Charles Lindbergh: A Misunderstood American Hero
Lindbergh attracted huge crowds wherever he spoke. When Lindbergh spoke for the America First Committee in New York City on May 23, 1941, the rally required Madison Square Garden. Some 25,000 people filled the flag-festooned stadium, and almost as many stood on the streets… Lindbergh’s introduction set off a wave of applause that practically shook the Garden.
Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974) became world famous in May 1927 after he flew solo his single-engine plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. When he returned to New York two weeks later, 4 million people turned out to honor him in a massive ticker-tape parade. One newspaper wrote, “No conqueror in the history of the world ever received a welcome such as was accorded Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh yesterday.” Lindbergh was a national hero, and became Time magazine’s first Man of the Year.
By the end of 1941, however, Lindbergh had become one of the most reviled men in American history. One columnist wrote that Lindbergh had plummeted from “Public Hero No. 1” to “Public Enemy No. 1.” A 1942 poll showed that only 10% of Americans had a favorable view of Lindbergh, while 81% had an unfavorable view. Lindbergh’s sister-in-law, Constance, reflected on America’s new attitude toward Lindbergh,
“Imagine, in just 15 years he has gone from Jesus to Judas!”
This article examines why Lindbergh suffered such an unprecedented drop in popularity.
Shortly after his trans-Atlantic flight, working nearly 15-hour days for three weeks, Lindbergh wrote We, his first account of his historic flight. The book sold 190,000 copies in two months. Four days after completing We, Lindbergh left on a three-month tour of the United States. Flying the Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh spent at least one night in each of the (then) 48 states. When the tour ended in late October 1927, he had covered 22,340 miles in 260 hours of flying. An estimated 30 million people came to see Lindbergh, and he gave 147 speeches, was honored at 69 dinners, and traveled 1,285 miles in parades.
On May 27, 1929, Lindbergh married Anne Morrow, whom he had met while on a flying tour. Anne gave birth to their first son, Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr., on June 22, 1930. While the Lindberghs, a nurse and their son were at home, someone stole their son on March 1, 1932. The kidnapper left a ransom note demanding $50,000, which was subsequently raised to $70,000. The Lindberg baby was eventually found dead 72 days after the kidnapping. The child’s alleged murderer, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in one of the most famous trials in American history. Hauptmann was executed on April 3, 1936.
The Lindberghs tried to reestablish their lives. They donated their house to the state of New Jersey for use as a home for children in need. Unfortunately, after their second son was born on August 6, 1932, they continued to receive numerous letters threatening to kidnap their son. The media also continued to harass them. Lindbergh came to loathe the media, and he concluded it was necessary to leave the United States.
The Lindberghs moved to England because they were told that Englishmen and English newspapers would respect their rights of privacy. Also, kidnapping and gangsterism such as they had experienced in the United States were unknown in the British Isles. The Lindberghs in England began to enjoy the privacy they had longed for. They spent two years in England before moving to a remote island off the coast of France.
The American military attaché in Berlin, Maj. Truman Smith, invited Lindbergh to inspect and report on the state of German military aviation. Lindbergh accepted the invitation, and he was impressed with the number of German factories and their production capabilities. The Lindberghs also attended the opening ceremonies of the 1936 summer Olympics. They returned twice to Germany in 1937 and 1938, and in October 1938, Lindbergh accepted the Service Cross of the German Eagle—Germany’s second highest decoration. Many Americans and the American press questioned Lindbergh’s judgment and politics when he accepted this medal.
The Lindberghs moved back to the United States in April 1939 as the world moved closer to war. Lindbergh resigned his commission in the military so that he could speak freely against America’s involvement in the European war. On September 15, 1939, Lindbergh made his first radio address explaining why America should remain neutral in the war. Numerous supportive letters were sent to Lindbergh after this speech. The American consensus was overwhelmingly against American entry into the European conflict.
