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What would have happened if fascism had come to the USA?


The Plot Against America
Philip Roth Writer
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The Plot Against America came out of my reading Arthur... the historian, Arthur Schlesinger's autobiography. Alas, Arthur died before he could complete it – there's only the one... one volume, but I got it in galleys and I read it.

And I remember I was reading about the 19… and I was extremely interested in reading about the period before I was born, from 1918, let's say, the end of the War, till 19… till the Roosevelts came around, because you never — as a kid you'd never get them in school — you'd never get the decade before your birth, you know? And so you'd hear the names, but you don't know anything, unless you become a major in history, or something, or a historian. So I was very curious to read about Arthur's young life and about the 1940 election in America, because that's the first election that I remember as a kid. I mean, I was only seven then, but I remember Roosevelt and... and Willkie [Wendell Willkie].

I should say, by the way, that I was born the month that Roosevelt became president, and I knew no other president until I was 12 years old. He died in 1946, in April, I think, of 1946; I was 13. And so the president had always been Roosevelt, the party in power had always been the Democrats, and... I was curious about what those early Roosevelt years were like, and so on.


Well, in 1940 Willkie – the Republican candidate – was up against Roosevelt; and I was reading the book, and Arthur explains that Willkie was not an isolationist, as was the majority of the Republican party in 1940, but he was an internationalist, not unlike Roosevelt.  He didn't have Roosevelt's power, he was only a voice, but he was an internationalist, and on certain other domestic issues he was quite Liberal as well.


So the point... the thing is that they couldn't possibly have beaten Roosevelt in 1940 with this candidate, because they had the real thing in Roosevelt. And Roosevelt was, despite those who hated him, he was... he was... he had an enormous following in the country. And they were still finding their way out of the Depression in 1940, but they had found their way partially out of it. But I... I thought... and then Arthur said that some of the Republicans wanted to nominate Lindbergh, Charles Lindbergh, the aviator, who was extremely right-wing. And I remember writing in Arthur's little book in the margin, what if they had? What if they had?

And I had lunch with... with Arthur Schlesinger and I talked to him about Lindbergh, and I was groping for... I was groping forward for my book, The Plot Against America, I had no idea what it would be, let alone that it would be called that. And so  I... I may just have written The Dying Animal, I don't remember — and I thought: write this book about Lindbergh, and what would it have been like if Lindbergh had been elected president?  It's a wonderful question to ask yourself: there are these what if books, half a dozen people have written them in the last… in recent years; but I said, what... what if Lindbergh had become president?


And then... and I have of course I had no idea what. And then what would it have been like for us, I thought, us — my mother, my father, my brother and me, and our family? And how... how I could use my family exactly, an exact portrait, and just have them behave as I think they would have behaved in that situation; and so that's what I did. Now, I really did think, what would my mother have done here? What would my father have done there? What would I have done?

My brother didn't come off so well, because he would never have done what I had him do in the book, which has become a kind of Lindbergh-ite. But I just, I... I asked him to forgive me when the book came out. But I just had needed that in the book, I needed somebody in the family who goes over to Lindbergh, and that's the story of that book. 

The fame of the American writer Philip Roth (1933-2018) rested on the frank explorations of Jewish-American life he portrayed in his novels. There is a strong autobiographical element in much of what he wrote, alongside social commentary and political satire. Despite often polarising critics with his frequently explicit accounts of his male protagonists' sexual doings, Roth received a great many prestigious literary awards which include a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1997, and the 4th Man Booker International Prize in 2011.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Republicans, Democrats, Liberal, The Dying Animal, Arthur Schlesinger, Franklin Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie, Charles Lindbergh

Duration: 5 minutes, 13 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013