Charles Lindbergh was a 25-year-old airmail pilot from Little Falls, Minn., an all-American boy with an aw-shucks grin, when he announced his plan to fly from New York to Paris. Nobody had ever flown across the Atlantic, although six men had died trying. On May 20, 1927, Lindbergh climbed into his silver plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, with five sandwiches in a paper bag and a St. Christopher medal in his pocket. Thirty-three hours and 30 minutes later, he landed in Paris and stepped from the cockpit into a crowd of 150,000 cheering people.
The cheering continued for years. In a cynical age of racketeers, bootleggers and crooked pols, Lindbergh was the handsome hero who conquered the heavens—“the Lone Eagle.” He won prizes and riches, and he married a beautiful woman who bore him a beautiful son. But in 1932 the boy was kidnapped, and 72 days later police found his body. The killer’s trial became a frenzied media circus, and in 1935 Charles and Anne Lindbergh fled to a house in the English countryside to escape the scalding glare of celebrity.
It was there, in 1936, that Lindbergh received a letter from Major Truman Smith, the military attaché at the American Embassy in Berlin. Smith wanted to learn about the Nazi regime’s secret military buildup, particularly its production of warplanes. General Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, the German air force, was generally not inclined to let foreigners see his planes, but he was more than willing to show them to the Lone Eagle. Smith asked Lindbergh to come to Germany, touting the trip’s “high patriotic benefit.”
Lindbergh agreed, and on July 22, 1936, he flew to Germany with Anne as his co-pilot. Upon landing, they were greeted by men who clicked their heels, snapped their arms in a Nazi salute and barked, “Heil Hitler!” Anne found the salutes silly. “This raising of the arms business adds to the complications of life,” she joked in her diary. “It is done so often and takes so much room.”
For several days, Lindbergh toured German airfields and airplane factories, accompanied by Major Smith. He spent a day with Luftwaffe pilots who not only invited Lindbergh to inspect their planes but also allowed him to fly several.
On July 28, General Göring hosted a formal lunch for Lindbergh at his Berlin mansion. The Lindberghs and the Smiths arrived in a black Mercedes escorted by a phalanx of motorcycles. Emmy Göring, the general’s wife, greeted the Americans wearing a green velvet dress decorated with a swastika made of diamonds set in a field of emeralds. Then a door swung open and General Göring strutted through it, a pot-bellied man dressed in a bright white suit garnished with gold braid.
At 43, Göring was the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany, serving Adolf Hitler not only as Reichsminister of aviation, but as president of the Reichstag, minister president of Prussia and Reichsminister of forestry. Shot in the leg during Hitler’s failed 1923 “Beer Hall Putsch,” Göring became addicted to morphine and, later, codeine. He fancied himself an artist and designed a series of garish uniforms, including the white suit he wore at the Lindbergh lunch. He escorted his guests—the Americans and several German aviation bigwigs—into a huge, mirror-lined dining room, where they feasted on five delicious courses, each accompanied by an excellent wine.
Göring, a former fighter pilot, eagerly questioned Lindbergh about his adventures in the air. When he learned that Lindbergh was living in England, he invited him to move to Germany instead. But when he heard that Lindbergh’s wife served as his co-pilot, he scoffed, refusing to believe such foolishness. “Göring showed many facets of his personality,” Smith later recalled. “In turn, he was magnetic, genial, vain, intelligent, frightening and grotesque.”
After lunch, Göring led his guests on a tour of his mansion, pointing out the paintings, statues and tapestries he’d “borrowed” from museums. Then he took them to a porch, where he displayed the pièce de résistance—“Augie,” a lion cub from the Berlin zoo.
“I want you to see how nice my Augie is,” Göring said, plopping down on a sofa. “Come here, Augie.”
Augie, 3 feet tall and 4 feet long, leaped into Göring’s lap and began licking the general’s face. Somebody laughed, and apparently the noise frightened Augie.
“The startled lion let loose a flood of yellow urine all over the snow white uniform!” Smith’s wife, Kay, later recalled. Göring shoved the lion off his lap and jumped up, “his face red with anger, his blue eyes blazing.”
Emmy Göring hugged her husband and tried to calm him. “Hermann, Hermann,” she said. “It is like a little baby.”
The guests stifled laughs and looked away, pretending to study the artworks on the walls. Mortified, Göring stormed off to change clothes.
When he returned, he wore golf knickers and reeked of cologne. He took Lindbergh aside and showed him a photo album—each page a picture of a different military airfield. “Here are our first 70,” he bragged.
“I knew warplanes were being built to fill those fields,” Lindbergh later wrote. “Obviously, Germany was preparing for war.”
Before leaving Berlin, Lindbergh helped Smith draft a report to the War Department on the Nazi air force, in which he concluded that Germany was “forging ahead of the United States in aeronautical research and production facilities.”
Impressed with Lindbergh’s insights into aviation technology— and his unparalleled access to German air bases—Smith invited him back to Germany for two more fact-finding missions. On one trip, in 1938, Lindbergh attended a dinner for Göring at the American Embassy. Göring surprised everybody, especially Lindbergh, by pulling out a garish medal decorated with four swastikas and theatrically pinning it to Lindbergh’s chest.
“By order of the Führer,” he said.
The medal aroused controversy when Lindbergh became a leader of the America First movement in 1940 and crusaded against American entry into World War II. Critics denounced him as a Nazi sympathizer and an anti-Semite. Those charges were unfair—his views were more nuanced—but Lindbergh gave his critics plenty of ammunition by praising Germany and white “racial strength” and by denouncing Jews who urged America to fight the Nazis.
After Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps but was rejected on orders of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who regarded him as pro-fascist. Working as a civilian consultant, he trained American pilots in the Pacific and flew 50 combat missions against the Japanese. After the war, he became an environmentalist, crusading to save humpback whales and other endangered species. He died at his home in Hawaii in 1974 at the age of 72.
Göring didn’t live so long. On May 6, 1945, terrified of the advancing Russians, he surrendered to American authorities, who locked him in prison and weaned him off his codeine pills. Convicted of war crimes at the Nuremberg trials, he was sentenced to hang. He asked to be shot instead, but the court refused. The night before his scheduled execution, he cheated the hangman, killing himself by swallowing cyanide.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.