President Lindbergh? Roth’s New Novel Raises Questions About Antisemitism in the 1940s–and Today

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

As we enter the final stretch of the presidential campaign, everyone seems to be talking about “The Plot Against America,” Philip Roth’s new “what if” novel about Charles Lindbergh being elected president in 1940.  Although the book is fiction, it raises important and timely questions about antisemitism and American political culture today.

Lindbergh became a national hero in 1927 by making the first solo transatlantic flight.  But what happens when a much-loved celebrity flirts with political extremism?  Lindbergh declared in 1936 that Adolf Hitler had “done much for the German people,” and he attended that year’s Olympic games in Berlin as the personal guest of Hitler’s air force chief, Field Marshal Hermann Goering.  At an official state dinner in October 1938, Goering, acting “by order of the Fuhrer,” presented Lindbergh with a prestigious medal, the Service Cross of the German Eagle.

During 1939-1941, Lindbergh emerged as the most prominent public spokesman for America First, the extreme isolationist group that opposed any U.S. action against Hitler. It was at an America First rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11, 1941, that Lindbergh delivered his most infamous speech.  He accused “the Jews” of “pressing this country toward war,” and complained about what he called “their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”

There was considerable criticism of Lindbergh’s anti-Jewish remarks.  The Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes denounced him as “the number one  Nazi fellow-traveler.”  Time magazine reported that with Lindbergh’s speech, “the America First Committee had touched the pitch of anti-Semitism and its fingers were tarred.”  Residents of Lindbergh’s hometown, Little Falls, Minnesota, removed his name from their water tower.

Yet Lindbergh’s expressions of bigotry did not result him being treated as a pariah.  Far from it.  Even though, in the years after World War II, he continued to insist he had been right in opposing U.S. action against Hitler, Lindbergh was offered honorary degrees by Dartmouth College and the University of Notre Dame, served as consultant to Air Force Secretary W. Stuart Symington as well as his successor, Harold Talbott, and was treated like royalty by presidents from both parties.  Truman chose Lindbergh to visit postwar Germany and report on its aircraft development; Eisenhower named him a Brigadier-General; Kennedy and Johnson entertained him at the White House, and Nixon repeatedly invited Lindbergh to personally accompany him at major public events, including the return of the first astronauts to walk on the moon.

The echoes of Lindbergh’s 1941 speech charging “the Jews” with dragging America into war can be heard in our own time.  During the past year, a number of prominent public figures have accused Jewish members of the Bush administration of tricking America into war against Saddam Hussein in order to help Israel.  U.S. Senator Ernest Hollings (D-South Carolina) claimed the U.S. action against Saddam was undertaken “to secure Israel.”  Television talk show host Pat Buchanan said a “cabal” had managed “to snare our country in a series of wars that are not in America’s interests.”  Former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart described the villainous Bush advisers as “ideologues” who were unable to distinguish between their loyalty “to their original homelands” (guess which one) and loyalty “to America and its national interests.”  U.S. Representative Jim Moran (D-Virginia) has made similar statements.

Like Lindbergh, neither Buchanan nor the others will ever be elected president, except perhaps in some future Philip Roth-style novel.  But they still pose a danger–especially if they are not repudiated by our leading public figures.  So far, neither of the major political parties has disowned them, and neither the president nor his opponent have condemned their incendiary remarks.  At a time when antisemitism is erupting around the world, the international community is closely watching how the United States responds.  It is the American response which sets the limits for acceptable discourse.  Failure to call antisemitism by its name, whether it is spoken by a celebrity or a congressman, lowers that standard and wrongly treats the culprits as legitimate participants in the mainstream political culture, a status they surely do not deserve. 

September 2004