By the end of 1945 the United States had vanquished the threats posed by Nazi Germany and by Imperial Japan. Their defeat, however, had not been certain a decade earlier. Even as the forces of darkness were rising, a large segment of the American population urged their leaders to keep them isolated. One American who stood opposed to U.S. intervention in the late 1930s was one of the country’s greatest heroes. He had captivated the imagination of every American with his aviation exploits. He wished to keep the nation safe and fought to keep it out of war. When war came however, he could not stay out of action and did all he could to join his countrymen in combat. His name was Charles Lindbergh. This is the story of his transformation from a rabid isolationist into a defender of democracy.
Charles Lindbergh seemed to live a controversial life, much as his father had. He was born in Detroit, Michigan in February 1902 and grew up in Little Falls, Minnesota, on the banks of the Mississippi River. In 1907 his father took him to Washington, D.C. when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. The junior congressman’s idealistic beliefs made an impression on all, including his son. Young Charles watched his father defend the Midwestern farmers against the large eastern financial institutions. In 1913 Congressman Lindbergh decried the Federal Reserve Act, which created a central banking system. Unfortunately, Lindbergh saw his father destroy himself with his opposition to World War I. According to the congressman, intervention would only benefit the “Money Trust” of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and other financial giants. When the U.S. finally did enter the war in 1917, his father frequently attacked President Woodrow Wilson for sending “American farm boys” across the ocean to fight in a European conflict. His antiwar bombast increased to the extent that the press labeled him a German sympathizer and disloyal to the war effort. In response, Lindbergh Sr. entrenched even deeper in his views, joining a socialist organization, which alienated most of his constituents. In the 1917 race for governor of Minnesota, Charles saw his father hung in effigy and literally dragged from platforms at speaking engagements. After going down to defeat, Lindbergh Sr. retired from public office. Not long after, Charles found himself in a similar position.
It was ironic perhaps that Charles would, quite unintentionally, burst onto the national, indeed the international, scene only to fall from grace with a previously adoring populace. It was the still novel world of flying, not politics however, that would bring him fame. In the early 1920s he crisscrossed the country earning a reputation for his exploits as a barnstormer and as a wing-walker, but he was always looking for more. Then in 1927 he decided to make history by being the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic from New York City to Paris. Crowds cheered him as he and The Spirit of St. Louis left Roosevelt Field on Long Island on May 20th. Thirty-three and a half hours later a Parisian mob greeted him at Le Bourget Field. On his return to the U.S., he was the nation’s hero, but from that time on, the press hounded his every move. His efforts to discourage them did nothing but make many resent him. At the same time, he was making other powerful enemies. In February 1934 he was outraged when President Franklin Roosevelt issued a directive transferring all airmail duties from the civilian companies to the U.S. Army. As a former airmail pilot, Charles knew the dangerous conditions and the expertise that the job entailed. He believed Army pilots and their aircraft were ill qualified for the mission. He sent word to Roosevelt that the action would “unnecessarily damage all American aviation.” In return, Roosevelt’s administration accused Lindbergh of being bribed by the civilian airlines to attack the policy. Just as Lindbergh predicted, a number of crashes claimed the lives of Army pilots, and the resulting outcry forced the administration to turn control of airmail delivery back over to civilian airlines. Roosevelt and his allies never forgave Lindbergh. Two years after this confrontation, Charles made one of his most controversial decisions when he took his family on a trip to Europe.
In 1936 Lindbergh, still an internationally celebrated hero, arrived in Europe. The Germans could not wait to have the world’s greatest aviator visit their country and inspect their growing aeronautical capabilities. Lindbergh arrived in time to attend the 1936 Olympics as the special guest of Hermann Goring, the German air minister, who boldly opened the door to him to witness the might of the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe. Only a few persons were privy to the knowledge that Lindbergh had been requested by highly placed American officials to provide reports on his “inside” information. Over the next three years he visited twice more and marveled at the Third Reich’s industrial might. He spent hours touring aircraft factories and airfields in and around Berlin. As he walked the fields, he surveyed the bombers and fighters lining the runways. It was obvious they were far superior to anything the British, the French, the Soviets, or even the Americans possessed. He was further impressed after actually piloting the new Messerschmitt 109. These experiences convinced Charles that Nazi Germany “intended to become the greatest air power in the world.” Though he was less impressed with new German policies, particularly those applied to Jewish inhabitants, he was more concerned with the destructive capabilities of the German Luftwaffe. British cities could be reached and bombed from the air with little difficulty. He concluded that if Britain and France waged war on Germany it “might easily result in the end of European civilization.” He similarly realized some in America, such as Roosevelt, would want to support Britain and France, but he did not want the U.S. to suffer the same fate he was sure would now befall Western Europe. As he prepared to return to America in April 1939, he promised to do his utmost to keep his homeland out of war.
Upon his arrival, however, Lindbergh found many Americans considered him little more than a Nazi sympathizer. Reports of Nazi atrocities against Jewish inhabitants, particularly the destruction of Jewish homes and businesses during Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” had consumed the nation’s attention. The same newspapers had carried the half-true reports that Lindbergh was considering moving to Berlin and that he had accepted the Order of the German Eagle, one of Germany’s most prestigious medals, for his famous 1927 flight. (In reality, Lindbergh had unexpectedly received the medal at a formal dinner at the American Ambassador’s residence where he feared a refusal would breach diplomatic protocol.) Almost as soon as he stepped back onto American soil, therefore, the media attacked him as being pro-Nazi. They condemned him for his lack of vocal opposition to Nazi policies and for being a “callous coward and/or anti-Semitic traitor.” Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes said he had forfeited “his right to be an American” by accepting the medal. These attacks intensified after he took to the radio waves to warn Americans not to engage in any European entanglements. The New York newspaper PM labeled him as “the spokesman for the fascist fifth column in America,” and Life magazine called him a representative of the “far spectrum of isolationism.” The FBI even started an investigation into his “nationalistic sympathies.” As a result, public opinion turned savagely against the former hero.
Although he was under attack from all directions, Lindbergh continued to profess his steadfast devotion to the U.S. In response to charges he was unpatriotic, he responded “I would so much rather be fighting for my country in a war I do believe in.” He held a colonel’s commission in the Army Air Corps, and he declared there was “nothing I’d rather be doing than flying in the air corps.” As a U.S. officer, he believed the country needed to be on guard against an attack, including one in the Pacific where Japan was rattling its sabers. It was this belief that encouraged Lindbergh to criticize President Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease proposal before the House of Representatives and the Senate in early 1941. As a member of America First, an isolationist organization, Charles advocated keeping American military supplies close at hand rather than sending them across the Atlantic. This denunciation of policy was too much for Roosevelt, and he compared Lindbergh to a “copperhead,” a northerner who had supported the South during the Civil War. Humiliated at being called a traitor, Charles resigned his commission. Only a few months later, however, Japan attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Upon learning of the Japanese attack, Lindbergh decided he had to get into action any way he could. He recorded in his journal, “I want to contribute as best I can to my country’s war effort,” but Roosevelt repeatedly used his power to deny Charles access to the military and to civilian aircraft companies. In March 1942 Henry Ford asked Lindbergh to serve as a technical consultant at his warplane plant outside Detroit, Michigan. For the next year he tested the B-24, insisting on improvements to the plane’s radios and armament. When those modifications were completed, he went to work testing the effects of high-altitude flying to decrease the likelihood of oxygen deprivation, hypoxia, from occurring. After a number of tests in the P-47 Thunderbolt, he discovered there was insufficient protection for the pilots. He proposed several changes to the emergency equipment the plane carried, and as a result, countless lives were saved. With his reputation again on the rise, he was invited to United Aircraft in Hartford, Connecticut to work on the Vought F4U Corsair. In Hartford he instructed pilots how to get the most out of the Corsair and even participated in simulated air combat. Lindbergh’s redemption was not complete, however, until he had braved the fires of combat.
After obtaining permission from Army superiors, Charles arrived in the South Pacific in May 1944 as a consultant. In order to advise pilots correctly, Lindbergh believed he had to experience the same conditions they did. He insisted, therefore, on flying Corsairs in combat against the Japanese-controlled islands of Rabaul and Kavieng. He flew fifteen missions before leaving in June for New Guinea to test the P-38 Lightning. There he joined the 475th Fighter Group, Satan’s Angels, in their attacks on Japanese bases. He came to be so respected by the airmen he was given command of a section, even though he was technically a civilian. The 475th commander, Colonel Charles MacDonald, later recalled Lindbergh “flew more missions than was normally expected of a combat pilot.” His greatest triumph came on July 28th when he led his section against two Japanese Zeroes over the island of Ceram. Lindbergh pointed his plane right at one of the planes and fired his guns. Moments later the Japanese Zero crashed into the ocean. Several weeks later, after flying fifty combat missions, he returned home to America. Word of his bravery and patriotic service slowly became widely known. His actions resulted in him being gradually forgiven for his pre-war rhetoric. He was finally freed from all controversy when he was laid to rest on the Hawaiian island of Maui in August 1974.
Heroes can make mistakes just as easily as any of us. The question is: should we hold their “sins” against them for the rest of their lives? Yes, Charles Lindbergh made a tragic mistake when he urged America not to become involved in World War II. But, he saw the error of his ways, repented and took his stand beside the rest of the “greatest generation” to save democracy. His pre-war views, though unpopular, were nonetheless motivated by his love for country. His later actions confirmed that. His wartime record showed he still possessed the intrepid spirit that led the “Lone Eagle” to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1927. Like all of us, Lindbergh should be held to account for his words and actions, but every individual, hero or not, deserves a chance to redeem himself. Certainly, Charles Lindbergh made good on that.