Share This Article
Charles A. Lindbergh was convinced that the airplane gave the Nazis an unbeatable edge. His fears set the tone—and the terms—of the war debate in America. 

ON THE SAME SEPTEMBER DAY IN 1938 that Neville Chamberlain returned in triumph to London from the Munich Conference waving a scrap of paper before his countrymen and telling them it meant “peace for our time,” Charles A. Lindbergh arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Ambassador William Bullitt had invited him to a conference and thoughtfully offered him the same room in which he had stayed on the momentous night of May 21, 1927. It seemed strange, Lindbergh thought, to see once again the familiar surroundings of the embassy—the court, the staircase, the corner parlor he remembered—and he noticed that there was now a brass plate on the bed he had slept in 11 years earlier.

Surely other memories flooded back: of a hundred thousand deliriously happy Frenchmen swarming onto the field at Le Bourget to greet him when he landed after the 33-hour flight, some of them ripping pieces of fabric off the Spirit of St. Louis, others dragging him from the cockpit and carrying him away on their shoulders until he escaped to the pilots’ quarters, identified himself self-consciously—”I am Charles A. Lindbergh”—and handed letters of introduction to then-Ambassador Myron Herrick. Then came the medals, the speeches, the crowds—always the crowds—and the trip home to the States aboard the cruiser Memphis, to be greeted with half a million letters, 75,000 telegrams, two railroad cars filled with press clippings, the engulfing admiration of his countrymen, and promotion from captain to colonel in the Air Corps Reserve. President Calvin Coolidge, awarding him the congressional Medal of Honor and the nation’s first Distinguished Flying Cross, told throngs in Washington that the transatlantic flight was “the same story of valor and victory by a son of the people that shines through every page of American history.” Then there was New York, a city gone berserk, with some four million ecstatic people cheering their hearts out during an incredible ticker-tape parade up Broadway.

Of all the public figures who captivated America in that decade of noise and hero worship, only Lindbergh retained his almost magical hold on the public through the thirties, perhaps because he embodied the youthful, unquenchable spirit Americans felt they had left behind, the national belief that the unattainable was somehow within reach. His achievement alone would have caught the imagination of the entire world—and did—but the fact that he was a boyish Galahad out of the West, a guileless, modern-day knight in aviator’s helmet and goggles, with tousled blond hair and a smile that melted the heart, brought him such adoration as few men in history have known.

He maintained that he had no wish to be a celebrity, but America would not allow him not to be one, and in a perverse sort of way he abetted the process. He flew the Spirit of St. Louis to all 48 states after his transatlantic flight; he went to Mexico and South America; he wrote a book, We, about his famous adventure, and this plus a series of newspaper and magazine articles brought him wealth along with additional fame; he flew from coast to coast, setting a new speed record; he had a whirlwind romance with Anne, the lovely daughter of Dwight Morrow, a prominent lawyer, partner of J.P. Morgan, and ambassador to Mexico; and he and his bride flew off the next year to Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Japan, and China—a journey chronicled in Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s best-selling North to the Orient. It seemed that he was never out of the news, was constitutionally unable to avoid being the public figure, all the while insisting that he wanted only privacy and to be let alone. The paradox was that he appeared to be sustained in a curious way by these frequent forays into the public eye, even as he denied that it was so and raged at reporters and photographers who considered it their job to document the doings of the famous man.


THEN CAME THE DARK TIME, THE HOUR OF LEAD, as Anne Lindbergh would call it. On March 1, 1932, their firstborn child, Charles Augustus Jr., was kidnapped from his nursery crib in their home near Hopewell, New Jersey. A $50,000 ransom payment was delivered to a cemetery in the Bronx, but the baby was not returned; on May 12 his body was found in a shallow grave not far from their house. To the Lindberghs it seemed that the newspaper and radio publicity, the reporters’ morbid curiosity about every personal facet of the tragedy, would never end. And when Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a Bronx carpenter, was arrested and tried in 1934, their nightmare had to be relived in agonizing detail, imposing an almost unendurable strain on the family.

