The Books: Lindbergh, by A. Scott Berg

Daily Book Excerpt: Biography

Next biography on the biography shelf is Lindbergh, by A. Scott Berg

We measure heroes as we do ships, by their displacement. Colonel Lindbergh has displaced everything.
— Charles Evans Hughes, Secretary of State, responding to Lindbergh’s flight across the ocean in 1927

I’d have to check my notes but I think I may have written more on the Lindberghs than any other topic. Okay, maybe not Cary Grant. But the Lindberghs are certainly up there. It has been an obsession for me ever since I was a teenager and first read one of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s published diaries. I had probably seen the Billy Wilder film The Spirit of St. Louis, and of course we had learned about Lindbergh’s flight in school. I have read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s five published diaries maybe 4 whole times, in their entirety, and I never get sick of them. I have read Lindbergh’s books as well, which are also wonderful, because you get a close-up picture of what it was like for him in that cockpit, you get a sense of his mechanical mind, the chilling courage he had to stick it out. Their lives were busy and full, they were celebrities for the entire span of their lives. Their baby was kidnapped and murdered in 1933, and while public outpouring of support was a worldwide phenomenon (not sure if there is a star today that commands the airwaves in the same way: maybe Angelina Jolie? I mean, that’s the level of stardom these two had) it also made life unlivable. They felt supremely unsafe in America. It was the Depression, and while the Lindberghs were so loved that their every move was covered in the press, there was a dark side to it. Demands for money were an everyday occurrence. People were having hard times. Surely the Lindberghs could spare a couple bucks? After the horrifying murder of their baby, the Lindberghs finally moved to Europe, to an isolated island off the coast of France, where they felt they could raise their children in privacy. A peripatetic couple, they usually rented .. never settling down in one place for long. World War II, and its growing storm, forced the Lindberghs to decamp yet again to America.

Lindbergh had been a pioneer in promoting aviation, and had traveled the world, opening up air routes (Anne operating the radio, and sometimes flying the plane as well), scouting out difficult terrain for possible air strips, and basically promoting the possibility of air flight. It had made the world smaller. It had made us all closer. Europe was not potentially only some hours away, as opposed to a week-long trip on a ship. Aviation changed the world. It changed how we looked at ourselves. We would never feel so far away from one another again.

Of course, with the two cataclysmic world wars in the 20th century, the dark side of aviation was clear. Bombing from the air is a way to wreak destruction in a manner never before even imagined by mankind. The destruction, in many cases, was total. There is no way to defend yourself from the ground. It requires you to build an air force as well, and fight it up out there in the ether. But the repercussions of all of that showed the dark side of technological progress and many early aviators had really ambivalent feelings about it. Lindbergh traveled a lot, with his wife, Anne, and made one infamous (to say the least) trip to Germany in the 1930s. He reported back to the US State Department that the German war machine was impressive indeed, fearsome, and there was no way America could compete. This was the beginning of his isolationist stance (I am totally simplifying this entire event – but it’s fascinating to look into if you are interested). He, the boy hero of the air to all Americans, he, with the tragic murder of his baby cementing his place in the national heart, became Enemy Number One, as he joined America First, and began pushing himself to the forefront, making speeches advising the the US stay out of Europe’s war. In one controversial speech, Lindbergh suggested that European Jewry had brought this on themselves. (I’ve written about all of this before, mainly when I was writing about Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s small pamphlet called The Wave of the Future, in which she posited that the Nazis were in some way inevitable, and that something good would come AFTER them, but that it was rather useless to fight them – mainly BECAUSE something beautiful would be born afterwards. A muddled and, in some lights, despicable piece of work (and I love Anne Morrow), it was an obviously defense of her husband. Her journals, private as they were, tell another story. She begged with her husband to stop it with the inflammatory speeches, and she begged him to take out the line that suggested Jews were to blame. He refused. She stood by him. You know, she was his wife, what was she gonna do. But it caused a huge rift with her family (the Morrows), a rift that was never really healed. Anne was not a confrontational person and she was not a political person (reading her muddy vague naive thoughts in “Wave of the Future” prove that). She was a subjective, emotional, insightful person, an empath, and she was devastated by what was going on, especially her husband going so far out into the spotlight.

There’s far too much to get into in terms of the Lindberghs’ role in the crucial decade of the 1930s, at least not in a capsule manner – but A. Scott Berg covers it with an admirable level-headedness and openness. This is a biography, not an indictment. He maintains some distance from his subject, providing context, and the exhaustive nature of his research certainly puts this biography at the forefront of any Great Biographies list. Charles Lindbergh was a complex guy, in some respects, and in others, he was very simple. He did what he felt like doing, he had a mechanic’s mind for problem-solving (something that was sometimes welcome in his marriage, sometimes not so much), he had the courage of his convictions, wrongheaded or no. Lindbergh’s anti-war stance in those crucial late 1930s years now seem foolish, of course, but he was certainly not alone. The country was recovering from a Depression. What did Europe’s problems have to do with us? There was a vast movement of resistance to the war. Once war was declared, Lindbergh didn’t hold on to his stance but tried to get involved. He was shunned in some military quarters (there were fears that he was a Germany spy) but he did aid the war effort. Of course when the Lindberghs visited Germany and Russia, they were shown only pretty people and progress. Anne Morrow bought the lie about Russia’s gloriousness, because, naturally, she wasn’t shown what was going on in the gulags and in the Ukraine and elsewhere.

