Commentary Magazine


The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh

The Lone Eagle

The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1038 pp. $12,95.

This book runs to over a thousand pages and weighs slightly over three-and-a-half pounds. It could have been contained, for all of the meat that is in it, within a less ponderous package. The editors have done neither Lindbergh nor the reader a service in allowing his wartime journals to appear all cluttered up with inert facts. Lindbergh’s views on war and peace, his feelings toward the Jews, his true place in the patchwork of pro-fascists, isolationists, and pacifists that called itself America First may not be of earth-shaking consequence but they did serve at one time to mold or to harden public opinion, may even have played a part in shaping the events that led up to World War II, and are being offered now as a guide to the future. The intimacy a diary gives permits us to take a closer look at Lindbergh and his friends than was possible at the time, and we can now weigh his predictions against what actually happened. We are anxious to get at them, but first we must thread our way through a maze of irrelevance. What purpose, for example, is served by teasing us with such items as:

After lunch I took a taxi to Senator Clark’s office for a 3:30 appointment. We asked two or three other Senators to come in and we discussed the war and the best policies of this country to follow in regard to it.

Who were the other Senators? What was said, and by whom? We feel we have a right to know, if the diaries are to live up to their promise, but we are kept in the dark.

The trouble here is not so much that the book is badly edited as that it is not edited at all—we may guess at Lindbergh’s stern insistence. The obvious reason is that it was feared that excision of any entry, however innocuous-vacuous, might give rise to a suspicion that the journals of the past had been tailored to fit the shape of the present. To allay our fears, we are supplied with an illustration showing a page of the diary in Lindbergh’s own hand, accompanied by an affidavit from the typists who prepared it for press to the effect that it is a true and exact copy. We would have taken Lindbergh’s unsupported word for it. He is, after all, an honorable man. “So were they all, all honorable men.”

To such absurd lengths has the hands-off policy been carried that even errors in syntax have been knowingly retained—though some of these are howlers of the “between you and I” species. This could give the reader a false impression of Lindbergh’s prose style. He is no grammarian, surely, but his writing is not without the gift of terseness approaching the aphoristic, and here and there are poetic flashes: “Death gives a background to life as night to the stars.” Lindbergh has a genuine feeling for nature—preferably without people in it—and when he is communing with the wind and waves and the sky above, he approaches genuine eloquence. Lindbergh’s tribute to his dog, Skean, who died, is similarly moving. One could wish that he had stayed with nature and not meddled in public affairs, or, better yet, had confined his outside activities to his services to science—the heart machine and Goddard’s elevation of the Roman candle—where he had earned the nation’s genuine respect.

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Having sprung to the defense of Lindbergh’s prose style, I have practically exhausted the desire to say good things about the book. What I do not find abhorrent in it seems to me simpleminded—the opinions half-baked, the estimates superficial, the predictions wrong, and the politics questionable. All might well bear the label: MADE IN GERMANY. Perhaps it would be appropriate, at this point, simply to quote—more or less at random—from the meatier parts of the journals:

Hitler submitted six-point proposal that would end Czechoslovakia as a menace to Germany. . . [emphasis added].

Hitler’s speech is carried in the morning papers. On the whole it is plausible and states the German case well—one of the best-written political speeches I have ever read. . . .

It seems to me that this man, damned almost everywhere except in his own country, now holds the future of Europe in his hands. Civilization depends more on his wisdom than on the action of the democracies.

. . . I cannot believe he will throw Europe into a major war over the present situation. It would take a madman to do that. Hitler is a mystic and a fanatic, but his actions and results in the past do not lead me to believe he is insane.

Much as I disapprove of many things Germany has done, I believe she has pursued the only consistent policy in recent years.

I think I have a little more confidence in the sanity of German leadership than [Lord Lothian] has.

I do not believe [Herbert Hoover] recognized the decadence in England or the virility in Germany.

I believe the future welfare of Western civilization depends on the strength of Germany.

Would [Germany] attack France? Through the Maginot Line and against one of the world’s best armies? Not likely. Move into Holland or Belgium? The gain hardly seems worth the prize. Would German planes bomb Paris or London? They can do this but at what profit? Nothing would bring the United States in more quickly.

