In Des Moines, Iowa, before a cheering crowd of 8,000, Charles Lindbergh—previously an object of adulation, then of sympathy—took a fateful step toward alienating former admirers with a September 11 speech that attacked what he named as the “three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war” with Germany: “the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.”
The pilot, who had become famous overnight after his pioneering solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, now found himself dangerously exposed in the political sphere as the most visible advocate of the isolationist America First Committee for using stereotypes used by the Nazis and other anti-Semites. .
Once Pearl Harbor was attacked three months later, Lindbergh’s offer of services was rejected by the administration he had so recently castigated as pro-war. Nothing he did in the postwar period—not his environmental activism, not even the Pulitzer Prize he would win for The Spirit of St. Louis—could entirely remove the stain of that controversial speech.
As I mentioned in prior posts on his birth and on his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, I have long been fascinated by Lindbergh, not just for the extraordinary events of his life or the tragic kidnapping-murder of his son but also because of the imprint left on my hometown, Englewood, NJ, by his in-laws, the Morrow family. That connection was still apparent decades later in a lecture at my library, when a local historian claimed that Franklin Roosevelt’s administration had succeeded in blackening the hero’s name.
In sharp contrast to that viewpoint of Lindbergh as more sinned against that sinning, Philip Roth created a far darker picture of this problematic hero in his 2004 novel of alternative history, The Plot Against America. In this nightmare scenario, Lindbergh’s defeat of FDR as the unexpected nominee of the Republican Party in the 1940 Presidential election not only removes America as the principal source of aid to the British in their desperate struggle against Adolf Hitler, but also unleashes government-sanctioned anti-Semitism at home.
With the rise of Donald Trump this year, Roth’s dystopian vision seems unexpectedly prescient about how a celebrity non-politician could lead an assault on civil liberties in a homegrown version of Fascism. Lindbergh biographer A. Scott Berg is certainly correct in noting that, while Trump has courted fame relentlessly, Lindbergh was at pains to escape it, particularly after the death of his son, Charles Jr., and the resulting high-decimal “Trial of the Century” of the child’s convicted killer, Bruno Richard Hauptmann. And, certainly at first glance, someone as bent on going his own way as Lindbergh would have found it difficult to make common cause with others in a political movement.
On the other hand, Roth’s narrative of how Lindbergh could have become involved in electoral politics is not as far-fetched as might appear at first, and I’m afraid that the novelist’s view of the subterranean motives that animated the pilot is far more accurate than that local historian I saw years ago. For instance:
*Roth’s Lindbergh, like the real-life one, refuses to take direction from anyone. In the novel, GOP operatives disdain Lindbergh’s strategy of flying from one campaign event to another elsewhere in the country, until they realize he is reaping a publicity bonanza (not unlike the ways that Donald Trump has flouted informal campaign protocols this year). The real-life Lindbergh refused to clear his remarks with America First leaders.
*Lindbergh might have recoiled from fame, but he was ready to use it for what mattered to him. I can’t imagine any other explanation for why he not only he agreed to serve on the executive committee of America First, but also to speak so often on its behalf. War and peace mattered enormously to him. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that at some point, someone might have persuaded him that by running for President, he could have made a difference on this issue.
*Lindbergh, through his family, was far less of a political neophyte than many suppose. Lindbergh was not only the son-in-law of Dwight Morrow, a U.S. ambassador to Mexico and U.S. Senator from New Jersey, but also the son of a Congressman. Charles Lindbergh Sr., a Republican, lost his bid to become governor of Minnesota because of his opposition to America’s entering WWI. The aviator may have felt that American politics needed “reform,” but who better to take on such a hard task than someone who’d already done something daring? In opposing U.S. involvement in WWII, he’d also be vindicating his father’s legacy.
