essays

Apr 1, 1978

The Flight of the Lone Eagle

“The Lone Eagle is likely to remain puzzling. [Charles Lindbergh’s] mysticism, genetic obsessions, and elitism all can jolt a modern reader.”

Autobiography of Values, by Charles Lindbergh. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 423 pp., $12.95.

Even today, the life of the Lone Eagle, Charles Lindberg—”the last American hero” and foremost pioneer of flight—is shrouded in controversy. Conflict over his ideas clung to him throughout his life, and his story is, in a very real sense, the story of an initiation, indeed a baptism in which his values became so completely altered that what one really witnesses is a radical transformation.

Now, with the arrival of Lindbergh’s own autobiography, we can clarify some—though by no means all—of his views and values. Thanks to publisher William Jovanovich and Yale archivist Judith Schiff, 2000 pages of loose manuscript have been organized into the outline of an autobiography. Thus the book is not a unified account but rather a series of sketches and reflections, all mixed into a narrative that often takes sharp chronological jumps.

Like many Americans, Lindbergh at first thought that mechanical genius would convert the rough wilderness into a bucolic utopia, that (using the terms of Leo Marx) the “machine” would create the “garden.” The grandchild of pioneers who fought Sioux chief Little Crow on the Minnesota plains, Lindbergh grew up with his father’s stories of Indian wars, log cabins, and rudimentary farming.

Lindbergh made his spectacular trip to Paris in 1927 in part to publicize the promise of aviation. (“A lens focused on the future,” he called the Spirit of St. Louis.) For much of his life, he continued to promote the cause of flight, even turning down a half-million-dollar contract with Hearst films so as not to cheapen his experience. Only on the eve of World War II did he find the “amorality of science” symbolized in aviation’s power.

His experiences as a test pilot in the Pacific, flying on combat missions, simply reinforced his awareness that the airplane had helped to brutalize modern warfare, making it clinically and coldly impersonal. (“My thumb moved ever so slightly against a small red button on the stick and death went hurtling earthward.”) He later recalls sitting in a briefing room of the Strategic Air Command, for whom he did consulting work, watching prospective target cities pinpointed on a map. He found himself, he said, “a demonic god,” and as such he sensed the “easefulness and irresponsibility that can precede an act of atomic destruction.”

To understand this work, one must focus on the continual tension between instinct and intellect, primitive and civilized, simplicity and complexity—focus on what he calls “the wisdom of wildness” and “the knowledge of our mind.” Indeed, “real freedom,” he writes, “lies in wildness, not in civilization.” As he hunts with Masai tribesmen, he developes a new appreciation of the “primitive and sensate qualities” of “instinct, intuition, and genetic memory.” Through these qualities, he continues, “a wisdom is imparted to the intellect essential to the very existence of human life.” “Is civilization progress?” he is forced to ask, and he asks this question continually. The scientist finally becomes a mystic, seeing technology as “trivial in the face of the unknowable.”

Yet Lindbergh finds himself unable to renounce his own culture, for he could not sacrifice art and literature to remain living in what he calls “God’s greatest gift to man.”

Several of Lindbergh’s themes, of course, are predictable. First, there was his strong Darwinism. To Lindbergh, the struggle for existence and natural selection were not mere textbook phrases; rather, they lay at the basis of all existence. “Life is lived,” he wrote, “by devouring other life at one moment and, at the next, escaping from being devoured.”

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Charles Lindbergh

Second, he maintains his lifelong interest in genetics, although—as with his Darwinism—it is doubtful how fully he understood this science. He depicts himself, for example, as “the culmination of worldy life to date after billions of years of evolution, the result of design, of chance, of mating, and of selection through epochs.” Indeed he sees within himself “the concentration of millions of ancestors,” and writes that “within each generation I cycle from adult to sperm to ovum to child.” Watching his own sperm cells under a microscope, he notes “thousands of living beings, each one of them myself, my life stream, capable of spreading my existence throughout the human race, of reincarnating me in all eternity.”

In other ways too, the autobiography is quite revealing. Lindbergh presents his views on death, and discusses his early religious skepticism, latter-day pantheism, facination with dreams and visions, friendship with physiologist Alexis Carrel, and respect for rocket expert Robert H. Goddard. One learns that Lindbergh designed heart pumps, saw the lowering of body temperature as a way of prolonging life, and experimented with divining rods.

