THE FIRST MAN TO PUT AMERICA FIRST
Charles Lindbergh’s Plot to Make America Great Agai
By Tom McBride
Charles Lindbergh never said he wanted to Make America Great Again. But he did say, as does the current American president, that he wanted to put America First.He may well have plotted to make America great again, but he never said it out loud. This was seventy-eight years ago. Time has been rude to Lindbergh. Recently the author of a new book about him (Robert Zorn) discovered, in an airport discussion, that Millennials had never heard of Charles Lindbergh. Yet once he was world-famous as an almost sublimely pioneering aviator. He was prominent in the America First Committee. The year of the Committee’s founding, 1940, Lindbergh was still idolized for his famous solo air journey from New York to Paris thirteen years before. His middle name was Augustus, and for millions he was an august figure indeed, both solitary in the air and, speechifying, on the ground.
In retrospect, the Lindbergh of the 1940s is a profile in dark ruminations, stated in all the fervent diligence that he had been taught as a boy in the upper Middle West. A stoic, aw-shucks Americanism, as seen in Lindbergh’s brief political career, after the start of World War II in Europe but before the attack on Pearl Harbor, emerges as the carrier of fascist potential. Perhaps it was only a mutation of mid-twentieth-century patriotism. But the raw materials for racialist repression were present from the start.
Lindbergh did not issue from a political vacuum. Nor did his followers. Having famously landed in Paris in 1927, he was no Dorothy who just happened to set down in Oz. Instead, he was a political thinker with many followers in Dorothy’s isolationist Kansas. He was hardly alone in his convictions. Many of his countrymen thought of American Jews as urban and foreign—as potentially alien squatters with no fealty to any land. Today we might call them “citizens of the world” and mean it as a compliment, though it would not be thought a compliment, perhaps, by the hyper-Americans of (say) Frankfort, Indiana, certainly not in 1940. (Nor would it have been a compliment more recently to Prime Minister Theresa May, who, promising a hard exit from trans-national Europe, stated that citizens of the world are lamentably citizens of precisely nowhere.) Lindbergh conceded that a very limited number of useful Jews might be good for the United States. Today he might have said that some of them, “I assume, are good people.” There were millions of U.S. citizens who believed in the 30s and 40s that white European races were superior, though few of them could articulate this opinion as well as Lindbergh, who praised, in a grand historical survey, German efficiency and science; British government and commerce; and French understanding of, in his translucent words, “how to live.”
But Lindbergh and others, especially in the Middle West, did not believe that British superiority, for instance, was ideological. It was racial. The British had discovered how to run government for the same reason the Germans discovered how to operate machines: because they were white.
Thus for Charles Lindbergh the real tragedy was not that Germans were killing Semitic Jews, though he wished they wouldn’t. It was that Germans were killing Brits (in the Blitz) and vice-versa. During the 1938 wave of violence against Jews known as Kristallnacht, Lindbergh confided to his diary that he understood Germans had a “difficult” Jewish problem but did not understand why they were dealing with it in such a riotous way. Lindbergh was offended—aesthetically. This didn’t seem like Germany at all. Of course they would do a better job during the Holocaust. By then Lindbergh, banned by Franklin Roosevelt from flying combat missions in the war, was doing so on the sly, but against Japan, not Hitler.
America Firsters, which included the young Kingman Brewster, future and revered president of Yale (he later recanted) were isolationists. It is vital to know why they (not all of them) were such: not only because they were in the middle of the country and felt secure from attack from overseas and saw no need to pick fights with nations that could otherwise never get at them. It was also because they, like Lindbergh, felt that America was no mongrel race but a lovely blend of the best (German, English, French) that augured greater white genius than even the Europeans had displayed. One does not wish to sully or dilute this unparalleled racial ingenuity. One wants to isolate it; let it thrive. One does not wish to kill it off by interfering in a tragic civil war between Nordic types in Europe.
Let the American farmers in Kentucky and Indiana not fight Germans but stay home and breed. They could do little better for America than that.
To be comprehensive and fair, many Americans also felt the U.S. entrance into World War I (The Great War) had been a horrendous squandering of time and treasure. The world was to be made safe for democracy, and yet now the Europeans were at it again. This time, the United States should stay out. If Lindbergh was a racialist, he was also a peacenik! Lindbergh and his ilk, and even those who did not agree with him about Jews, vowed “no more stupid wars.”
Lindbergh is not to be condemned for wanting peace. It is why he wanted it, and for what ends, that besmirch his historical repute. This was rather evident even at the time. Roosevelt confided to aides that, since he might die at any time, he needed to say something: that he thought Lindbergh was a Nazi. This could be viewed as a self-serving remark, because Roosevelt thought America should fight Hitler (the sooner the better) while Lindbergh did not. Yet a review of the historical record does bear Roosevelt out to this extent: Lindbergh, at least pre-December 7, 1941, would likely rather have had the Nazis win than sully America’s Caucasiann greatness by interfering with combat in Europe.
