What Are We to Make of Charles Lindbergh?

tags: book review, Charles Lindbergh, Dan Hampton, The Flight, Lynn Olson, Those Angry Days

Robert Huddleston, a WW II combat pilot, occasionally publishes essays, book reviews, and feature articles related to the European air war.


Review of ...

– Dan Hampton’s The Flight: Charles Lindbergh's Daring and Immortal 1927 Transatlantic Crossing

– Lynn Olson’s Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941

Another book about Lindbergh's 1927 flight from New York to Paris! Overkill, was my initial reaction. The Lindbergh shelf is overloaded! As an nonagenarian born before “Lucky Lindy's” historic flight: who read his personal account of the experience, as soon as the craft of reading was mastered, what could author Hampton possibly tell me that I didn't already know?

The answer: A lot!

Three key elements make The Flight an excellent addition to the Lindbergh story;

One: The author's subject matter expertise;

Two: His prodigious research, and;

Three: The ability to meld One and Two into excellent prose

On the first page of his Author's Note that follows the contents, Don Hampton, a retired Air Force fighter pilot, informs readers of what is to come: “My purpose in these pages,” he writes, “is to put the reader into the cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis during those thirty-three and a half hours on May 20 and 21, 1927, and to fly along with him.” Not to second-guess Lindbergh the pilot, but to clarify, for readers, what Lindbergh had to know and what he had do to achieve his goal. In preparing the aircraft for the flight, as an example, Lindbergh assisted Don Hall, who designed and build the aircraft, in modifying it. Hampton quotes Hall about Lindbergh: “The presence of Charles Lindbergh, with his keen knowledge of flying, his understanding of engineering problems, his implicit faith in the proposed flight, and his constant application to it, was a most important factor in welding the entire [aircraft] factory organization into one smoothly running team.”

Yes, Lindbergh was a brilliant pilot, but he was also informed and effective in dealing with all facets of the flight including the unexpected: A solo flight that many considered impossible. Alone, he was the navigator. Drifting off-course early in the flight would cost fuel leaving the aircraft short of the goal. Hampton explains in detail how Lindbergh mastered the navigation and dealt with other contingencies not the least being weather and falling asleep.

Enhancing the value of The Flight is the author's prodigious research, not only about Lindbergh, but about the decade in which the historic flight was achieved. The “Roaring Twenties” that spanned the “lost generation” separated from the “Victorian Age” by the Great War of 1914-1918, produced jazz, flappers, speakeasies (illegal watering holes), motion pictures and automobiles conducive to “petting,” and more. It was a turbulent world that author Hampton describes in detail. It was the decade where “more than 36 million newspapers were read each day.” Being the principle source of information about the flight, Lindbergh discovered that, in the absence of facts, reporters would make-up stories. Lindbergh’s publisher, G.P. Putnam, assigned a writer “to ghostwrite the New York-Paris account based upon on his interviews with Lindbergh.” Lindbergh found the result “terrible, a largely first-person work of fiction.” The writer, Lindbergh decided, “apparently believed that the power of the pen granted him the privilege of rewriting factual events to suit his story line.” Lindbergh, an aviator, not a writer, rewrote the book himself and it was published as We.”

Are details of the “Roaring Twenties” important to The Flight? Hampton makes the case of Lindbergh becoming an international hero, not only for what he accomplished, but for being a needed hero for the “lost generation,” F. Scott Fitzgerald's characterization. His exalted celebrity status, something not matched even in today's cult of celebrities, lends credence to Hampton's interpretation.

The third factor important to the book is Dan Hampton's literary talent. Simply put the guy can write: “The dying light,” he writes as the Spirit of St. Louis reaches the open sea, “catches the little silver plane and for a long moment the [aircraft] is perfectly framed by the rocky pillars, feathery salt spray, and angry gray water. Then suddenly it 's gone. One machine, one man—swallowed up by the darkness filling the eastern sky.

Of lessor importance but appreciated is the author's use of footnotes to clarify something not widely known such as the name of the airport, Roosevelt Field, where Lindbergh embarked. The footnote read “Named for President Theodore Roosevelt's youngest son, twenty-year-old Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt. A fighter pilot with the 95th Aero Squadron, Quentin was killed in a dogfight over Chamery, France, on July 14, 1918. Sagamore Hill, the Roosevelt estate in Oyster Bay, lies about ten miles north of Lindbergh's take-off point.” (In addition to endnotes that source all quotes in the narrative, Hampton has included over one hundred footnotes, many I consider essential to the story.)

While author Don Hampton covers the flight from New York to Paris, author Lynn Olson in Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941, focused on Slim's–-as he was called—subsequent public life. The celebrity of the decade goes from hero to heel as the country debates an involvement in the European conflict.

Hounded by the press following the kidnapping and murder of their first-born son in 1931, Charles A., Lindbergh and wife Ann Morrow virtually abandoned their native land for Europe. Yes, the press showed little respect for the grieving parents, but that's what a free press does and must be tolerated as the Constitution allows. The Lindberghs had little understanding of this. When in Germany they were pleased that the German press and the public respected their privacy. It was an “orderly” society, a condition that the well-organized aviator understood and respected: being a brilliant aviator does not a knowledgeable political philosopher make!. This turn to authoritarianism is reflected, as some critics and readers held, in The Wave of the Future authored by Ann but accepted as a reflection of Charles's views.

