Charles Lindbergh was a hero for his feats of aviation but ultimately lost that goodwill once he started pushing bigoted conspiracies to keep America from fighting Hitler.
In 1927, Charles Lindbergh, 25, became an unassailable American hero as the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic nonstop. The New York Times summed up the nation’s jubilation with the simple headline “LINDBERGH DID IT!”
Now an international celebrity, he also became a notable target, with tragedy striking only four years later when his 20-month-old son was abducted from his crib in Lindbergh’s New Jersey home. After a two-month, nationwide media frenzy and FBI investigation, the now-famous Lindbergh baby’s remains were discovered in a wooded area close to the Lindbergh’s home.
Lindbergh’s aviation heroics coupled with the public’s anguish over the kidnapping and murder of his young child should have been enough to afford him a lifetime of goodwill — but that isn’t what happened. Instead, he performed one of the most notorious heel-turns in American history and revealed himself to be a nativist anti-Semite, and possibly even a Nazi-sympathizer, to the shock of the American public.
Lindbergh would spend the years leading up to World War II actively campaigning to “protect the white race” and for the U.S. to maintain strict neutrality toward Nazi Germany. He even flew to Germany to receive a medal in person from Hermann Göring, the infamous commander of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe, on behalf of Adolph Hitler himself.
But it was his association with the nativist America First Committee (AFC) that would ultimately become his epitaph.
As war loomed in Europe, Lindbergh’s increasing isolationist views saw him congregate more and more with like-minded figures and politicians in the AFC, eventually becoming the group’s de facto spokesperson just as the menace of Hitler’s ambitions became impossible to ignore.
According to the unpublished galleys of American historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., some Republicans even urged Lindbergh to run for President against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940 to keep America out of the war.
This dark night for the American soul became the subject of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America. Now an HBO series of the same name, the story explores an alternate future where Lindbergh does challenge Roosevelt and wins Presidency — with disastrous consequences.
Though many probably only know one half of Charles Lindbergh’s story, either the heroic pioneering aviator or a possible Nazi-sympathizer on the eve of World War II, he was both these things at once, unfortunately, making him a figure of continued fascination.
The Rise And Decline Of Charles Lindbergh As An American Hero
Born Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. on Feb. 4, 1902, in Detroit, Michigan, Lindbergh grew up on a Minnesota farm, though his father was a lawyer and a congressman. He studied mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin to prepare for a life in aviation.
His first solo flight in Lincoln, Nebraska, soon led him to a career as a daredevil pilot, performing at regional fairs and other similar events. His aerial stunts and engrossing flights thrilled spectators and gave him a solid foundation for a future career in aviation.
Lindbergh joined the U.S. Army in 1924 and became an Air Service Reserve pilot. Upon returning to civilian life, he became an airmail pilot with a route between St. Louis and Chicago.
It was hotel owner Raymond Orteig’s $25,000 prize, offered in 1919 to the first pilot who could fly from New York to Paris nonstop, which ultimately launched Lindbergh into the history books. The ambitious aviator took off from Roosevelt Field in Long Island, New York, on May 20, 1927, piloting a single-engine plane called Spirit of St. Louis.
It took him 33.5 hours to make the world’s first transatlantic flight, covering more than 3,600 miles. When he landed at Le Bourguet Field near Paris, on May 21, he was greeted by a crowd of 100,000 people and became an instant international celebrity.
His fame thereafter seemed assured but after the death of his child, Lindbergh’s legendary piloting started to fade in the public consciousness. There were more pressing concerns as the country sank into the Great Depression in the early 1930s and Lindbergh’s attention took a turn toward politics.
Sympathy For The Nazis? Charles Lindbergh Reveals His Nativism And Antisemitism
The U.S. military requested Lindbergh visit Germany several times between 1936 and 1938 to inspect the country’s air force, the famed Luftwaffe. He was the first American to test the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and examined their latest bomber, Junkers Ju 88.
General Henry H. Arnold wrote in his autobiography, “Nobody gave us much useful information about Hitler’s air force until Lindbergh came home in 1939.” Just one year earlier, however, Lindbergh was also in Germany, only then it was to attend a dinner with Göring hosted by the American ambassador to Germany, Hugh Wilson.
It was during this trip that Göring awarded Lindbergh the Commander Cross of the Order of the German Eagle. A few weeks after this meeting, the Nazis launched their infamous anti-Jewish pogrom, Kristallnacht, and many in the U.S. pushed Lindbergh to return the Nazi medal. He refused.
“If I were to return the German medal, it seems to me that it would be an unnecessary insult,” he said.
After World War II broke out in Europe on September 1, 1939, Lindbergh wrote an article for the November issue of Reader’s Digest titled “Our civilization depends on peace among Western nations.” Lindbergh publicly and vehemently called for the U.S. not to intervene during Germany’s invasions of Poland and Czechoslovakia.
While Lindbergh decried assisting any of the belligerents in the war, including Nazi Germany, on the grounds that America should not profiteer from “the destruction and death of war” by selling weapons, the belligerents were hardly on an even playing field. In 1939 and 1940, Germany’s military was conquering neighboring countries in a matter of weeks where it might have taken years only a decade or two earlier.
No one, other than actual American Nazis, was arguing the U.S. should sell weapons to the Germans to use against the British and French and the Germans weren’t really interested. They had the most advanced military in the world, as the British and French would soon learn.