Believing that the only escape from the “tremendous public hysteria” surrounding him in the United States was to leave the land of his birth, Lindbergh took his wife and second son to England in December 1935 to seek sanctuary and peace. He found both, and during this self-imposed exile he probably had a better opportunity to see what was going on behind the scenes in Europe than any other American private citizen. The British and French treated him with respect, allowing him the privacy he so much desired, and because he was a distinguished aviator he was sought out by Europe’s public figures and invited by government officials to inspect the aircraft, factories, and aviation facilities of the major nations on the Continent.

His trip to Paris on September 30, 1938, persuaded Lindbergh to make a personal study of Europe’s general situation during the approaching winter. “I don’t know how much I can do here,” he wrote, “but I feel that if anything can be done to avoid European war, it must be based upon an intimate understanding of conditions in Europe.”

Before going to France, Lindbergh had heard from Ambassador Bullitt about the parlous state of that nation’s air force. France did not have enough modern military planes even to “put up a show in case of war,” Bullitt told him, and in a conflict between France, England, and Russia on one side and Germany on the other, the Germans would have immediate air supremacy. Lindbergh had suspected as much. “Germany has developed a huge air force,” he said, “while England has slept and France has deluded herself with a Russian alliance.” From Guy La Chambre, the French minister of air, he learned how desperate the situation was. France was producing just 45 or 50 warplanes a month, compared with Germany’s 500 or 600.

When Lindbergh arrived in Paris, Bullitt said he hoped he would take part in a discussion with La Chambre and Jean Monnet, the French banker and economist, to consider the possibility of establishing factories in Canada to manufacture planes for France. The idea, of course, was to circumvent the terms of the U.S. Neutrality Act, which was designed to prohibit the shipment of arms to belligerents, and Monnet was talking about a production potential of 10,000 planes a year. (Bullitt’s opinion was that it should be 50,000.)

In the course of that day and the next, Lindbergh discovered that French intelligence put the existing German air fleet at 6,000 modern planes, plus 2,000 to 3,000 older models, and estimated that the Reich had the capability of building 24,000 planes a year—versus France’s existing potential of 540 and predicted capacity of 5,000 a year. It was believed further that Britain—which had 2,000 aircraft (only 700 of them modern types)—might be producing 10,000 planes annually in a year’s time; but this left an immense gap of 10,000 aircraft a year between Germany’s output and the combined expectations of Great Britain and France.

France had not a single modern pursuit plane available for the defense of Paris, and indeed no aircraft of any type as fast as the new German bombers. It would be impossible to obtain planes from the United States because, apart from the restrictions of the Neutrality Act, the U.S. Army, Navy, and commercial airlines were absorbing virtually all of America’s productive capacity. Pondering these seemingly insurmountable problems, Lindbergh ventured an astonishing suggestion to the group: Why not purchase bombers from Germany?

At first the Frenchmen laughed, assuming he was joking, but he argued that such an arrangement might quickly smoke out Germany’s military intentions and could be in the interest of both parties. While giving France the aircraft she needed, opening up some trade between the two countries, possibly decreasing tension, and reducing the arms disparity, it would also afford Germany a measure of relief from the staggering cost of constructing warplanes.

The meeting broke up without a decision, but in the months to come the French began taking Lindbergh’s proposal ever more seriously. Several months later La Chambre asked him to ascertain whether or not the Germans would sell planes to France, and Lindbergh undertook this mission when he went to Berlin. In mid-January 1939, a surprised Lindbergh was informed by General Erhard Milch, who was responsible for Luftwaffe production, that Germany would be willing to sell 1,250-horsepower Daimler-Benz engines to France, provided absolute secrecy was observed while negotiations were taking place and provided further that France paid in cash, not goods.