For Lindbergh democracy was nice, but race was nicer. Lindbergh himself had come from the upper Middle West of a Scandinavian family. His father (C.A.L., Senior) had been a Minnesota Congressman of isolationist enthusiasm long before. Lindbergh, Jr. was a loner—he had flown to Paris famously as the “Lone Eagle”—and he remained an intensely solitary (and even secretive) man until his death in the early 1970s. He hated the American culture of chaotic celebrity exposure, in which he himself was trapped, both before and after the infamous kidnapping and murder of his first son, and believed that the United States, awash in trivia and foreign/urban values, had lost its way and was tossing away its greatness, as he himself might have tossed away excess weight on the skyway to Paris. But that shedding was necessary and technical. This one was cultural and tragic.
He thought America could use a cleaning of some type and admired Hitler for the heroic sanitation and efficiency he had brought to Germany. (Nazi propaganda films depicted Jews as vermin: a public health problem.) He had even thought of living there; and Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer, offered to design and build his family a house, perhaps brutally spacious (we might conjecture) but also highly functional. It might well have been something Lindbergh would admire. One of Lindbergh’s French friends finally dissuaded him. It would be unwise if not immoral, he admonished. Not everyone loved Hitler and many thought that, in time, he would maybe even cause millions of deaths in stupid wars.
It is likely that Lindbergh was sincere, even decently comported, if also stubborn and racialist. Like most reactionary thinkers, he had a Golden Age to which he cleaved with all his might. For Lindbergh this was probably “before Jews and coloreds and cities.” Lindbergh’s boyhood in Minnesota was a paradise of pristine rural beauty, sandy hills and prairies and unspoiled lakes, and the sacred obligations that citizens of small and homogenous towns tend to honor. It is highly unlikely that Sinclair Lewis, who won a Nobel Prize satirizing the provincialism of just such places, would have been the Lone Lucky Lindy’s favorite author. To bring back such an august age of time’s sylvan past, Lindbergh wanted Germany to fight the Soviets, not Britain and surely not the United States of America. But he did say that, once Communism was done, Russia might become a useful American ally. Was he unwittingly predicting 2018? .
To give Lindbergh his due one must note that he did not believe he was plotting against America, for “America” is one of Wittgenstein’s family resemblance words, whose meaning depends on its particular use. What did America mean to Lindbergh such that he thought he was not scheming against it but trying to save it? It was not the America of liberal democracy but of ethnic purity. This is complex. Lindbergh was not opposed to liberal democracy and must have thought it was a good venue by which the genius of white Europeans could be promoted. But if it brings alien forces, then it must be adjusted. It is not that Lindbergh admired democracy less but that he liked Western European white heritage more. Here again the Lone Eagle did not fly alone. This was a time when millions of Americans worried that Italian immigrants were not truly white and that those whose last names end in a long vowel are not entirely to be trusted. .
For Lindbergh the real plotters against America were American Jews, who wanted to get America into war against the Nazis (perhaps because he thought their bankers had invested in munitions), and the British, who wished the same result. Lindbergh stated publicly in Des Moines that the plot against America was a conspiracy by Jews, whom he had never much liked, and the British, for whom he now tempered his approval. In his diary he admitted that he could not entirely blame either the Jews or the British for trying to serve their own self-interests and survival. But then he glides into the subject of History itself, in which he had a keen and rather “scientific” interest. “Peace,” he averred, is a virgin that dares not show her face to the world without the shield of “Strength.” This was a law of History. But there was at least one other. Lindbergh said to his uncritical journal that he regretted the German invasion of Poland, but that Germany was only doing what would soon become normal for all. He went on to say that right and wrong is one thing in the eyes of the law but quite another in the eyes of History. Add to Lindbergh’s suspicions of democracy and his admiration of white nativism a dose of pop Darwinism, and a sizable dash of historical determinism.
Charles Lindbergh was made in America. His roots go back to Thomas Jefferson, who manifested major American contradictions. Author of a great short statement propounding equality under the law, he also owned slaves. Prophetic about slavery knifing the country in half, his worries about “a fire bell in the night” did not prevent him from owning and coupling with slaves. While he expressed the founding principles of liberal democracy in universal terms—the right of all to pursue liberty and happiness—he also thought the essential goodness of the American experiment was to be found much more locally in its self-sufficient farmers. He was suspicious of larger cities and too-accessible credit and national bankers alike. He lived in a time when there were fewer people in the entire country than now live in Greater New York City. Might he not have agreed with Noel Coward: “The higher the buildings, the lower the morals.” For Jefferson American democracy was uniquely supported by the blend of roughhewn individualism and communal obligation found on its farms.
Lindberg was also a rural idealist. A celebrity who got multiple ticker tape parades in America’s great cities, he remained a man of the Heartland. Unlike Jefferson, he did live to see the great teeming and polyglot cities. Unlike Jefferson, he lived to discover an ethnically cleansed pseudo-Darwinism that fused well with his love of small town America. He lived out the principles of liberal democracy—he, like his arch-nemesis the Committee to Save the Democracies, vied for public opinion, hearts and minds. Whatever President Roosevelt’s suspicions of him might have been, he never thought he was treasonous to America—not his America anyhow. And that’s the real America, the great one. Others just might enemies of the decent people.
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