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The American Experience

Fallen Hero: Charles Lindbergh in the 1940s


In 1935, after enduring a three-year ordeal involving the kidnapping and murder of their first born son and the trial of the man accused of committing the crime, Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh chose to flee the country that had made them national icons. Charles, whose battles with the media over issues of privacy were long-standing, confided to a friend that, "We Americans are a primitive people. ...Americans seem to have little respect for the law or the rights of others." The Lindberghs found sanctuary in the English countryside. Two years later, they moved again, this time to a tiny island off the northwest coast of France. One reason for their choice of locales was so Charles could work more closely with Dr. Alexis Carrel, a Nobel-prize-winning French scientist.

Carrel was regarded as a brilliant medical pioneer for his work in suturing small blood vessels during surgery and in transplanting organs. Lindbergh was eager to discuss with him the potential for successfully operating on a defective human heart. Anne's sister, Elisabeth, had recently suffered a heart attack that permanently damaged her heart's valves. Lindbergh, ever the mechanical wizard, came up with an idea for a heart pump that he revealed to Carrel. Carrel was impressed. The two men collaborated on research and published a book together in 1938, "The Culture of Organs."

In addition to being an innovator in the field of medicine, Carrel held some quite controversial views on the nature of man. A 1935 interview quoted him as saying, "There is no escaping the fact that men were definitely not created equal..." Carrel was in favor of eliminating from society criminals, the insane, and any others who, in his view, weakened civilization's foundation. Lindbergh was taken with Carrel's ideas and thought he had "the most stimulating mind I have ever met." Such notions concerning the superiority of one race over another, and the metering out of society's "weaker" members sounded to some too closely related to the ideas being promoted by Adolf Hitler's Nazi party in Germany.

The Lindberghs had seen the effect of Nazism on a revitalized Germany in 1936. That year, Charles was asked by the American military attaché in Berlin to report on the state of Germany's military aviation program. While in Germany, Charles and Anne attended the Summer Olympic games as the special guests of Field Marshal Hermann Goering, the head of the German military air force, the Luftwaffe. Lindbergh toured German factories, took the controls of state-of-the-art bombers, and noted the multiplying airfields. He visited Germany twice during the next two years. With each visit, he became more impressed with the German military and the German people. He was soon convinced that no other power in Europe could stand up to Germany in the event of war. "The organized vitality of Germany was what most impressed me: the unceasing activity of the people, and the convinced dictatorial direction to create the new factories, airfields, and research laboratories...," Lindbergh recalled in "Autobiography of Values." His wife drew similar conclusions. "...I have never in my life been so conscious of such a directed force. It is thrilling when seen manifested in the energy, pride, and morale of the people--especially the young people," she wrote in "The Flower and the Nettle." By 1938, the Lindberghs were making plans to move to Berlin.

In October 1938, Lindbergh was presented by Goering, on behalf of the Fuehrer, the Service Cross of the German Eagle for his contributions to aviation. News of Nazi persecution of Jews had been filtering out of Germany for some time, and many people were repulsed by the sight of an American hero wearing a Nazi decoration. Lindbergh, by all appearances, considered the medal to be just another commendation. No different than all the others. Many considered this attitude to be naive, at best. Others saw it as an outright acceptance of Nazi policies. Less than a month after the presenting of the medal, the Nazis orchestrated a brutal assault on Jews that came to be known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Nazis and their sympathizers smashed the windows of Jewish businesses, burned homes and synagogues, and left scores dead. Between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. The Lindberghs decided to cancel their plans to move to Germany.

Having returned to America in April 1939, Lindbergh turned his attention toward keeping his country out of a war in Europe. At the time, most Americans shared his isolationist views. Germany invaded Poland five months later, drawing Britain and France into the war. Two weeks later, Lindbergh delivered his first nationwide radio address in which he urged America to remain neutral. In the speech he criticized President Roosevelt, who believed the Nazis must be stopped in their conquest of Europe. Lindbergh saw Nazi victory as certain and thought America's attention should be placed elsewhere. "These wars in Europe are not wars in which our civilization is defending itself against some Asiatic intruder... This is not a question of banding together to defend the white race against foreign invasion." Building on his belief that "racial strength is vital," Lindbergh published an article in Reader's Digest stating, "That our civilization depends on a Western wall of race and arms which can hold back... the infiltration of inferior blood."

As Germany pushed on into France and began its Blitzkreig bombardment of England, Americans began to alter their isolationist views. One group, however, had no such change of heart. The America First Committee was the most powerful isolationist group in the country. Its 850,000 members came from all professions and backgrounds. The AFC was headed by Robert E. Wood, head of Sears Roebuck. Impressed by what they had heard from Charles Lindbergh, the AFC invited him to join their executive committee. Lindbergh accepted the invitation, but insisted on drawing no salary. He also insisted on writing his own speeches and would not submit them for approval. One such speech was given in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11, 1941.

With his hero status already greatly tarnished by his philosophical and political beliefs, Lindbergh delivered a speech in Des Moines that fully knocked him off his pedestal. Announcing that it was time to "name names," Lindbergh decided to identify what he saw as the pressure groups pushing the U.S. into war against Germany. "The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt Administration." Of the Jews, he went on to say, "Instead of agitating for war, Jews in this country should be opposing it in every way, for they will be the first to feel its consequences. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government." The speech was met with outrage from numerous quarters. Lindbergh was denounced as an anti-Semite. His mother-in-law and sister-in-law publicly opposed his views. Civic and corporate organizations cut all ties and affiliations with him. His name was even removed from the water tower in his hometown of Little Falls, Minnesota.

All debate surrounding U.S. war policy came to an end on December 8, 1941, the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The United States was now at war on two fronts: in Europe and in the Pacific. Despite having resigned his military commission in 1939, Lindbergh was eager to fight for his country. FDR wouldn't hear of it. "You can't have an officer leading men who thinks we're licked before we start...,"said the President. Rejected by Roosevelt, Lindbergh worked as a private consultant to Henry Ford (a man who'd drawn fire for his own anti-Semitic views. Ford was manufacturing B-24 bombers in a Michigan plant. In 1943, Lindbergh convinced United Aircraft to send him to the Pacific as an observer. His work there involved a good deal more than observation though. Lindbergh flew more than 50 combat missions, including one in which he brought down an enemy fighter. The 42-year-old Lindbergh often bested men half his age in feats demanding intense physical ability. Drawing on his extraordinary piloting skills, Lindbergh instructed others on how to conserve fuel and extend their flying range by up to 500 miles.

By August 1945, both Japan and Germany had been soundly defeated. Evidence of Nazi atrocities against Jews shocked the world. Still, Lindbergh refused to admit he was wrong in his assessment of the Nazis. He did indicate, however, that his real hope during the war had been that Hitler and Russian leader, Joseph Stalin, would destroy each other and leave the world safe for the "preservers of Western civilization." He began to speak of the misuse of power as the greatest threat facing mankind. In a 1945 speech he said, "History is full of its misuse. There is no better example than Nazi Germany. Power without moral force to guide it invariably ends in the destruction of the people who wield it. Power...must be backed by morality..."

To millions of one-time admirers, Charles Lindbergh's luster had been fatally tainted by his words and associations during the 1930's and early 1940's. Historian William O'Neill spoke for many Americans when he offered the opinion that "In promoting appeasement and military unpreparedness, Lindbergh damaged his country to a greater degree than any other private citizen in modern times. That he meant well makes no difference." It would be years before the words Lindbergh and hero were again uttered in the same breath.

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