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19 january 2009

Before he was 40, Charles Lindbergh had lived enough so that three different major books could have beeen written about him, from three almost unrelated perspectives. He was the greatest aviation hero of all time, the father of a cruelly murdered child, and the leading spokesman for an isolationist movement that opposed Franklin Roosevelt's preparations for American involvement in the Second World War. In fact, many books have been written about each of these stories. Except on the death of his child, several were written by Lindbergh himself, who went on after 40 to become a combat pilot in the Pacific, a peripatetic conservationist, and a prolific author. A. Scott Berg's Lindbergh is now the standard single-volume life, and as I continue to wander through Pulitzer-Prize-winning nonfiction, I was thrilled to follow Berg's narrative.

The three great stories of Lindbergh's early life are not entirely unassociated, even if their themes were separate. By flying the Atlantic in 1927, Lindbergh became, literally overnight, the most famous person alive. Overnight bounds from obscurity to giga-celebrity have now become banal: Joe the Plumber, anyone? But in Lindbergh's day, the very shrinking of the globe that his flight portended was part of the feedback loop that made him so famous. His celebrity was not merely a symptom of future shock and fast capitalism: it was the leading edge of both phenomena.

So when Lindbergh, a reserve Air Corps captain and sometime air-mail pilot, became suddenly Colonel Lindbergh, conqueror of the skies, everything he did was news. When he married and fathered a child, his wife Anne Morrow and his child Charles Jr. became the most famous wife and child in the world. The "Lindbergh Baby" was killed by a brutal kidnapper, but in a real sense was crushed to death by celebrity itself. Charles Jr. was tragically too famous to live long.

Bruno Richard Hauptmann was executed for the child's murder (to the eternal fascination of true-crime theorists, there was no direct evidence, but Hauptmann probably built the kidnapping ladder and certainly collected the ransom money). After the trial, Charles and Anne left the U.S. for Europe, and the third facet of Lindbergh's life began to emerge. Charles's tours of dictatorships were a kind of open-secret espionage mission; even if a dictator were deeply suspicious of American power, he couldn't resist showing off his most powerful air weapons to Charles A. Lindbergh, after all. The Lindberghs visited Nazi Germany, and were charmed. They visited Soviet Russia, and were appalled.

What began as an inspection of the Luftwaffe became, in 1939-41, the basis for Lindbergh's intervention into American foreign policy. He sympathized with Germany and detested Russia. For Lindbergh, the worst outcome of the War would happen if America helped defeat Germany and allowed the Soviets to occupy Eastern Europe. And certainly the Iron Curtain was not a good outcome. But though no Nazi, though not even a Bundist, Lindbergh was a native-born American anti-Semite. He simply did not register the genocidal potential of Hitler's Germany, and was not as troubled by the Holocaust as he was by Stalin's purges. Worse, in Lindbergh's analysis, "the Jews" were at the heart of FDR's war-mongering.

We know the rest. In fact, in Philip Roth's Plot against America, inspired in large part by Berg's biography, we have imagined more than the worst: a quasi-fascist Lindbergh Presidency commencing in 1941. In real life, of course, though non-interventionism was an active, even a majority, political movement in 1940, the seamier side of Lindbergh's imagination had almost no purchase on the American electorate.

Lindbergh retreated from politics after Pearl Harbor. In fact, it's hard to say what his politics really were. His father had been a progressive, isolationist Republican Congressman in the 1910s, drifting late in life into the Minnesota Farmer/Labor camp. If C.A. Lindbergh, the elder, had lived, he might have become a liberal, even a socialist (non-interventionists were prevalent on the Left, too, especially among American Socialists). After the War, Lindbergh voted for Stevenson and for LBJ. He became a tireless, radical environmentalist, wholly committed to the sustainability of human and non-human indigenous ecologies.

Lindbergh, then, was no partisan. But for a brief, callow moment he fancied himself as a deep thinker on global politics. He had, after all, seen most of the world, from a big-blue-marble perspective that few others had shared. It is a pity that his one foray into intellectual politics was so tainted with mindless prejudice.

Berg. A. Scott. Lindbergh. 1998. New York: Berkley, 1999.