May 20-21, 2010, marked the 83rd anniversary of Charles A. Lindbergh’s historic solo, nonstop flight from New York to Paris. As a result of this feat, Lindbergh became an instant hero and celebrity. But how do we explain the overpowering public reaction to what some thought was a stunt? In his essay titled, “The Meaning of Lindbergh’s Flight,” published in 1960, historian John William Ward theorized that Lindbergh enabled Americans to look both forward to the technological future, which they feared and misunderstood, and backward to their pioneering past. A more cynical interpretation is that while Lindbergh’s flight was a truly courageous act, he became famous for being famous. Also, we know that his advisors crafted a tightly-managed persona and created a squeaky-clean, idealized public image of him. There is perhaps more than a grain of truth in each analysis.
Whatever the reasons, Lindbergh eventually lost favor with the American public. In March 1932, in what was called “The Crime of the Century,” Lindbergh’s first-born son, Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., was kidnapped and murdered. The resulting trial and conviction and the publicity that surrounded them were sensational, controversial, and ugly. In December 1935, largely as a result of the aftermath of the kidnapping, Lindbergh and his wife Anne fled the country for England, saying that “the English have greater regard for law and order in their own land than the people of any other nation in the world.” In October 1938, during a trip to Germany, Lindbergh accepted from Hermann Goering the Service Cross of the German Eagle, a high honor. For this he was roundly criticized. On his return to the United States in April 1939, Lindbergh began making speeches in favor of American neutrality in the European war. In April 1941, he made his opposition to American intervention official when he joined the America First Committee and became its chief spokesman. As a result of his activities in behalf of America First, Lindbergh lost his commission in the U.S. Army Air Corps and became a considerable security risk in the eyes of the Roosevelt administration.
After America’s entry into the war, Lindbergh offered his services to the Army Air Corps but was refused. He was eventually hired by United Aircraft Corporation and served as a technical representative in the Pacific Theater and unofficially as a fighter pilot. After the war, his reputation was rehabilitated when President Eisenhower restored his military commission in 1954. During this time Lindbergh rejected his previous belief that aviation would lead to a better world, and he turned his attention to nature, conservation and the environment. He died in 1974.
The controversy that surrounded Lindbergh has not entirely disappeared. In 2004 American novelist Philip Roth published The Plot Against America, which theorizes counterfactually a situation in which Lindbergh, backed by radical Republicans, defeats Roosevelt in 1940, and is elected president. Lindbergh subsequently signs a non-aggression pact with Hitler and the U.S. embarks on its own program of institutionalized anti-Semitism. In 2005, German author Rudolf Schroeck published a book titled Das Doppelleben des Charles A. Lindbergh (The Double Life of Charles A. Lindbergh), which revealed that between 1957 and 1974 Lindbergh had affairs with three European women and fathered seven children among them. Reeve Lindbergh, Lindbergh’s youngest daughter, in her book Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age—And Other Unexpected Adventures (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009) attempts to come to grips with a father “whose very presence alternately crowded and startled everyone” and with the fact of Lindbergh’s secret families, whose existence she has acknowledged and with whom she visited.
In 2007 David M. Friedman, published The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and their Daring Quest to Live Forever (New York: Ecco, 2007), a disturbing look at the eugenic underpinnings of Lindbergh’s perfusion pump experiments with Carrel. In a Spring 2009 article in Air Power History, titled “The Celebrity of Charles Lindbergh,” historian Stanley Shapiro charges that Lindbergh’s behavior in matters of the kidnapping of his son, marriage power relations, and the acceptance of the Nazi medal display a familiar pattern of “remote and affectless response to criticism and disagreement, a growing insistence upon the rectitude of his actions, together with a grim resoluteness and rigid perseverance.” And in a forthcoming book by historian Thomas Kessner titled The Flight of the Century: Charles Lindbergh and the Rise of American Aviation, Pivotal Moments in American History Series (New York: Oxford UP, 2010), the author concedes Lindbergh’s importance to the emerging aviation industry in the U.S., but charges that while Lindbergh “moved serially through aviation, science, race, the environment” … he failed to confront the core issue: it was not that technology could facilitate evil, but rather that unless human society made commensurate progress in civility, humanity, and decency, all the advances of modern life in technology, medicine, and communication could offer no assurances of real progress.”
Perhaps most interesting in the recent reappraisal of Lindbergh is the rediscovery of Lindbergh’s relationship to his father politically and philosophically. In Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11 (New York: Oxford UP, 2009) historian Kathyrn S. Olmsted reveals that plates to the elder Lindbergh’s book Why Your Country Is at War and What Happens to You After the War were destroyed by federal agents in 1918. In his run for governor of Minnesota that same year, the senior Lindbergh was vilified by his opponents for his supposedly unpatriotic political views, and he and his supporters were repeatedly terrorized. These facts shed important light on the younger Lindbergh’s influences and beliefs.
No one can deny Lindbergh’s lifelong and significant contributions to aviation. Nevertheless, the public discovered early on that the celebrated hero had feet of clay. In the interwar years, criticism of Lindbergh on numerous accounts, particularly his relationship with the press, was subdued until he began to speak out against the war. What must be the most shocking development of recent years is the discovery of Lindbergh’s secret families—a reality that is far from his carefully cultivated, almost asexual persona, and which forces us to reassess the man’s character. Moreover, one has to wonder if Lindbergh came on the scene in the 21st century, a period of extreme cynicism and celebrity bashing, with a feat that distinguished him as heroic and celebrated, would he receive the same unquestioned adulation as he did in 1927.
Dominick A. Pisano is a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum