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The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America (2004) is an alternative history novel by American author Philip Roth (1933-2018). In 1940, famous pilot Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency from Franklin D. Roosevelt with promises to keep America out of WWII. When his administration starts enacting anti-Semitic policies, young Philip Roth witnessed a wave of bigotry against his community. Keep reading for a summary, analysis, and more.

The Plot Against America, Content Warning, Study Smarter

The Plot Against America: Summary

After the outbreak of WWII in 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt loses the 1940 election to pilot and celebrity Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh's campaign promotes an "America First" policy that promises to keep America out of the conflict. The new President also displays a favorable stance toward Adolf Hitler and Fascism.

The Plot Against America, FDR portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - In the novel's alternate reality, Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election.

Philip Roth lives in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. With the rise of Fascism in Europe and the threat of war, an undercurrent of antisemitism begins to bubble at home and abroad. Philip senses growing fear amongst the adults in his community. As the Nazis begin to round up Jewish people in Europe, Philip's parents, Herman and Bess, fear similar actions may occur in America. The adults anxiously monitor events while Philip and his school friends try to distract themselves.

As tensions mount, Rabbi Bengelsdorf, the conservative leader of Newark's Jewish community, begins to embrace Lindbergh's policies. He tells his community that they must make an effort to assimilate and become more American. Philip's father, Herman, is particularly disgusted by Bengelsdorf's speeches.

Does Rabbi Bengelsdorf genuinely believe in the anti-Semitic policies of the Lindbergh administration? How does Roth present the character?

Philip's family includes Alvin, an orphaned cousin who has lived with the family for seven years. Disturbed by the treatment of Jews in Europe and the growing threat of antisemitism in America, Alvin runs away to join the Canadian army. After training, he is sent to Europe to fight the Nazis.

Lindbergh openly praises Nazi Germany and makes several fiery speeches that further stoke anti-Jewish sentiments throughout the country. When the Roth family takes a trip to Washington D.C., Herman argues with a tour guide's overly romantic view of Lindbergh's presidency. The tour guide and passersby subject the family to anti-Semitic insults. They return to their hotel, where they are refused service because of their identity.

The Plot Against America, Hitler, StudySmarterFig. 2 -Even with WWII raging, President Lindbergh remains openly sympathetic to Nazism.

Under the guise of stimulating the Jewish community, Lindbergh forms the Office of American Absorption (OAA). The OAA claims to help integrate and "Americanize" Jewish boys by sending them to rural areas in the Midwest for summer programs. Rabbi Bengelsdorf is placed in charge of the New Jersey chapter of the OAA. Bess's sister Evelyn begins to work alongside the Rabbi and recruits Philip's brother, Sandy. Philip's parents are worried about the program's aims, but Evelyn assures them they have nothing to fear from the administration's policies.

Roth was inspired to write the novel after proofreading the autobiography of historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. When Schlesinger mentioned that members of the Republican party wanted to run Charles Lindbergh during the 1940 election, Roth wondered what kind of impact this change would have had on history and his own life.

Evelyn and Bengelsdorf become a couple and visit the Roth household for dinner, where an argument ensues. Philip's mother, Bess, becomes increasingly fearful for her family's safety. After getting a job, she begins to save money in a bank account in Montreal in case they need to flee the country. With his father on edge and his mother working, Philip becomes isolated and starts following other children around to learn how to act Christian and blend in.

Sandy returns from the summer program and becomes a poster child for the OAA's policy. He talks glowingly about America's heartland and criticizes his family's Jewish characteristics. In January of 1942, Alvin comes back from the war. Having lost a leg in combat, Alvin has been given a prosthetic replacement which he struggles to master. With each effort at walking, he inflicts fresh wounds on his stump. Feeling isolated and bitter by his experience in the war, Alvin begins to hang around with a local gangster.

Are Sandy and Alvin's experiences comparable in any way? Why or why not?

Pressure begins to mount on the Jewish community in Newark as each member of the Roth family is approached by an FBI agent who questions them about their movements. They ask if Alvin has been making critical statements about the government, which forces him to flee to Philadelphia.

Members of Philip's community begin to escape to Canada as Lindbergh enacts the Homestead 42 Act. The Act offers free land to Jewish families if they move west into the American heartland. Though the administration claims this measure will help Jewish families assimilate, many Jews suspect it is aimed at breaking up Jewish communities and organizations in coastal cities. The Roths remain hesitant to leave New Jersey.

Walter Winchell, a famous Jewish journalist, speaks out against Lindbergh's policies. During a radio interview, he warns that concentration camps for Jews will soon come to America. Fired for his remarks, Winchell announces his candidacy for President. His campaign trail results in several anti-Jewish riots in major American cities. Winchell is assassinated in Kentucky.

The Plot Against America, pogroms, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The violence against the Jewish community in America is reminiscent of the Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) German Jews faced in 1938.

As violence and discrimination against the Jewish community escalate, the Roth family plans to flee to Canada. When President Lindbergh disappears during a solo flight, the Vice President takes power. He enacts martial law as conflicting rumors spread through the country. Some citizens believe Lindbergh has been killed by a Jewish conspiracy, while others think he traveled to Germany to join the Nazi government.