Lindbergh makes no effort to conceal his pro-German bias. Early in his journals he confides: “I cannot help liking the Germans. They are like our own people. We should be working with them and not constantly crossing swords.” Nothing can be more revelatory than his avoidance of the word “Nazi.” It occurs only seven times—five after the war has ended and criticism of Hitler is now permissible, even among Germans. The word does stick in his throat apparently. He approaches the question of German mistreatment of Jews similarly in a gingerly fashion, more puzzled than outraged:

They undoubtedly have a difficult Jewish problem but why is it necessary to handle it so unreasonably?

All the Germans he spoke to, he assures us, were opposed to the attacks on the Jews. However:

The Jew, according to the German, is largely responsible for the internal collapse and revolution following the war. At the time of the inflation the Jews are said to have obtained the ownership of a large percentage of property in Berlin and other cities—lived in the best houses, drove the best automobiles, and mixed with the prettiest German girls.

This explanation apparently satisfies Lindbergh for we hear no more of the Nazi hounding of the Jews until the war is over and he is shown the concentration camps, the gas ovens, the mass graves, the skeleton-like survivors. These seem to have jolted him, but he is quick to recover:

What the German has done to the Jew in Europe we are doing to the Jap in the Pacific.

This before Hiroshima, which might have given some justification to his outburst. He pursues the idea relentlessly, through a long recital of atrocities committed by our forces, American and Australian, in the Pacific—the killing of unarmed prisoners, who were pushed from planes, shot down as they advanced, unarmed and hands uplifted, to surrender. We do not need My Lai to convince us of the bestiality our own soldiers are capable of, but we still find it difficult to swallow the equation of outrages committed in the craze of combat with the efficient slaughterhouse “solution” of the Jewish “problem,” the fiendish killing of six million men, women, and children, after unimaginable tortures—all on orders from up high. Typically, Lindbergh’s sensibilities are not stirred by the wanton destruction of lives and proud cities through saturation bombing. He is an aviator, and mass slaughter is not immoral unless it is executed at ground level. Devastated Nuremberg stirs him to poetical expression rather than horror.

Pushing my head further out, I can see one spire of the cathedral, gutted but still beautiful, dimly silhouetted in the light. Above there are broken clouds, and the stars are coming out. I feel surrounded by death. Only in the sky is there hope [italics mine—L. B.], only in that which man has never touched and which God forbid we ever will.

He seems unaware of the irony in his wistful hope—of the fact that the death that surrounded him came from the air. Not a cruel man, but detached. The flyer views things from too great a height. This may account for his silence on the terror bombing of Warsaw.

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Lindbergh has been accused of fascist tendencies, and it is true that many of his utterances seemed to spring from Nazi propaganda, softened for Western consumption. Thus, the Herrenvolk become a great people, whose strength Europe desperately needs. Drang nach Osten is more than a grab of loose territory; it becomes a holy crusade against “Asiatic Communism” and the menace of Japan, in which crusade France and England should join but which, with criminal folly, they oppose. Returning from the Soviet Union he exposes her weakness in the air to the German High Command; leaving Germany for England, he is again guilty of “indiscretion,” spilling to the British the information he has gathered of German air strength. The Germans are not disturbed: Hitler bestows on the gallant flyer one of his highest decorations, the Golden Eagle. Great Britain is less forgiving, and Lindbergh cannot understand why. We may charitably hope that he is not aware that he has been used, that his reassurances to the West might be precisely the screen that Germany needed to conceal its plans for conquest, that German strength was also what Germany wished reported. The Holy Crusade idea fizzles when Stalin makes a pact with Hitler for their joint feasting on the carcass of Poland, and when Japan joins the Axis. Lindbergh is not surprised; neither is he upset. He reads (or was he told?) the deeper meaning behind the German-Russian peace pact. As for Japan, he simply transfers the Yellow Peril to China. Frustrated in his efforts to persuade France and England to tolerate (or join) German aggression, he transports his activities to his own country, where he conducts an energetic campaign to block Lend-Lease, to maintain an arms embargo, and, above all, to keep America out of the war in Europe.

Would he have been as fervent if Germany rather than France and England had been favored by the Roosevelt administration? In the light of his European activities and his acknowledged pro-German proclivities, one may well doubt it. No one could question the earnestness of his campaign, however. Overnight, the Lone Eagle mingled with people, attended public meetings, made speeches, spoke to the press which he, not without reason, had despised; appeared on radio, allowed himself to be photographed. Never particularly anti-Semitic—some of his best friends really had been Jews, notably Jo Davidson, the sculptor—he launched into an attack on American Jewry, whom he charged with being a major force, through control of the press, in the conspiracy to involve us in the European war. He displayed here his usual lack of discrimination; for documentation quoted Fulton Lewis, who was rabid on the subject; for evidence, cited the transparent fact that the Jews everywhere in the world hated Nazi Germany.

