1902 - 1974
The “Lonely Eagle": Charles Lindbergh’s Involvement in WWII Politics
by Jim Bredemus
A native Minnesotan, Charles Augustus Lindbergh has been seen by some as the first worldwide hero. In May 1927 Lindbergh stood at the pinnacle of his career, having just successfully completed the first-ever solo trans-Atlantic flight, from New York to Paris. Only 14 years later, however, Lindbergh’s star suddenly fell as many branded him as sympathetic to the Nazis and anti-Semitic because of his outspoken views against the U.S.’ entry into World War II. In the words of one columnist Lindbergh had plummeted from “Public Hero No. 1” to “Public Enemy No. 1”. Debate continues today as to whether Lindbergh was a “Nazi sympathizer” or whether he simply sought to keep America out of the war.
Lindbergh decided to move his family to Europe in 1935 after a stressful
three-year ordeal involving the kidnapping and murder of his son and the
ensuing trial. Lindbergh publicly expressed his frustration with the
intrusive American media and what he saw as a breakdown of morals and
justice that was consuming America. Lindbergh initially removed to England,
then, two years later, to France.
Surprisingly, the U.S. government arranged Lindbergh’s first experience
with Nazi Germany. U.S. Army Major Truman Smith wanted to collect more
information about German aviation capacities and technology, and he believed
that because of Lindbergh’s celebrity status, the Germans would be eager
to show him their aviation accomplishments—thereby giving him access to
sites that previously were inaccessible to Americans. Major Smith sent an
invitation to Lindbergh in June of 1936 and the two agreed that Lindbergh
would come to Berlin on 22 July 1936.
Lindbergh’s nine-day trip was busy and filled with visits and meetings
with German officials. General Erhard Milch and the German Ambassador to the
U.S., Hans Dieckhoff, greeted Lindbergh upon arrival. During Lindbergh’s
military visits he toured Tempelhof airport and piloted a Junker 52, spent a
day at the Junker works at Dessau and a day at the German research institute
On Lindbergh’s last day in Germany, Lindbergh and his wife attended the
opening ceremonies of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin as special guests
of Hermann Göring and were seated in a special spectator box with Göring
and his wife. Truman Smith later claimed that Lindbergh’s special
relationship with Göring was a milestone for the American military attaché
in Berlin because it gave the Americans access to German Air Ministry they
never had before.
The facilities and technology of the German Luftwaffe impressed
Lindbergh. He also noted the work ethic of the German people, and exclaimed
that there was “a spirit in Germany which I have not seen in any other
country. There is certainly great ability, and I am inclined to think more
intelligent leadership than is generally recognized. A person would have to
be blind not to recognize that they have already built up tremendous
strength”. Lindbergh also was impressed by the good discipline, high
morals, and restrained press that existed in Germany—things that he
believed were lacking in the United States.
On 11 October 1937, Lindbergh and his wife Anne flew on their second
trip to Germany. It was an unofficial visit and Lindbergh met with no Third
Reich officials, but he did visit airfields and factories in Bremen and
Pomerania and once again was impressed with Luftwaffe technology and
capabilities. A few months later, Lindbergh was invited to examine the air
forces of Czechoslovakia and Russia, but was unimpressed in comparison to
what he had seen in Germany. “Germany now has the means of destroying
London, Paris and Prague if she wishes to do so”, Lindbergh said. “I am
convinced that it is wiser to permit Germany’s eastward expansion than to
throw England and France, unprepared, into a war at this time”.
Although Lindbergh believed the German Luftwaffe was unstoppable in
Europe, it is not clear to what degree he ever became a Nazi sympathizer per
se. “I was far from being in accord with the philosophy, policy, and
actions of the Nazi government”, he later wrote. Clearly, to him the
Soviet Union and communism posed a much greater threat to Europe and
“Western Civilization” as he called it, and a strong Nazi Germany could
protect Western Europe from the Russians.
Lindbergh’s next trip to Germany in October 1938 proved to be the
most controversial trip. After a day of touring factories in Magdeburg and
Dessau, Lindbergh along with the American Ambassador Hugh Wilson attended an
official state dinner with Hermann Göring and a number of other Nazi
officials. At the dinner on 18 October, Lindbergh and the members of the
American embassy were surprised when Göring arrived with a small red
leather box in hand. In the box was the Verdienstkreuz Deutscher Adler,
or Service Cross of the German Eagle, and it was presented to Lindbergh
“by order of the Führer”. Lindbergh thought little of the award, which
previously had been given to both Henry Ford and the French Ambassador; he
saw it as simply another commendation for his trans-Atlantic flight.
