It seems to me impossible to overpraise this Pulitzer Prize winning biography. I would urge every American to read it. There are not simply subplots in the life of The Lone Eagle, there are at least three totally separate major plots, a leit motif or even two and then various subplots:
1) First, of course, is the solo flight from New York to Paris on May 20-21, 1927. Beyond the historic nature of the achievement, is the fact that Lindbergh himself was involved in every step of producing the airplane, The Spirit of St. Louis, and planned the entire thing virtually by himself.
2) The Kidnapping. To a generation grown weary watching Court TV, OJ, the Killer Nanny, etc., it may be hard to remember that there once was a real Trial of the Century. The disappearance of the Lindbergh Baby, the search for the killers, the trial and subsequent conspiracy theories all blend together in a horrifying sequence of events.
3) America First: Many people still recoil at the mere mention of Lindbergh's name and mistakenly remember him as a Nazi. His leadership of America's isolationists did tremendous and lasting damage to his reputation. I'll return to this topic.
THE LEIT MOTIFS
1) Lindbergh achieved his fame at a moment in time which made him both one of the last heroes of the age of Exploration and the first celebrity of the Media Age. Only the astronauts remained to be placed in the pantheon of explorers and their accomplishments were so much driven by technology and bureaucracy, that they were inevitably somewhat diminished. And noone had ever had to face the glare of media attention that greeted Lindbergh after his flight. He was famous in a sense that had never been seen and was, perhaps, never seen again. Parisians spontaneously flooded the field where he landed. One in three New Yorkers turned out for the parade that greeted him. He was made offers totaling some $5 Million at a time when the country was plunging into Depression. His every move was news. Every word was scrutinized; every action analyzed. For the remainder of his life, this celebrity would be a boon and a bane, but it would always be inescapable.
2) Throughout his whole life, from college to the grave, Lindbergh was one of the prime movers in the field of aviation. Besides his historic flight, he served on numerous Corporate, Government and private boards and committees to foster and improve aviation speed, safety and efficiency.
3) His marriage to Anne Morrow was complex, tragic, glorious, productive--you pick an adjective, it probably fits. Just the story of the relationship between these two remarkable people could fill a book
Along the course of this incredible life, Lindbergh
also won a Pulitzer for his book The Spirit of
All of these things make for fascinating reading. Sections like the flight and the kidnapping are as exciting as any novel. But, of course, the section that grips our attention is the America First period. Was he or wasn't he? A Nazi that is.
There is something truly perverted about the fact that this question even arises. Recently there have been a number of stories about how labeling Milosevic, or Saddam for that matter, a Hitler and making charges of genocide, removes our capacity to reason about and discuss events. In the same way, the viscious and baseless charges of Nazi sympathizer, anti-Semite, traitor, and so on, ad nauseum, that were lodged by men like FDR and Harold Ickes and many others, have long made it impossible to discuss Lindbergh, America First and the isolationist movement logically. Berg remedies this unfortunate fact in an even handed and straight forward account of the events.
A number of factors combined to push Lindbergh in the direction of isolationism.
His father had been an isolationist congressman during WWI. His parents
chaotic marriage and his own wanderlust lead him to place an elevated premium
on order and he thought that he had found a well ordered society in Nazi
Germany. His tours of their airbases and plane factories had impressed
him and left him believing that they would be a more formidable foe than
anyone else realized. He always expressed bewilderment at the Nazi
obsession with the Jewish problem, but he never understood the degree to
which it would overtake them and lead to the Holocaust. In fairness,
who did realize it then? Finally, he perceived the Soviet Union as
a significant and permanent threat to Europe and the West. He felt
that destroying Germany would leave an exhausted Europe prostrate at the
feet of the Communists.
But along with these sentiments, he also perceived the world in racial terms. He feared the Communists more than the Nazis because in the end, the Nazis were German and Western and when Hitler was gone they would return to their senses. But the Communists were Russian and semi-Asiatic and were fundamentally Eastern, not Western. In the same sense, he spoke of Jews as a race and inevitably, he eventually became entangled in verbal thickets that he could not escape. In the speech that forever marked him as an anti-Semite, when he was trying to describe what groups of people were pushing the U.S. towards war, he said the following:
It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people
desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The
Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in
this country should be opposing it in every
I am not attacking either the Jewish or the British
people. Both races, I admire. But I am saying
This sense of Jewish otherness was seized upon by interventionists in politics and the press, and, along with his use of the classic anti-Semitic theory about inordinate Jewish influence in the media and government, enabled them to smear him as a Nazi.
