Ford and New York City mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia.
The Plot Against America begins tonight (Tuesday, 14th July) at 9pm on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV – find out what else is on with our TV Guide