By 1938 Lindbergh had become dissatisfied with Britain and France and
had been looking to move. During the October trip to Germany Lindbergh and
Anne searched for a house in Berlin because they thought a stay in Germany
would “be interesting from many standpoints”. The two found a house in
the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, then returned to France to pack their things
and retrieve their children. Just two weeks later, on 9-10 November 1938,
the Nazis unleashed premeditated anti-Jewish riots across Germany;
characterized by the destruction of Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues,
the riots became known as Kristallnacht. After Lindbergh received
word of this, he immediately cancelled his plans to move to Berlin.
Even after this event, Lindbergh still did not publicly condemn the
Nazis or decide to return his medal. Lindbergh still hoped for a battle
between Stalin and Hitler while France and Britain might arm. Later in 1938,
after the Munich Agreement, Lindbergh held the opinion that Hitler should
simply be left alone. After witnessing Kristallnacht and the Nazi
occupation of Czechoslovakia, Americans began to be more critical of
Lindbergh and some journalists began to criticize his choice to not return
his Nazi medal. Later, in late 1938 or early 1939, Lindbergh attempted to
broker a deal for a joint Franco-German aircraft—although the plan was
doomed to fail from the start. Lindbergh made his final trip to Berlin in
January 1939, and soon after decided that since war was imminent, he should
better return to the United States.
During the trip across the Atlantic by ship Lindbergh wrote in his
diary an entry that now sheds some light onto his views on Jews, which he
was careful not to share in public. His diary entry on 10 April 1939 reads
“a few Jews add strength and character to our country, but too many create
chaos. And we are getting too many. This present immigration will have a
reaction”. Not until his 1941 speech in Des Moines/Iowa did Lindbergh
utter such words publicly.
After more than three years living outside the United States, Lindbergh
sought to steer America away from joining a war in Europe. Although
Lindbergh was happy with President Roosevelt’s neutral stance, he didn’t
fully trust the president and thought that Roosevelt wanted the Allies to
triumph and thus would try to help them. Expressing his usual frustration
with the press in the United States, he called his much-awaited return to
the United States a “barbaric entry into a civilized country”. Upon his
arrival, Lindbergh decided to enlist in the Army Air Force, accepting a
Colonel position. Shortly after, Lindbergh met with President Roosevelt for
a personal meeting that seemed to go well but Lindbergh left suspicious,
In September 1939, two weeks after the Nazi invasion of Poland, Lindbergh
delivered a nationwide radio address urging the United States to stay out of
the war. In this speech Lindbergh proclaimed that Nazi victory in Europe was
certain and because of this America should stay out and deal with the
consequences. Later in the speech, Lindbergh commented “These wars in
Europe are not wars in which our civilization is defending itself against
some Asiatic intruder”. A later article by Lindbergh in Readers Digest
continued: “Our civilization depends on a western wall of race and arms
which can hold back…the infiltration of inferior blood”. These
statements were a continuation of Lindbergh’s belief that the Nazis were
unbeatable in Europe and that in reality the Soviet “Asiatic intruder”
was what truly threatened “Western civilization”.
With Lindbergh’s increasingly public stance against American
intervention into the war came increasing frustration and criticism from the
Roosevelt administration. On 23 January 1941 Lindbergh testified before
Congress for two and a half hours against the passage of the proposed
Lend-Lease Bill, which ultimately passed. To the administration, Lindbergh
and America First had become a primary enemy. In an April 1941 press
conference, Roosevelt revealed that he believed Lindbergh was a
“Copperhead”, a term used to describe Northerners during the Civil War
who believed the Confederacy could not be beaten and that the Union should
broker a peace deal.
Lindbergh was extremely offended by this comment and turned in his
resignation as a Colonel of the Army Air Force. Meanwhile Roosevelt asked
the FBI to put Lindbergh under surveillance, but after tapping his phones
and following Lindbergh for months, the FBI found that Lindbergh was not
involved in “subversive activities”.