I like how Scott Berg handles all of the interconnected issues with this particular decade. Lindbergh is such a lightning rod for controversy, he’s hated and dismissed, and his reputation is such that it becomes impossible to even see him anymore. We only see him through our own particular filters. Berg removes the filters. I like that a lot.

He’s also a wonderful writer.

Great biography. One of the best.

Here’s an excerpt about Lindbergh’s official visit to Germany in 1938. He didn’t go there as an independent guy, he went as a representative of the United States government (something that is not often remembered) … but obviously the Nazis turned on the charm, pouring it all over Lindbergh, showing him their best side.

Excerpt from Lindbergh

Flying into Berlin the next day, Charles was immediately struck by the changes in the country since his visit a year earlier. Berlin showed every sign of “a healthy, busy, modern city”. The aviation community seemed more ebullient than usual, willing to show off their latest planes and factories not only to Lindbergh but also to many distinguished guests who had flown in for the conference, Lindbergh’s friend Igor Sikorsky among them. For a solid week, Lindbergh inspected sites.

On Tuesday, October 18, 1938 – after a long day visiting the Junkers engine factory at Magdeburg, flying to Dessau to visit the Junkers factory, then back to Berlin – Lindbergh left Truman Smith’s apartment for a stag dinner at the American Embassy. The new Ambassador, Hugh Wilson, saw in Lindbergh’s presence the opportunity to establish friendly personal relations with Hermann Goering, thereby improving American-Germany relations. Furthermore, unknown to Lindbergh, Wilson had told Truman Smith that he also “hoped to obtain at such a dinner Goering’s support for certain measures especially desired by the State Department concerning the easing of the financial plight of the large number of Jews who were being forced to emigrate from Germany in a penniless condition.”

Lindbergh joined a distinguished group of gentlemen that night – Generals Milch and Uder, the Italian and Belgian ambassadors, several American military attaches, and three of the greatest minds in German aviation, Ernst Heinkel, Adolf Baeumker, and Dr. Willy E. Messerschmitt. Goering was the last to arrive. Lindbergh was standing in the back of the reception room as the Marshal made his way toward him. Before he had even reached Lindbergh, Goering accepted a red leather box from his chief aide-de-camp and began a speech.

Nobody was prepared for the moment. Because Lindbergh did not speak German, the American Consul-General in Berlin, Raymond Geist, stepped forward to translate. To the surprise of at least every American in the room, Lindbergh was being decorated with the Verdienstkreuz Deutscher Adler – the Service Cross of the German Eagle – a decoration for his services to the aviation of the world and particularly for his 1927 flight, which postwar Germany had never acknowledged. “By order of der Fuhrer,” Goering said, opening the box.

Inside was a golden cross with four small swastikas, finished in white enamel, strung on a red ribbon with white and black borders. Accompanying the medal was a proclamation on parchment signed by Hitler. Lindbergh was surprised by the honor but thought little of it, only that it “was given with the best of intent and with no more political motif in the background than was usual with the presentation of decorations in Europe.” (In fact, the French Ambassador and Henry Ford had recently received the same award.) Lindbergh accepted the decoration as unceremoniously as it had been presented, and the men all took their seats for dinner.

Ambassador Wilson sat at the head of one of the two tables, Lindbergh at the other. Through the meal, Lindbergh spoke mostly to Air Minister Milch about aviation, though Milch did ask why Lindbergh should not winter in Berlin. In fact, Anne had been house-hunting that week, as Charles believed Berlin would be the most interesting city in the world during the next few months. Privately, Ambassador Wilson had told Lindbergh that such a move would prove “helpful” to him.

After dinner, Goering approached Lindbergh again, leading him into a room for a personal talk. Ambassador Wilson accompanied them to translate. Goering immediately asked about Lindbergh’s trip to Russia; and before a second question on the subject could be raised, Wilson diplomatically offered the translating services of Consul-General Geist, knowing that an ambassador’s presence during a private conversation about world affairs could prove inhibiting if not embarrassing. Lindbergh spoke frankly, saying that he did not think the conditions in Russia were good and that the people did not seem well-fed or happy.

Goering steered the conversation to German aviation. While the American diplomats were grateful for whatever information they could glean, they also had to consider the possibility that the Germans were using Lindbergh, pulling the wool over his eyes by filling him with false impressions of German strength. (Later, people told stories of the Germans secretly moving planes by night from one airfield on Lindbergh’s itinerary to another, to impress him with the size of their fleet. The stories were both untrue and unnecessary, as Lindbergh was less concerned at that moment with the potency of the Luftwaffe than with its potential. He was more interested in their research and development than the existing number of planes.) And when Goering spoke of a new Junkers 88 bomber, which no American had seen, Lindbergh did not doubt the Air Marshal’s boasts of its ability to fly at five hundred kilometers an hour. (In fact, the JU 88 would quickly become the nucleus of the Luftwaffe’s fleet of bomb-carriers, with Germany producing fifteen thousand of them over the next six years.) Lindbergh left the Embassy a few minutes after Goering. It was the second, and last, time they ever conversed.

