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essays

January 1975

Cole, “Charles A. Lindbergh and the Battle Against American Intervention in World War II”

Liggio argues that “The heroes of America First and of American isolationism in general deserve the attention and knowledge of today’s libertarians.”

Cole’s Lindbergh is very well written and good reading. Beyond the historical details of the debate over American intervention into World War II, Cole brings to the fore very well the moral element in the opposition of Lindbergh and the other leaders of America First. It required a moral sense to leave the easy road of going along with the Establishment. Cole begins his study with the example of America First’s attempt to bring anti-interventionism to the most rock-ribbed interventionist and militarist section of the country, the South. In Oklahoma City, a Lindbergh speech was blocked by the American Legion which declared that “the time for freedom of speech is past.” Local thugs threatened to disrupt the meeting. But Senator Burton Wheeler, Democrat of Montana, volunteered to speak on the same platform with Lindbergh, while crusty former governor “Alfalfa Bill” Murray agreed to chair the meeting.

From the formation of the America First Committee in the late summer of 1940, Lindbergh became its leading speaker—from the Hollywood Bowl, where he shared the platform with Senator Worth Clark, Democrat of Idaho, to Manhattan Center, where he appeared with Massachusetts’ Democratic Senator David Walsh and John T. Flynn, and Madison Square Garden, where he was joined by Flynn, Senator Wheeler, and Socialist presidential candidate, Norman Thomas. Behind this were the efforts of thousands of America First supporters, of whom three-quarters lived in the Middle West, with the rest located in the cities of the East and West coasts.

Returning in 1939 from Europe, where he had seen U.S. envoys encourage France not to come to an agreement with Germany and pressure France and England to negate the attempts of Poland to return the Corridor to Germany, Lindbergh was encouraged by Herbert Hoover’s confidant, William R. Castle, to play a leading role in the battle against interventionism. The Roosevelt administration attempted to buy off Lindbergh with the offer of an appointment to a new cabinet position of air secretary; but encouraged by the Republican isolationist stalwarts in the Senate, Hiram Johnson of California and William Borah of Idaho, he rejected all New Deal offers and stuck to his principles.

Lindbergh saw the war as a civil war of western civilization, a war to be ended as quickly as possible by a negotiated settlement. As Cole observes, “He was skeptical of the ideological and moral righteousness of the British and French…. His approach was, in effect, more understanding of the Germans (without approving of what they did) and more skeptical of the Allies than the conventional view in the United States. Lindbergh saw a divided responsibility for the origins of the European war, rather than an assignment of the total blame to Hitler, Nazi Germany, and the Axis States.”

Lindbergh had spent most of the 1930s in Europe. The actualization of that great fear of families—child kidnapping—and the treatment to which the Lindbergh family was subjected by the press had alienated Lindbergh from America. Thus, Lindbergh was in very few ways a typical leader of the American non-interventionist movement. He was not an American isolationist but a Europeanist who saw the United States and the countries of Europe as a single people sharing an important civilization. Much more than the other leaders of the America First movement he was driven by the special desire to end the European civil war which had broken out in 1939 by preventing U.S. intervention, which could only prolong the fratricide. This special drive, and his disinterest in the political processes in the United States, explain the outspoken nature of the leading role he assumed in the anti-intervention effort.

The immediate influences on Lindbergh that activated his leadership were as varied as the diversity of the non-interventionist movement—which spanned the spectrum from Right to Left, from total free market to socialist (the unifying element being a commitment to peace and especially a commitment to justice and integrity). But the two most important influences were the group in Chicago (including Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick, Robert E. Wood, Avery Brundage, and University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins), and three students of Yale Professor Edwin Borchard: R. Douglas Stuart, Sargent Shriver, and Kingman Brewster. Wood and Stuart, along with Sidney Hertzberg, John T. Flynn, William H. Regnery, and Chester Bowles, formed the active leadership of the America First Committee.

Lindbergh considered the central issue in the great debate to be that of integrity. He believed that there was no danger to America from abroad, but a great danger from within America, from its governmental leaders. He demanded that policy be made on the basis of openness with the American people rather than secrecy. Lindbergh insisted: “Subterfuge marked every step we made ‘short of war,’ and it now marks every step we are making ‘short of’ a dictatorial system in America. Our nation has been led to war with promises of peace. It is now being led toward dictatorship with promises of democracy.” But this a promise of democracy for people abroad, not Americans. Instead of the crusade “for freedom and democracy abroad, let us decide now how these terms are to be applied to the Negro population in our southern states.”

FDR was especially spiteful toward Lindbergh. Probably it was Lindbergh’s exposure of Roosevelt’s lack of integrity which upset him. Roosevelt compared Lindbergh to those who, during the War for Southern Independence, had supported the national liberation struggle of the Confederacy. The label of Copperhead brought immediate responses from such civil-libertarian isolationists as John T. Flynn, Oswald Garrison Villard, and Robert A. Taft. Taft supported Lindbergh’s foreign-policy statements and said, “[Roosevelt] lacks the courage to come out openly for a declaration of war, while taking every possible step to accomplish that purpose, and yet threatens those who oppose his policy, as if the country were at war.”

FDR set up the Office of Civilian Defense, which was charged to “sustain national morale” by, according to FDR, “effective publicity to offset the propaganda of the Wheelers, Nyes, Lindberghs, etc.” With the support of the Establishment media, the vast array of government power made it possible for Roosevelt to enter the Second World War. One reason was that the isolationists had no organizations which compared to the vast array of organizations that supported the interventionist position of the government. The isolationists found they were outsiders looking in. They had always been outsiders, but they had not wished to recognize it, even when the American business community and the middle class generally had been expropriated by the New Deal. (Many people do not recognize expropriation, or other forms of aggression, when it is done to them, due to an inability to recognize “sweet-talking” propaganda for what it is). Since there was no professional staff of anti-government personnel available, businessmen and educators who were better at, and preferred to do, their real jobs had to try to substitute. It was a heroic effort.

The heroes of America First and of American isolationism in general deserve the attention and knowledge of today’s libertarians. Cole’s Lindbergh offers the most recent—and most readable—work on pre-World War II isolationism. Reviewed by Leonard Liggio / History (298 pages) / LR Price $10