Lindbergh continued to make speeches against American intervention in the war. While most Americans continued to oppose intervention, and Lindbergh was still a hero to millions, Lindbergh began to be attacked by the pro-interventionist media. Anne Lindbergh was having trouble coping with the cruel attacks on her husband. She wrote in her diary during this period:
Bitter criticism. Personal attacks. He has had two threatening letters: He is a “Nazi.” He will be punished. Our other two children will be taken…I feel angry and bitter and trapped again. Where can we live, where can we go?…C. is criminally misunderstood, misquoted, and misused.
Lindbergh faced strong opposition from President Franklin Roosevelt. On May 20, 1940, the day after Lindbergh made an anti-interventionist radio address, Roosevelt was having lunch with his treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau. After a brief discussion of Lindbergh’s radio address, Roosevelt turned to his trusted cabinet official and said,
“If I should die tomorrow, I want you to know this. I am absolutely convinced that Lindbergh is a Nazi.”
Roosevelt tried to discredit Lindbergh by ordering an IRS audit of his tax returns. A newspaperman tipped Lindbergh that this story would break in the press, and asked Lindbergh if he would care to comment. Surprisingly, Lindbergh said he would be delighted to talk to the press about his tax returns. Lindbergh told reporters that he realized it was often difficult to calculate what you really owe for income tax. Therefore, after calculating his tax each year, he always added 10% to what he thought he owed, and paid it. Lindbergh said he had been doing this for many years, and had never heard any complaints from the IRS. He deadpanned that he didn’t expect any rebates, either. This was the end of what Roosevelt had hoped would be a promising scandal.
Lindbergh also faced harsh criticism for his anti-interventionist testimony in Congress. The Richmond News Leader wrote:
“Millions would vote today to hang Lindbergh or to exile him…Half the letters that have come to newspapers during the past few days have been abuse of him. Some of the communications have been so scurrilous that they could not be printed.”
The author wrote that if Lindbergh wanted to boost Nazism and keep America out of war, he would be more effective by “keeping away from the committee room and plotting in the background.”
America First Committee
The America First Committee (AFC) was founded in September 1940 and became the most powerful isolationist group in the United States. The AFC at its peak had an estimated 850,000 members. Lindbergh was approached by the AFC leadership in April 1941 and asked to become a speaker for the organization. Lindbergh agreed to make speeches for the AFC, and made it clear that he would not accept any money for speaking, would pay his own expenses, and would not submit his speeches for approval. Lindbergh also joined the AFC’s executive committee.
Lindbergh attracted huge crowds wherever he spoke. When Lindbergh spoke for the AFC in New York City on May 23, 1941, the rally required Madison Square Garden. Some 25,000 people filled the flag-festooned stadium, and almost as many stood on the streets, listening to speeches over loudspeakers. Lindbergh’s introduction set off a wave of applause that practically shook the Garden. Lindbergh stressed that Americans must demand an accounting from a government that was leading America into war while it promised peace.
On the night of May 29, 1941, Lindbergh made a speech at the Arena in Philadelphia before an overflow crowd of 15,000. Lindbergh described President Roosevelt’s foreign policy as being designed to subtly but steadily engage America in the European war. Lindbergh said:
“First they said, ‘sell us the arms and we will win.’ Then it was ‘lend us the arms and we will win.’ Now it is ‘bring us the arms and we will win.’ Tomorrow it will be ‘fight our war for us and we will win.’”
Lindbergh reported that AFC’s membership was increasing by thousands every day, with chapters being formed all across the country.
The AFC gained momentum through the summer. On June 20, 1941, Lindbergh spoke at the Hollywood Bowl to an estimated overflow crowd of 80,000–his largest live audience yet. Lindbergh spoke at San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium 11 nights later. He underscored the folly of America’s allying with any of the belligerents because of the fickleness of the European nations toward each other. Lindbergh also warned against an alliance with the Soviet Union. He said,
“An alliance between the United States and Russia should be opposed by every American, by every Christian, and by every humanitarian in this country”.
Interventionist groups began to attack Lindbergh. For example, in August and September 1941, the interventionist group Friends of Democracy prepared an elaborate 28-page pamphlet entitled Is Lindbergh a Nazi? This pamphlet missed no argument in its attempts to discredit Lindbergh. Libraries across America also pulled Lindbergh’s books from their shelves, and some cities removed Lindbergh’s name from their streets and list of honorary members.
By the middle of 1941, the interventionist assaults on Lindbergh were becoming increasingly vicious and effective. The interventionist attacks on Lindbergh reached historic proportions in September 1941.
On September 11, 1941, more than 8,000 people crowded into the Des Moines Coliseum to hear Lindberg speak at an AFC rally. Lindbergh had decided to make a “for-the-record” speech identifying the war makers as he saw them. Lindbergh told his audience:
The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration. Behind these groups, but of lesser importance, are a number of capitalists, anglophiles, and intellectuals, who believe that their future, and the future of mankind, depend upon the domination of the British Empire. Add to these the Communistic groups who were opposed to intervention until a few weeks ago, and I believe I have named the major war agitators in this country.
This speech was the only public address in which Lindberg mentioned the Jews. Lindbergh in his speech elaborated on the Jewish group’s influence:
It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race. No person with a sense of dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy, both for us and for them.
Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this, and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our Government.
I am not attacking either the Jewish or the British people. Both races I admire. But I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war. We cannot blame them for looking out for what they believe to be their own interests, but we also must look out for ours. We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction.
Rarely has any public address in American history caused more of an uproar than did Lindbergh’s Des Moines speech. Criticism and denunciations of Lindbergh’s speech came from all across the United States. Newspapers and organized interventionist groups joined in savage attacks on Lindbergh. Criticism of Lindbergh’s speech also emanated from high political levels in the United States. For example, Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York called Lindbergh’s speech “an inexcusable abuse of the right of freedom of speech.”
Anne Lindbergh wrote in her diary concerning Lindbergh’s speech:
He names the “war agitators”—chiefly the British, the Jews, and the Administration. He does it truthfully, moderately, and with no bitterness or rancor—but I hate to have him touch the Jews at all. For I dread the reaction on him. No one else mentions this subject out loud (though many seethe bitterly and intolerantly underneath). C., as usual, must bear the brunt of being frank and open. What he is saying in public is not intolerant or inciting or bitter and it is just what he says in private, while the other soft-spoken cautious people who say terrible things in private would never dare be as frank in public as he. They do not want to pay the price. And the price will be terrible.
The AFC disbanded after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and urged its members to cease all opposition to the war. Lindbergh wanted to serve in the U.S. military once the nation was at war. However, members of the Roosevelt administration made it clear that Lindbergh would have to admit his views had been wrong before his commission could be reinstated. This Lindbergh refused to do.
Lindbergh’s first applications to be employed in the private sector at Pan Am, Curtiss-Wright and United Aircraft all failed, perhaps due to pressure from the government. Lindbergh eventually became a consultant to Henry Ford in the production of B-24 bombers, and a year later was hired as a consultant with United Aircraft. Designated as a civilian observer, Lindbergh was allowed to fly dozens of combat missions in the Pacific theater near the end of the war. He displayed the skill and exceptional physical attributes that made him the world’s most famous flyer, and is credited with downing at least one Japanese plane.
Lindbergh, however, was no longer an American hero immediately after the war. Historian William O’Neill expressed the view of many Americans:
“In promoting appeasement and military unpreparedness, Lindberg damaged his country to a greater degree than any other private citizen in modern times. That he meant well makes no difference…”
Fortunately, Lindbergh’s tarnished image slowly improved after the war. With the help of his wife, Lindbergh wrote the book The Spirit of St. Louis, which became an overwhelming bestseller with extremely favorable reviews. Lindbergh won the Pulitzer Prize for this book in the spring of 1954. On April 7, 1954, based on President Eisenhower’s nomination and Senate approval, Lindbergh was sworn in as a Brigadier General. Lindbergh also had numerous job offers, most of which he refused, but he did maintain a series of positions on several boards, at which he worked indefatigably.
President John F. Kennedy invited the Lindberghs to a State dinner at the White House in 1962. This helped Lindbergh reemerge as a hero to many Americans, since by inviting Lindbergh to the White House, Kennedy bestowed his stamp of approval. President Lyndon Johnson continued Lindbergh’s resurrection by inviting the Lindberghs to a number of official occasions, including a 1968 State dinner with the Apollo 8 astronauts.