The Wave was published in 1940, the year that Lucky Lindy drew, not only the wrath of President Roosevelt, but the ire of many Americans. Here is historian Olson 's take on this strange book: “In late August 1940, “Olsen writes, “Anne sat down to what she called 'a moral argument for isolationism.’ ” However, “When one reads The Wave of the Future, it becomes clear that Anne has not resolved her doubts or cleared up her confusion in regard to the issues she wrote about. Her ideas are half-baked, her writing cloudy, imprecise, poetic, somewhat mystical, and illogical. Teasing out what she was trying to say is virtually impossible. According to Life, even her husband didn’t fully understand the book.” It was, as others held, “a muddled little book [41 pages]. . .” I re-read The Wave of the Future while writing this review and indeed found it “muddled” – so much so that I wondered why editor and publisher even released the book other than in pursuit of profit.

Published in October 1940 at the height of the Blitz, it became a best seller despite being panned by critics. It was widely interpreted that the “wave of the future” was an argument in support of Fascism albeit after eliminating the “bad features” installed in Nazi Germany and retaining the “good.” A “Benevolent Dictator” and “Big Brother” spring to mind.

By June 1940 Germany had invaded, conquered, occupied, enslaved and began to exploit most of the sovereign nations of continental Europe. Only Britain remained free and to remain so required considerable aid and support from the United States. President Roosevelt and most of the public favored supplying aid to Britain but others, led by the America First Committee, insisted on our neutrality. Charles A. Lindbergh was their foremost spokesperson though many other notable Americans were leaders of the America First Committee, one being another famous aviator, Eddie Rickenbacker. It was indeed an issue worthy of a robust debate both by the government and by the public as reflected in the press.

Robert McCormick, editor of the Chicago Tribune, who “hated Roosevelt . . .with an unadulterated passion” was joined by “editors William Randolph, Joseph Patterson of the New York Daily News, and Cissy Patterson of the Washington Times-Herald. These ‘were the foremost isolationists publisher[s] in the country.’ None seemed to understand that Nazi Germany in control of Europe poised a serious economic problem even if not an immediate military threat.”

This blindness also applied to Charles A. Lindbergh, who had decided that the Third Reich was unbeatable—which it seemed to be at the time—while misreading the character and determination of the British. The Lone Eagle was also tarnished as an anti-Semite by an ill-conceived speech on behalf of the American First Committeedelivered in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11. 1941. He targeted Jews, not some Jews as was the case, but Jews as a unified group pushing the country into the conflict along with President Roosevelt and the British.

An astonishing revelation in Those Angry Days—at least for this former WW II pilot—involved General Herald “Hap” Arnold, the Army Air Corps (AAC) Chief of Staff.

According to Olson the U.S. had a plan of action for the military in case we entered the conflict. Dubbed the “Victory Program,” it had as its major objective the “complete military defeat of Germany while holding Japan in check pending future developments.” The plan also noted that “by themselves, naval and air forces seldom ever win important wars,” and proposed allocating most of a vastly increased budget to the ground forces.

President Roosevelt was shocked “when the Chicago Tribune and Washington Times-Herald [published] their Victory Program bombshell.” Though “clearly a contingency plan” the news presented it “as a cast-in-stone program for war.”

The Attorney General “believed the newspaper executives could be indicted under the Espionage Act of 1917.” (Yes, that’s the same law featured in today's news and a means of plugging government leaks.) Senator Burton Wheeler, a firm isolationist who had passed the plan to a reporter, “had no intention of taking responsibility” and under pressure from the FBI fingered General Arnold , who, the senator said, “did not approve of this going to war until he [General Arnold] had raised an Air Force, and he would do all he could to retard it.” (General Arnold firmly believed that air power and air power alone could defeat the enemy.)

The “leak” revealed to a possible enemy, placed our military forces, as well as the entire nation, at extreme risk. Nonetheless, the matter was quietly put to rest as President Roosevelt, as Commander-in-Chief, and General George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff and Arnold's boss, decided that exposing General Arnold would be too costly in terms of “national unity.” “Hap” Arnold went on to become a 5-star general in command of the world's largest air force with a seat among the Joint Chiefs who directed U.S. forces in the Second World War.

Those “angry days” ended with the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces followed by Germany's declaration of war on the U.S. Lindbergh immediately sought a commission—his commission as a colonel in the Army Air Corps Reserve had been withdrawn by Roosevelt—but was denied by the Commander-in-Chief. Lindbergh did serve valiantly, however, in the conflict as a civilian and, in 1954, was re-commissioned in the Air Force Reserve by President Dwight Eisenhower with the rank of Brigadier General.

Those Angry Days reveals the worst from both “interventionists” and “isolationists.” President Roosevelt proved to be stubborn and vindictive against the “isolationists,” especially Lindbergh, and our heroic “Lone Eagle” was equally stubborn and vindictive against the “interventionists,” especially Roosevelt. Those Angry Days might well have been titled Those Uncivilized Days. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press, however, did prevail, albeit gathering a few warts