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 now faced a decisive choice. He could easily have continued his work and quietly helped prepare the country for war. Alternatively, he could use his fame to argue against the war. He chose the latter route and on September 15th accepted time on all three of the nation’s radio networks. Speaking from a Washington hotel suite, Lindbergh told the American people that if the U.S. entered the war, millions of men might die, and democracy at home would be destroyed. The better path was to remain neutral, he argued, with a strong army and navy to deter invasion. Over the coming days, hundreds of letters—both outraged and supportive—arrived at Lindbergh’s home. Lucky Lindy had officially thrown his hat into the political arena.
Lindbergh would end up giving a series of radio speeches calling for neutrality, catapulting him to national notoriety. An August 1940 poll revealed that 51% of Americans had heard or read about Lindbergh’s most recent radio address calling for non-intervention. Of those, 24% agreed with his sentiments while 56% disagreed. Attorney General Robert H. Jackson denounced the aviator as a “modern protestor against democracy” and alleged that his speeches weakened American resolve. In October 1940, Lindbergh accepted a fateful invitation to speak at Yale University under the auspices of the newly-formed America First Committee. Nearly three thousand people packed a lecture hall for the event, and afterward Lindbergh was flooded with fan mail. He now began barnstorming the country under the auspices of America First. In late May 1941 he packed Madison Square Garden with more than 20,000 people. Thousands more listened on loudspeakers in the streets. Political extremists and former German American Bund members flocked into America First’s ranks at the same time. Lindbergh himself began breaking bread with members of the anti-Semitic right. In August 1939, Lindbergh had dinner with right-wing Mutual Broadcasting radio personality Fulton Lewis. Lindbergh recorded in his journal that Lewis regaled him with stories about “Jewish influence on our press, radio, and motion pictures.” He then struck up a friendship with fascist intellectual Lawrence Dennis, who encouraged Lindbergh to keep up his anti-war campaign. Lindbergh’s sentiments on that September night in Des Moines were therefore no anomaly: They were an expression of the anti-Semitic views he had been developing in conjunction with Hitler’s American friends since his return to the United States.
After Pearl Harbor, America First was finished. “Our principals were right. Had they been followed war could have been avoided,” the organization’s last official statement read before it disbanded. Lindbergh’s reputation was similarly ruined. The Roosevelt Administration refused to let him take a leading role in the war despite his obvious aviation credentials. He eventually did end up flying some combat missions in the Pacific, but was never allowed to take major credit for them. He would spend the rest of his life in a strange combination of obscurity and infamy, and eventually died in Hawaii.
The slogan America First had always meant more than simply opposition to the war—it signified opposition to the Roosevelt Administration and the president more broadly. America Firsters advocated a vision of America that looked inward rather than globally, and a country that looked after its own interests alone. Charles Lindbergh became the perfect spokesman for this movement in large part because of his fame and reputation. Yet his Des Moines speech would reveal that there was a dark underbelly to the public image this American hero enjoyed. Through his actions, Charles Lindbergh would briefly become Hitler’s most important American friend, and his reputation would never recover from his actions.