My own recollection of the period is that the Jews in this country so feared the rising tide of anti-Semitism that they were remarkably subdued. Lindbergh’s statements were certainly not calculated to stem the tide.

He made his charges against the Jews at a meeting of America First in Des Moines, and some of his own supporters felt that his remarks there were, at the very least, unwise. Lindbergh, who has always displayed a high degree of sensitivity to criticism—doubtless because he had been used to adulation—is indignant that anyone could find fault with his speech:

I felt that I had worded my Des Moines address carefully and moderately. It seems that anything can be discussed today in America except the Jewish problem. The very mention of the word “Jew” is cause for a storm.

Does all this make Lindbergh a Nazi? Rather, I think, he resembles the German Junkers—that aristocratic, militaristic caste which prided itself on its “correctness.” They might despise the parvenu Fuehrer but they accepted his authority. Similarly, Lindbergh despised the common people—“too many Americans of this generation want to live without working and win without fighting”—and hated Roosevelt, but when the nation was at war with Germany he patriotically offered his services. If he warned against war it was through no love of peace: he was no pacifist. He was sharply critical of motion pictures like AH Quiet on the Western Front and Sergeant York because they stressed the horrors of war—enough to “turn anyone against it.” “If only the U.S. could be on the right side of an intelligent war,” he sighs—and little doubt is left that the right side is Germany.

Lindbergh is not without his virtues, but they are military virtues—strength, loyalty, duty, efficiency. He lived by a code rather than an ethos—a glorified Boy Scout code: “On my honor I will do my best to serve God and my country and obey the Scout Law.” One helps an old lady across the street not so much out of consideration for her needs but because it says so in the Scout Manual. We are all familiar with the New Yorker cartoon showing the symbolic old lady being propelled against her will. Lindbergh’s virtues might have served a more admirable purpose if they had stemmed from the heart.

In his support—this free spirit!—of an authoritarian system, he resembles not so much a Nazi as the astigmatic “liberals” who observe only out of one eye—the left one—who see the faults of the capitalistic system clearly, even magnified, but are blind to the crimes committed in the name of Communism. Lindbergh is their opposite number, fearing the Left more than the Right, to be sure, but he is equally purblind. His 20-0 vision hardly qualifies him as a seer.

One could forgive him his faulty vision, his errors of judgment, his support of an ugly system, if only he paid acknowledgment where events proved him wrong. Some admissions, to be sure, are wrung from him—he could hardly argue after the event that the Maginot Line guaranteed the safety of the West, or that German arms were invincible. He so twists his second thoughts, however, as to make it seem that he was right in the first place. He seizes upon the unholy mess left by World War II, as a vindication of all his theories.

Others, including some who were Nazis, now admit that they backed the wrong cause. Not Lindbergh. “The fool returneth to his folly like a dog to his vomit,” says the Good Book. We hope that it is not Lindbergh’s intention to revive the controversy in which he was involved, but the publication of his war journals at this particular and troubled time causes uneasiness. Does he seek personal vindication—the journals will not contribute to this—or does he conceive the times to be ripe for a revival of his ideas?

He may find an echo to his thoughts. It is true that we gained no permanent peace by warring on Germany and that we are faced, as Lindbergh points out in a letter to his publisher, with enemies perhaps more dangerous (because of their possession of nuclear weapons) than the ones we defeated. But would the U.S. be better off if it had permitted the Herrenvolk the mastery it sought over Europe and Asia? Quite apart from all other questions, can we believe that the nuclear bomb would have eluded German scientists?

Let us hope that Lindbergh’s gloomy diagnosis of the present is no sounder than his prognostications in the past. In any event, there is nothing to be learned from the militarists or the isolationists.

All hope is not lost. Fear (of the nuclear bomb) carries an uneasy assurance of peace. Russia, despite Lindbergh’s dark forebodings, has been contained in Europe. The Soviet Union has its internal troubles, and faces rebellion from its satellites. “It” has not yet happened here. Conceivably, it won’t, and democracy may yet survive.

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