The “uses” of Charles Lindbergh, part I

From "Click" Magazine, February 1939

The name and reputation of Charles A. Lindbergh have been put to myriad uses since 1927:  as a “boy hero” and role model for youth; as a symbol of American independence and boldness; as an emblem of family tragedy made gruesomely public.   For some time, however, the most frequent “use” of the Lindbergh name has been in connection with his anti-interventionist stance before World War II, especially his comments about the “Jewish race” being one of the forces pushing America into the European war in 1939-41.  Lindbergh–or perhaps more accurately, “Lindbergh” as a idea or a symbol or a “brand”–has been deployed in the rhetorical battles of right-wingers, white supremacists, and anti-Semitic groups, as well as ordinary conservative groups.  It’s remarkable, in fact, how often his name comes up in contemporary discourse, and this blog and my project will be examining some of them in the near future.

Today we have a rather complex news item about a war of words between liberal and conservative bloggers and organizations revolving around US policy toward Israel.  The Simon Wiesenthal Center responded to what they felt were attacks coming from the Center for American Progress and Media Matters–two progressive/liberal organizations:

When it comes to the charges of being ‘Israel Firsters’ and having ‘dual loyalty,’ we not only plead innocent but also counter-charge that these sponsored bloggers are guilty of dangerous political libels resonating with historic and toxic anti-Jewish prejudices.  These odious charges have been around since Henry Ford in 1920 said “wars are the Jews’ harvest,” Charles Lindbergh in 1940 condemned Jews for conspiring to plunge America into World War II, and “Jewish neocons” were charged with colluding with Israel to cause the 2003 Iraq War.

A writer for The Economist‘s Democracy in America blog
quotes the above, and writes:  “Dual-loyalty charges are indeed pretty dicey. Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were anti-semites, and their claims that Jews caused the first and second world wars were baseless anti-semitic propaganda.”  But he goes on to take issue, sharply, with the Wiesenthal Center for conflating the Ford and Lindbergh statements with the last item, the support of neocons for the Iraq War, pointing out that there are, in fact, a lot of Jewish neo-cons who, along with (if not in collusion with) the Israeli government did indeed press for the United States to invade Iraq in 2003.

“Forward from Here,” by Reeve Lindbergh


When I tell people what — or rather, whom– I am working on, I sometimes get (usually after the “Nazi” question– more on that another time) questions about the relatively recent (beginning in 2003) revelations about Charles Lindbergh’s clandestine extra-marital affairs (three) and the sizable brood of children (seven) he fathered in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s.  Questions like:  “How are you going to deal with THAT?!”  The answer: “I don’t really know yet.”  Since my focus is on Lindbergh as a writer, primarily, and secondarily as a figure in the larger popular culture, it’s possible I won’t deal extensively with the scandal of the “European families,” except insofar as it–once again–shifted the tectonic plates of Lindbergh’s reputation, nationally and internationally.   And also how such revelations should probably be situated within a broader framework of “secret lives exposed,” and the insatiable appetite for salacious stories of the private lives of public figures.

Meanwhile– that is, until I get to that– I do have a guide to one way of looking at this most recent addition to the Lindbergh Narrative, and that is this book, Reeve Lindbergh’s Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age–And Other Unexpected Adventures (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2008).  Reeve is the last child of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, born in 1945, when her father was 43, and her mother 39.  Like her parents, she is a writer, and in addition to numerous children’s books, has written two previous works of memoir–Under a Wing, about “growing up Lindbergh,” and No More Words, about her mother’s last years.  Both books (as well as Scott Berg’s definitive Lindbergh biography, which appeared in 1998) were published before the “European families” revelations.  But in the last essay in this lovely book, Reeve Lindbergh describes her reactions to these revelations, and her subsequent visits to Europe to meet her newly-revealed siblings and their families, visits that turned out to be joyous occasions.

When the story about the secret families turned out to be true, I became furiously angry, as angry as I have ever been in my life.  I was not angry with my ‘new,’ living relatives, no more to blame for the circumstances of their birth than I am, but with my long dead father.  I raged against his duplicitous character, his personal conduct, the years of deception and hypocrisy.

The story of the secret families had me raging, thinking, writing, and trying to be honest for about a month.  Then something changed.  On September 4, 2003, I wrote only one sentence in my journal: “God help me, I’m beginning to get used to this!” …. I still can’t come to a satisfactory conclusion about my father’s secret life; I still feel surges of anger and pain, but not often.  Over the months and years, familiarity overcame shock, and what was once an outrage became another condition of life.  By now, if I’m not “over” the discovery that my father had another life, I am at least used to it.

I am watching so many of my long-held assumptions dissolve into a new reality, like dreams in daylight: the assumption that my parents had a complex but traditionally “faithful” marriage; the assumption that my father always wandered the world alone and unloved, a kind of roving monk, until he came home to us; the assumption that my father was by his very nature unable to deceive.

 I still miss him, sometimes, and still remember him in detail, but the detail is less sharp now.  Of all the people I have known and loved, my father is the one I found most impenetrable.

Lindbergh and the Apollo 8 astronauts, December 1968

It had to happen:  some kind of synchronicity between my former life (“The 1968 Exhibit”) and my current one– this project and this blog about Charles Lindbergh.

Lindbergh was an avid supporter of the U.S. space program since its inception in the late 1950s–and, of course, was still a major celebrity in the history of exploration and aeronautics.  So it was with a great deal of excitement on all sides that Charles and Anne Lindbergh met with the Apollo 8 astronauts–Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders–on December 20, 1968, while the crew was in living in their pre-launch quarters at the Kennedy Space Center.  Lindbergh reportedly told them about how he had used a piece of string to measure the distance on a globe from New York to Paris and how he had used that to calculate the amount of fuel needed for the flight.  The next day, the Lindberghs watched the launch of Apollo 8 from a nearby dune.   Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book  Earth Shine is about the Apollo program.

The Lindberghs would meet again with the Apollo 8 astronauts at a White House dinner hosted by President and Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson in December 1968, where Lindbergh and the astronauts signed autographs together and posed for photographs.