Anne Lindbergh and Kay Smith were chatting when their husbands returned from the Embassy. Neither of the men had attached much importance to the Goering medal; and Charles showed it to Anne without comment. “She gave it but a fleeting glance,” Truman Smith observed, “and then – without the slightest trace of emotion – remarked, ‘The Albatross’.”

Lindbergh never saw it that way, insisting almost twenty years later that the decoration “never caused me any worry, and I doubt that it caused me much additional difficulty.” But Kay Smith went to bed that night prophesying to her husband, “This medal will surely do Lindbergh much harm.”

Two weeks later, Lindbergh wrote General H.H. “Hap” Arnold, Chief of the Air Corps, urging him to visit Germany immediately to assess the military situation there for himself. Arnold wrote back that he was “100% in favor of making the trip just as you outlined.” Lindbergh himself prepared to return there for his own enlightenment. “I am extremely anxious to learn more about Germany and I believe a few months spent in that country would be interesting from many standpoints,” Lindbergh wrote Joseph Kennedy on November 9, 1938. Anne found a house in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, which she thought would “do perfectly.” They returned to France to pack up Illiec and collect their children.

The very night of Lindbergh’s letter to Kennedy, Germany staged the worst pogrom that the Third Reich had witnessed, a nationwide series of “spontaneous” demonstrations. More than one hundred synagogues were burned, thousands of shops and houses owned by Jews were destroyed, tens of thousands of Jews were arrested and carted off to confinement camps, and dozens of Jews were killed. “Kristallnacht“, as that night of mayhem came to be known, opened the world’s eyes to the barbarism on which the Third Reich was built. “My admiration for the Germans is constantly being dashed against some rock such as this,” Lindbergh wrote in his journal back on Illiec. Then he confessed an utter inability to understand such persecution.

The Service Cross of the German Eagle suddenly reflected badly on its recipient. The press, which had grown to resent Lindbergh’s uncooperative attitude, instantly revised history. In December, for example, Liberty Magazine reported Lindbergh’s having flown to Berlin especially to receive the medal. The New York Times wrote of his proudly wearing the medal all evening. “With confused emotions,” wrote The New Yorker on November 26, 1938, “we say goodbye to Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh, who wants to go and live in Berlin, presumably occupying a house that once belonged to Jews … If he wants to experiment further with the artificial heart, his surroundings there should be ideal.” FDR’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, lashed out against Lindbergh in a speech before a Zionist meeting in Cleveland that December, asserting that anyone who accepts a decoration from Germany also “forfeits his right to be an American.”

For more than ten years, Lindbergh had been a universal symbol, an Ubermensch whose accomplishments had been in the name of mankind, not any single class of people. And though he had been for three years a man without a country, at home now hoped he would end his exile and lead the fight against Fascist oppression.

As a long-festering resentment of Germany surfaced in the United States, it became increasingly difficult for Lindbergh not to take a stand against the Third Reich. “Now,” theorized Aubrey Morgan in a letter to Lindbergh at year’s end, that boiling population had “found a convenient channel to explode their pent-up wrath by stoning a fellow American. So you have become the scapegoat. The press certainly went out of their way to make you the real villain and Machiavellian intriguer behind the European scenes.”

“People in this country have stopped thinking,” Dr. Carrel wrote Lindbergh from New York – where, he noted, gentiles almost as much as Jews had become agitated by the German attacks against its Jews. “The papers have published misleading articles about your plan to stay in Berlin,” he added, noting their terrible effect. “There is a good deal of ill feeling against you.” Friends and relatives wrote the Lindberghs, urging them not to live in Berlin and to return the medal. “We know that Charles never denies anything the newspapers print and we know too that some outrageous things have been printed about him,” the wife of one of Anne’s cousins wrote her. “But this thing seems to us to be different. For the first time, it actually puts Charles on a side, it allies with something this country believes is wrong and bad, and it may give impetus and encouragement to some weaker men who lean to the wrong side.”

Lindbergh needed nobody to tell him to abandon his plans to move to Berlin. Wanting immediate access to the diplomatic corridors of a city (and a proper school for his son Jon), Anne and Charles decided on their own to leave Illiec for an apartment at number 11 bis Avenue Marechal Maunoury in Paris’ 16th arrondissement. “I am not very much concerned by the stories printed in the newspapers, and I have neither desire nor respect for a popularity which is dependent on the press,” he explained to Dr. Carrel in early December. The move to Paris, he explained, was for one basic reason: “the fact that I do not wish to make a move which would seem to support the German action in regard to the Jews.” He admitted that he still did not understand the German’s methods; and until he did, he wrote, “I do not wish to cause embarrassment to our Government, or to the German Government. Moving to Berlin under present circumstances might easily do this.”

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