The Right Stuff

By Benjamin Schwarz



From the moment Charles Lindbergh descended from the sky at Le Bourget airfield in Paris, the world, and particularly his American homeland, took possession of a new god. At the age of 25, Lindbergh became, as A. Scott Berg amply demonstrates in one of the most important biographies of the decade, “the most celebrated living person ever to walk the earth.” Lindbergh, the first solo flier to cross the Atlantic, had anticipated and planned for every aspect of his historic 33-hour flight from New York to Paris, with the significant exception of his arrival. With characteristic modesty, he had assumed that since he was ahead of schedule, no one would be greeting him as he landed, and he hoped to find a fellow flier at the field who could help him get a ride into Paris, where he would find a cheap hotel. Instead, as he taxied on the landing strip, Lindbergh found that, as he famously recounted in the last line of his memoir of the flight, “the entire field ahead is covered with running figures!” From that moment on, Lindbergh’s life would be far more complicated than he ever wished or expected it to be.

Ironically, Lindbergh and his plane had survived the longest and most difficult flight in history (every previous attempt had ended in death) only to be threatened by the crowd that celebrated the feat. The stampede to meet him caused the greatest traffic jam in Paris history, and the throng swallowed “The Spirit of St. Louis,” Lindbergh’s tiny plane. It was, a witness recalled, “as if all the hands in the world are . . . trying to touch the new Christ and the New Cross is the Plane.” The adoration was both exuberant and violent–a combination that was to mark the public’s relationship with Lindbergh for the next 20 years. Souvenir hunters began to rip “The Spirit of St. Louis” apart, and Lindbergh was dragged out of the plane and carried about in a frenzy. Only the intercession of French military fliers prevented the most famous plane in world history from being destroyed and Lindbergh from being rapturously mauled.

Although Lindbergh himself was almost unbelievably courageous, honorable and honest, his story is not a bright and inspiring one, for more than anything else it illuminates the menace that accompanies adoration. Worshiped by the globe, Lindbergh was above all America’s hero, and in this country he was also prey to the public, the press, maniacs and criminals–even the Roosevelt administration. Although Lindbergh showed to the world his country’s best self, he also aroused within America many of its ugliest aspects.

In illuminating this phenomenon, Berg’s book is an extraordinary achievement. Sensibly enough, he does not devote the greatest space in his chronicle to the 1927 flight, which, after all, has been recounted so well by others, Lindbergh included. Rather, Berg concentrates on the most sensational and controversial features of Lindbergh’s life–the kidnapping of his first child and his career as an “isolationist” during the most important foreign policy debate in American history, which is to many today the most noteworthy aspect of his story. Indeed, Berg, who is Jewish, revealed in a recent interview that when he told his grandmother that he was at work on a Lindbergh biography, her reaction was “What do you want to write about him for? He was quite awful about the Jews.”

LINDBERG IN COCKPIT SEPIA charles-lindbergh-photo-cockpit-1Luckily for his readers, Berg didn’t listen to his grandmother. Granted, anyone looking for a work of analysis or interpretation or for a book that places Lindbergh’s life in a historical or social context must go elsewhere. The satisfactions of “Lindbergh” (Steven Spielberg has already purchased the rights) are altogether different. In his authoritative chronicle, Berg has allowed the inconsistencies, nuances and tribulations of Lindbergh’s life to speak for themselves without judgment or speculation. In doing so, he has given us the definitive account of a dramatic and disturbing American story.

A few previous writers–such as historian Wayne Cole, who researched Lindbergh’s noninterventionism, and aviation expert Richard Hallion–had been granted access to those materials among Lindbergh’s massive archives related to their specific subjects of inquiry. But Berg, author of the National Book Award-winning biography of Maxwell Perkins, is the only writer who has been allowed to survey Lindbergh’s complete papers (all 2,000 boxes of them). Despite his painstaking research, however, Berg’s book yields few revelations of great weight. This is hardly surprising–Lindbergh was perhaps the most scrutinized American, and hence few “secrets” pertaining to anything but his most intimate family life are left to uncover. (Berg does reveal a brief affair between Lindbergh’s wife, the writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and a prominent physician, and his book, together with Lindbergh’s daughter Reeve Lindbergh’s touching memoir of her life with her father, “Under a Wing,” depicts a family often exasperated by Lindbergh’s orderliness and frequent traveling, but this is pretty tame stuff.)

Furthermore, Berg has some tough acts to follow. Lindbergh was a gifted writer. (Although he flunked out of college, Lindbergh’s official report, written when he was barely 23, of his midair collision with another plane–the first time anyone had survived such a crash–was taught in schools as a model of clear, clean narrative style even before he became a celebrity. “The Spirit of St. Louis,” his remarkably written account of his trans-Atlantic flight, is one of the very few Pulitzer Prize-winning works by a Famous Person that actually deserved the award.) In addition to writing an important medical treatise (with his intellectual mentor, Dr. Alexis Carrel), Lindbergh examined his life in great detail and acuity in six autobiographical works. And though Lindbergh has been astonishingly ill-served by previous full-fledged biographies, he is the subject of an elegant book-length character sketch, Brendan Gill’s “Lindbergh Alone.” When Berg’s authoritative work is combined with Gill’s gem, Lindbergh’s own autobiographical cycle, the justly praised published diaries of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Reeve Lindbergh’s narrowly focused but revealing account, we have an exhaustive, subtle and multifaceted picture of Lindbergh’s private and public life.

But the essential mystery will always remain. Why did Lindbergh provoke such intense feelings? What did this man, who more than any American in this century was regarded as both Jesus and Judas, mean to his country? One reason the riddle is so unfathomable is that Lindbergh’s celebrity is impossible to translate into contemporary terms. Baby boomers and twentysomethings have an especially difficult time understanding the degree and type of Lindbergh’s renown because he was so unlike today’s super-celebrities. Lindbergh was certainly more “famous” than, say, Tom Cruise, but he was also esteemed in a way no public figure is now. In the 1920s and ’30s, an adoring public named schools, parks and libraries for him. But this son of a radical Minnesota agrarian was also ushered into the establishment’s inner sanctums; the leading statesmen, scientists, bankers and industrialists were drawn to him, enormously respected him and highly valued his judgment and insight. To no less a personage than Winston Churchill, Lindbergh represented “all that a man should do, and all that a man should be.” He married the daughter of not merely a distinguished diplomat and financier but of the man whom Walter Lippmann called nothing less than the most trusted man of his time. Lindbergh was an incomprehensible hybrid. Bold and modest, daring and clean-living, fearless and deliberate, boyishly charming and sober, Lindbergh seemed to combine qualities that today are impossible to regard as anything but incompatible.

The very exploit that established Lindbergh’s place in the public imagination seemed to marry the opposites of, on the one hand, punctilious planningLindbergh, Charles 2 and technological sophistication with, on the other, heroism and personal adventure. The achievement indisputably demanded bravery and utter self-confidence on the part of the “lone eagle,” but it also called for far more prosaic qualities that are just as rare, virtues Reeve Lindbergh recalls her father trying to instill in his children: “sense, stability, steadiness, practicality and economy, these were words we heard often.” The total effect was striking; even the jaundiced eye of Edmund Wilson saw in Lindbergh “a thorough mastery of a new medium, a complete, sure and unostentatious virtuosity.”

And, although Lindbergh was clearly, as Gill characterized him, “a man tirelessly bent upon winning greatness,” he was equally determined to shun celebrity, which just made him all the more compelling to a voracious public. With dogged earnestness, Lindbergh attempted to use his achievements to promote the benefits of aviation (he perspicaciously saw the enormous commercial and social changes that aviation would engender and also, in his early years, clung to the notion that it would be a boon to that vague ideal, “international understanding”). But once the initial wonder at his trans-Atlantic flight was spent, the press and the public really couldn’t have cared less about what Lindbergh had to say about aviation or about his subsequent achievements in that field.

From the late ’20s to the mid-’30s Lindbergh was laying out air routes that would bind together both the United States and the continents; he was flying faster, higher and longer than any human being had flown and he was even performing important research in medical technology, yet he was deluged only with queries about his personal life that he found inappropriate and irrelevant. With a fanatical, grinding obsession, the public demanded to know every facet of his private life; it insisted on possessing him. Lindbergh, for his part, could never grasp why anyone would care about the answers he was unwilling to give. He was as dumbfounded as he was dismayed, for instance, when in the months after his honeymoon, reporters repeatedly asked, “What about it, Lindy? She pregnant?”

Probably no birth in American history was as heralded as that of Lindbergh’s firstborn, Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., in 1930. The occasion fully aroused America’s vulgar and mercenary impulses; songs and poems were written in the baby’s honor, a church was named for him and endless commercial schemes sought to capitalize on the event. But, as Berg emphasizes, the birth aroused darker impulses as well. The baby was sent obscene and threatening letters, and the newspapers profited by printing sensational stories that he was gruesomely deformed or stillborn. Obviously, as the Lindberghs feared, this incessant and unwelcome attention made the baby a target for kidnappers. Indeed, the “Crime of the Century”–the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby–was arguably generated by the very press that benefited so much from it.

The circumstances of the crime must have been especially agonizing for Lindbergh. As Reeve Lindbergh’s account of her father makes especially clear, Lindbergh was utterly reliable and responsible, a man who “always kept his promises.” From his earliest days as an aviator, Lindbergh checked and rechecked every detail and believed it vitally important to anticipate the unforeseeable. Thus, added to the enormous guilt that any parent would experience at the death of a child must have been Lindbergh’s special sense of failure, as his baby was snatched from an upstairs room while Lindbergh sat unaware in the parlor below.

When the baby’s badly decomposed body was discovered 2 1/2 months later, Lindbergh, ever conscientious and careful, insisted that he be among those to make the final identification. An enterprising newspaper photographer, however, had already broken into the morgue and taken a picture of the dead baby, copies of which were peddled for $5 each. Meanwhile, other peddlers were also turning a tidy profit by selling food to the mob of tourists that had gathered at the site of the body’s discovery.

Such ghoulish exploitation paled in comparison to the spectacle of the 1935 trial of kidnapper Bruno Richard Hauptmann in Flemington, N.J., easily the most sordid judicial circus in American history. The morbid carnival atmosphere, which Berg captures in an especially vivid chapter, prompted writer Edna Ferber to remark that “it made you want to resign as a member of the human race.” The crowd was both entertained and filled with blood lust; as Lindbergh and his wife listened on the radio to the announcement of the guilty verdict, they felt not relief but fear and shock as they could hear in the background the roar of what Lindbergh called “a lynching mob” chanting, “Kill Hauptmann.”

117282b_lgDisturbingly, after the “Trial of the Century” the public turned its ferocious attention back on the Lindberghs. They received scores of letters threatening their lives and that of their second son, Jon, who had become the favorite quarry of the press. Finally, after the car in which his son was being driven to kindergarten was forced off the road by photographers, Lindbergh concluded that the country had become too dangerous for his family. In December 1935, he fled with them to Europe.

Lindbergh’s self-exile ended when he returned to America more than three years later to begin his long campaign in opposition to United States intervention in what would become World War II, thereby thrusting himself into the limelight that he had so long abjured. Certainly, no facet of Lindbergh’s life remains so misunderstood and shrouded in lies, half-truths and distortion as his noninterventionist stance. Although “isolationists” are in retrospect often regarded as parochial, narrow-minded and even as Nazi sympathizers, their viewpoint was actually rooted in a progressive, Populist tradition. Ideologically, Lindbergh was following in the footsteps of his father, a progressive congressional representative whose political career had been destroyed by his antiwar position during World War I. Lindbergh’s noninterventionist allies included such tolerant radicals as Norman Thomas, Charles Beard, Robert La Follette Jr., Dwight Macdonald and Oswald Garrison Villard.

And whether correct or not, Lindbergh’s position–his emphasis on the limits of American power; his skepticism regarding a universalist conception of American security interests; his belief that “democracy is not a quality that can be imposed by war” and that America cannot and should not remake the world in its own image; his warnings against excessive presidential power, secrecy and deception in foreign policy–was remarkably similar to that of critics of American “globalism” in the 1960s and ’70s, a group that, whatever the merits of its position, is hardly regarded as politically Neanderthal. As Berg details in one of the longest sections of his book, Lindbergh–by far the most famous and formidable “isolationist”–bore the brunt of vicious attacks by those favoring American intervention, the most damaging of which were delivered by the Roosevelt administration and specifically FDR’s hatchet man, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes.

Just as McCarthyites in the 1950s discredited those who questioned American foreign policy by associating dissenters with the Soviet Union, so some liberal internationalists before World War II besmirched their adversaries by associating them with Nazi Germany. Although, as Wayne Cole, the leading historian of noninterventionism, concluded, Lindbergh “did not like Hitler or Nazism” and “did not favor a Nazi dictatorship either for Germany or for the United States,” he was nevertheless denounced by the Roosevelt administration as a “Nazi fellow traveler” and was slandered by the pro-interventionist press as a “Nazi lover.” Lindbergh’s reputation has never recovered from this smear campaign. Moreover, as the popular mood shifted in the months immediately preceding American entry into the war, and as the campaign of vilification against Lindbergh mounted, large segments of the public turned savagely against America’s hero. The hate mail swelled (Lindbergh complained in his journal that “it is a fine state of affairs in a country which feels it is civilized, people dislike what you do so they threaten to kill your children”).

Both Berg and Reeve Lindbergh deal at length with the blackest mark against Lindbergh, the three paragraphs in his infamous “Des Moines speech” of September 1941 in which he discussed the position of American Jews toward intervention in the European war; Lindbergh’s only public reference to Jews during what was called “the Great Debate.” (The controversy regarding American intervention occurred in ignorance of Nazi Germany’s systematic murder of European Jews, which had begun in the closing months of that controversy.) In his address, Lindbergh asserted that “the three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration.” He then stated that he clearly understood why Jews would desire the overthrow of the Nazis and that “no person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany,” but he drew a sharp distinction between moral considerations and what he saw as the American national interest. Lindbergh’s third paragraph on the Jews, as Berg emphasizes, “incurred the most wrath”:

“I am not attacking either the Jewish or the British people. Both races, I admire. But I am saying that the leaders of both the British and Jewish races, for reasons which are understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war. We cannot blame them for looking out for what they believe to be their own interest, but we also must look out for ours. We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction.”

Reeve Lindbergh, who writes that Lindbergh raised his children “never to say, never even to think such things,” finds the Des Moines speech anguishing and inexplicable. (It would be comforting to think that Lindbergh’s remarks were extemporaneous and heated, but as with all of his endeavors, Lindbergh worked on this address with care and deliberation.) Berg, a scrupulously fair biographer, notes that “Lindbergh had bent over backward to be kind about the Jews, but in suggesting that American Jews were ‘other’ people and that their interests were ‘not American,’ he implied exclusion.” Indeed, at the time, many of Lindbergh’s fellow noninterventionists, including Sen. Robert Taft, shared Berg’s judgment exactly. Lindbergh’s argument was that many Jews who agitated for American intervention did so not out of their sense as Americans of what was in the national interest but rather out of their sense as Jews of what was best for the Jewish people. This contention was overstated. But a number of progressives who have never been considered anti-Semitic, including Norman Thomas and Oswald Garrison Villard, had made the same argument. Moreover, Lindbergh’s position was hardly different from that of critics of American Cold War policy who argued that, say, Polish or Lithuanian or Cuban Americans who called for the United States to pursue a confrontational and potentially dangerous policy toward the Soviet Union were pursuing the interests of their ethnic group without considering the interests of their country–and those critics weren’t accused of ethnic hatred.

However much he may have dishonored himself and his cause with his Des Moines speech, after Pearl Harbor Lindbergh strenuously and courageouslylindbergh_rally contributed to the war effort; although the Roosevelt administration refused to permit him to serve in the military, during a five-month technical mission to the Pacific he managed to fly 50 combat missions. With Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, the government’s attitude toward Lindbergh changed virtually overnight, but his place in postwar America was entirely different from what it had been before the war. To be sure, among many he remained an almost mythic figure. But, as Berg notes, many other Americans “had grown indifferent or hostile toward him,” and in later decades the iconoclastic young, especially the urban and well-educated, saw Lindbergh as little more than a “fascist.” The straightforward heroism of Lindbergh’s 1927 flight was decidedly passe to those with a far more jaded and ironic sensibility than that of their parents and grandparents.

For his part, Lindbergh could not have been more relieved that his country’s hysteria over him had finally subsided. But from both Berg’s and Reeve Lindbergh’s accounts, it seems that he was unable to find an all-consuming outlet for his enormous energies and abilities. The same compulsive attention to detail that had permitted him to perform dangerous and complicated exploits with such seeming ease he now applied to lesser tasks. He appears to have expended much effort rather frantically filling time, as Berg wryly details in a deftly written passage:

“He compiled lists of ‘Things to Do,’ which he divided into three categories–Current, Immediate, and Near Future. Those done, he might busy himself with . . . making lists of all the planes he had ever flown, places the house trailer had been. . . . Or he might refine the packing list for his trips, sorting and weighing each item. . . . When Anne said the kitchen needed a new stove, Charles told her to postpone the decision on this ‘important and complicated subject’ until they could analyze the purchase ‘from personal, economic, and military standpoints.’ Charles, Mrs. Morrow [Lindbergh’s mother-in-law] wrote in her diary, ‘needs a steady job.’ “

Still, in many ways the last 30 years of his life were personally his richest and most productive, as he worked continually on his craft as a writer and pursued his deep interests in such subjects as anthropology and conservation. Reeve Lindbergh astutely and touchingly depicts this phase of Lindbergh’s life, when he became something of a suburban family man, albeit an obsessively organized and peripatetic one.

Lindbergh often returned in his thoughts and his writing to his 1927 flight, less, one senses, nostalgically than ruefully. When not yet a man, Lindbergh had pursued greatness without regard for the terrible price it would exact. He was no doubt proud of the feat for which he will always be remembered; however–as Berg’s dark epic attests–Lindbergh’s greatest accomplishment was not surviving the most important flight in history but surviving his country’s deadly embrace.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s