On Jan. 23, 1941 — 75 years ago this week — Charles Lindbergh testified before Congress concerning his opposition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's proposed Lend-Lease bill. Lindbergh opposed American entry into World War II and feared that the Lend-Lease program would draw America into the conflict.
Charles Lindbergh became a household name in May 1927 when he became the first man to fly a plane solo across the Atlantic Ocean. His New York-to-Paris voyage lasted 33½ hours and captured the imagination of the world. Overnight, Lindbergh became the world's first media superstar. Newspaper reporters and photographers hounded the young aviator endlessly, knowing that a quote from or a photograph of “Lindy” would sell copy.
Fame proved more than just an annoyance, however. In 1932, his young son was kidnapped and murdered in a failed scheme to force Lindbergh to pay a ransom. Not long after, Lindbergh and his family moved to France where, working with doctors, the aviator invented the glass perfusion pump which made modern heart surgery possible. While in Europe, he was asked by the American military attache in Berlin, Truman Smith, to accept a German invitation to inspect the Nazi air force. Lindbergh accepted the invitation and dutifully reported his observations to the American military.
What he saw impressed him. The Germans had developed military aviation technology and expanded their air force at a remarkable pace. No nation on Earth, Lindbergh believed, could stand up to the might of Germany's Luftwaffe. During this period, he also visited the Soviet Union and was horrified at the poverty and brutality of the communist state. With war clouds looming, Lindbergh returned to the United States by the end of the 1930s.
When World War II began in September 1939, Lindbergh's conclusions appeared to be correct. Nazi Germany easily defeated Poland in a matter of weeks, and the following spring Germany invaded Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Only Great Britain stood alone against Hitler by the summer of 1940.
Roosevelt stated repeatedly that the United States intended to remain neutral, even as the government began to prepare the nation militarily and economically for the possibility of war. He also made no bones about which side America favored. The British, with their strong democratic traditions and similar concepts of civil rights seemed like the underdog in the war against the racist and totalitarian Nazi state. The American government began to trade with Britain and supply it with the goods it needed to fight. For example, in September 1940, the Untied States traded 50 WWI-era destroyers in exchange for rights to use British naval bases around the world.
Before long, however, the British empire was bankrupt and could no longer afford to buy the American goods it needed, nor was there anything of value left to trade. Shortly after Roosevelt's election to his third term in November 1940, he came up with a bold plan to help the British, Lend-Lease. Essentially, Lend-Lease stated that the United States would give Britain whatever it needed in order to fight the Nazis. Once Britain won the war, the the two countries would sit down and figure out exactly how much Britain owed the United States. Roosevelt used the analogy that if your neighbor's house is on fire you wouldn't stand around arguing about the price of your garden hose. Rather, you'd give him the hose and he could pay once the crisis was over.
In the book “Lindbergh vs. Roosevelt: The Rivalry That Divided America,” historian James P. Duffy wrote: “On Jan. 10, 1941, identical Lend-Lease bills were introduced in the House and Senate. Over the next two months, the program was passionately debated in Congress and across the country. … The true implications of the bill were immediately recognized by a delighted (British Prime Minister Winston) Churchill, who exclaimed to his private secretary that the legislation was 'tantamount to a declaration of war by the United States (on Germany).'”
In late 1940, Americans who opposed entry into World War II created the America First Committee, which sought to pressure lawmakers into remaining neutral in the conflict. Not long after its formation, Lindbergh became its most influential member. The organization also claimed future President Gerald Ford, automaker Henry Ford (no relation), politician Sargent Shriver, and others. Lindbergh began delivering speeches to massive crowds, and the America First Committee soon boasted a membership of roughly 800,000 — mostly from the Midwest.
Lindbergh understood that the economic arrangements between the United States and the Western Allies had been one of the key reasons America had entered World War I, a war his father, then a Congressman, had opposed. Now, Lindbergh seemed to see history repeating itself and hoped to stop it. Despite what many believed at the time and since, Lindbergh had no sympathy for Nazi ideology, but he believed that America ultimately had no dog in the European fight. Sooner or later, he believed, the Nazis and the Soviets would begin fighting each other and the wicked would punish the wicked, so to speak. America must look out for its interests first.
As Congress was preparing to vote on the Lend-Lease bill, Lindbergh was invited to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Jan. 23, 1941. Lindbergh's knowledge of German air power, as well as his having lived in Europe for so many years and met personally with many European leaders such as Josef Stalin and Hitler's right-hand man Hermann Goering, made the aviator something of an expert on current world affairs. Also, he was seen as the most effective voice for those in government who did not want Lend-Lease to pass.
In the book “Lindbergh,” biographer A. Scott Berg wrote: “Police had to escort (Lindbergh) into the room, which was jammed with a thousand people. Motion-picture cameras and lights were already in place, and dozens of still photographers swarmed around the table at which Lindbergh sat. He faced the committee —seventy-five-strong.”
The 38-year-old Lindbergh faced a largely antagonistic committee, with many of its members fully supporting Roosevelt's legislation. The testimony began promptly at 10 a.m. Berg notes several questions that Texas Democrat Rep. Luther A. Johnson put to the aviator and Lindbergh's responses:
Q: You are not, then, in sympathy with England's efforts to defeat Hitler?
A: I am in sympathy with the people on both sides, but I think that it would be disadvantageous for England herself, if a conclusive victory is sought.
Q: I think you are evading the question — not intentionally; but the question is very simple, whether or not you are in sympathy with England’s defense against Hitler?
A: I am in sympathy with the people and not with their aims.
Q: You do not think it is to the best interests of the United States economically as well as in the matter of defense of England to win?
A: No sir. I think that a complete victory, as I say, would mean prostration in Europe, and would be one of the worst things that could happen there and here... I believe we have an interest in the outcome of the war.
Q: On which side?
A: In a negotiated peace; we have the greatest interest.
Q: Which side would it be to our interest to win?
Britain, Lindbergh knew, simply was not powerful enough to win the war on its own, and that a complete victory was only possible with the active help of the United States. However, Lindbergh told the committee that if America entered the war, it would only make the war longer and ultimately increase the suffering of the nations already committed. The most advantageous course of action for all nations, therefore, was a negotiated settlement. At many points in his remarks the audience rose up in applause.
After 4 1/2 hours of testimony, Lindbergh was dismissed. The committee chairman, New York Democrat Sol Bloom said to Lindbergh before the proceedings adjourned, “You have made one of the best witnesses that this committee could possibly ever hear. You answered all the questions only as a Colonel Lindbergh could answer them...”
Lindbergh's testimony may seem naive, even for the day, given Hitler's track record on keeping promises. Yet the pilot who once braved the skies above the Atlantic Ocean alone spoke from the heart. His conviction, ultimately, was for peace and the security of his country, which he undoubtedly loved. A few weeks later Lindbergh testified before the Senate. This time the proceedings were less heated, but no less scrutinized. Lend-Lease passed in the House on Feb. 9, 260 to 165. The next month if passed in the Senate as well.
In June 1941, Hitler betrayed and attacked the Soviet Union, prompting the Untied States to extend Lend-Lease aid to Russia. The America First Committee disbanded within days of Japan's attack upon the United States at Pearl Harbor in December.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: email@example.com