Ben Lewis

February 18, 2020

On Criticizing Lindbergh

I apparently angered some people with my assessment of Charles Lindbergh during my recent appearance on The Tom Woods Show. Specifically, some listeners were annoyed that I found anything objectionable in Lindbergh's speech in Des Moines, Iowa on September 11, 1941 in which he cited "the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration" as the three main groups who were at that point pushing the United States towards intervention in the war in Europe. To those for whom my qualified criticism was unacceptable, Lindbergh was simply speaking the truth, particularly in his reference to Jewish influences, and is therefore due praise, not condemnation.

Now, before I elaborate on my position, it's worth recalling exactly what I said, which doesn't seem unduly harsh. I told Tom that I think it is fair to criticize Lindbergh for his comments, but that I don't agree with the common claim that they reflected an underlying anti-Semitism, particularly in light of the lack of evidence of such in Lindbergh's other public speeches and private correspondence. Much less does the speech validate the claim, common at the time and widely held since, that anti-Semitism was the driving force behind the entire non-interventionist movement.

As for my criticisms, I'll start by saying that I am constitutionally uncomfortable with treating entire groups of people as monolithic in their attitudes and opinions, as Lindbergh did in his Des Moines speech. Therefore, his approach was fundamentally one that I would not have taken, and that I find problematic. I grant that this is not a trait shared by everyone, especially online commenters with their hot takes and truth bombs, and I allow that it is possible to take an approach that is different than mine in good faith. But good manners dictate neither giving nor taking unnecessary offense, so not only do I disagree with Lindbergh's method, I detest the behavior of militantly anti-PC folks, who make a great show of being as offensive as possible, as much as I do those of the SJW thought police.

Now, regarding the content of the speech, I think it can be criticized on three grounds: truth, propriety, and strategy. First, there's the question of the truthfulness of Lindbergh's comments. Now, there's certainly a degree (though I'm not aware of any polls that determined the exact degree) to which the comment that American Jews were supportive of intervention was true and, as Lindbergh pointed out, there was certainly good reason for that sentiment. However, that was not the extent of Lindbergh's comments. He added that the problem with Jewish support for the war "lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government." Here Lindbergh's truthfulness becomes more debatable. Bill Kauffman, certainly no enemy of America First, wrote that "Lindbergh spoke artlessly" in these comments. "The Jewish 'presence' in government," Kauffman explained, "was more significant than that of, say, Greeks, but less than the Irish," and was therefore overblown. Furthermore, the Jewish influence in motion pictures that troubled Lindbergh was mitigated by the fact that Jewish filmmakers "shied from making pro-war films," which not only exposed the error in assuming that group identity dictates individual behavior, but also contrasted sharply with the propaganda efforts of some British people in Hollywood.

Additionally, it seems that Americans at the time were more immune to war propaganda than they had been during World War I. Herbert Hoover observed that "The appeal to crusade for freedom, for independence of nations, for lasting peace; the same pictures of atrocities; the fanning of hate and, above all, the mass of lies in stimulation of fear of invasion - they were all identical. But in World War II the people believed much less of it and they believed much more that they were being deliberately pushed into the war." Historian Thomas Fleming, too, remarked that the long-term effect of World War I propaganda was to make people distrust the reports of Nazi atrocities once World War II commenced. It's therefore not at all clear that it was propagandists who were most important in moving the country toward intervention, particularly when compared to the efforts of Roosevelt and his administration. Interestingly, Lindbergh also cited capitalists and communists as secondary groups pushing for war, but one or both of these groups would seem, in retrospect, to have had a larger role in the movement toward intervention than the one Lindbergh assigned to Jewish influences. This is particularly so when you consider the highly-placed communist spies within Roosevelt's administration.

There is also room to question the propriety of Lindbergh's comments. Frankly, this was a topic that was either best approached with the maximum amount of sensitivity, or not at all. Lindbergh's critics may have exaggerated when they analogized his comments with Hitler's rhetoric, but it's certainly not irrational to question the wisdom of inviting those comparisons. To speak "artlessly" of a group that has not only historically endured persecution, but which was being heavily persecuted at the time reflected a lapse of judgment or manners, either of which is damaging to a movement attempting to navigate a complex subject. It's not simply that Lindbergh referenced (or overstated) Jewish influences on the interventionist movement. He lumped Jewish and British influences together when he said "We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction."

But there are obvious problems with this comparison. As Kauffman said, "the British are 'other peoples,' but American Jews are American." It was inappropriate to talk about the American Jewish community as if it was a separate political or national entity. Such rhetoric had the tendency to validate the claim that Lindbergh and the non-interventionists did not view Jewish Americans as equal partners in the defense of America. For this reason, the argument that his comments about Jewish influences were as inoffensive as those regarding British influences seems, to me, false.