WHEN CHARLES AND ANNE TOOK OFF FROM LE BOURGET in Paris on October 10, 1938, headed for Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, it was their third trip to Nazi Germany in as many years. Thanks to Major Truman Smith, the U.S. military attaché in Berlin, the couple had been invited there in 1936 and 1937 by Hermann Göring, Reich minister for air and, after Hitler, the most powerful man in the nation. Smith, an infantryman by trade, was responsible for reporting to Washington on developments in aviation as well as those in land warfare, and he was not satisfied with the quality of intelligence he was receiving. At the breakfast table one morning, his wife read him a news story about Colonel Lindbergh inspecting an airplane factory in France, and it occurred to Smith that an official visit to Germany by the famous aviator might uncover information the United States wanted.

So the trips were arranged, resulting eventually in more than Smith ever dreamed of obtaining—a full and detailed “general estimate” of German air strength. Sent to Washington over Smith’s signature, it was based entirely on Lindbergh’s firsthand inspection, expert analysis, and experience of the factories, airplanes, personnel, research, and command structure that constituted Germany’s air establishment. That nation, the report declared, had outdistanced France in all respects and was generally superior to Great Britain, except for aircraft engines. By 1941 or 1942, it was estimated, Germany’s technical development would equal that of the United States—a “phenomenon of the first diplomatic importance.” Lindbergh himself put the case even more strongly, writing to a family friend: “The growth of German military aviation is, I believe, without parallel in history…”

When the Lindberghs first visited Berlin, correspondent William Shirer grumbled that “the Nazis, led by Göring, are making a great play for them,” but that was nothing compared to the reception that greeted them on their return in 1938. During the course of a month, the American flier was given an opportunity to talk with all the principals of the aviation establishment—General Milch; General Ernst Udet, a World War ace who developed the dive-bombing technique first employed in Spain; Heinrich Focke, the aeronautical engineer; and Marshal Göring—not to mention scores of pilots and technicians. He met members of the diplomatic circle in the capital, visited aircraft factories, inspected bomb shelters and antiaircraft batteries, was permitted to fly many of the latest German planes—including the Junkers Ju 90 transport and the Messerschmitt 108 and 109 fighters—and was the first non-German to see the secret new Ju 88 bomber.

Neither Lindbergh nor the Americans to whom he was supplying information seem to have given much thought to the possibility that they were being used, but his seeming freedom of access to Germany’s secrets was very carefully planned. Like Lindbergh, high-level visitors from other countries were taken on conducted tours to see the impressive Messerschmitt assembly lines, the performance of the latest planes, the exhibitions of precision bombing. Understandably, this thoroughly memorable experience was guaranteed to make visitors return home and speak with awe of what they had beheld.

On the night of October 18, a Tuesday, Ambassador Hugh Wilson gave a stag dinner at the embassy, and the occasion was the scene of an incident that was to plague Lindbergh for years to come. In addition to German officers and members of the U.S. Embassy staff, Wilson’s guests included the Belgian and Italian ambassadors, Generals Milch and Udet, Heinkel and Messerschmitt, and Göring. As an aviator, Hermann Göring ranked at the top of Germany’s pantheon: A World War I ace, he had succeeded to the command of Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s “Flying Circus” after the Red Baron was killed. Under his leadership, the Luftwaffe had become the most fearsome weapon of the Third Reich. Vain, arrogant, and complex, Göring was a diplomat, economic planner, art connoisseur, gourmand, dandy, morphine addict, and Hitler’s most powerful associate in the high command.

Given the nature of the ulterior motive Ambassador Wilson had in mind, he could be forgiven for using Charles Lindbergh as bait to lure Göring to this dinner. Wilson was eager to establish friendly relations with the number two Nazi in hopes that he would do something to ameliorate the financial plight of Jews who were being forced to emigrate from Germany in a penniless state. Göring was no humanitarian and he lacked the courage to stand up to Hitler, but at least his attitude toward the Jews was ambivalent, which was more than could be said of other top Nazis. It was known that he opposed the use of indiscriminate violence and had helped his actress wife get her Jewish friends away from the Gestapo on a number of occasions.