The question was whether to help them resist Nazi aggression by selling armaments and material to aid their war effort. Neutrality in this instance meant allowing Germany to overrun France and threaten the British Isles. To stay neutral would likely ensure a Nazi victory, and this was pointed out at the time.
There were plenty of isolationists who didn’t want to see Nazi Germany win but who also genuinely feared the consequences of getting dragged into the war on the side of the Allies. Lindbergh has no such defense. As if he wanted to remove any doubt about the matter, Lindbergh began pushing antisemitic messaging in his arguments that was interpreted by many as actually aiding Nazi Germany’s war effort.
“We must ask who owns and influences the newspaper, the news picture, and the radio station,” he said in a nationwide radio address in September 1939. “If our people know the truth, our country is not likely to enter the war.”
It was the following year that Lindbergh became a spokesman for the AFC and ramped up his anti-Semitic messaging, particularly against newspapers and radio broadcasts that Lindbergh insinuated were controlled by Jews looking to plunge America into war with the Nazis.
Through the AFC, he spread his message to millions over the radio and by addressing sizable crowds in venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden, setting himself and his legacy on a collision course with infamy.
The True Story Of The Plot Against America
Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America envisioned an alternate history in which Lindbergh took advice regarding a presidential run to heart — and won. As a result, his antisemitism made its way into federal policy, with Naziesque persecution of Jewish-Americans becoming official U.S. policy
According to Roth’s op-ed in The New York Times, he was inspired by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s notes that there were Republican isolationists tried to draft Lindbergh into challenging President Roosevelt. The evidence that this occurred is rather thin, but the country was arguably in a fertile place for it in 1940.
Roth argued that Lindbergh’s celebrity, hero status, and anti-war sentiments could’ve taken him over the top at the polls. He believed the fervor of the German-American Bund and the America First Committee — which had a membership of 800,000 and drew huge crowds in cities like New York — would’ve effectively supported the man.
In the novel, the Lindbergh administration goes about its antisemitic mission differently than the Nazis. Instead of extermination, an assimilation program called “Just Folks” is implemented. The “volunteer work program for city youth in the traditional ways of heartland life” aims to “re-socialize” American jews.
The “Office of American Absorption” ships the protagonist, a fictionalized version of Roth himself, to a tobacco farm in Kentucky to work for a Christian host. The program is ominously meant “to raze those barriers of ignorance that continue to separate Christian from Jew and Jew from Christian.”
In terms of historical accuracy, Roth’s scenario, fortunately, didn’t happen — but Lindbergh’s antisemitism and roster of speeches denouncing Jewish culture as a plague on traditional American values certainly did. It’s not as if Nazi sympathy in the U.S. wasn’t a significant force in the isolationist movement, either.
While the AFC garnered significant support from middle- and upper- class American gentiles, their highwater mark came on Sept. 11, 1941, when Charles Lindbergh gave a speech at an AFC event in Des Moines, Iowa — a speech that left the permanent stain on his memory to this day.
“The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt Administration,” Lindbergh said, before going on to add later about Jewish-American groups: “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government,” and that they were the only ones who wanted war over the resistance of the American public who did not.
Almost as soon as Lindbergh finished his speech, there was an immediate backlash from all sides of the political spectrum. Wendell Willkie, the Republican nominee for President in 1940, called the speech “the most un-American talk made in my time by any person of national reputation.”
President Roosevelt’s press secretary released a statement calling it on par with “the outpourings of Berlin in the last few days,” and newspapers across the country editorialized against it for its overt promotion of antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the media and the government behind the scenes.
Even Lindbergh’s wife reportedly had misgivings about the speech before he gave it; but give it he did — less than two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor ended all talk of neutrality. The AFC dissolved itself on Dec. 10, 1941, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and, fittingly, Nazi Germany delivered the coup de grâce the following day by declaring war on the United States, not the other way around.
For the rest of his life, Charles Lindbergh appeared to be a chastened man. He served in the military during the war and saw first hand the true nature of the Nazi regime. Upon seeing Camp Dora after the defeat of Germany in 1945, Lindbergh wrote in his journal:
“Here was a place where men and life and death had reached the lowest form of degradation. How could any reward in national progress even faintly justify the establishment and operation of such a place… It seemed impossible that men – civilized men – could degenerate to such a level.”
Maybe he felt a need to fade into the background or to find absolution for his public positions in the lead up to the war, but he spent the rest of his life avoiding politics altogether, saying in the 1960s that he’d rather have “birds than airplanes.” His wife later said that he deeply regretted that the public saw him as an anti-Semite, professing that his only interest was peace.
In fact, his only advocacy after the war was on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature. He even lived among indigenous peoples in Africa and the Philippines for a time before his death in 1974, far from the limelight of his 20s and 30s.
Nonetheless, at a pivotal moment in world history — had the whims of history changed even slightly in the AFC’s favor or if Lindbergh had prioritized political ambitions a bit more in 1939 — Lindbergh might have been remembered today for ushering in a more anti-semitic, pro-Nazi America like the one in Roth’s novel. Instead, he is remembered as the disgraced American hero who traded in his legacy for a Nazi medal and historic infamy.
After learning about the bigotry and white supremacist politics of Charles Lindbergh, read about Henry Ford and his fervent antisemitism. Then, learn about Hermann Göring, Hitler’s overweight and drug-addicted right-hand man.