[April 16th marks the 150th anniversary of aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright’s birth. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of key moments and figures in aviation history, leading up to a weekend post on the Wright Brothers themselves!]
On how history can overshadow history, and why we should partly resist that trend.
I think it’s fair to say that Charles Lindbergh, one of the true aviation pioneers in American history, is remembered in our collective narratives at least as well (if not, indeed, much more fully) for two stories that had nothing whatsoever to do with his flying abilities and achievements. First, there was the horrifying March 1932 abduction and murder of Lindbergh (and wife Anne Spencer Morrow)’s 20-month old son Charles Augustus, a true crime story that gripped the nation both for the 10 weeks that Charles was missing and again after the 1934 arrest and trial of Bruno Hauptmann (a prosecution that led to a new law deeming kidnapping across state lines a federal offense). And then, less than a decade later, there was Lindbergh’s 1938 acceptance of a German medal of honor from Nazi leader Hermann Goering, and his subsequent opposition to U.S. entrance into World War II through his leadership of the American First Committee, an openly isolationist, xenophobic, and anti-semitic organization. Although Lindbergh would go on to fly numerous missions once the U.S. had entered the war, after these dual 1930s histories he would always at the very least remain connected to such broader cultural, social, and political issues alongside his aviation advances and successes.
That’s not particularly fair when it comes to the true crime story—not only because it tells us nothing about Lindbergh as a historical figure or a man, but also because placing that story too much at the center of our collective memories seems to replicate the grisly fascination with a missing and then dead child (one of far too many such true crime fascinations in our cultural history). But the America First history is a far different story. Lindbergh’s association with—really his leading, spokesperson status in—that movement reflects deeply his attitudes and beliefs, his close connection to the Nazi regime in Germany, his actions and activism on behalf of an exclusionary vision of American identity and community. While of course those beliefs of his may have evolved over time, and we can and should consider that question (and thus his World War II service, among other factors) as part of this conversation, the late 1930s and early 1940s were a pivotal moment in American and world history, and Lindbergh aligned himself very fully and vocally with some of the darkest and most destructive forces in that moment. We can’t possibly remember his life and public career without putting that alignment front and center, not only for the sake of an accurate assessment of the man’s role in and influence on America but also because “America First” has, like anti-semitism, returned with a vengeance in our present moment.
Yet at the same time, there’s another way of looking at Lindbergh’s America First alignment in relationship to his aviation achievements. Lindbergh was far from the only isolationist and anti-semitic voice in early 1940s America; the St. Louis and its Jewish refugee passengers were turned away by forces far bigger and more widespread than Charles Lindbergh, after all. On the other hand, Lindbergh was quite literally the first person to make a solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean (on May 20-21, 1927, ironically in a plane named The Spirt of St. Louis), a pioneering and courageous aviation achievement that distinguished him from all of his peers and contemporaries and changed the course of transportation history. History isn’t a competition or a zero-sum game; the courageous moment doesn’t cancel out the horrific one, and we can and should work to remember both as part of Lindbergh’s story. But it’s also important that we remember America First and its bigoted and exclusionary attitudes as a far too widespread phenomenon, one certainly exemplified by but by no means limited to Charles Lindbergh. Whereas when Lindbergh boarded that plane in May 1927 and set off across the Atlantic, he was both literally and figuratively alone, and that’s worth remembering as well.
Next aviation history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other aviation histories you’d highlight?
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