In Part 5 of our miniseries on Hitler's American Friends from author Bradley Hart, we learn about famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, one of America's biggest celebrities, and his political campaign of anti-Semitism.
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.
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.