To our eyes, the easy reference to races of people seems odd. Noone considers the British a race anymore. But this racialism was common at the time. Indeed, few men have ever written and spoken about race as vehemently as Winston Churchill. But the implication that somehow Jews weren't Americans was simply too inflammatory and with Roosevelt and the Eastern establishment champing at the bit to get into the war, Lindbergh had handed them a weapon with which to pummel him. They gladly used it.
Now, it should give us some pause to consider that:
None of this excuses Lindbergh's ill considered language about Jews. But it does raise the question of why he is the one who is dogged by the reputation of being an anti-Semite and a Nazi. When you think of FDR, your first thought is not: "He was an anti-Japanese, anti-Black racist". But he actually wielded power and helped to oppress these peoples. Lindbergh never had a chance to violate anyone's civil rights, but his entire life seems to indicate that he would not have been capable of these actions. (For a long time he prayed for the soul of the Japanese pilot that he shot down.) It is completely unfair that this reputation will always follow him.
Moreover, his reasons for being an isolationist turned out to be prophetic. He foresaw a brutally destructive war that would leave Europe in ruins and at the mercy of the Soviet Union. He feared that having become involved in the war, America would be mired in Europe for generations. After fifty years of Cold War and crippling military expenditures, who will argue that he was wrong?
Topping it all off, as soon as the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he endorsed our entry into the war and sought to join up. A bitterly vindictive FDR made sure that he could not return to active duty, but Lindbergh found ways around this and eventually flew fighter and bomber missions in the South Pacific, in addition to helping with aircraft design, devising ingenious ways of conserving fuel in flight, serving as a human guinea pig in high altitude flight experiments, and many other unheralded contributions to the war effort.
I implore you to get this book and read it. Charles Lindbergh,
for all his flaws and frailties, was a great American and a great
human being. He deserves to be remembered as such.
Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Non-Fiction
Pulitzer Prize (Biography)
-OBITUARY: Daring Lindbergh Attained the Unattainable With Historic Flight Across Atlantic: Tragedy and Controversy--Son's Murder and Opposition to War--Marked Life (ALDEN WHITMAN, August 27, 1974, NY Times)
-BOOKNOTES: Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg (C-SPAN, December 20, 1998)
-Lucky Lindy and his ties to Detroit (Rearview Mirror, Detroit News)
-ESSAY: The Flyer: Charles Lindbergh He was the century's first hero and unwittingly pioneered the age of mass-media celebrity (REEVE LINDBERGH, TIME Top 100 People of the 20th Century)
-ESSAY: Icharus Falls: Charles Lindbergh and the Rejection of Heroism (Ilana Nash, Suite101.com)
-ESSAY: WHO WAS CHARLES LINDBERGH? (John H. Lienhard, Essays of Our ingenuity)
-ESSAY: Lindy Comes to Town
-PROFILE: Berg Does Lindbergh: Biographer A. Scott Berg '71 confronts the remarkable -- and still controversial -- flier, "a great lens for observing the American century" (J.I. Merritt '66, Princeton.edu)
-AWARD: 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Biography
-FIRST CHAPTER: Lindbergh
-Interview with A. Scott Berg (Newshour)
-Web Resources for Students
-Comic and Coloring Book (from NASA)
-ARTICLE: Lindbergh family bashes biographer: They claim she told them she wasn't writing a biography; she claims she told them she was (Craig Offman, Salon)
-Fallen Eagle (NY Times review by Geoffrey Ward)
-Uncomfortable Landings For That Guy in the Sky (NY Times review by M Kakutani)
-REVIEW: of Lindbergh Alone by Brendan Gill: Tumult in the Clouds (John William Ward, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW: (ANTHONY BIANCO, Business Week)
-REVIEW: Lucky Lindy (Nancy Sundstrom, Kalamazoo Express)
-REVIEW: of LINDBERGH By A. Scott Berg Dispiriting Hero: The Charles Lindbergh who piloted the Spirit of St. Louis was one of the century's towering figures. But as much as his biographer tries to explain him away, there was another Lindbergh of decidely unheroic opinions. (Joan Mellen, Philadelphia Inquirer)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd