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The Flyer and the Yahoos

The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; $12.95)

In 1098 Lindbergh moved in the highest diplomatic and military circles of London, Paris and Berlin. He also made a trip to the Soviet Union, where he was well received and given a good look at Soviet aviation; but his subsequent comments about Russia—comments distorted, he claimed, by the press—caused the Soviets later to announce that if he ever came back to see [hem he would be arrested. His dislike of Russia and Communism permeates these Journals, as does his admiration for the Germans. Late in 1938 he tried to help prevent a European war by working to persuade the Germans to sell plane engines to the French! He admired the efficiency of the Germans, their industries and the character of their industrial and scientific leaders but was occasionally disturbed by the Jewish thing, which he professed not to understand. He was awarded the “German Eagle” by Goering personally. The thought of a war with Germany repelled him, partly because he knew at first hand the strength of Germany and the weakness of its neighbors, and partly because he believed that “the future welfare of Western civilization depended largely upon the strength of Germany and the avoidance of a major war in Western Europe.” Such statements place the book for Lindbergh haters.

Both France and Germany professed interest in his weird plane-engine project early in 1930, but suddenly the subject vanishes from his journals. He returned to the U.S. in April, was given an Air Corps commission as colonel, toured American airfields, sat on important committees and talked with officials up to and including his favorite enemy (worse even than the Russians) FDR. When England and France declared war on Germany, Lindbergh went on the radio to declare his opposition to American entrance. He began the year 1940 talking (quietly in Cambridge with Alfred North Whitehead. He ended the year active in the America First Committee. 1940 was a critical year in his alienation from the ways of FDR’s Administration. His sense of mission became grandiose; he came to feel that he was one of a dedicated few who might keep the Administration from pushing America into the war. And in 1940 he had some reason for optimism. He also had a large following.

1941 was the year of the locust. Lindbergh continued his activities for the America First Committee right up to Pearl Harbor, battling the war forces whose ranks, he said, included “the American government, the British government, the Jews and a major portion of the press, radio and motion picture facilities of the country.” When Pearl Harbor came Lindbergh phoned General Wood of the America First Committee, and General Wood’s first words were, “Well, he [Roosevelt] got us in through the back door.” Apparently this was Lindbergh’s sentiment too, but the issue was incidental now; he switched gears and prepared to fight for his country.

Fighting for his country proved to be harder than he had anticipated; Washington didn’t want him. He had an unpleasant session with Secretary Stimson in January of 1942, during which Stimson refused to put Lindbergh “into any position of command” because of his past. So Lindbergh, who had been complaining about the Administration’s war mongering now found himself complaining that he couldn’t join up: “I have always believed in the past that every American citizen had the right and duty to state his opinion in peace and fight for his country in war. But the Roosevelt administration seems to think otherwise.” Meanwhile his enemies the newspapers kept after him, misquoting him, turning his words into statements seeming to express continued disaffection with our participation in the war. He was now fully committed, yet he kept writing disconcerting doubts into the journals: “A Russian dominated Europe would in my belief be far worse than a German dominated Europe.”

With the United States in the war, and with the Armed Services not open to him, what to do? He soon was working for Ford at Willow Run, a gadfly on the B-24 production line. The journals now throttle down on Big Think and concentrate instead on details of flying and production. His comments about flying and particular flights, and about the flying characteristics of the dozens of military and commercial planes he tested are marvelous for anyone who has been an active flyer. Sometimes the information is technical, sometimes it branches off into divine poesy, but always his descriptions are clear and well written. He emerges as one of the most careful and deliberate of flyers - and though he is his own press agent on the point there seems little reason to doubt him, nor to doubt that during the war years he remained both one of the world’s great flyers and one of aviation’s true experts.

At about midpoint in Lindbergh’s Willow Run life, his journal lapses for some months. When we pick up again, he is still working for Ford but planning a trip to the Pacific. In 1944 this trip comes off and we find him flying with the Navy in mid-Pacific, although he is still not in uniform. He tells us that he downed one Jap. The military life gives us Lindbergh at his best, not worrying very much about the course of civilization but doing his job and doing it well. Eventually one of thegenerals tells him he must stop flying missions because there would be hell to pay if Washington heard. He returns home; there is another lapse in the journal and suddenly we are at the end of the war with Lindbergh back touring Germany at the moment the various conquerors spread through the ravaged landscape. Here, after the pleasant military calm of the Pacific we find again Lindbergh the “civilized” man. His German sympathies are so strong that he has no time for any of the other forces present in Germany; all are bad but some are worse—with the French Senegalese the worst, then the Russians, French, British and Americans. The beaten Germans, none of whom seem to be Nazis, become objects of Lindbergh’s sympathy. He goes to visit his old friends like Professor Mepserschmitt (Mcsserschmitt was impris oned shortly after Lindbergh talked with him). Ail these nice civilized scientist types treat Lindbergh courteously (this is the civilized part) and begin to negotiate with him to have their affairs put in the hands of Americans instead of Russians. Lindbergh is delighted. One proposal which comes to him, for example, is that “ten of the Junkers’ technical men together with their families [be taken] into the American zone.” To the suggestion Lindbergh replies that he thinks the idea excellent: “The only improvement I can suggest is to try to get one hundred of them into our area instead of ten.” As for the divvying up of Germany among the victorious powers, Lindbergh fears for those who are left in the hands of the Russians: “We are turning her [a young girl] and thousands of others like her over to Soviet soldiers for their sport. I feel ashamed. What responsibility has this child had for Hitler and the Nazis?”

When at the very end Lindbergh visits a Nazi prison camp and sees the two furnaces, his rationalization is as follows: “This, I realize, is not a thing confined to any nation or to any people. What the German has done to the Jew in Europe, we are doing to the Jap in the Pacific.” How such an argument leads to the conclusion of the journals - that it is finally the Russians who are the world’s barbarians—is never made clear.

Shortly before this book’s publication Frank Mankiewicz and Tom Braden, in one of their newspaper columns, criticized publisher William Jovanovich for bringing the Lindbergh book out at this time. They described Lindbergh as a muddled racist, an apologist for the Nazis and something of an obscenity upon the political landscape. They concluded that Mr. Jovanovich had chosen a particularly bad time to publish the book: “It helps the nation decide its policy towards Israel as gasoline helps a fire. It will bring out the racists.” There is, I think, an element of truth in their remarks. The timing of the book’s publication is curious; and of course the Lindbergh record is disturbing for those who have no time for German apologists. Yet what Mankiewicz and Braden did in their column is so characteristic of journalistic treatment of Lindbergh in general, during the years of his glory and infamy, that all of Lindbergh’s hatred of journalists, and the reasons for it, are immediately brought to mind. In the first place they didn’t read the book apparently, but only promotional material about the book; and in the second place they were thoroughly intemperate in their description of him.

At worst Lindbergh has been perhaps a snob, a sucker for old-world manners. He reminds me of some American soldiers in a marvelous story about Occupation Germany by Robie Macaulay (“A Nest of Gentlefolk”) who are completely taken in by the manners and culture of a castleful of aristocrat Nazis, and therefore fail to uncover the castle’s nasty secrets. But at best Lindbergh is a genuinely civilized man who, from the time of his Paris flight, has been surrounded by Yahoos and literally driven into anti-democratic isolation. There is no more depressing testimony to the brutishness of American journalism than that which Lindbergh has seen for nearly half a century—and Mankiewicz and Braden have added to the record.

It is one of Lindbergh’s continuing complaints that journalists have only rarely quoted him accurately and represented his position fairly. The chances of their now representing the Journals fairly seem equally slim. After all, he was an isolationist and a culture vulture; he hated Roosevelt and was more than a little anti-Semitic. He had enormous capitalist connections, knew the conservative Western military mind like an open book, and believed that cleanliness is next to godliness. Does this not damn him?

Yet the liberal who does not recognize in Lindbergh, beyond these qualities, an extraordinarily strong and characteristic American intelligence, and fails to see the complications of such a character behind the anti-liberal views that he displays, will never, I am afraid, understand America very well.

This is an important book. Lindbergh is an important man, with a spacious mental life that is not well represented if one takes into account only his America First connections. Much of that life is committed to the art, science and romance of flying much more to preserving and making habitable the private life that Yahoo journalists always were anxious to turn to nightmare. And even in the parts of the Journals that journalists might call obscene we see less evidence of racism and the like than of the reasoning of a military specialist. He tried, after the manner of many non-fascist military thinkers, to make judgments about America’s entrance into the war exclusively in terms of the military chess board in Europe. He saw narrowly perhaps, but he saw truly what he did see-a powerful Germany that would be beaten, if at all, only in a long and exhausting end game. He therefore feared that the effects of a war with 23 Germany would not be measured in terms of victor and loser. One can certainly argue against such a position -especially after the fact-but it is nonetheless a position seriously to be reckoned with, not an obscenity. His Journals are extensive, diverse, full of variety and contradiction—and great honesty and humanity.

This article originally ran in the October 3, 1970 issue of the magazine.