*Lindbergh’s personal attitudes were not entirely dissimilar to those exhibited by the mass of Germans who followed the Nazis. He feared the spread of Communism (as, for that matter, did most Americans, then and after the war). More problematically, his close work with Dr. Alexis Carrel on a heart pump exposed him to far uglier views held by the Nobel-prize-winning French scientist on eugenics. (E.g., “Eugenics,” Carrel wrote in Man, the Unknown, “is indispensable for the perpetuation of the strong. A great race must propagate its best elements.”) In an essay published in Reader’s Digest two months after the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939, Lindbergh declared that Western nations “can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood.” Lindbergh was also setting down more disturbing comments about Jews in private, passages later deleted from the otherwise frank The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh (1970).
*His belief in “order” and “discipline,” practiced almost fanatically at home, extended into the public sphere. Obsessive attention to every detail of The Spirit of St. Louis enabled Lindbergh to survive his flight. In time, it also complicated his relationship with Anne, who became irritated by his niggling attention to even the slightest detail of household operations. Everywhere he looked in 20th-century democratic society—particularly after he and his wife were hounded by the press during and after the kidnapping of their son—he saw disorder. On the other hand, the Third Reich impressed him during his visits with its “organized vitality.” “I have never in my life been so conscious of such a directed force,” Lindbergh wrote in his 1978 memoir, Autobiography of Values. “It is thrilling when seen.” It seems never to have occurred to this otherwise intelligent man that the prosperity he was witnessing was the direct result of property and wealth that properly belonged to Jews in Germany and that the “order” was the product of a police state.
Much of the foregoing reflects badly on Lindbergh, but another factor in his opposition to the war was shared by most Americans: fear of the cost to the United States of entering another European war. Such a conflict, he correctly feared, would wreak even more devastation, this time on the United States.
These fears animated the isolationist movement in general and America First in particular. It is now largely forgotten that the latter organization was not a product of zenophobes in the American heartland but of the most educated young minds at Yale University. Few if any of these students—including future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, future Yale President Kingman Brewster and future U.S. President Gerald Ford—suffered because of their early association with America First.
But Lindbergh did, and the Des Moines speech goes a long way toward explaining why.
While acknowledging the “persecution” that Jews faced in Germany, Lindbergh warned that American Jews should be opposing the war, or otherwise would be “among the first to feel its consequences.”
As the Nazis at this point were persecuting Jews outside as well as inside Germany, the time when Jews could avoid “consequences” around the globe was disappearing fast, no matter what their stance on the war. (And, of course, if Hitler had been made an international pariah early on rather than appeased, he might have been checked before it became too late.)
But the aviator crossed an especially bright line when he spoke of American Jews’ “greatest danger to this country”: “their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” With one sentence, he had summoned one of the darkest and most enduring elements of anti-Semitism: the vicious charge of Jewish money and its influence.
Lindbergh then intensified the attack—and the resulting blowback on himself—by saying that the rationale of Jews (and the British) for intervening in the European conflict was “not American,” and that it resulted from “the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples.” He had effectively placed a whole group—adults with as much right to American citizenship as he had—among “other peoples.”
Reaction to Lindbergh’s speech was swift and devastating. It was not unexpected that he would be denounced by Republican Presidential candidates with interventionist leanings such as Wendell Willkie (“an inexcusable abuse of the right of freedom of speech which 130,000,000 Americans, regardless of their views, will wholly reject”) or Thomas E. Dewey (“the most un-American talk made in my time by any person of national reputation").
But just how virtually alone The Lone Eagle was on the political spectrum could be glimpsed in the stinging criticism of isolationists who loathed Franklin Roosevelt, such as right-wing publisher William Randolph Hearst (an editorial in his newspapers assailed Lindbergh's “intemperate and intolerant address”) and former Democratic Presidential nominee Alfred E. Smith ("I greatly regret that Mr. Lindbergh has seen fit to inject anti-Semitism into his campaign against our foreign policy. It strikes at the very basis of our national unity, and, if spread, would certainly he followed by most un-American elements in our population").
Far from advancing the cause of isolationism, then, Lindbergh had only succeeded in isolating himself.