u n c o v e r I r a q . c o m

[Published in the Minnepaolis StarTribune on September 17, 2017]

Charles Lindbergh: 'The Best American Hero We Are Ever Apt to Produce'
by Drew Hamre

On a sunny September afternoon in 1973, Charles Lindbergh visited Minnesota for the dedication of his childhood home in Little Falls. The aviator, peace activist, Pulitzer-winning writer, heart-lung pioneer, conservationist, and dedicated feminist would be dead within a year.

Lindbergh is not recognizable in the caricature of a Nazi-sympathizer presented by a writer from Vienna (Sep 5) nor in the more constructive piece by a local respondent (Sep 8). The Vienna writer in particular cites pro-war propaganda that was discredited nearly 80-years ago. These slurs are like land mines: never completely defused, always lurking to splatter mud.

Lindbergh became a political target in 1940 because he opposed American entry into World War II. He did so for a variety of reasons -- both humanitarian and geo-political (he feared Soviet threats to Europe more than German). The Lindbergh family also had a tradition of antiwar activism: Lindbergh’s father ran for Governor opposing WW I, for which he was hanged in effigy and chased across Goodhue County.

Lindbergh’s German Eagle award (mentioned in both commentaries as indicative of Nazi sympathies) was spun into a pre-war political issue, but the truth is mundane. Lindbergh received the award on October 18, 1938 in the U.S. embassy in Berlin, where he was attending a stag dinner party at the explicit request of the American ambassador. Goering was the featured guest because the ambassador sought Goering’s support in loosening Jewish emigration rules.

Goering arrived last and headed directly to Lindbergh at the rear of the reception area, ceremoniously producing a red-leather box and beginning a speech. Lindbergh had no German, so an embassy Consul stepped in to translate. The presentation surprised every American in the room, none more so than Lindbergh, who could do nothing without disrupting the event.

Lindbergh’s wife, the wonderful writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh, glimpsed the award later that evening. “The Albatross,” she said.

The “notorious” non-interventionist group of which Lindbergh was the figurehead was funded through the Guggenheim Foundation and had 800,000 members across the political spectrum including Sauk Centre’s Nobelist Sinclair Lewis and a young Gerald Ford. The committee disbanded days after Pearl Harbor, the battle lost, while the full horrors of WWII and the Holocaust lay in wait.

At that time in 1941, roughly 90% of the people who would eventually die during the war were still alive. I believe it is our duty, always, to ask what course of action might have saved them.

Blocked from re-entering the military by Roosevelt, Lindbergh nonetheless flew 50 combat missions in the Pacific. His operational practices extended the range of the P-38 by hundreds of miles, and his engineering/piloting techniques pushed the Corsair’s bomb capacity to 4,000 pounds (the record for a single-engine fighter). Lindbergh finished the war at Camp Dora, the unspeakably grim Nazi extermination camp, an experience at the emotional heart of his Wartime Journals.

President Eisenhower appointed Lindbergh a brigadier general of the Air Force in 1954.

Scott Berg’s Pulitzer-winning 1998 biography is a modern classic (and my German Eagle account draws heavily from this book.) Berg weaves Lindbergh’s accomplishments (a small fraction covered here) and flaws into a portrait that feels rich and honest. Lindbergh was the wounded product of a broken home, pigheaded, scarred by blistering fame and tragedy, and pathologically solitary (as evidenced by later bigamy revelations).

The question underlying Lindbergh’s Des Moines speech seems fundamentally one of anti-Semitism. The local respondent notes that Berg believed Lindbergh was not anti-Semitic. However, in later interviews Berg qualifies this, saying -- if you mean ‘someone who hates Jews’, then no, Lindbergh was absolutely not anti-Semitic. However, if you mean the “more genteel” anti-Semitism of the day that viewed Jews as a separate group, then yes he was. And if so, was Lindbergh better or worse than contemporaries including Roosevelt and Churchill?

Gore Vidal before his 2012 death wrote a wittily affectionate profile of Lindbergh, “The Eagle Is Grounded” (available online). Vidal’s family was intertwined with Lindbergh’s and Roosevelt’s for years, and Vidal – despite his abiding cynicism – saw in Lindbergh ‘the best American-style hero that we are ever apt to produce’.

It would be folly to lose this. Yes, the struggle of memory against forgetting must continually be fought.


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