Lindbergh in his later years joined several conservation organizations and put all his energy into the conservation and ecology movement. He died on August 26, 1974 in Maui from lymphatic cancer.
Lindbergh’s Des Moines speech was a catastrophe for America First generally and Lindbergh personally. Historian Bradley Hart writes:
“There is little doubt that if Lindbergh had died prematurely in the mid-1930s he would be widely admired today. After 1941 his reputation would be permanently tarred with the stain of anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathies.”
Lindbergh never apologized for his Des Moines address and felt he had done nothing wrong. He wrote in his journal four days after his speech:
“I felt I had worded my Des Moines address carefully and moderately. It seems that almost anything can be discussed in America except the Jewish problem. The very mention of the word ‘Jew’ is cause for a storm. Personally, I feel that the only hope for a moderate solution lies in an open and frank discussion.”
Lindbergh in his Des Moines address had merely expressed publicly what he thought privately. He wrote in his journal on May 1, 1941: “Most of the Jewish interests in the country are behind war, and they control a huge part of our press and radio and most of our motion pictures.” The storm that erupted after his Des Moines speech proves what Lindbergh had written in his journal. Both in 1941 and today, anyone who discusses Jewish control of our media and political system will be viciously smeared and have their reputation irreparably harmed.
 Dunn, Susan, 1940: FDR, Wilkie, Lindbergh, Hitler—the Election amid the Storm, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2013, p. 46.
 Denenberg, Barry, An American Hero: The True Story of Charles A. Lindbergh, New York: Scholastic Inc., 1996, p. 96.
 Berg, A. Scott, Lindbergh, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998, p. 428.
 Hart, Bradley W., Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018, p. 227.
 Berg, A. Scott, Lindbergh, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998, p. 433.
 Denenberg, Barry, An American Hero: The True Story of Charles A. Lindberg, New York: Scholastic Inc., 1996, pp. 99-102.
 Ibid., pp. 110-112, 123-176.
 Ibid., pp. 177-187.
 Berg, A. Scott, Lindbergh, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998, pp. 355-357, 360, 367-368, 377-381.
 Wallace, Max, The American Axis: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and the Rise of the Third Reich, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003, pp. 197, 204-208.
 Lindbergh, Anne Morrow, War Within and Without, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, pp. 64-65.
 Wallace, Max, The American Axis: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and the Rise of the Third Reich, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003, p. 215.
 Ross, Walter S., The Last Hero: Charles A. Lindbergh, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1968, pp. 293-294.
 Wapshott, Nicholas, The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists, and the Road to World War II, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, p. 279.
 Denenberg, Barry, An American Hero: The True Story of Charles A. Lindbergh, New York: Scholastic Inc., 1996, p. 211.
 Berg, A. Scott, Lindbergh, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998, pp. 419-420.
 Ibid., pp. 420-421.
 Ibid., 421-422.
 Cole, Wayne S., Charles A. Lindberg and the Battle against American Intervention in World War II, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974, p. 151.
 Berg, A. Scott, Lindbergh, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998, p. 421.
 Cole, Wayne S., Charles A. Lindbergh and the Battle against American Intervention in World War II, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974, p. 153.
 Ibid., pp. 153, 159-161.
 Ibid., pp. 171-172.
 Ibid., pp. 173-175.
 Lindbergh, Anne Morrow, War Within and Without, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, p. 220.
 Denenberg, Barry, An American Hero: The True Story of Charles A. Lindbergh, New York: Scholastic Inc., 1996, pp. 217-218.
 Ibid., pp. 218-220.
 Ibid., p. 221.
 Berg, A. Scott, Lindbergh, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998, pp. 487-491, 496.
 Denenberg, Barry, An American Hero: The True Story of Charles A. Lindbergh, New York: Scholastic Inc., 1996, p. 227.
 Ibid., pp. 229-230.
 Hart, Bradley W., Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018, p. 185.
 Lindbergh, Charles A., The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970, p. 539.
 Ibid., p. 481.