Lindbergh was standing at the back of the room when Göring arrived, and he noticed that the marshal was carrying a red box and some papers in his hand. Göring chatted briefly with several other guests and gradually made his way over to Lindbergh, handed him the box and the papers, and spoke a few sentences in German, which Lindbergh did not understand. Afterward, the American said, “I found that he had presented me with the German Eagle, one of the highest German decorations, ‘by order of der Führer.'”

Perhaps a man accustomed to receiving medals does not give much thought to their political significance, but Lindbergh’s wife did when he spoke to her about it later that night. She called it “the Albatross,” and an albatross it would be, as he learned to his lasting discomfort.

In the journal he kept, Lindbergh described the encounter rather casually, but one gets the impression that he considered it an event of more than usual significance, which indeed it was. For when he and Anne left Germany at the end of October, he could say that he had a fairly clear picture of the overall situation in Europe. “I had seen the strength of Germany,” he wrote, “and I knew the weakness of England and France.” In his opinion the Germans were a great people whose welfare was inseparable from the rest of Europe, and he was certain that the only hope of avoiding war and preserving Western civilization was to establish a rapport between Britain and Germany. If that failed, and if war should come, America must stay out of it.


LESS THAN 12 MONTHS AFTER THE POOR BARGAIN OF A TRUCE that was Munich, when Czechoslovakia was abandoned by its allies, Britain and France, Europe was at war for the second time in 20 years, and most Americans—like Charles Lindbergh—wanted no part of it. In the wake of Hitler’s brutal attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, a Roper public opinion poll revealed that 30 percent of Americans wanted nothing whatever to do with any warring nation, while another 37 percent wished to “take no sides and stay out of [any] war entirely” but would agree to sell arms to belligerents on cash-and-carry terms. These two groups represented two thirds of the American public. They were folk of just about every persuasion, and all of them felt intensely about an issue that might easily alter the lives of their families and the future of their country.

Their fervor was fueled by long-standing disillusionment and political consequences of the First World War, an ingrained suspicion of “foreigners,” and an all but universal belief that the United States—secure behind two oceans—was big enough and powerful enough to go it alone and had no business bailing out the French and English, whose stupidity at Munich had produced what looked like 1914 all over again.

The great debate that was beginning to cut across all levels of American society was now to be governed by an entirely different set of premises. The question was no longer “What do we do if war comes?” War had come. It was here. The chessmen were on the board, and the first move had been made. This meant that arguments about intervention or nonintervention were no longer theoretical. On the outcome of the debate would hinge the nation’s peace and security and the lives of all those who might be sent into battle in what still seemed to just about everyone to be Europe’s, not America’s, war.

Charles Lindbergh was acutely aware of this. On April 14, 1939, he had arrived in New York aboard the liner Aquitania, one of a passenger list that included numerous refugees. Because of his incisive knowledge of Europe’s air fleets, he was immediately sought after by government officials, among them Congressman Sol Bloom, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, who hoped Lindbergh would testify on the neutrality legislation then under consideration. Lindbergh declined that invitation, but accepted one to meet with General Henry H. Arnold, the popular chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps, to whom the flier had for months been supplying information on the present and potential air strength of the European nations, particularly Germany. (One of “Hap” Arnold’s beliefs—which he said he had learned from the Wright brothers, who also taught him to fly in one of their twelve-horsepower planes—was that nothing was impossible. Fortunately for his country, he put that belief into practice by doing everything in his power to encourage the buildup of production facilities that would enable U.S. factories to turn out the planes so desperately needed in the war ahead.)

Just now, Arnold was eager to learn about the Luftwaffe, and the two aviators arranged to get together at the Thayer Hotel at West Point. They talked for several hours in the dining room, which was closed to the public to ensure their privacy, before strolling out to the military academy’s baseball diamond. The Army team was playing Syracuse, and the two men continued their discussion while the game went on. What he obtained from Lindbergh, Arnold said later, was “the most accurate picture of the Luftwaffe, its equipment, leaders, apparent plans, training methods, and present defects” he had yet received. Not incidentally, it heightened his determination that the American air force must surpass and be capable of overpowering the Germans.

The two met again at Arnold’s house in Washington, where Lindbergh was asked if he would be willing to make a study of American aeronautical research and manufacturing operations with an eye to improving their efficiency. He accepted, and went on active duty as a colonel almost immediately. On April 20 he met with Harry Woodring, the isolationist secretary of war whose resignation President Franklin D. Roosevelt would request a year later. Then—after pushing his way through a crowd of press photographers and “inane women screeching” at the door—he entered the White House to meet Roosevelt for the first time.

Lindbergh found both interviews disquieting: the one with Woodring because the secretary asked him not to testify before any congressional committees; the one with Roosevelt because he thought the president “a little too suave, too pleasant, too easy.” He was predisposed to like Roosevelt, who was an accomplished, interesting conversationalist, but he believed that since the president was “mostly politician,” the two of them “would never get along on many fundamentals.” He also got the impression that the chief executive was a very tired man who seemed unaware of how fatigued he was.

In the months that followed, Lindbergh talked with the men who constituted the U.S. aviation establishment, he visited the drafting rooms and factories where aircraft were being designed and built, and he reported to Arnold and other Air Corps chiefs his conviction that only by instituting a significant research-and-development program could the nation catch up with the European countries, even in five years. As August wore on, his thoughts were continuously on Europe and the imminent likelihood of war: He was reminded of the tense hours before Munich, except that now, in the United States, he did not sense the same atmosphere of apprehension and depression he had felt in England a year earlier.

On August 28 he received a telegram from his friend Truman Smith, who was now in Washington after four years as military attaché for air with the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. The message read simply, “Yes, 80,” which was Smith’s estimate of the percentage probability of war. It started Lindbergh wondering if anything he might say in a radio broadcast would be constructive, perhaps helping in some way to halt Europe’s rush to war. But then came Friday, September 1, and the huge headlines: GERMAN TROOPS ENTER POLAND.


ALONG WITH MILLIONS OF PEOPLE EVERYWHERE, Lindbergh speculated about what Britain and France would do. He concluded that if they tried to break through Germany’s defensive Westwall in an effort to support Poland, they would surely lose the war unless America entered the fight. What in the world were the two allies thinking of? he wondered. Why, if they wanted to prevent the Germans from moving eastward, had they chosen this particular set of circumstances as an excuse to go to war? He had heard that Chamberlain had not even consulted his general staff before entering into an alliance with Poland, and now people everywhere were asking why the governments of Britain and France had not yet declared war. Lindbergh spoke about that to his wife, Anne, who replied, “Maybe they’ve talked to a general.”

What stand should the United States take? Lindbergh kept asking himself. He and Anne listened to Roosevelt’s radio talk on Sunday evening, September 3, and the next morning read in the paper that the Cunard liner Athenia, carrying 1,400 passengers, had been torpedoed off the Hebrides and that German troops were overrunning Poland. On September 7 Lindbergh made up his mind. “I do not intend to stand by and see this country pushed into war if it is not absolutely essential to the future welfare of the nation,” he wrote in his journal. “Much as I dislike taking part in politics and public life, I intend to do so if necessary to stop the trend which is now going on in this country.” On September 10 he made a brief entry: “Phoned Bill Castle and Fulton Lewis. Decided to go on the radio next week.”

William R. Castle was a conservative Republican who had served in the State Department during the Harding and Coolidge administrations, to become undersecretary of state under Hoover. At Castle’s home Lindbergh had met Fulton Lewis Jr., a conservative (some thought reactionary) commentator who appeared nightly on the Mutual Broadcasting System, and had heard him describe an instance in which “Jewish advertising firms” threatened to remove their sponsorship if a certain feature were carried by Mutual. The network, Lewis added, had decided to drop the feature. “I do not blame the Jews so much for their attitude,” Lindbergh observed, “although I think it unwise from their own standpoint.” When Castle suggested that Lindbergh speak out against U.S. involvement in the European war, Lewis said he could make arrangements for a network broadcast, and it was later agreed that the address would be carried on Friday evening, September 15, by Mutual. When this news was released, NBC and CBS also decided to carry the speech.

