Charles Lindbergh was a patriot and one of the first celebrity figures in American historians. An army air corps pilot, Lindbergh was made famous for his transatlantic flight in the “Spirit of St. Louis.” He became a public sensation and star in accomplishing a feat that many other aviators had failed to do. Lindbergh also happened to be on the wrong side of Franklin Roosevelt’s warmongering policies which have, it seems, forever tarnished the reputation and character of this great American hero and icon.
James P. Duffy opens his book with a now forgotten spat between Lindbergh and Roosevelt over air mail. Lindbergh was a champion of aviation and private airmail services. Roosevelt, in seeking to expand the tentacles of the federal leviathan over as much of American social, economic, and political life as possible, targeted the airmail service to also score a victory for his anti-business policies. Roosevelt absorbed the airmail service and directed its mission to the army air corps, which was incapable of doing what the private airmail industries had done. Beyond making airmail service more inefficient, many pilots died, and millions of dollars of army aircraft were lost in this fiasco.
The rivalry between Lindbergh and Roosevelt began here. Lindbergh was a critic of the insufficiency of the airmail service being redirected to the army air corps. Roosevelt’s tyranny shocked Lindbergh to his core. As Duffy notes, “The entire episode was turning into a colossal government blunder before the eyes of the whole nation” (p. 25). Roosevelt faced intense public and private scrutiny and relented. Quoting Arthur Schlesinger, the famed liberal historian and Kennedy advisor, “The national shock suddenly gave pent-up dissatisfaction with the New Deal a seemingly legitimate outlet” (p. 31). Roosevelt had to save face and he never forget that Lindbergh defiantly stood up to him and helped to destroy, at least a part, of Roosevelt’s revolutionary New Deal ambition to reorganize and restructure American social, economic, and political relationships.
Lindbergh is probably remembered, if he is remembered at all, by the vitriolic character assassination that still tars his legacy. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America features Lindbergh as the pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish President of the United States. Videos on YouTube from propaganda pro-war newsreels and documentaries that deify the war and Roosevelt present Lindbergh as an unpatriotic fascist sympathizer for his anti-war advocacy. The truth couldn’t be further from.
With the benefits of new archival resources, Duffy goes into great detail how Lindbergh was actually used as spy against the Nazis during the interwar period when he lived in the United Kingdom after fleeing to England after the murder of his son in the infamous “crime of the century.” Lindbergh’s aviator status granted him special access to Nazi aviation facilities and blueprints for their aircraft. Lindbergh recorded his findings in his diaries and for the American government, as well as the British and French governments about Nazi war preparedness and intentions. Lindbergh noted that the Nazi war machine and its aircraft were the best in the world and would be difficult to defeat if America, Britain, or France, or all, were to go to war with Germany unprepared and lagging behind Nazi aviation technology. For his service to his country in preparing reports on the Nazi war machine he was branded a Nazi sympathizer and traitor by liars and men determined to destroy Lindbergh even though the truth was the opposite. Furthermore, his information was shelved back in Washington who didn’t believe Lindbergh’s reports that Nazi aircraft were superior to American models on account of American hubris.
As the war rolled closer, Lindbergh became a reluctant crusader for isolationism. Lindbergh’s diaries, which Duffy extensively quotes from, shows a conflicted hero. Lindbergh had the foresight to see that the Nazis were preparing for war. He also had the intuition that France and Britain, as well as the Soviet Union, were unprepared to fight the Nazis. The only way he conceived of the possible ways for Europe to stop the Nazis was to drag America into another brutal and catastrophic war in Europe—this he did not want to see. As such, Lindbergh took to the radio to counter Roosevelt’s fireside chats with fireside speeches of his own.
Not forgetting, or forgiving, the embarrassment suffered in the airmail controversy, Roosevelt wanted Lindbergh silenced. The first offer to silence Lindbergh was to co-opt him as member of the Roosevelt Administration. Truman Smith, a New Deal lackey, approached Lindbergh with FDR’s offer that “if Charles would cancel his address that evening and refrain from actively opposing U.S. intervention in the war, Roosevelt would create a cabinet level position of secretary of the air and appoint Lindbergh to the post” (p. 110). Lindbergh refused because he wasn’t interested in politics as such. Unable to bribe Lindbergh into silence, Roosevelt’s media allies did the hatchet job—in this respect, there is nothing new under the sun after all.
Dorothy Thompson, a radical New Deal propagandist masquerading as a journalist, became to write columns defaming Lindbergh’s character. Thompson began using her column to claim that Lindbergh was a Nazi and unpatriotic. Other liberal journalists followed Miss Thompson’s cues. As the war raged in Europe, and Lindbergh courageously spoke against intervention knowing how American entry into the war would create a perpetual war economy and permanently leave American soldiers and material in Europe if victorious, the attacks against Lindbergh violently increased. Many Americans, however, personally sided with Lindbergh up and until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, at which point Lindbergh—like almost all the other isolationist politicians and newspaper editors—became supporters of the war.
Duffy’s book reveals the smear campaign against Lindbergh because of petty political reasons. The book also cuts the idolized Franklin Roosevelt down to size. The portrayal of Roosevelt is not as some god as he is fondly remembered in American memory because of media propaganda. He is a flawed man with a vindictive, Machiavellian, political outlook. Duffy highlights all the laws and Supreme Court rulings that Roosevelt flagrantly violated to spy on his personal enemies (through wiretapping) and guide America into war. Roosevelt’s ambitions knew of no boundaries, not even the character boundaries of other men. Those who stood in Roosevelt’s way had to be pummeled to the ground. So the defamation of Lindbergh began. So the defamation of Lindbergh persists, even to this day and age.
However, Lindbergh is not without his latter-day allies. Duffy’s work is instrumental in exposing the lies about Lindbergh that have held sway over the American public since the end of the war. It is also a work that restores the legacy of a great American patriot. As Duffy writes, “Today, when we speak of the politics of personal destruction, we should consider the interventionists’ attacks on Charles Lindbergh as Exhibit A” (p. 201). The politics of destruction, it seems, is a legacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s revolution that has forever since altered American life and politics for the worst.
James P. Duffy
Lindbergh vs. Roosevelt: The Rivalry That Divided America
New York: MFJ Books, 2010; 270pp.
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