Three months before Japan attacked the U.S. fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Charles Lindbergh addressed a crowd in Des Moines, Iowa, to rail against the prospect of American intervention in World War II.
Speaking as a member of the American First Committee, a non-profit isolationist organization that was officially incorporated in September of 1940, he claimed that three groups were ominously conspiring to push the United States into that conflict: “the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration.”
Charles Lindbergh, center, opposed U.S. entry into World War II
Lindbergh, an American hero who was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, focused his comments on Jews. In light of the Nazi regime’s persecution of German Jews, he said, he understood why American Jews sought a war against Germany.
But hastening to add that Jewish Americans would be one of the first to feel the consequences, he went on to say that Jews posed a unique danger to the United States because of their “large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.
” In closing, Lindbergh expressed the hope that American Jews would stop trying to embroil the United States in the war.
A few weeks before he spoke in Des Moines, Lindbergh, in his journal, wrote, “We feel that Jews are among the most active of the war agitators, and among the most influential.
We feel that, on the one hand, it is essential to avoid anything approving a pogrom; and that, on the other hand, it is just as essential to combat the pressure the Jews are bringing on this country to enter the war. This Jewish influence is subtle, dangerous and very difficult to expose.
” As “a race,” he noted, “they seem to invariably cause trouble.” The only solution was “frank and open discussion” of “the Jewish problem.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Lindbergh’s speech, which encapsulated much of his ill feelings toward Jews, set off a firestorm of criticism. Jewish organizations denounced his slurs and demanded a retraction.
Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt’s Republican rival, decried his bigotry.
Thomas Dewey, who would be Roosevelt’ opponent in the 1944 presidential election, said Lindbergh had inexcusably abused his right of freedom of speech.
America First and WWII
Echoing his father’s isolationist political views, Charles Lindbergh spent the latter half of the 1930s fighting to keep the United States out of Europe’s second world war.
Lindbergh became increasingly unsettled by the public attention surrounding him and his family in the wake of the kidnapping and Hauptmann trial. In December 1935, he and Anne moved the family to Europe, where they hoped to live more private lives.
For nearly four years they lived in England and France, making only one brief holiday visit to the United States in December 1937. During this time, the Lindberghs spent time studying and writing.
In 1936, at the request of officials at the American Embassy in Berlin, Lindbergh was invited to Germany to help gather intelligence about the Reich's growing military air power. With the admiring approval of German Air Minister Hermann Goering, Lindbergh toured combat units, factories, airports, and military bases, including some that had never been seen by an American.
After his tours, Lindbergh concluded that Germany was “now able to produce military aircraft faster than any European country; possibly even faster than we could in the States. … A person would have to be blind not to realize that they have already built up tremendous strength.”
Lindbergh made several more visits to German factories and airfields over the next two years. On Oct 18, 1938, Lindbergh attended a dinner in Berlin with several distinguished guests. That evening Goering presented Lindbergh with the Service Cross of the German Eagle for his services to world aviation.
Although the medal had previously been presented to other foreign dignitaries visiting Germany — such as Henry Ford and IBM chairman Thomas Watson — the award to Lindbergh came as a surprise to everyone at the event. Many saw Lindbergh’s acceptance of the “Nazi medal” as a sign of Lindbergh's sympathies with the Third Reich, and he was vilified in the American press.
Hitler’s American Friends: Charles Lindbergh and ‘America First’
Lindbergh leapt into the public consciousness in 1927, when he became the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. This was not only a major feat in aviation history, but also captured the public’s imagination in a period when technology was rapidly changing the world. Lindbergh returned home from Europe as one of the most famous people in the world. In 1932, the disappearance of Lindbergh’s son from his home in New Jersey—and the subsequent discovery of the child’s body—became the crime story of the century and led to a huge outpouring of grief. After the resulting trial ended, Lindbergh and his wife Anne left the United States for Europe to escape the media attention that followed them everywhere. Their time in Europe, however, would prove to be an important turning point.
In June 1936, Lindbergh was living in Britain and received a letter from Major Truman Smith, the American Military Attaché in Berlin. Smith wanted to know whether the aviator would be willing to visit the country and produce a report for the U.S. government about recent developments in German aviation.
Smith’s proposal for the visit was approved in advance by Luftwaffe head Hermann Göring, who was no doubt eager to reap the publicity benefits of a visit by the world’s most famous aviator. The visit took place in July 1936 and included trips to airfields, aircraft factories, and research facilities.
There were social functions as well, including a luncheon packed with government officials in which Lindbergh delivered a lengthy speech on the destructive potential of aerial bombardment. Lindbergh and his wife later paid a social call to Göring, who introduced them to his pet lion Augie.
Lindbergh’s final major stop was a visit to the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, where he and Anne sat near Adolf Hitler but evidently did not speak to him.
Lindbergh himself began breaking bread with members of the anti-Semitic right.
The Lindbergh visit to Germany became a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. The New York Times reported his daily movements in the country. After returning to Britain, Lindbergh began praising the German regime both privately and publicly, though he was careful to add that he did not support Nazism itself.
The Lindberghs went on to visit Germany twice more in the coming years. In October 1938, Lindbergh was invited to an event at the American Embassy that included Hermann Göring on the guestlist. Without warning, Göring was handed a small note and began delivering a speech.
In it, he announced that the Führer had decided to award Lindbergh the Service Cross of the Order of the German Eagle in recognition of his services to aviation. This was the same award that had been recently given to Henry Ford in recognition of his services to the Reich’s military preparedness.
Lindbergh did not speak German and evidently tucked the medal away in his pocket for the rest of the evening. Later that night, Kay Smith translated the note for him and the group realized what had taken place. Anne Morrow Lindbergh remarked on the spot that the medal was an “albatross.” Indeed, it would quickly become so.
Much of the American press leapt on the story and denounced Lindbergh for accepting a Nazi medal. In early December, TWA, the national airline which Lindbergh had helped establish after his 1927 fight, dropped its then-famous nickname of “The Lindbergh Line.
” In late December, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes told a Jewish group meeting that anyone accepting a decoration from a dictator “automatically foreswears his American birthright.”
Lindbergh sensibly decided to use this moment to return to the U.S. and address the crisis. He arrived in April. Over the coming weeks he met with Roosevelt personally to discuss German aviation. Over the coming months, Lindbergh worked with the U.S. military on aviation preparedness, and on September 1, 1939, the war began with the German invasion of Poland.