The day before the broadcast, Lindbergh informed Hap Arnold of his plans, and the Air Corps chief suggested he go on inactive duty while actively involved in politics. Arnold read the speech Lindbergh was going to deliver, agreed that it contained nothing that could be considered unethical, and asked if he planned to show it to Woodring. The colonel replied that he had no confidence in the secretary of war, and as he said so he “could tell from Arnold’s eyes that he was on my side.” He decided not to let Woodring read the talk.

The following day Arnold reported this conversation to Woodring and let Lindbergh know that the secretary was “very much displeased.” Woodring’s reaction had been to state sourly that he “had hoped to make use of’ Lindbergh in the future, whatever that might mean, but that any such plans were out of the question now. The next day Truman Smith told him that the administration was deeply troubled by his intention to take an active role in this touchy political matter, and Smith had been authorized to inform Lindbergh that if he did not make the broadcast, a cabinet post of secretary of air would be created and he would be appointed to the job.

Having sized up Roosevelt as a political animal, Lindbergh was not surprised that he would resort to such a ploy; what astonished him was that the president would think that he, Lindbergh, might be influenced by it. Since the offer had come from Woodring to Arnold to Smith, it was evident that word of it would get around, and Lindbergh thought it a great mistake for the president “to let the army know he deals in such a way.” (When Arnold told Smith to take the offer to Lindbergh, Smith asked the general if he thought Lindbergh would accept it. “Of course not” was Arnold’s immediate reply. Arnold knew his man.)

And so, at 9:45 on Friday evening, September 15, 1939, the only man in the United States who could rival Franklin Roosevelt for the public’s attention stood before six microphones in the Carlton Hotel and made the first broadcast in what would become his crusade against American intervention in the war. In a clipped, slightly nasal tone, he declared that the war just begun was a continuation of “an age-old struggle between the nations of Europe.” His voice sounded unnatural to Anne, even though it was “strong and even and clear.” She was sitting in the hotel room with a group of friends and network technicians, praying that the American people might understand, that they might realize how difficult it was for her husband to give this speech, turning his back on France and England, two nations that had given their family sanctuary.

“Our safety does not lie in fighting European wars,” he was saying. “It lies in our own internal strength, in the character of the American people and of American institutions.” Western civilization itself was at risk, he went on, and if Europe was prostrated by war, then the only hope for the survival of those rich traditions and culture lay in America’s hands. “By staying out of war,” he said, “we may even bring peace to Europe more quickly. Let us look to our own defenses and our own character…” Behind this view lay his certainty that Germany was far more powerful militarily than either France or Great Britain, and that the only way Hitler could possibly be defeated would be in a long, exhausting war. Lindbergh was by nature a questioner and a seeker, and when he asked himself whether the consequences of such a terrible struggle could be measured in terms of winning or losing, he was sure that victory could not be worth what it would cost the United States.


ELABORATING AGAIN AND AGAIN ON THIS BASIC THEME during the course of the next year, Lindbergh would make a dozen major addresses, four of them on network radio; speak at major public rallies; write several magazine articles; testify before congressional committees; and devote countless hours to discussions with leaders of the noninterventionist movement (most of whom he considered hopelessly conservative and incapable of assuming positions of national leadership). Almost as important as the dedication he brought to his self-appointed task, according to a man who shared speakers’ platforms with him, was the way in which he “evokes a fervor, a tension, such as an ambitious politician would give anything to arouse.”

In September 1940, when a group of noninterventionists formed a national organization—the America First Committee—to oppose U.S. entry into World War Il, they immediately turned to Charles Lindbergh for assistance. He became their most successful, most sought-after speaker, the very personification of the isolationist cause, capable of attracting more than 30,000 people to a rally.

