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Friends of the Newark Free Library

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THE BORROWED YEARS: 1938-1941, America on the Way to War

Posted by friendsofthenewarkfreelibrary on 12 May, 2022 at 14:30 Comments comments (14)

By Richard M. Ketchum

Reviewed by Roy Lopata


This engagingly written popular history of life and politics in America in the years immediately preceding World War II brilliantly captures the era’s mood of innocence and at times willful ignorance as the nation faced imminent threats from overseas. Moreover, while Ketchum’s volume was published years ago and, as a result, does not benefit from the most recent scholarship of the interwar years, his detailed research and episodic approach remains fresh despite traveling a now well-worn historical path. Beyond that, and perhaps most surprising, is Ketchum’s weaving in his personal coming of age experiences as an upper middle class young man in Pittsburgh and later at Yale during the years he describes. This approach, while quite unusual for a standard history, adds personal and relevant details and richly painted color and depth that help explain what appears from our vantage point as such “obvious” naivety and blindness in the face of the twin threats from Nazi Germany and an expanding Japan.


Ketchum brings to life all the major international issues of the period including President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to slowly turn the nation away from strict neutrality as the precursors to war began with the rise of Hitler in Germany, Mussolini’s attack on Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, and the Japanese invasion of China. He also describes the American public’s support for British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s doomed policy of appeasement in the face of German demands in central Europe. He does an excellent job describing the woeful state of America’s armed forces in the pre-war years. As international tensions grow and war begins in Europe in 1939, Ketchum does a marvelous job in describing the growing struggle between the isolationists lead by America’s hero, Charles Lindbergh, and those who began to advocate aid to Britain and rearming this country in the face of Hitler’s victories in western Europe. He notes how the tide of public opinion slowly evolved, especially as Americans listened to Edward R. Murrow’s vivid live radio descriptions of the German Luftwaffe’s air raids over London.


Ketchum also includes evocative descriptions of social and economic conditions in America as the Thirties ended. We learn how the nation continued to struggle with the lingering impact of the Great Depression despite the changes in the economy fashioned by Roosevelt’s New Deal. He noted the battles between emerging and more militant labor unions and aggressive management and the impact of the entertainment industry e.g., the premier of Gone with the Wind and Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds on American society. Finally, he exposes how in the background, nuclear physicists were working on experimental nuclear chain reactions that would culminate in Alfred Einstein’s famous letter to Roosevelt that would lead to the atomic bombs that ended World War II.


In sum, this is a fantastic and brilliantly written volume worthy of the times it describes.