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America's role in the world
“It is now two years since this latest European war began,” Charles Lindbergh observed in September 1941. Those two years were almost as long as the interval between the outbreak of the earlier European war in 1914 and American entry into that contest two-and-a-half years later. Lindbergh was pleased that the United States had avoided making the same mistake—intervention in a foreign war—this time around.
His listeners were pleased, too. Lindbergh had won fame as the boy-pilot who crossed the Atlantic in 1927; he was subsequently accounted an authority on air power and other aspects of military might. This day he was speaking in Des Moines, in the Midwestern heartland of American isolationism. During the 1930s, amid the Great Depression, most Americans preferred that their government tend the American garden rather than battle the weeds and pests proliferating overseas. The German attack on Poland in 1939, followed by the outbreak of general war on and around the European continent, caused some Americans of the Eastern seaboard to reconsider, but Iowans and their neighbors feared nothing from German U-boats or warplanes.
Lindbergh spoke on behalf of the isolationist America First Committee, and he applauded the good sense of its supporters even as he warned about the tests to which that good sense would be put. “There has been an ever-increasing effort to force the United States into the conflict,” he said. “That effort has been carried on by foreign interests and by a small minority of our own people, but it has been so successful that today our country stands on the verge of war.”
Exhibit A in the isolationist case was the Lend-Lease program of the Franklin Roosevelt administration. The president had cast this American aid to countries fighting the Axis as the surest means of keeping America out of the war, but it was having the opposite effect, Lindbergh said. The aid hadn’t won the war for the Allies, and they and their American supporters demanded more-direct American intervention.
Lindbergh had an opposite demand: a return to fundamental principles of American interest. “Why are we on the verge of war?” he asked. “Was it necessary for us to become so deeply involved? Who is responsible for changing our national policy from one of neutrality and independence to one of entanglement in European affairs?”
Lindbergh identified three groups as most responsible: “the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.” Each group had its reasons. “First, the British: It is obvious and perfectly understandable that Great Britain wants the United States in the war on her side. England is now in a desperate position. Her population is not large enough and her armies are not strong enough to invade the continent of Europe and win the war she declared against Germany.”
Britain had taken on more than she could handle, Lindbergh said. “Her geographical position is such that she cannot win the war by the use of aviation alone, regardless of how many planes we send her.” Lindbergh’s air expertise was in evidence here, followed at once by evidence of his inexpertise in other aspects of warfare. “Even if America entered the war, it is improbable that the Allied armies could invade Europe and overwhelm the Axis powers.”
Lindbergh repeated that a desire to involve America in the war made perfect sense from Britain’s perspective. “If England can draw this country into the war, she can shift to our shoulders a large portion of the responsibility for waging it and for paying its cost.” The prospect of American belligerence was what kept the war going. “If it were not for her hope that she can make us responsible for the war financially, as well as militarily, I believe England would have negotiated a peace in Europe many months ago, and be better off for doing so.”
He didn’t fault the British. “If we were Englishmen, we would do the same,” Lindbergh said. But Americans weren’t Englishmen. “Our interest is first in America; and as Americans, it is essential for us to realize the effort that British interests are making to draw us into their war.”
Lindbergh’s second group consisted of influential Jews. They likewise had sound reason for seeking American intervention. “It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany,” Lindbergh said. “The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race.” He reemphasized the point: “No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany.”
Yet the interests of the Jewish people were no more identical with American interests than were those of the British. “No person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy both for us and for them. Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way.” What the Jews of the world required was tolerance, Lindbergh said. “Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not.”
Lindbergh was being called an anti-Semite, as well as an Anglophobe. He had long denied the charges, and he did so again. “I am not attacking either the Jewish or the British people. Both races I admire. But I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war. We cannot blame them for looking out for what they believe to be their own interests, but we also must look out for ours.”
Lindbergh’s third group was the Roosevelt administration. Its members were Americans, of course, but their interests were not those of America, he said. The administration had its own agenda. “Its members have used the war emergency to obtain a third presidential term for the first time in American history. They have used the war to add unlimited billions to a debt which was already the highest we have ever known. And they have just used the war to justify the restriction of congressional power and the assumption of dictatorial procedures on the part of the president and his appointees.”
This usurpation was the natural consequence of the administration’s campaign of pro-war propaganda, Lindbergh said. “The power of the Roosevelt administration depends upon the maintenance of a wartime emergency. The prestige of the Roosevelt administration depends upon the success of Great Britain, to whom the president attached his political future at a time when most people thought that England and France would easily win the war. The danger of the Roosevelt administration lies in its subterfuge. While its members have promised us peace, they have led us to war.”
The subterfuge of the administration was stark in hindsight. “In 1939, we were told that we should increase our air corps to a total of 5,000 planes,” Lindbergh said. “Congress passed the necessary legislation. A few months later, the administration told us that the United States should have at least 50,000 planes for our national safety. But almost as fast as fighting planes were turned out from our factories, they were sent abroad, although our own air corps was in the utmost need of new equipment; so that today, two years after the start of war, the American army has a few hundred thoroughly modern bombers and fighters—less, in fact, than Germany is able to produce in a single month. Ever since its inception, our arms program has been laid out for the purpose of carrying on the war in Europe, far more than for the purpose of building an adequate defense for America.”
The momentum toward war continued to increase. “We have become involved in the war from practically every standpoint except actual shooting,” Lindbergh said. “Only the creation of sufficient ‘incidents’ yet remains.”
These would surely come. “Only one thing holds this country from war,” Lindbergh said. “That is the rising opposition of the American people. Our system of democracy and representative government is on test today as it has never been before. We are on the verge of a war in which the only victor would be chaos and prostration. We are on the verge of a war for which we are still unprepared, and for which no one has offered a feasible plan for victory—a war which cannot be won without sending our soldiers across the ocean to force a landing on a hostile coast against armies stronger than our own.”
Catastrophe was imminent, but not quite inevitable. “We are on the verge of war, but it is not yet too late to stay out,” Lindbergh said. “It is not too late to show that no amount of money or propaganda or patronage can force a free and independent people into war against its will. It is not yet too late to retrieve and to maintain the independent American destiny that our forefathers established in this new world.”
On this point Lindbergh was wrong. It was too late. The American people had already made their decision, by electing Roosevelt to a third term. Without knowing everything that their action entailed, they placed their country’s fate in the president’s hands. At the time Lindbergh spoke in Des Moines, Roosevelt had concluded that America must take the lead in the fight against fascism; his policies were driving Germany and Japan to decide they had no choice but to strike out against the United States. Within months they did so, and the war came to America.
Pearl Harbor and events of the following years made Lindbergh and the isolationists look dangerously naïve. Hitler proved more the monster than they or almost anyone else had imagined a world leader could be. The result was that “isolationism” became a tarring brush in American political life, connoting everything from wishful idiocy to arrant anti-Semitism.
The tar continued to stick even after the world discovered that Joseph Stalin, America’s Russian ally in the anti-German war, had murdered more people than Hitler did, and that Mao Zedong, an American ally against Japan, had outdone both in deaths inflicted. World War II remained the “good war” to millions of Americans even as it turned out to be the prologue to Cold War, a generations-long struggle that periodically threatened the human race with nuclear annihilation.
Today isolationism as an epithet has lost much of its sting. The national-security industry continues to shun it, but it holds no terror for the populists who elected Donald Trump in 2016. He and they resurrected the America First banner and waved it proudly.
Inside the Beltway the question remains as it has been since Pearl Harbor: What form should American leadership in the world take? Outside the Beltway the older question—Should America take the leadership role?—has resurfaced. Lindbergh lives again.