Lindbergh (1902-1974) was a genuine American folk hero. Nicknamed Lucky Lindy and The Lone Eagle, he captured the public’s imagination in May 1927 by undertaking the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight. The resulting fame was enormous.
What Lindbergh accomplished was impressive by any reckoning. Flying without parachute or radio, and steering by the stars, it took him more than 33 hours to travel almost 5,800 km (3,600 miles) from New York to Paris.
While he was en route, the humourist Will Rogers caught the moment: “No attempt at jokes today. A slim, tall, bashful, smiling American boy is somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where no lone human being has ever ventured before.”
Celebrity, though, turned out to be a curse. Lindbergh was reserved, even solitary, by nature and the public adulation took turns that alarmed and disgusted him. This only made the situation worse. As Time magazine put it, “Because he kept a distance, the public became more hysterical.”
Then, in March 1932, his infant son was kidnapped and murdered. Lindbergh believed the tragedy was at least in part attributable to the incessant media interest in his private life. It was a conviction shared by his wife, Anne. So, determined to escape the unwelcome attention, the Lindberghs went into self-imposed exile in England and France between December 1935 and April 1939.
On their return, he became a political figure.
Lindbergh wasn’t involved in the founding of America First, an organization that sought to keep the United States out of the Second World War. But because of his fame and views, he quickly became its most sought-after spokesman. He could easily fill the likes of New York City’s Madison Square Garden and his speeches reached millions by radio.
But being inclined towards intervention in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t take kindly to Lindbergh’s involvement, even going so far as to privately describe him as “a Nazi.” Publicly, he called him a “defeatist and appeaser,” in response to which Lindbergh resigned his commission in the Army Air Corps.
And in a Des Moines, Iowa, speech on Sept. 11, 1941, Lindbergh pulled no punches: “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.”
Many people attacked the speech as anti-Semitic. Lindbergh denied any such intent, arguing that he was merely truth-telling.
After Pearl Harbour, Lindbergh tried to return to active service but Roosevelt was having none of it. However, courtesy of friends in the aviation industry, Lindbergh did work as a civilian consultant and assisted in the development of military planes, including the B-24 bomber. He also flew 50 combat missions in the Pacific, all arranged by military contacts who deliberately kept the White House out of the loop.
Official redemption came quickly following Roosevelt’s death in April 1945. Before the month was out, Lindbergh’s aviation advice was sought in an official capacity, a pattern that continued into the 1950s.
In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower reinstated his Air Force Reserve status as a brigadier general and President John F. Kennedy – himself a youthful America First member – had him to dinner and an overnight stay at the White House in 1962.
And Lindbergh’s autobiographical The Spirit of St. Louis – named after the plane he’d flown across the Atlantic – was published to lavish praise in 1953. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies and garnered a 1954 Pulitzer.
His personal life, however, was highly unconventional. He was forever on the go, so much so that his family often had no idea where he was for extended periods.
There was good reason for the mystery. Lindbergh maintained three secret families, including seven children, in addition to his official family. All three of the clandestine liaisons were with German women.
Whatever one thinks of him, Charles Lindbergh was always his own man.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.