More Than Occasional Ugliness: The Unmistakably Unheroic Life of Charles Lindbergh

The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh – by Candace Fleming, Schwartz & Wade, 2020

The purpose of this post is to raise some questions about the legacy of historical figures.  When I first heard about Candace Fleming’s young adult biography of aviator and Nazi enthusiast Charles Lindbergh, I was struck by the high degree of gentleness and ambiguity in which her subject was framed in publicity about the book.  Now that I have read the biography, I can recommend it as a very good corrective to the mythologies surrounding a man still considered a hero by many Americans. Still, I remain confused and troubled by the marketing of this book as the biography of an ambiguous figure, one with a mixed legacy to history.  Fleming has referred to Lindbergh as a “controversial figure.” Why is Lindbergh granted this special status even as Americans are actively involved, and rightly so, in questioning our country’s previous adulation of racists, misogynists, and xenophobes?  Why is Lindbergh granted this special status even as Americans are actively involved, and rightly so, in questioning our country’s previous adulation of racists, misogynists, and xenophobes? 

In an interview on Publishers Weekly, Fleming confesses that she “couldn’t quite get a handle on” Lindbergh, the American most associated with America First, the isolationist movement which advocated against aiding the British in their fight against Hitler.  Evaluating the life of the man who accepted a medal from Goering, who planned to move with his family to Nazi Germany before events made that impossible, and who threatened America’s Jews with dangerous consequences if they persisted in advocating for a war against Hitler, she allowed herself to ask “if he was even a hero at all.”  She compares him to Benjamin Franklin, apparently because early in Franklin’s career he did own two enslaved people, whom he later emancipated, eventually condemning slavery and founding one of the earliest abolition societies in the colonies. (Elsewhere she has also compared Lindbergh to Laura Ingalls Wilder and Dr. Seuss.) I asked myself: imagine a biography of Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford Forrest asking readers to weigh their heroic reputations against the evil which they perpetrated, wondering if they were heroes, and speaking about their words, as Fleming does about those of Lindbergh and his wife “in all their beauty…and their occasional ugliness.”

Fleming’s book confirms that Lindbergh’s words, and his life, were not simply tainted by “occasional ugliness.” They are defined by ugliness.  The paradox of Fleming’s response to her subject is that her book is full of reliable historical information, dramatically presented.  There are a few errors: The Immigration Act of 1924 did not directly exclude Jews; its radical reduction of immigration from Eastern Europe effectively excluded them almost completely. In spite of some minor issues, Fleming confronts directly the undeniable facts about Lindbergh.  He hated Jews. He was a white supremacist.  His actions were repeatedly cruel to everyone from family members to the most vulnerable populations in America and throughout the world. He was obsessed with his own alleged genetic superiority, a deluded belief which perhaps contributed to the three secret families he produced in addition to the one with his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  It’s all there in Fleming’s book, educating readers who may have accepted the long- refuted notion that “Lucky Lindy” was a fearless aviator whose personality captured the best of the American spirit.

Someone had to be married to this abusive man, and that person was wealthy socialite Anne Morrow.  She has always benefited from the idea, perhaps because she was herself the author of several acclaimed books, that her association with her husband was governed by the oppressive sexist norm requiring women to support their husbands’ beliefs and actions.  In fact, Fleming completely buys into this notion, stating in the interview that Morrow Lindbergh is “…extraordinary and…shows real capacity for change…I like her, can you tell?”  Actually, I don’t like her.  I don’t like the fact that she saw her husband as a victim of what today might be called “fake news,” (“He is a ‘Nazi.’…He will be punished…I feel angry and bitter…Charles is criminally misunderstood…”). I don’t like that she wrote a book in which she called Hitler “a very great man…an inspired …leader…not greedy for power.”  I don’t like that fact that when she and her husband visited Germany after the passage of the infamous Nuremberg Laws, she remarked that “the shops are luxurious,” and that the numerous homes available for sale would be wonderful places to raise her family.  Only when their Nazi hosts made particularly execrable comments about Jews did Anne become uncomfortable and “depressed,” as these compromised her strategy of avoidance. 

When evidence of the Holocaust finally became impossible for even Charles Lindbergh to avoid, he suggested that the Nazis’ treatment of Jews had been somehow excessive, in failing to balance “science” with morality; he never questioned the basic validity of eugenics.  Anne, on the other hand, expressed some degree of remorse for her pro-Nazi book, yet she continued to fully support her husband throughout the remainder of his life and career.  The concluding chapters, chronicling Anne’s caring for Charles Lindbergh during his final illness and death, are rather manipulative.  Fleming had thoroughly described Lindbergh’s crackpot obsession with immortality as part of his odious worldview; at the end of his life, she makes it seem almost sympathetic.

An author is not responsible for the reviews of her book. I am bringing attention to them because they form a consistent pattern. Kirkus Reviews read Lindbergh’s life this way: “The man who emerges is hateable, pitiable, and admirable all at the same time.”  A review on Publishers Weekly’s calls Lindbergh “a “flawed, larger-than-life man.” Did these reviewers read the same book as I did?  I will close with one less than “admirable” quote, one of many included in Fleming’s carefully researched book, from this unrepentant fascist: “Our civilization depends on a united strength…on a Western Wall of race and arms which can hold back…the infiltration of inferior blood…standing together as guardians of our common heritage.” 

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