As a result of his increasing involvement in the debate, he was soon to be one of the most controversial figures in American politics, feared and reviled by the administration, which perceived him—quite accurately—as the most forceful opponent of the president’s foreign policy and the man most likely to appeal to and influence the public. Indeed, the immediate reaction to Lindbergh’s first speech had been overwhelmingly favorable: It was front-page news in the New York and Washington papers; telegrams and letters from all over the country greeted the colonel and his wife when they returned home from Washington, including one from Herbert Hoover congratulating him on a “really great address” and a polite note from General Arnold saying that he and Secretary Woodring thought the speech “very well worded and very well delivered.”

There were brickbats as well as roses: It was only a matter of days before the opposition was in full cry. Dorothy Thompson lashed out at Lindbergh in her column, calling him the “pro-Nazi recipient of a German medal.” And that was just the beginning. As the wrangling over America’s neutrality grew ever more passionate and strident, Lindbergh and his wife would discover that old friends dropped them, that streets honoring the hero of the first solo transatlantic flight had been renamed. To cap it all, the president of the United States would insult him publicly by likening him to Clement Vallandigham, the Ohio congressman who spoke, during the Civil War, for a group called the Copperheads and predicted the North would never win.


IN ONE OF THOSE REMARKABLE COINCIDENCES that fate sometimes concocts, the great debate came to a head on the night of September 11, 1941, with the two chief protagonists confronting each other. Lindbergh had agreed to speak to an America First crowd in Des Moines, Iowa, that evening. President Roosevelt was to have addressed the nation after the U.S. destroyers Greer and Kearny were attacked by German submarines, but his mother died and the radio speech was rescheduled for September 11.

Rather than change plans, the America First Committee decided on the unusual approach of broadcasting the president’s talk to the 8,000 Iowans attending the rally, with the scheduled speakers to follow. So what the crowd heard first was a stirring “shoot-on-sight” speech by Roosevelt, and when the America First speakers filed on stage they were greeted with a mixture of boos and applause, with hecklers shouting from the gallery.

When Lindbergh came to the lectern, he promised to speak “with the utmost frankness” about who was responsible for trying to force the United States into the war, and then named “the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration.”

In the contest between isolationists and interventionists, the administration was fair game; so to a lesser degree was Britain. But even to name the Jews—whose danger to America, he said, lay in their dominant influence over the motion-picture industry, the press, radio, and government—and to segregate them en bloc from the rest of American society as “other peoples,” was to introduce something altogether different into the equation. It was a reminder of the horrors perpetuated inside Nazi Germany, no matter how carefully Lindbergh tried to argue his case. It was, in short, the unmentionable topic, a sacred taboo, and no matter how he might explain his position, it was a political blunder from which America First never recovered.

While it would be improper to blame the demise of that organization on Charles Lindbergh—after all, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor less than three months after his speech—it was evident that the heart went out of the movement after the night of September 11. For one thing, the president struck a responsive chord with his “shoot-on-sight” message; events in Europe had made the public increasingly ready for tough talk, if not action. But Charles Lindbergh, a courageous man who never shied away from speaking the truth as he saw it, who had warned his country about the threat from Germany and had then become the noninterventionists’ most powerful and persuasive voice, had an equal share in sending America First from the stage of history.

Until then, Lindbergh and the isolationists had profoundly affected Franklin Roosevelt’s tactics concerning foreign policy. As FDR’s speechwriter Robert Sherwood put it, their campaign had so put the president on the defensive that “whatever the peril, he was not going to lead the country into war—he was going to wait to be pushed in.” MHQ


RICHARD M. KETCHUM is the author of The Borrowed Years, 1938—1941: America on the Way to War (1989), from which this article is adapted. Ketchum lives in Vermont.

Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force


This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1989 issue (Vol. 2, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: They Can’t Realize the Change Aviation Has Made

Want to have the lavishly illustrated, premium-quality print edition of MHQ delivered directly to you four times a year? Subscribe now at special savings!