May 20 marks seventy-five years since Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. flew across the Atlantic and into the history books. It seems as good a time as any to examine yet another American myth.
Perhaps the most visible pro-Nazi/anti-communist American isolationist in the years leading up to World War II, Lindbergh followed in the isolationist footsteps of his congressman father, Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr., who, in his book Why Is Your Country at War?, railed against America’s entry into World War I. On May 25, 1936, the younger Lindbergh, still wielding an abundance of international clout thanks to his Spirit of St. Louis exploits, received an invitation to visit Germanyâ€¹an invite that came “in the name of General Goering and the German Air Ministry.”
The offer was accepted and Lindbergh landed in Berlin on July 22 of that same year. As described by his biographer Wayne S. Cole, Lindbergh used that first visit to inspect “an elite Luftwaffe fighter group, a major German air research institute, and Heinkel and Junkers aircraft factories. He piloted two German planes and inspected othersâ€¹including the JU-87 Stuka dive bomber that was so terrifyingly effective in ground support operations early in the European war.” After a few weeks of touting German air power, Lucky Lindy was feted by Goering at a luncheon and attended the opening ceremonies of the Berlin Olympic Games. Although he did not get to meet Hitler, the famed aviator characterized the dictator as “undoubtedly a great man” who had â€œdone much for the German peopleâ€ and helped to make Germany “in many ways the most interesting nation in the world.”
Other examples of Lindberghs ability to assess reality include his impression that Hitler was “especially anxious to maintain a friendly relationship with England” and had no intention “of attacking France for many years to come, if at all.” Overall, he found developments in Germany to be “encouraging–rather than depressing.” On his next excursion to the Fatherland, Lindbergh flew himself and his wife to Munich in October 1937 for more aviation-related meetings. Juxtaposing the “headlines of murder, rape, and divorce on the billboards of London” with the situation in Germany, the Colonel noted “a sense of decency” within the Nazi regime “which in many ways is far ahead of our own.” One year later, Lindbergh returned to Berlin to attend a “stag dinner” at the U.S. embassy in honor of himself and Hermann Goering. It was there, on October 18, 1938, that Goering bestowed upon the American aviator–in the name of der FÃ¼hrer–the Service Cross of the Order of the German Eagle with the Star. Despite negative press in the States, Cole writes, Lindy saw “nothing constructive gained by returning decorations which were given in periods of peace and good will.”
(By 1955, with a full decade to digest the horrors of WWII, Lindbergh still insisted that the medal hadn’t ever caused him any worry. He never returned it.) After a brief flirtation with moving his family to Berlin, Lindbergh spent the next several months touring the continent, urging a policy of peace through negotiation, before returning home on the Aquitania on April 8, 1939. “After pronouncing Germany’s military superiority, Lindbergh returned to America to become an outspoken leader of the isolationist ‘America First’ movement, funded with Ford money, that tried to keep the United States out of World War II,” writes historian Kenneth C. Davis. Lindbergh, in one speech, told American Jews to “shut up” and accused the “Jewish-owned press” of pushing the U.S. into the war. From September 1939, right up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor more than two years later, “Lindbergh was the most praised, the most criticized, and the most maligned noninterventionist in the United States,” says Cole. In fact, even before he joined the popular anti-interventionist group, the America First Committee, Colonel Lindbergh had made five nationwide radio broadcasts, addressed two public meetings, published three articles in popular national magazines, and testified before two major legislative committeesâ€¹all in the name of American isolationism. The Nazis conquered France in 1940 and Lindbergh lectured on, declaring that nothing could come of “shouting names and pointing the finger of blame across the ocean” at Hitler and the Germans. Lindbergh’s son, Reeve, recalled a speech in which the elder Lindbergh identified three groups that were pushing the U.S. to enter the war, “the British, the Roosevelt Administration and the Jews.” What, one might have wondered at the time, would be the catalyst to spur the reluctant aviator into war? A hint, says Cole, may lie in his declarations that America’s “bond with Europe is a bond of race and not of political ideology,” and that “the average intellectual superiority of the white race is countered by the sensate superiority of the black race.” Thus, he added, if the white race were “ever seriously threatened, it may then be time for us to take our part in its protection, to fight side by side with the English, French, and Germans, but not with one against the other for our mutual destruction.” The imperialist in America’s favorite pilot was rearing its ugly head. While his public posturing was that of a staunch isolationist, the Colonel believed that the U.S. should construct and maintain air bases “in Newfoundland, Canada, the West Indies, parts of South America, Central America, the Galapagos Islands, the Hawaiian Islands, and Alaska.” In his diaries, Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels highly praised Lindbergh on several occasions. Here’s a sampling:
April 19, 1941: “Public opinion in the USA is beginning to waver. The Isolationists are very active. Colonel Lindbergh is sticking stubbornly and with great courage to his old opinions. A man of honour!”
April 30, 1941: “Lindbergh has written a really spirited letter to Roosevelt. He is the president’s toughest opponent. He asked us not to give him too much prominence, since this could harm him. We have proceeded accordingly.”
June 8, 1941: “These American Jews want war. And when the time comes they will choke on it. Read a brilliant letter from Lindbergh to all Americans. It really tells the Interventionists where to get off. Stylistically magnificent. The man has something.”
Lindbergh may have had “something,” but it definitely wasn’t much in the way of reservations concerning Germany¹s behavior. The best America’s most famous navigator could muster was this tepid disclaimer: “They [the Nazis] undoubtedly have a difficult Jewish problem, but why is it necessary to handle it so unreasonably?” After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Colonel quickly became a target of derision. Popular opinion turned against him, and even FDR confided to his Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morganthau, Jr., that “If I should die tomorrow, I want you to know this. I am absolutely convinced that Lindbergh is a Nazi.” The “Lindbergh Beacon” that sat atop a Chicago skyscraper was quickly renamed the “Palmolive Beacon,” and the Colorado Rockies mountain dubbed “Lindbergh Peak” after his cross-Atlantic flight was judiciously re-christened “Lone Eagle Peak.” However, in the end, the damage Lindbergh did to his image was eventually forgiven thanks to the stories of his efforts in the Pacific war. His criticisms of FDR caused him to resign his commission in the Air Corps reserve but he served as a consultant to Henry Ford, flew combat missions, and after the war, he was named a consultant to the Defense Department (formerly the “War Department”).
“His heroics kept his reputation intact,” says Davis. Hero, isolationist, Nazi apologist, anti-Semite, a figure of national controversy, and then hero again, Colonel Lindbergh’s career trajectory was indeed hard to follow. But perhaps an April 25, 1941 editorial in the Daily Worker captured the true essence of his durability when it labeled him “a reactionary imperialist, part and parcel of the same imperialist class which runs the show at Washington; he just happens to have a difference of opinion with them at the moment on how best to go about expanding the American empire, and preparing for war against the Soviet Union.”
Mickey Z. (Michael Zezima) is the author of Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of “The Good War” (Soft Skull Press) on which this article is based. He can be reached at [email protected]