During the summer of 1941 Lindbergh made a number of large speeches
sponsored by America First. At a May speech in Minneapolis/Minnesota he said
that Germany would not be defeated by the United States unless it became a
military nation and that it would be nearly impossible for the U.S. to mount
an amphibious attack against mainland Europe. At another May speech in front
of 20,000 people in Madison Square Garden, Lindbergh called for a “change
in leadership”. Lindbergh was still popular with the public and an April
Gallup poll found that 83% of Americans were against the U.S. joining the
Lindbergh’s support was completely ruined by a speech he made on 11
September 1941 in Des Moines/Iowa. In a speech titled “Who Are the
Agitators?” Lindbergh publicly addressed for the first time the Jewish
issue and shared some of his opinions:
Their greatest danger lies in [the Jews’] large ownership and influence
in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our Government. We cannot
blame them for looking out for what they believe to be their interests, but
we also must look out for ours.
With these words Lindbergh tarnished his reputation and credibility. Time
wrote that “The American First Committee had touched the pitch of
anti-Semitism and its fingers were tarred”. Lindbergh made a few more big
speeches for America First, but by now his reputation was tainted and many
Americans had stopped following him.
On 7 December 1941 Japanese forces surprise attacked Pearl Harbor,
which resulted in the United States declaring war on Japan; in turn, Germany
declared war on the United States [please check]. Because of the situation,
American First was immediately disbanded and Lindbergh cancelled all future
speeches. Lindbergh now fully threw his support behind the war effort and on
20 December offered his services to the Army Air Force. After his offer
bounced around various military and executive offices, Lindbergh received
word that he would not be allowed to join the Army Air Force. Pan-Am, United
and Curtiss-Wright also turned down Lindbergh’s services. He had now hit
rock bottom, unable to find a job in the field he had pioneered and
completely discredited by his anti-intervention stance.
Eventually, Lindbergh turned to another isolationist, Henry Ford. Ford
gave Lindbergh a job at a Detroit bomber plant in April 1942. He worked
there as a consultant and volunteered his services at the Mayo Clinic in
Rochester/Minnesota, where he was put through grueling experiments with
pressure chambers to test the new P-47 Thunderbolt airplane.
Lindbergh, however, wasn’t satisfied. He soon was able to secure a
position as a consultant for United Aircraft in 1944 and was sent to the
South Pacific to help and train pilots with Corsair aircraft. In spite of
his official civilian title, Lindbergh flew some 50 combat missions against
the Japanese. Lindbergh also showed young pilots half his age tricks on how
to conserve fuel and extend their flying range.
After the war, Lindbergh made a return trip to Germany for the U.S.
military. He was sent to on 13 May 1945 to assess German aircraft and
rocketry developments. He was shocked by the destruction and horrified when
shown the remains of a Nazi prison camp named Camp Dora located in the Harz
Mountains. At the same time, Lindbergh also was disgusted with American
troop behavior in Germany, saying that the German people didn’t deserve to
be punished, and didn’t deserve the looting and rape that was taking
Even after the end of the war and exposure of the horrors of Nazi
Germany, Lindbergh refused to reject his pre-war assessment of Nazi Germany.
He also refused to return or destroy his Nazi medal. He did, however, speak
of the misuse of power by the Nazis saying that “History is full of its
misuse. There is no better example than Nazi Germany”.
Although Lindbergh’s non-intervention stance leading up to World War II severely damaged his reputation and hero persona, his active participation in the war made many Americans forget what had been said. After the war Lindbergh worked with the U.S. Air Force for a short time but eventually became very active in the worldwide conservation movement. Although Lindbergh temporarily lost his hero status among Americans because of his trips to Germany and strong anti-war stance, most Americans were quick to forgive the man they affectionately still knew as the “Lone Eagle”.
Berg, A. Scott. Lindbergh. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. New York: 1998.
Dahl, Heather. “Charles Lindbergh: The 20th Century’s First Celebrity”. 27 April 2001.
“Fallen Hero: Charles Lindbergh in the 1940s”. The American Experience TV Series.
Leonard. Lindbergh. Hodder and Stoughton. London: 1976.
“The Ultimate Charles Lindbergh Website”. www.charleslindbergh.com.
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