Lindbergh Re-examined

Charles Lindbergh adjusts his parachute in front of Sergeant Bell’s experimental biplane on Lambert Field, St. Louis, Missouri, in the mid-to-late 1920s, while Bell waits in the plane.
Charles Lindbergh adjusts his parachute in front of Sergeant Bell’s experimental biplane on Lambert Field, St.
Louis, Missouri, in the mid-to-late 1920s, while Bell waits in the plane.

On a soft April morning in 1939, Charles Lindbergh was summoned to the White House to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt, arguably the only person in America who equaled him in fame. The images of the two men had been indelibly impressed on the nation’s consciousness for years–Lindbergh, whose solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 had mesmerized and inspired his countrymen, and Roosevelt, whose energetic, confident leadership had helped jolt a Depression-mired America back to life.

When Lindbergh was ushered into the Oval Office, he found FDR seated behind his desk. It was their first face-to-face encounter, but no one would have guessed that from the president’s warm, familiar manner. His head thrown back, with his trademark cigarette holder tilted rakishly upward, Roosevelt exuded charm, joie de vivre, and an unmistakable air of power and command. During his 30-minute chat with Lindbergh, he gave no sign of the many grave problems weighing on his mind.

He was, in fact, in the midst of one of the greatest crises of his presidency. Europe was on the brink of war. The month before, Adolf Hitler had seized all of Czechoslovakia, violating the promise he had made at the 1938 Munich conference to cease his aggression against other countries. In response, Britain and France had promised to come to the aid of Poland, the next country on Germany’s hit list, if it were invaded. Both Western nations, however, were desperately short of arms, a situation that FDR was trying to remedy. But he was faced with a dilemma. Thanks to the provisions of neutrality legislation passed by Congress a few years earlier, Britain and France would be barred from buying U.S. weapons once they declared war on Germany. As Roosevelt knew, his chances of persuading the House and Senate to repeal the arms ban were close to zero.

But he mentioned none of that in his conversation with Lindbergh. Nor, in the course of his genial banter, did he betray any hint of the considerable suspicion and distrust he felt for the younger man sitting opposite him.

Less than seven years after his history-making flight, the 32-year-old Lindbergh had become a divisive, controversial figure. In 1935 he had taken his family to live in England, then France. During his three-year stay in Europe, he made several highly publicized trips to Nazi Germany, where he inspected aircraft companies and air force bases–and made clear he thought that the German air force was invincible and that Britain and France must appease Hitler.

July 23, 1927 cover of The Saturday Evening Post by Norman Rockwell
Profile of a hero: On the July 23, 1927, cover of the Post—just two months after Lindbergh’s historic transatlantic flight—Norman Rockwell paid tribute to the famous pilot in Aviation Pioneer (above), which celebrated the heroic ideal the aviator personified to Americans and millions around the world. Less than seven years later, Lindbergh became a divisive, controversial figure. © SEPS 2014

And now he was home, ostensibly to join General Henry “Hap” Arnold, head of the Air Corps, in an effort to build up America’s own airpower as quickly as possible. But was he plotting something else? The last thing Roosevelt needed was a campaign to stir up public opposition to the idea of arms sales to Britain and France. He had invited Lindbergh to the White House to get a sense of the man, to try to figure out how much of a problem he might pose in the turbulent days to come.

During his session with Roosevelt, Lindbergh was well aware that the president was scrutinizing him closely. Writing later in his journal, he noted, “Roosevelt judges his man quickly and plays him cleverly.” Although he thought FDR “a little too suave, too pleasant, too easy,” Lindbergh still enjoyed the encounter. “There is no reason for any antagonism between us,” he observed. He would continue to work with the administration on ways to improve the nation’s air defenses, but, he added, “I have a feeling that it may not be for long.”

He was right. In early September, just five months later, Hitler invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany. The following spring, German troops swept through Western Europe, vanquishing France and threatening Britain’s survival. As unofficial leader and spokesman for America’s isolationist movement, Lindbergh emerged as Franklin Roosevelt’s most redoubtable adversary in what would become a brutal, no-holds-barred battle for the soul of the nation.

But all that changed after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and Germany and Italy also immediately declared war on the United States. In the days following, Charles Lindbergh, hoping all would be forgiven, did his best to return to active duty in the Army Air Forces. Naively, as it turned out, he believed that his earlier opposition to Roosevelt might make him “of more value [to the administration] rather than less. It seems to me that the unity necessary for a successful war demands that all viewpoints be presented in Washington.”

It became increasingly obvious that the administration had no intention of granting Lindbergh’s request. The chief naysayer was Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who, in a memo to Roosevelt in early 1942, insisted that Lindbergh was intent on overthrowing the government and that if he were allowed to become a war hero, “this loyal friend of Hitler’s” would emerge as a rallying point for all of Roosevelt’s opponents. “It would be a tragic disservice to American democracy,” Ickes argued, “to give one of its bitterest and most ruthless enemies a chance to gain a military record. …He should be buried in merciful oblivion.” In his response, the president said he agreed “wholeheartedly” with “what you say about Lindbergh and the potential danger of the man.”

Henry Stimson was handed the assignment of giving Lindbergh the bad news. In a tense meeting in Stimson’s office, the secretary of war informed Lindbergh that he was loath to bestow a position of command on someone “who has shown…no faith in the righteousness of our cause,” adding that he didn’t believe such a person could “carry on the war with sufficient aggressiveness.” In reply, Lindbergh said he would not retract his view that entering the war was a mistake. But, he added, now that the decision for war had been made, he supported it and was eager to help in any way he could. Stimson, however, remained adamant. Nothing could or would be offered to a man whose loyalty, in the eyes of many, was still in question.

Lindbergh and the Troubles of an American Ideal

When Lindbergh arrived on the national stage, he ended a long drought of heroism.  And he was the real thing: a hero in the classical style who embodied traits Americans believed were peculiar to their country. It was easy for them to identify with him, for Lindbergh’s life followed a course that mirrored the national experience.

Like most Americans born early in the century, he was born on a farm.

Like thousands of farm boys, he was fascinated with technology. He longed to leave the farm and pursue his interest in motorcycles, automobiles, and airplanes.

In the 1920s, he was a young pilot and entrepreneur, barnstorming and flying airmail to scrape up the money to buy his own airplane.

On May 20, 1927, he was the unknown, inexperienced flyer, a brash American challenger who proposed to fly the Atlantic — a feat that had already killed six experienced aviators.

In the 1930s, he was the brightest star in a celebrity culture. He was also the victim of this decades exceptional lawlessness.

When war arrived in the 1940s, he served in combat. And when peace returned, he continued his work in building up America’s air industry.

In 1953, he won the Pulitzer Price for his book, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” which was serialized in the Post as “33 Hours to Paris.” In this excerpt, he uses his characteristic, stream-of-consciousness style to describe the moment of his triumph.

“It begins as a scarcely perceptible glow… Paris is rising over the edge of the earth. It’s almost thirty-three hours from my take-off on Long Island. As minutes pass, myriad pin-points of light emerge, a patch of starlit earth under a starlit sky —the lamps of Paris — straight lines of lights, curving lines of lights, squares of lights. Avenues, parks and buildings take outline form; and there, far below, is a column of lights pointing upward —the Eiffel Tower. I circle once above it and turn northeastward toward Le Bourget.

“I’ll overshoot if I keep on — stick back — trim the stabilizer —close the throttle. I can hardly hear the engine idling. Is it too slow? It mustn’t stop now — the silence is like a vacuum —

“It’s better to come in fast, even if I roll into that black area. And it’s better to come in high — there may be poles or chimneys at the field’s edge — never depend on obstruction lights — especially when you don’t see any. It’s only a hundred yards to the hangars now. I’m too high —too fast.  Left rudder —side slip— careful — sod coming up to meet me — still too fast — tail too high —hold off —

“The wheels touch gently—off again —ease the stick forward —back on the ground —not a bad landing, but I can’t see anything ahead —jolting into blackness —slower now — The Spirit of St. Louis swings around and stops rolling, resting on the solidness of earth in the center of Le Bourget. I start to taxi back toward the floodlights and hangars—but the entire field ahead is covered with running figures!”

He was completely unprepared for the welcome awaiting him. He was also unprepared for the juggernaut of publicity. Post writer Donald E. Keyhoe interviewed him four years after his triumph and observed that newspapers and the celebrity addicts were still pursuing Lindbergh, besieging him with—

“One hundred letters a day—more than thirty-five thousand a year…  from all over the country, from foreign countries—sometimes the most out-of-the-way places in the world. Many are begging letters—requests couched in every style from an illiterate scrawl to phrases of educated men and women. They ask for anything from a million dollars to a five-dollar bill; though most of them do not get that low.  Then there are freak letters; though there has always been an almost complete absence of threats in the colonel’s mail.”

Reporters and gawkers had become particularly intrusive since Lindbergh’s son had been born.

“After the colonel’s son was born there was an insistent demand for photographs of the child. After some time the colonel took the desired pictures himself, had a number of prints made, and at an appointed hour met representatives of the conservative papers and press services, giving each one a set of the prints. The other journals were all but insane, for this was one of the great picture scoops of the year.

“A man called an editor with an offer. If the editor would just send a reporter out into the street with one of the precious photos in his pocket, the caller would pay him five thousand dollars.

“‘You mean you’ll hijack him?’ demanded the editor.

“Call it what you want. You’ll get your five thousand dollars.”

“‘Nothing doing,’ rapped the editor, and banged down the receiver of his phone.

“But these [excluded] papers did not stop at that. They trailed press-service messengers to trains, and worked clever schemes that gained for some of them the coveted pictures. But their disappointment at not being included with the other papers created enmity for Lindbergh that is still exceedingly active.”

