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Fallen Lone Eagle

Charles Lindbergh, the America First Committee, and the Nazis

On May 20, 1927, Capt. Charles Lindbergh (U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve) became the first aviator to successfully complete a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. For that feat, which made him a world famous hero and earned him the nickname the Lone Eagle, the United States awarded him the Medal of Honor. But, by 1941, Lindbergh was so hated within the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt that FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, with Roosevelt’s blessing, personally ordered a secret, and illegal, FBI investigation to determine if Lindbergh was conducting “subversive activities.” Ironically, the Lone Eagle’s falling out with the Roosevelt administration had its foundation in a request for assistance by the Army.

“I am absolutely convinced that Lindbergh is a Nazi.”

– President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Lindbergh and his family were living in Europe in the mid-1930s when he received an invitation from Maj. Truman Smith, military attaché to the American Embassy in Berlin, Germany. Smith, who was tasked with reporting about the German rearmament program, wished to enlist Lindbergh in what amounted to an un-secret intelligence mission assessing the Luftwaffe. Smith felt that Lindbergh’s status would give him entrée with Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe and the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany after Adolf Hitler. Lindbergh agreed. The mission turned out to be too successful. Lindbergh visited Germany six times between 1936 and 1938. As Göring’s guest, Lindbergh received unprecedented access to Luftwaffe facilities, and was allowed to fly the Ju-88 bomber and Bf-109 fighter. Göring also awarded Lindbergh the Order of the Golden Eagle, a decoration that Lindbergh’s wife Ann presciently called “The Albatross.” And, indeed, it did come to taint his reputation.

Hermann Göring with Charles Lindbergh

Hermann Göring with Charles Lindbergh during one of his visits to Germany. Library of Congress photo

Lindbergh came away more than just impressed; he had swallowed whole Göring’s exaggerated claims for the Luftwaffe. His reports to the U.S. Army were filled with details of the superiority of the Luftwaffe’s aircraft, production capability, and esprit.

He said that there was no reason for the United States to get involved in the war in Europe – that only “a small minority of American people” was pushing the country toward war.

When Lindbergh and his family returned to the United States, Lindbergh began to speak out against intervention, even though he was now a colonel in the Army Air Corps Reserve. In 1940, he joined the isolationist America First Committee. He proved an eloquent spokesman for the isolationist cause. In a nationwide radio address on May 18, 1940, ten days after the launch of Germany’s offensive against France and the Low Countries, Lindbergh accused the Roosevelt administration of creating “a defense hysteria.” He said that there was no reason for the United States to get involved in the war in Europe – that only “a small minority of American people” was pushing the country toward war. When the Lend-Lease Bill was working its way through Congress in early 1941, Lindbergh claimed it was “another step away from democracy and another step closer to war.” And, in testimony before Congress, he said, “It is not the duty of the United States to police the world.”

Charles Lindbergh receiving a medal from Hermann Görin

Hermann Göring presents a medal to Charles Lindbergh. Library of Congress photo

Roosevelt, who did not anger easily, was livid. It’s possible that part of the reason behind the president’s fury was that Lindbergh was more right than wrong. All the more reason to discredit someone most Americans still regarded as a hero. In a press conference on April 25, 1941, Roosevelt castigated Lindbergh’s views on neutrality and scathingly compared the aviator to U.S. Representative Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, who was one of the leaders of the “Copperhead” Democrats who had opposed President Abraham Lincoln’s campaign against the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Stung by the accusation of disloyalty, Lindbergh resigned his commission.

In a press conference on April 25, 1941, Roosevelt castigated Lindbergh’s views on neutrality and scathingly compared the aviator to U.S. Representative Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, who was one of the leaders of the “Copperhead” Democrats who had opposed President Abraham Lincoln’s campaign against the Confederacy during the American Civil War.

Around this time the FBI opened a secret investigation on him. Though Lindbergh was an influential opponent of FDR’s interventionist policies, the investigation determined he was not involved in “subversive activities.”

Charles A. Lindbergh during WWII

Famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh (right) with Maj. Thomas B. McGuire (left). During the summer of 1944, Lindbergh visited the Southwest Pacific theater and devised economical flight techniques to extend the range of P-38 fighters. U.S. Air Force photo

While Lindbergh’s statements about Nazi Germany’s military power, his refusal to return the Order of the Golden Eagle, and controversial public anti-Semitic and pro-eugenics comments left him open to accusations of being a Nazi sympathizer, Lindbergh was also a patriot. When America entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Lindbergh attempted to return to active duty. But Roosevelt blocked that move. Instead, Lindbergh served as a civilian consultant to a number of aviation companies. In 1944, he went to the Southwest Pacific and during his six months there, advised pilots and participated in 50 combat missions, reportedly shooting down at least one Japanese airplane.

After the war, Lindbergh visited some Nazi concentration camps. The sights left him disgusted and angry. By now, the public had largely forgotten the Lone Eagle. For the rest of his life, he was rarely the focus of attention.

After the war, Lindbergh visited some Nazi concentration camps. The sights left him disgusted and angry. By now, the public had largely forgotten the Lone Eagle. For the rest of his life, he was rarely the focus of attention. Lindbergh died on the island of Maui, Hawaii, in 1974 at the age of 72.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...