Simply put, Lindbergh, given the political environment and what was happening around the world, should have known better than to address the topic in the way that he did, and if he didn't have the capability of being more precise, he shouldn't have addressed it at all. Jewish non-interventionists played prominent roles in the movement, and were perfectly capable of addressing arguments against intervention to their coreligionists. If Lindbergh felt compelled to broach the topic personally, there were better ways to have done it. Norman Thomas believed that although "Colonel Lindbergh is not anti-Semitic," his comments "should have been put before a private conference with Jews, not a mass meeting and the radio public."

Finally, there's the question of strategy. It's not entirely clear what Lindbergh hoped to accomplish with his Des Moines speech, but what is clear is that he expected to be labeled a racist and to bring condemnation on himself and America First. He certainly knew that interventionists were keen to associate the entire non-interventionist movement with its worst proponents, like the racist Father Charles Coughlin and the fascist German-American Bund.

So why give them the opportunity? Was the content of Lindbergh's speech so important, so convincing, so well-stated, that it justified the resulting controversy? Given the problems already discussed, and what happened after the speech, it hardly seems so. Wayne Cole, long a respected authority on the American First Committee, wrote that "Whatever one concludes about the sincerity, accuracy, or wisdom of Lindbergh's statements, his Des Moines speech was an extremely serious political blunder. It dealt America First and the noninterventionst movement a staggering blow. It gave the interventionists their best opportunity to discredit Lindbergh and America First. The deluge of criticism was so all-encompassing that it dwarfed all succeeding noninterventionist efforts in the few weeks remaining before Pearl Harbor." Cole added that the speech attracted to America First the support of enthusiastically racist cranks, while depriving it of the support of reasonable people, some of whom had previously supported it. And for what?

Lindbergh's defenders - and, apparently, my detractors - would seemingly respond "for the truth."

But even if there weren't the aforementioned issues with the speech, this would still not be a valid justification. This mentality, that all you need is the truth, reflects an enduring problem in the libertarian/conservative world, namely the incorrect assumption that it only matters what you say, it doesn't matter how you say it. This brings to mind Richard Weaver's observation that an argument that is all dialectic and no rhetoric, all "facts and logic" with no attempt to make it appealing to an audience that is unconvinced (as opposed to one that already agrees with you), is ineffective at its purpose. Persuasion is an art, and pretending that you can go around offending whichever group you want without affecting the success of your proselytizing efforts is the behavior of a person who either doesn't know how to argue well, or whose thinly-veiled animosities undermine even the attempt to do so. Yet this is exactly how a lot of modern folks approach difficult topics, as if the correct response to leftist grievance mongers is to give them more ammunition with which to make their accusations appear accurate.

Granted, this is partly a question of style, and it cannot be denied that there is a very real problem with people on the left disingenuously attempting to restrict every conversation to accusations of bigotry. But it seems to me that a mature person can both disagree with these methods and not respond to them in kind. A position based in principle doesn't need oversimplified arguments, and attempting to beat SJW's at their own collectivist game is a losing proposition. Despite what you may read in comments sections, intentionally and unnecessarily provoking entire people groups to suspicion is not the only way to stay off the 3x5 card of allowable opinion.

If there is a lesson that Lindbergh and the America First Committee teaches us, beyond the intricate case they made against war, it is that a cause can be fatally damaged by its own proponents when they treat sensitive topics carelessly. Because of Lindbergh, untrue accusations have hounded not just the America First Committee, but all right-leaning antiwar movements since. A year or so ago, a hawkish guest told Tucker Carlson that he was acting like Charles Lindbergh because Carlson thought it inadvisable to risk war with Russia over the Democrats' fantasies of collusion with the Trump campaign. The antiwar right, it seems, has still not escaped Lindbergh's long, obfuscating shadow.

That much, but far from all, of the response to Lindbergh's speech was manufactured outrage by the interventionists is by now beside the point. It is impossible, I believe, to defend Lindbergh's strategy, and even his truthfulness and propriety can fairly be called into question. The fact that America First's valid arguments have been overwhelmed by questions about their motivations is tragic, a tragedy exceeded by the fact that this "deluge of criticism" was largely avoidable had Lindbergh not delivered this speech. It's odd that some people today seem intent on not only categorically defending his error, but endlessly repeating it.

About the author

Ben is a contributing editor for Bastion Magazine. In addition to Bastion, his articles have appeared at a variety of online outlets, including the Tenth Amendment Center and The Patriot Post. He and his family live in the last refuge for traditional manners, the American Midwest.

more from the blog