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Book Review: Prequel

Christopher Brand

Rachel Maddow’s Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism is a stunning historical investigation that should be on everyone’s reading (or listening) list – she does her own audiobook – particularly in this presidential election year and time of increasing anti-Semitism. A Nazi-fueled backstory - which many well-read people think they know; meticulous research; a breezy tone, sharp in metaphor and full of direct quotations from interviews and speeches; and candid black and white pictures of players major and relatively unknown, all give Prequel the sense of being an exposé in the finest tradition of American journalism.

The book takes issue with several myths about our country during its most heralded 20th-century war years by uncovering statements and deeds by specific foreign operatives and their well-heeled and well-placed toadies in this country that clearly go against accepted readings of The United States Constitution. The Americans include the well-known modernist architect Philip Johnson, a long-time admirer of Hitler and fascism, and the revered American Firster, Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh and numerous congressmen. Though movies make it seem as though America was gung-ho to fight the Führer by the early 40s, Maddow’s research shows strong isolationist tendencies not to enter the war against Germany even after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Among those not coming off well here is President Harry Truman who withheld from publication a valuable report on the kind and degree of fascist sympathizers, including activists who stole from the U.S. Government to arm themselves. As for the unsung heroes --those rare government and lay fighters for justice, such as O. John Rogge, Special Assistant to Attorney General Tom C. Clark who served from 1945-1949 -- his cool dedication to fight the fascists in court during the horrific and sometimes hilarious 1944 sedition trials in a chapter Maddow calls “Bedlam,” ought to be required reading in law schools.

A helpful opening cast of characters as well as a what-happened-to-them epilogue, bookend Prequel and enhance readability. But it’s Maddow’s prose that proves most compelling – a conversational narrative of characters and anecdotes where paragraphs occasionally conclude with a what’s-more-to-say Oy vey, or meh or a phrase such as tikkun olam, Hebrew for repair of the world. Which gets us to the heart of Prequel at this time of growing anti-Semitism. Prequel details overt deep and abiding hatred of Jews and their alleged fellow-traveling Communist supporters, such as President Franklin Delano “Rosenvelt.” Yes, you heard that right. The book is, arguably, one of the most impressive, documented testimonies of the vast extent to which Christian White nationalism, often in league with the KKK and in the spirit of demagogic populism in this country, attracted powerful religious and political figures who beat the media drums to support Germany and keep the US out of the war. And kill Jews.

The last lines of Prequel are worth quoting: “The story of what it took, inside and outside the government, to stop the violent American ultra-right in the run-up to World War II – that’s a gift from the smart, brave, determined, resourceful, self-sacrificing Americans who went before us. If we learn it, and we choose it, we can inherit their work.” The last line of the end acknowledgments is also worth a shout-out at this time of partisan book banning –“Librarians and archivists and teachers are the Fort Knox of memory, history, and truth. We must defend them with everything we’ve got.”

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.