Lindbergh had hoped to escape the rabid fans and photographers by moving far out in the New Jersey countryside. There, Keyhoe reports, for the first time since he had achieved international fame, Lindbergh could say, “We have been happier in the last few months than you can realize, perhaps. It has been so quiet and peaceful down here—even better than we dared hope.”

“In spite of the furor of publicity that has surrounded him, Lindbergh leads a normal and quiet life—so quiet that a visitor might forget for a while that there was a child in the house. When I first saw him he was in his play yard, an attractive, healthy child just then engaged in watching the antics of the Scotch-terrier puppy which frisked around the room.”

Keyhoe’s article is filled with observations that take on a sinister nature in the light of later events.

“‘Have you taken up your boy yet?’ I asked Lindbergh.

“‘No,’ he replied, ‘there wouldn’t be any point to it, except to say that he had flown. It would be safe enough, but he wouldn’t be able to appreciate it so soon.’

“‘I suppose you will be the one to teach him to fly,’ I remarked.

“‘Maybe he will want someone who’s more up-to-date at that time,’ said Lindbergh, laughing.

“But I thought there was a little light in his face that meant otherwise. And when Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., reaches for the throttle to take off on his first solo flight, I am sure it will be his renowned father who will give him that last bit of advice and that last encouraging pat on the shoulder before he spreads his wings.”

On May 12, 1932, the remains of his son, killed in a kidnapping plot, would be found in a muddy field close to the house.

Lindbergh’s challenges weren’t over. As the Second World War grew closer to the American shores, Lindbergh spoke out often, and perhaps injudiciously, about the need to avoid war and the possibility of negotiating with the Nazis. He had been a pacifist all his life, but he was still a patriot. However his comments were gleefully used by reactionaries, Roosevelt-haters, Nazi-supporters, and the Nazis themselves.

He put aside his pacifism when Japan and Germany declared war on the United States, but many Americans never forgot, or forgave, his pre-war stance.

On May 22, 1944, he flew the first of over 50 combat missions in the Pacific theater. The Post, in 1954, published an excerpt from a book Lindbergh hoped to write about his combat experiences. In this passage, he is still using the stream-of-consciousness style of before, but he’s a long way from peacetime flight across empty skies.

“Guns charged and ring sights glowing, our four Corsairs float like hawks over enemy held land… We are cruising at 8000 feet, on a marine patrol, to cover the morning’s strike, and make sure that Japanese Zeros don’t interfere with American bombing crew. Our planes are from VMF 223, based on a rolled-coral strip in the Green Island—200 miles east of New Guinea —four degrees south of the equator.

“Sixteen hundred rounds I carry, of .50-caliber ammunition, and I can spew them out at the rate of 5000 rounds a minute. Suddenly the grace of flight in gone. I see with war-conditioned eyes — these are wicked-looking planes we fly, manned by ruthless pilots, built to kill, trained to kill, hoping to kill, as we approach the heavily defended fortress of Rabaul.

“Seven thousand feet . . . 5000 feet . . . 4000 feet . . . I wonder how many guns are shooting at us . . . 3000 feet . . . 2000 feet . . . buildings and palms rush up at me . . . 1600 feet… I squeeze the trigger. Six guns clatter in my plane as tracers streak from wings to roof, and walk the building’s length. I level out twenty feet above the treetops at 400 miles an hour.

“[Flying over Duke of York island] I climb to locate my position . . . dive to evade enemy machine guns . . . center a building m my sight . . . squeeze the trigger . . . no . . . a steeple! . . . a church! . . . hold fire . . . ease back on the stick . . . pick out another target… dive . . . fire . . . ammunition almost gone . . . only one machine gun answers . . . Corsairs are rendezvousing out at sea. I join them.”

Lindbergh couldn’t shirk his duty any more than he could discard his life-long pacifism. He still embodied the American ideals of courage, strength, and the willingness to face death in the line of duty. But he also displayed the American spirit that never places complete trust in war, and never delights in killing.

” ‘I almost shot up a church today,’ I told a young marine captain after we landed. ‘I just recognized what it was in time.’

“‘Oh, you mean that little church on the Duke of York?’ He laughed. ‘We strafe it on every mission. The Nips used to use it for their troops.’

“I suppose our enemies say the same about churches they destroy.

“An engine coughs and roars through night. Some crew chief is readying his fighter for tomorrow’s strike. I get up from the grenade box and begin walking toward my tent. Where, in life and space and matter, is the place for war? How can one justify a church in a gun sight? How can one merge concepts of religion and of slaughter? Is strife an essential part of the universal plan or will man, evolving, find a path which leads to world-wide peace?”

Read “Lindbergh, Four Years Later,” by Donald E. Keyhoe. 1927 [PDF]

Read “Thoughts of a Combat Pilot,” by Charles Lindburgh. 1954 [PDF]