Friday, July 19, 2019

Presidential Mission by Upton Sinclair

Lanny Budd’s North African interlude
Presidential Mission is the eighth book in Upton Sinclair’s 11-novel Lanny Budd series, not to be confused with the similarly titled fifth book in the series, Presidential Agent. Published in 1947, Presidential Mission is set amidst the events of World War II from 1942 to 1943. As established earlier in the series, Lanny is a wealthy French-born son of American parents who uses his career as an art dealer to gather intelligence for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Pretending to be a Nazi sympathizer, he is able to strike up acquaintances with high-level Germans including Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, and Rudolf Hess, as well as other powerful personages in Europe and America. Lanny’s globetrotting occupation and access to world leaders offers Sinclair the opportunity to provide a detailed look at historical events of the twentieth century, as told through his leftist perspective as an outspoken American socialist.

Presidential Mission opens at the point when the United States has decided to enter the war in Europe, but they have yet to make a decision as to where to land their troops. FDR sends Lanny to North Africa to gather intelligence, gauge the response of the locals to an American invasion, and recruit sympathetic anti-Nazi agents to work with the OSS (the precursor to the CIA). France controls most of North Africa, but France itself is occupied by the Nazis, and it is unclear to what extent the French armed forces will greet the U.S. troops as friend or foe. Lanny travels extensively in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, pretending to shop for Islamic mosaics while spying for FDR and forming alliances to support an Allied invasion.

As always, the intricacy with which Sinclair plots the events of World War II is impressive, and the way he works Lanny into the proceedings is ingenious. Lanny’s seemingly unlimited access to FDR strains realism, however, as does the fact that he only reports to the President in person. This causes Lanny to repeatedly trod a triangle from Washington to Vichy France to North Africa and back again. The novel treads water like this rather tediously for two-thirds of its length. From there, however, the pace picks up considerably and veers off into a totally different direction about which the less said the better, to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that the final third of the novel is a considerable improvement over what comes before.

Thankfully, Sinclair devotes very few pages in this novel to Lanny’s annoying hobby: séances, mediums, and talking to the dead. Unlike in other novels of the series, the supernatural plays no important part in the plot of Presidential Mission. The main fault of this novel, and of the series in general, is that for an espionage narrative it lacks any real sense of danger. Because the plot is so firmly tied to historical events, the outcome of Lanny’s efforts is rarely ever in question. We know how the war is going to end. We know Lanny is going to survive until the 11th book. He almost never fails at any mission he undertakes, because to do so would be to alter the course of history, which would defeat Sinclair’s purpose for the series, to provide a leftist history of the war. As a result, though Lanny is integrally involved in major historical events, his contribution to those events feels largely inconsequential. By the end of Presidential Mission, even Lanny himself admits that the intelligence he gathered really wasn’t all that crucial to the war effort.

Though this novel does have its faults, it does succeed as an eye-opening alternative perspective on world history. The Lanny Budd novels often fall short of perfection, and Presidential Mission is certainly not the best book of the bunch (so far that would probably be A World to Win), but the series as a whole is undoubtedly a monumental achievement.
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