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This week in history: Lindbergh gives infamous 'Who are the war agitators?' speech

Charles A. Lindbergh is shown in this 1927 file photo with his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, with which he made the first solo crossing of the atlantic from west to east, the same year.
Charles A. Lindbergh is shown in this 1927 file photo with his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, with which he made the first solo crossing of the atlantic from west to east, the same year.
Associated Press

On Sept. 11, 1941, Charles Lindbergh gave his notorious “Who are the war agitators?” speech in Des Moines, Iowa. Designed to persuade Americans to stay neutral in World War II, the speech ultimately backfired and Lindbergh was painted as a Nazi-sympathizer and anti-Semite.

After his historic 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, the “Lone Eagle” became the world's first media celebrity who had to contend with virtual round the clock surveillance by reporters and photographers. Newspapers featuring Lindbergh quotes, photos or news sold well, and fame brought with it tragic consequences. In 1932, his toddler son was kidnapped and murdered, and soon after Lindbergh and his wife decided to move to Europe.

Living for years in France, Lindbergh continued to visit nations around the world. Beginning in 1936 and continuing for the next few years, Lindbergh visited Germany several times. The idea had been the brainchild of the American military attaché in Berlin, Truman Smith. Germany had been developing its air force, the dreaded Luftwaffe, in secret since 1935. Smith had a hunch, however, that the Nazis could not resist showing it off to the world's greatest aviator.

As Smith predicted, the Nazis allowed Lindbergh to see some of their newest planes and production methods, intelligence he promptly reported back to the U.S. military. Hermann Goering, Hitler's right-hand man, even bestowed upon Lindbergh the Order of the German Eagle, a special medal in honor of his historic 1927 flight. Lindbergh had accepted many such medals from governments around the world.

What Lindbergh saw in Germany, however, impressed him greatly. Germany's aeronautical prowess was second-to-none, and Lindbergh came to believe that in any future war Germany would be victorious largely because of its air power. For that reason, he began to speak for peace among the nations of Western Europe.

In a recent article titled “Air Man,” detailing the life of U.S. Air Force General Henry “Hap” Arnold, historian Mark Wolverton quotes a November 1938 letter from Lindbergh to the general: “Germany is undoubtedly the most powerful nation in the world in military aviation and her margin of leadership is increasing with each month that passes. In a number of fields the Germans are already ahead of us and they are rapidly cutting down whatever lead we now hold in many others.”

Besides, Lindbergh believed the real enemy lay further to the east. In August 1938, Lindbergh visited the Soviet Union, and Stalin's “worker's paradise” struck him as a bleak police state that threatened the peace of the world. He believed that a strong Germany in central Europe could be a good thing if it kept the communist beast at bay.

In September 1939, Adolf Hitler's Wehrmacht overran Poland. It would be more than two years before Pearl Harbor brought the United States into what by then had expanded into a world conflict. During that time, most Americans felt that their country should remain neutral in the conflict, and they became known as “isolationists.” Several isolationist groups began to appear around the country, and the largest and most successful by far was Lindbergh's own movement, the America First Committee.

Not long after the war in Europe started, Lindbergh wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly titled, “What Substitute for War?” In his biography “Lindbergh,” A. Scott Berg quotes the article:

“This present war is a continuation of the old struggle among western nations for the material benefits of the world. It is a struggle by the German people to gain territory and power. It is a struggle by the English and French to prevent another European nation from becoming strong enough to demand a share in influence and empire.”

Lindbergh also wrote that Germany “alone can either dam the Asiatic hordes or form the spearhead of their penetration into Europe.” For Lindbergh, the war boiled down to a petty contest for resources and another round in the endless cycle of war that had been Europe's lot since the fall of Rome.

In addition to Lindbergh, the America First Committee boasted many celebrities including Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Alice Roosevelt Longworth (daughter of Teddy Roosevelt), and controversial radio personality Father Charles Coughlin. Future President Gerald Ford was also a member. At its height, the America First Committee boasted 800,000 members, mostly from the Midwest. Rallies frequently featured a portrait of George Washington, who had warned against America entering into entangling alliances in his farewell address.

After the 1940 fall of France and the remorseless German pounding of British cities during the 1940-41 “Blitz,” however, many Americans' attitudes began to change. As public opinion polls showed that more and more Americans were favoring intervention against Germany by the summer of 1941, Lindbergh and the America Firsters decided to step up their campaign for continued neutrality.

Addressing a large crowd at the Des Moines Coliseum on Sept. 11, Lindbergh said that there were in fact three groups agitating for America to enter the war. The Franklin Roosevelt administration, Lindbergh believed, was acting against American interests in attempting to drag the nation into war. The second group Lindbergh identified was the British, who without American aide could not indefinitely withstand Germany's military power.

Finally, Lindbergh said that the third group that was agitating for America to join the war were the Jews. Lindbergh said:

“It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race. No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look upon their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy, both for us and for them.”

Lindbergh went on to say that it was in the Jews' best interest to oppose intervention in the war. Further, he said that he admired both the Jews and the British, and understood their motivations in wanting America to join the war. Nevertheless, he believed they were wrong.

In treating America's Jews as a monolithic bloc, and further that their interests were antithetical to America's, to say nothing of the conspiratorial tones in which he (perhaps unwittingly) painted them, Lindbergh trod a line very close to anti-Semitism. Many Americans believed that Lindbergh, who had never returned the Nazi medal Goering had given to him, had in fact showed his hand as a Nazi sympathizer.

Berg noted the hostile response in virtually all quarters to Lindbergh's speech: “Few men in American history had ever been so reviled. One columnist stated that the Lone Eagle had plummeted from 'Public Hero No. 1' to “Public Enemy No. 1.' … Presidential Secretary Stephen Early commented only that Lindbergh's words sounded like those pouring out of Berlin. … (1940 Republican presidential candidate) Wendell Wilkie called the Des Moines speech 'the most un-American talk made in my time by any person of national reputation'; New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, on his way to becoming the party's new standard bearer, called it 'an inexcusable abuse of the right of freedom of speech.' Jewish groups demanded retractions, as did Catholics and Protestants. … Rabbi Irving F. Reichart of Temple Emanu-El of San Francisco commented that 'Hitler himself could not have delivered a more diabolical speech.’ ”

Whether or not Lindbergh was in fact an anti-Semite is still debated, though beyond his words that night one would be hard pressed to find any evidence of it. Regardless of his beliefs, the charges of anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathy stuck. Lindbergh's credibility was damaged dramatically. A few days after the Dec. 7 Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the America First Committee voted to dissolve itself and most of its members pledged to help the war effort.

Though President Roosevelt, nursing a grudge against the aviator for his attacks upon his administration, had forbidden Lindbergh from serving in uniform during World War II, the “Lone Eagle” managed to secretly fly several combat missions in the Pacific as a civilian defense contractor. Lindbergh died in 1974, never fully escaping the charges leveled at him after the Des Moines speech.

Exactly 60 years to the day of the speech, America would be thrust into another world conflict when it was attack by radical Islamic terrorists.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. He has also appeared on many local stages, including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: