“There is a hawk that is picking the birds out of our sky. She killed the pigeons of peace and security. She has taken honesty and confidence from nations and men. She is hunting the lonely heron of liberty.”
—Robinson Jeffers, “Shiva”

The competition to be the first to traverse the Atlantic by air was fierce: At least three teams of aviators worked feverishly to claim the prize. The triumph of “Lucky Lindy” was due not to luck but to his insight that, as A. Scott Berg puts it, “success depended on simplicity—one set of wings, one engine, one pilot.” Tangled up in complexities both technical and human, his rivals never made it off the ground. Lindbergh, the Lone Eagle, soared over them all.

By the time he took off on his historic flight in a little single-engine monoplane with a minimal dashboard, he had stripped his life to the barest essentials. Just as every bit of ballast had to be thrown overboard to ensure that the Spirit of Saint Louis would make it to Paris, so young Lindbergh, in order to reach that point, had reduced his life to a single element. Mere earthly pursuits never interested him; he lived and breathed aviation when the industry was in its infancy; his first aviation-related gig was as an unpaid assistant to barnstorming fliers, drumming up crowds big enough to sustain their aerial tour across the prairies. As the plane flew into town, Lindbergh stood on a wing. Possessed by the desire to buy a plane of his own, he was also exhilarated by the prospect of parachuting: After witnessing a flier fall off a wing 2,000 feet in the air, Lindbergh, Berg informs us, “decided that he had to experience that sensation.” His mother and friends did their best to point out the obvious dangers, but after he made the jump, “life rose to a high level,” as he later put it, “to a sort of exhilarated calmness.” College had bored him; the earth could not hold him, and he decided early on “that if I could fly for ten years before I was killed in a crash, it would be a worthwhile trade for an ordinary lifetime.”

Lindbergh’s life was so far from ordinary that the distance can only be measured in light-years. His celebrity was unprecedented in its scope and intensity, a fame which eventually reached the point of mass hysteria and threatened to imprison him, a phenomenon due only in part to the growth of mass communications. A secular saint idealized for his purity of purpose, he was venerated by millions not just for what he had done but for what he was: the first truly modern American hero.

From the moment he landed in Paris, on May 26, 1927, Lindbergh was confronted with what Berg describes as “a human tidal wave.” “Before he had got the door of his plane open, the first great wave of humanity crashed over him.” He was literally swept off his feet, the sheer power of the screaming mob “rendering him helpless as he floated over the sea of heads.” He spent the rest of his life fleeing that mob, pursued by the media, hounded out of the country not only by the kidnapping and murder of his child but by the political climate in the United States that ushered in the New Deal.

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt suddenly declared that the contracts to carry the mail issued by the previous administration were null and void: The Army would deliver the mail. Six pilots died within a week of Roosevelt’s edict, and eight planes were lost at a cost of over $300,000. Airmail service was halted, yet the President would not relent: He was determined to destroy the commercial airlines, and the fledgling aviation industry was thrown into chaos. Among the hardest hit was Transworld Airlines, whose most famous employee was mobilized to lead the counter-attack before a congressional committee. Lindbergh’s appearance before the committee caused a sensation, earning him the enmity of the New Dealers, who accused him of “profiteering” and launched an investigation of his financial interest in the aviation industry. Forced by popular opinion to relent, the President’s partisans never forgot nor forgave—and neither did Lindbergh.

The grotesquely tragic episode of his son’s kidnapping and the subsequent trial of Bruno Hauptmann is best summarized in Berg’s chapter tide, “Circus Maximus.” In order to prevent his life and that of his family from becoming a perpetual circus, Lindbergh was forced into exile. As he put it: “Between the politician, the tabloid press, and the criminal, a condition exists which is intolerable to us.” Berg reports that Governor Hoffman of New Jersey was considering clemency for Hauptmann “for political gain”—but fails to tell us how any politician could hope to make political capital out of pardoning the perpetrator of the crime of the century. Berg’s general ineptitude at providing historical context is a major flaw in a book otherwise filled to the brim with irrelevant details.

For instance, on page 48, in the midst of a long section about the Lone Eagle’s youth, the United States is suddenly on the brink of war with the Kaiser, and old C.A. Lindbergh is denouncing the Money Trust—”his constant bugaboo”—on the floor of Congress. Airily dismissing C.A. as “a crank” who slid “into political ignominy,” Berg goes on to point out that Lindbergh pere

argued that it was not right to send poor farmboys off to war in Europe so that others might profit. “The trouble with war is that it kills off the best men a country has,” C.A. used to say.

Some crank! C.A.’s complaint that “It is impossible according to the big press to be a true American unless you are pro- British” is a sentiment his son would come to appreciate 20 years later, as Berg notes. But if the father’s critique was crankish, the views of his son—though not identical in every detail—were similar enough to qualify him for the same sort of ignominy. Yet Berg presents Lindbergh’s crusade (on behalf of the America First Committee) to keep the United States out of World War II in a favorable light, a first for any Lindbergh biographer.

Lindbergh’s wanderlust, a cause of much grief to his wife, was a source for him of the most profound joy: He crisscrossed continents the way other people crossed the street, his gaze fixed on the next great adventure. Yet the eagle built nests from Hawaii to Europe; he was constantly building houses and took great pleasure in their construction, directing, planning, making specifications down to the last detail. Of all his dwellings, his favorite was Illiec, on an island off the rocky coast of Brittany. Berg describes it as “the most stimulating confluence of earth, water, and sky Lindbergh had ever seen.” The island was a towering granite rock rising out of the sea “like a boat in a storm,” as Lindbergh wrote in his diary. Illiec clung to “this bizarre natural granite sculpture” like some shelled sea creature—a three-story manor house in the Breton style, made of stone with a slate roof Complete with two conical towers and a chapel, both the structure and its setting strongly resemble the abode of a less famous but even more acerbic critic of U.S. intervention in World War II: Tor House, the stone towers on the Big Sur coast built by the poet Robinson Jeffers on a rock jutting high above that wild water. In his splendid isolation, Jeffers thundered against FDR

And his paid mouths; and the radio-shouters, the writers, the world-planners, the heavy bishops. The England-lovers, the little poets and college professors. The seducers of boys,

who were dragging us down the road to war. Both Jeffers and Lindbergh were not only isolationists before the war, they were unrepentant after it. In 1944, Jeffers observed that

We have now won two world-wars, neither of which concerned us, we were slipped in. We have levelled the powers Of Europe, that were the powers of the world, into rubble and dependence. We have won two wars and a third is coming.

Lindbergh agreed, reiterating years later that American entry into the war had simply paved the way for Stalin’s conquest of half of Europe. For Lindbergh, the absorption of the European continent by the Asiatic Stalin was the real danger to be fought at all costs, but Jeffers’ Olympian detachment reached even greater heights than Lindbergh’s: The process was natural, inevitable, even beautiful in the sheer scale of the tragedy. Europe was “a whittled forepeak of profuse Asia, which presently will absorb it again,” and in any case: “It is a foolish business to see the future and screech at it. / One should watch and not speak.”

Yet Lindbergh could not remain silent. Unlike Jeffers the recluse, whose activism was limited to the poetic, Lindbergh was the classic man of action whose determination to preserve his privacy did not preclude taking to the hustings on behalf of a cause. Berg’s account of the origin and development of the America First Committee, in which Lindbergh played a leading role, is exemplary: Instead of being treated to the usual maelstrom of malice, the AFC’s critique of interventionism—that it would Sovietize half of Europe and all of America—is soberly presented. Lindbergh is cause for celebration, if only because a work presenting a fairly detailed account of the history of the Old Right, refuting decades of ill-informed propaganda and smears, has rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists. Berg even breaks new ground by citing a secret FBI report on America First that noted a “tremendous Jewish group” funneling money to the movement via the Guggenheim Foundation.

On the subject of Lindbergh’s infamous Des Moines speech. Berg is sympathetic but still mindful that certain assumptions cannot be challenged. Lindbergh asked, “Who Are the War Agitators?” and his answer was simple, direct, and incontrovertible:

The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt Administration. Behind these groups, but of lesser importance, are a number of capitalists, anglophiles, and intellectuals, who believe that their future, and the future of mankind, depend upon the domination of the British Empire. Add to these the Communistic groups who were opposed to intervention until a few weeks ago, and I believe I have named the major war agitators in this country.

This simple truism, easily demonstrable both then and now, caused such a storm of outrage that its echoes reverberate even today.

To most Americans, the memory of “Lucky Lindy” is associated with the heroic history of aviation and somehow bound up with the concept of heroism itself To the opinion-making elites, however, the memory of Lindbergh evokes images of an American Quisling who accepted a medal from Goering and openly incited antisemitism. While effectively demolishing the smear about the medal—it was a surprise to Lindbergh as well as to the U.S. officials who accompanied him on his intelligence mission to Germany—Berg is careful not to challenge too much. While acknowledging that Lindbergh “had bent over backward in being kind about the Jews,” Berg argues that

in suggesting the American Jews were “other” people and that their interests were “not American,” he implied exclusion, thus undermining the very foundations of the United States.

No one questions that we harbor within our borders a wide variety of ethnic groups whose loyalty to the “old country” is organized and effective in shaping U.S. foreign policy. Greek-Americans, Armenian-Americans, Turkish-Americans, hyphenates of every description make their case in the corridors of power. Are Jewish-Americans any different? If so, this would distinguish them for their (self-)exclusion from the oldest game in Washington. If not, Lindbergh reasoned, then why not name them?

Lindbergh stood like a rock against the wave of vituperation that crested and crashed down upon his head: The issue raised in his speech was a valid one, he maintained, and the choice was

whether or not you are going to let your country go into a completely disastrous war for lack of courage to name the groups leading that country to war—at the risk of being called “anh-Semitic” simply by naming them.

Berg does not, however, mention the one legitimate criticism of the Des Moines speech, made by John T. Flynn. In a letter to Lindbergh, the intrepid organizer of America First and leader of the New York chapter confessed his “utter distress”: Flynn was certain that Lindbergh was “as completely without anti-Semitism as I am,” but be pointed out that “shadings of meaning” are lost in battles such as these. While Flynn had been struggling against overwhelming odds to deflect the intrigues of both organized antisemites and British intelligence to smear the AFC with the Nazi brush, Lindbergh had been “tagged with the anti-Jewish label.” Flynn agreed with Lindbergh that Jewish leaders had been in the forefront of the war agitation and smeared their opponents as antisemites. “It has seemed,” he wrote,

that their responsibility for this should be brought home to them. But this is a far different matter from going out upon the public platform and denouncing “the Jews” as the warmakers. No man can do that without incurring the guilt of religious and racial intolerance.

Flynn was right: The smear campaign accelerated and popular sentiment turned against Lindbergh and the AFC. After Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh withdrew from public life. Insulated by his wealth and fame from the worst effects of the anti-isolationist witch-hunt, the sedition trials, the economic persecution, and the outright suppression that felled other America Firsters such as Flynn and Jeffers, he was nonetheless frustrated by the Roosevelt administration’s refusal to let him serve during the war. FDR is said to have remarked: “I’ll clip that young man’s wings.” But not for long: Lindbergh was soon flying bombing missions in the South Pacific. Berg credits him with increasing the radius of American bombers and turning the tide decisively against the Japanese.

A. Scott Berg has rescued Lindbergh from the smear artists who muddied his name and restored an American hero to his rightful place in the pantheon of notables. In spite of the flaws his book contains, that is an achievement for which we should be grateful. 


[Lindbergh, by A Scott Berg (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons) 628 pp., $30.00]