Lindbergh's true fate is never revealed. Which of the many theories surrounding his disappearance seems most believable?

As violence against the Jewish community continues, Lindbergh's wife makes a speech dismissing the rumors and calls for Congress to remove the Vice President and undo the anti-Semitic laws her husband enacted. Soon after, Franklin Roosevelt wins a third term as President, and the country's tensions begin to ease.

The Plot Against America: Characters

Here is a look at the most important characters from Philip Roth's The Plot Against America.

Philip Roth

The novel's narrator and the protagonist, this character is a fictionalized version of the author Philip Roth. As a seven-year-old, Philip struggles at first to understand the political tensions affecting his family and community. When his parent's worst fears become a reality, Philip understands the deep hatred many people feel against Jews in America. Feeling isolated and fearful, Philip begins to internalize the government's anti-Semitic propaganda and attempts to copy the mannerisms of Christian Americans, viewing them as "real" Americans.

Herman Roth

The head of the Roth family, Herman is an outspoken man who deeply believes in the promises of America. Herman is a committed Democrat and supporter of FDR who fears the rise of Lindbergh and the increase in anti-Semitic attitudes that threaten his family. Proud of his American identity, Herman allows this idealism to blind him to the reality that Jewish Americans face. He is hesitant to admit that Lindbergh's policies are representative of a deeper problem rather than just a phenomenon that will disappear.

Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf

Bengelsdorf is a deeply conservative Rabbi and unreserved supporter of Lindbergh's anti-Semitic policies, much to the bewilderment of other community members. He believes the war in Europe is an opportunity for American Jews to show their loyalty to America, and he advises his community to work on assimilation. Ultimately, Bengelsdorf is shown to be a man obsessed with power rather than a genuine believer in Lindbergh's policies.

In May 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to make a solo flight across the Atlantic. Piloting The Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh flew out of Long Island to single-handedly complete the journey to Paris. Upon his arrival, Lindbergh was greeted by an audience of 100,000 and quickly became one of the most well-known faces in American culture.

However, this fame came with a price. The Lindberghs often complained of intrusion into their private life by both the press and members of the public. In 1932, Lindbergh's two-year-old son was kidnapped. After the discovery of the child's body, Lindbergh and his wife fled the country to escape media attention. They settled briefly in the English countryside. While in Europe, Lindbergh began to notice political developments in Germany. He admired the Nazi's party social reforms but feared the growth of their military, particularly their superior air force.

The Plot Against America, Lindbergh, StudySmarterFig. 4 - In the 1930s, Charles Lindbergh was one of America's most recognizable faces.

Returning to America one month before the outbreak of WWII, Lindbergh became a vocal supporter of American neutrality. He argued that the conflict was between European nations and had nothing to do with America, which had already paid dearly for its intervention in WWI. Lindbergh's stance on neutrality made him a figurehead of the "America First" movement, which enjoyed a great deal of support during the early days of WWII. However, he soon became infamous for anti-Semitic and racist comments during political rallies.

With his reputation permanently damaged, Lindbergh would never again reach the height of popularity he had enjoyed. He contributed to the American war effort by flying over 50 combat missions in the Pacific and later published a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, which helped to salvage some of his legacy.

The Plot Against America: Themes

The central theme of The Plot Against America is Jewish identity and the dangers of anti-Semitism.

Identity

Philip Roth was born into a Jewish family and recalls a growing sense of anti-semitism in America during the beginning of WWII. In his essay "The Story Behind The Plot Against America" (2004) he recalls, "...before I started school, I already knew something about Nazi anti-Semitism and about the American anti-Semitism that was being stoked, one way or another, by eminent figures like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh."

The anti-Semitism views Roth encountered as a child are parroted by Lindbergh and his supporters in the novel. Many people believed that the Jewish community in America was not genuinely American, claiming that Jews purposely remained separate and failed to assimilate into mainstream American society. Some members of the Jewish community even embrace these views. Rabbi Bengelsdorf frequently criticizes other Jews for failing to "Americanize."

The Plot Against America, the USA flag and the flag of Israel, StudySmarterFig. 5 - One of the most prominent anti-Semitic beliefs the characters must battle is the idea that Jewish and American identities cannot coexist.

The tension and bigotry many Jews face in the novel is the belief that an individual cannot be both Jewish and American. Sandy and Philip internalize this message, with Sandy falling for the OAA's propaganda while Philip begins to observe Christian Americans and mimic their behavior so he can fit in. Even Alvin becomes bitter at his community after losing a leg in the war.

In the novel's anxious atmosphere, many Jewish characters begin to feel tension between their community and country. Herman believes he can be Jewish and American, yet many other Americans reject him because of his Jewish identity.

The Plot Against America: Analysis

The novel is told through a first-person perspective, as Philip Roth in his sixties looks back on the events of his childhood. As the narrator is now older, he better understands the events and people's behavior than he did while living through the period. The first-person view gives the reader a highly personal account of the family's struggle through tumultuous historical developments.

The Plot Against America is an example of alternative history fiction.