His indictment of modern war is an able one, and one account, dealing with his refusal to shoot a lone Japanese walking on a beach in New Ireland, is particularly noble. “We were neither American nor Japanese, but two atoms of the human species, touching briefly, strangely, or maybe just randomly through our field of forces.” He confirms rumors that, in certain Pacific engagements, Americans took no prisoners. And it is difficult to see how a reviewer could write that “Lindbergh thought Nazi Germany was swell” (Walter Clemons, Newsweek, February 13, 1978, p. 92). For while Lindbergh had written that he “was stirred by the spirit of Germany,” he also wrote, “But for me the ideology, the regimentation, the intolerance and the fanaticism of Hitler’s Third Reich were intolerable….” Clemons is only one of countless critics who would rather smear than understand this complicated man.

As far as his foreign policy views went, after World War II Lindbergh was an ardent Cold Warrior, one ever seeking military superiority over the Russians. In a comment that could well have been made by General Curtis LeMay, he says that in “overwhelming striking power” lies the best way to prevent “atomic aggression.” He adds that “American commercial and military bases increased prosperity as well as security in many countries during an extremely critical period” (although he does find that “ideals easily lose their grounding in such a struggle”).

To the historian of isolationism, Lindbergh remains most puzzling. Our ignorance, in some ways, is a bit surprising, for we have more readily available material on the Lone Eagle than on any other notable anti-interventionist. Lindbergh’s Wartime Journals (1970) extend for more than a thousand pages, and Wayne Cole’s study of Lindbergh’s battle against FDR’s foreign policy (1974) modifies the long-held stereotypes of his supposed racism, fascism, and anti-Semitism. (One should forget Leonard Mosley’s Lindbergh: A Biography [1976], a book whose tastelessness and distortion should make it an embarrassment to the author).

His indictment of modern war is an able one, and one account, dealing with his refusal to shoot a lone Japanese, is particularly noble.

Because he was the one isolationist whose charisma could match that of Roosevelt, attacks on him were particularly abusive. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes called him “the No. 1 Nazi fellow traveler,” while the president himself accused him of being a “Copperhead.” One could therefore hope that Lindbergh would have, at some point, used this autobiographical framework to explain his behavior and views.

Autobiography of Values, however, does not do this. Lindbergh tells us that the State Department, as well as Army Intelligence, approved of his trips to Nazi Germany, and he stresses his belief that Hitler served as a buffer against Soviet penetration. “Hitler’s destruction,” he writes, “would lay Europe open to the rape, loot, and barbarism of Soviet Russia’s forces, causing possibly the fatal wounding of Western civilization.” He further claims that the German peoples were “European,” not “Asiatic”; that Germany would eventually “moderate Nazi excesses”; and that in 1939, the year Lindbergh began his isolationist crusade, the Soviets had committed far more liquidations and atrocities than had the Nazis.

Still and all, despite such revelations of his isolationist views, so much remains cloudy. A few of the pertinent issues were raised at the time. Socialist leader and anti-interventionist Norman Thomas, noting (in 1940) the vehemence of the attacks on Lindbergh, suggested that the prominent aviator articulate his personal opposition to fascism, make it clear that Britain and her dominions must survive as absolutely independent nations, and clarify his position on American “cooperation” with any victor, be it Britain or Germany. (In an address given on August 4, 1940, Lindbergh had claimed that “cooperation” with Germany “could maintain civilization and peace throughout the world as far into the future as we can see.”)

This reviewer has additional questions. Why did Lindbergh never clarify his Des Moines speech of September 19, 1941, in which he publicly mentioned “Jewish groups” as among those “agitating for war”? In all fairness, he did express sympathy for persecuted Jews. The speech as a whole, however, was so ambivalent that one prominent anti-interventionist, Sterling Morton of Chicago, asked a speech professor at Northwestern University to analyse its contents. Lindbergh himself had premonitions that the speech would brand him as anti-Semitic, and the repercussions it brought weakened the isolationists support when they sought to preserve the Neutrality Acts in November 1941. One wishes Lindbergh had discussed his relations with such noted anti-interventionists as Verne Marshall, General Robert E. Wood, Herbert Hoover, and Lawrence Dennis. If, as Leonard Mosely claims, the FBI and Secret Service monitored isolationist activities, one wonders if Lindbergh faced any harassment. Curiously enough, there is no reference to the notorious America First Committee, much less to the No Foreign War Committee that attempted to get Lindbergh’s endorsement.

On all these topics, the autobiography is silent.

The Lone Eagle is likely to remain puzzling. His mysticism, genetic obsessions, and elitism all can jolt a modern reader. There is enough of substance in the autobiography, however, to prove that Lindbergh deserves more than either patronizing or cavalier dismissal. His book should be read and reread, particularly by those concerned with the technological revolution that Lindbergh helped foster.

Justus Doenecke is the author of The Literature of Isolationism: A Guide to Non Interventionist Scholarship, 1930-1972, and the forthcoming Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era.