Alternative history is a genre of fiction that depicts an altered version of historical events or figures. Famous examples of alternative history fiction include The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick and Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007).

In The Plot Against America, Roth speculates how different history would be if Charles Lindbergh had won the presidency in 1940. This "What if?" scenario serves as a backdrop to explore the immense global tension created by WWII. Roth conducted a great deal of historical research and includes many real-life figures in combination with his memories to produce a novel that contains elements of autobiography, fiction, and history.

Although some people felt Roth's depiction of Lindbergh as pro-Nazi was unfair, the author points to several speeches and statements Lindbergh made during the run-up to WWII. In the novel, Lindbergh disguises his anti-Semitism in patriotic ideas of identity and assimilation. Roth presents anti-Semitism as an insidious and dangerous force that is often hard to identify.

The subtle anti-Semitism of laws like the Homestead Act of 42 allows the Lindbergh administration to hide their true agenda under the guise of improving life for Jews in America. While Jews in Europe faced a more overt form of discrimination, in America, the bigotry is more masked.

The Plot Against America: Quotes

Here is a look at some important quotes from Philip Roth's The Plot Against America.

The Jews of America can participate fully in the national life of their country. They need no longer dwell apart, a pariah community separated from the rest."

("3 June 1941-December 1941: Following Christians")

Despite being the leader of the Newark Jewish community, Rabbi Bengelsdorf agrees with many of the anti-Semitic messages in Lindbergh's policy. He becomes a leading figure in the movement to assimilate Jews, which is actually an attempt to break up and disperse the community.

He'd tell us that in a democracy, keeping abreast of current events was a citizen's most important duty and that you could never start too early to be informed about the news of the day."

("March 1942–June 1942: Never Before")

Philip's father, Herman, fully believes in the promises of the American constitution. A loyal follower of FDR and the Democratic Party, Herman sees himself just as American as the Americans who try to "other" him. He views Lindbergh's policies as an attack on the Jewish community and the rights all Americans enjoy.

The Plot Against America - Key takeaways

  • The Plot Against America (2004) is a novel by American author Philip Roth.
  • The story imagines an alternative reality where Charles Lindbergh wins the American presidency in 1940. Sympathetic to Nazi Germany, Lindbergh's administration begins to enact anti-Semitic policies.
  • The novel's protagonist is a fictionalized version of the author, Philip Roth. Many of the novel's characters are based on Roth's close family members.
  • The novel explores themes of identity and illustrates the dangers of anti-Semitism.
  • The Plot Against America is an example of alternative history fiction.

References

  1. Fig. 1 - Franklin D. Roosevelt by Vincenzo Laviosa, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vincenzo_Laviosa_-_Franklin_D._Roosevelt_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
  2. Fig. 2 - 242-EB-6-43A from National Archives at College Park, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:242-EB-6-43A_-_DPLA_-_1efd121f86de82fe26546c98307d52fa.jpg
  3. Fig. 3 - Kristallnacht by Dzeni, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kristallnacht.jpg
  4. Fig. 4 - Charles Lindbergh, Underwood & Underwood: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Augustus_Lindbergh,_Jr._by_Underwood_%26_Underwood,_1927,_gelatin_silver_print,_from_the_National_Portrait_Gallery_-_NPG-NPG_95_376Lindbergh-000001.jpg

Frequently Asked Questions about The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America follows a young Philip Roth as he witnesses increasing antisemitism during the presidency of Charles Lindbergh. Tension run high as a series of laws and policies attempt to break up the American Jewish community. 

At the end of The Plot Against America, President Lindbergh disappears during a solo flight. The Vice President enacts martial law as anti-Semitic violence continues throughout the country. On a radio broadcast, Lindbergh's wife asks congress to oust the Vice President and undo her husband's policies.

The Plot Against America was pubished in 2004. 

The Plot Against America was written by American author Philip Roth. 

The Plot Against America deals with themes of identity and the dangers of anti-Semitism.

Final The Plot Against America Quiz

Question

Which president does Charles Lindbergh defeat in the 1940 election? 

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Answer

Franklin Roosevelt 

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Question

The Plot Against America is an example of which genre?

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Answer

Alternative history

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Question

In which city does the Roth family live? 

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Answer

Newark 

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Question

What is the name of the conservative Rabbi who promotes Lindbergh's agenda? 

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Answer

Rabbi Bengelsdorf

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Question

What is the name of the government agency designed to assimilate young Jewish boys into American culture? 

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Answer

Office of American Absorption

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Question

Philip's cousin, Alvin, volunteers for which army? 

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Answer

Canada

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Question

Which member of the Roth family begins to believe Lindbergh's propaganda? 

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Answer

Sandy 

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Question

Lindbergh attempts to break up Jewish communities using which law? 

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Answer

Homestead 42 Act

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Question

Which Jewish journalist runs for the presidency against Lindbergh? 

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Answer

Walter Winchell 

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Question

During a visit to ____________, the Roth family experience their first case of anti-Semitic treatment. 

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Answer

Washington D.C. 

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Question

In reality, Charles Lindbergh was a key figure in the _______________ movement. 

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Answer

America First 

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