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Good riddance, Mr. Lindbergh

The confusion of travelers to the Minneapolis airport gives the Metropolitan Airport Commission an ideal opportunity to eliminate the Lindbergh name from all prominently displayed signs.  (A MAC committee voted July 8 to fund new signage directing traffic to Terminal 1 and Terminal 2; on July 20 the full commission will vote on the plan.) For many people, seeing the name “Lindbergh” on public signs makes them cringe. Though admittedly bland, the new directional signs will not elicit a negative first impression of our fine city.

Despite his contributions to aviation and land conservation, many Americans can’t forget what he didn’t do: recant the anti-Semitic language he spewed prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. His diatribes were common knowledge when the airport commissioners decided to honor him in 1958. Although Lindbergh published numerous books, articles and diaries, not once, in any of these published works, does he express regret or remorse for his actions.

In Scott Berg’s biography, “Lindbergh,” we learn that Lindbergh “shared the repulsion that democratic peoples felt in viewing the demagoguery of Hitler, the controlled elections, the secret police.” But yet he felt “that I was seeing in Germany, despite the crudeness of its form, the inevitable alternative to decline — a challenge based more on the drive to achieve success despite established ‘right’ and law.”  

His cold, isolationist views led President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, to suggest he have a heart transplant, and earned him the nicknames Lone Eagle and Lone Ostrich. Lindbergh contended that all parties behaved despicably during World War II and proclaimed, “Judge not that ye be not judged. … We who claimed that the German was defiling humanity in his treatment of the Jew, were doing the same thing in our treatment of the Jap.”

A fascination with eugenics
The airport commissioners were also aware of Lindbergh’s creepy fascination with eugenics. Scott Berg noted Lindbergh was “obsessed with improving the quality of life for future generations” and never tired of discussing the topic of reproduction. Lindbergh stressed the “critical importance of genetic inheritance” in a 1966 letter to his daughter: “If I had to choose but one thing I could impress on my children from whatever wisdom I have gained in life it would be the importance of genetics in mating.”

What the airport commissioners didn’t know when deciding to honor Lindbergh was that the Lone Ostrich wasn’t so lonely after all. In 2003 came the shocking details that Lindbergh had two mistresses in Germany — conveniently sisters — and DNA testing proved he fathered three with Brigitte Hesshaimer. A 2005 book — “The Secret Life of Charles A. Lindbergh,” written in conjunction with Brigitte’s offspring — said he had also fathered two children with Brigitte’s sister, Marietta, and two more with his German personal secretary, who lived with the sisters.

The three descendents waited until their mother’s death (and that of Mrs. Lindbergh) before coming forward with the hidden correspondence between Lindbergh and Brigitte Hesshaimer. It’s uncertain whether Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who built a career writing about her unsatisfying marriage, would have viewed the withholding of this information as a gift. Lonely and depressed, when she sought psychiatric care in an attempt to understand her marriage, her husband chastised her. Charles Lindbergh held the conviction that those seeking psychiatric care exhibited a weakness of character and believed “mental discipline” was the answer to extinguishing any negative thoughts from the mind.  

Knowledge may have been preferable
Perhaps knowledge of his mistresses and illegitimate children would have made her feel less like a crazy person. Her psychiatrist certainly was suspicious that something was amiss when he told her “compulsive outward orderliness was a compensation for inward disorderliness.” At her husband’s urging, Anne Lindbergh discontinued her psychiatric treatment.

Less than two weeks before his death in 1974 of leukemia, Lindbergh called his publisher from his death bed, furnished him with materials and asked him to piece together an autobiography with a specific title, “An Autobiography of Values,” which was published in 1978.

Naming public spaces after human beings is always a risky endeavor, but remaining silent after learning the truth is perpetuating false hero worship. It’s time to take the halo off Charles Lindbergh and tell our children that a lying, polygamist hypocrite and Nazi sympathizer is not someone they should aspire to emulate. To those people complaining that by changing the signs to assist travelers, the airport commissioners would be succumbing to the “dumbing down” of society, I ask: Who exactly is the dummy?

Susan Gray is a mother, writer and urban explorer who lives in the East Harriet neighborhood of Minneapolis.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 07/15/2009 - 08:29 am.

    Wow! A “lying, polygamist hypocrite and Nazi sympathizer.” I’d give the writer more credence if she provided more specifics. E.g., an example of the anti-Semitic remarks, the date of his comparison of the Holocaust to American atrocities committed against the Japanese, an example of Lindbergh’s “creepy fascination with eugenics”, among other things.

    Lindbergh was, as are we all, a creature of his times. Anti-Semitism, like racial and ethinic bigotry directed at numerous other groups, was widespread in early 20th century America. The United States did, in fact, engage in horrific slaughter in WWII, including the terroristic fire bombing of civilian populations. Eugenics, which was ultimately perverted by many including governments here in the U.S., found followers throughout society, including Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes, H. G. Wells, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Emile Zola, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, John Harvey Kellogg, Winston Churchill, Linus Pauling and Sidney Webb.

    Lindbergh presumably was honored in this instance because of his exploits in the air and his involvement with commercial aviation. If there is a problem with this it may lie more in our refusal to accept that feet of clay are a universal commodity.

  2. Submitted by Myles Spicer on 07/15/2009 - 09:39 am.

    A fine article, well written and so true. I have three personal comments about Lindbergh. First, as a youngster during WWII, I recall my father railing against Lindbergh for extolling Hitler even before the war. Lindbergh admired Hitler not only for his disdain for the Jews, but for his autocratic style of governing, and was a supporter of the American Nazi movement.

    Secondly, early in my career, we had a condo in Maui as a winter retreat. On the island, Lindbergh was regarded as a strange recluse who lived on an obscure part of the island barely accessible by car. My impression of him continued to be tarnished.

    Finally, as a pilot myself, I like to study the history of air flight. What is often forgotten is that Lindbergh was NOT the first to fly the Atantic non stop in a fixed wing aircraft. Indeed, that was done 8 year earlier in 1919 by two military aviators. Lindbergh’s fame came because he did it solo — thus, while his feat was courageous, unique and bold, it was also a test of his ability to stay awake as much as it was a test of airmanship.

    I hate the waste of money on what may be a less than useful venture; but having said that, Terminal 1 is fine with me.

  3. Submitted by Tim Walker on 07/15/2009 - 09:44 am.

    Ms. Gray writes: ‘Lindbergh contended that all parties behaved despicably during World War II and proclaimed, “Judge not that ye be not judged. … We who claimed that the German was defiling humanity in his treatment of the Jew, were doing the same thing in our treatment of the Jap.”‘

    I think all sides *did* behave despicably in WWII. The Axis atrocities don’t need repeating here, so I’ll list a few Allied atrocities: the firebombing of Dresden, the imprisonment of German-Americans and Japanese-Americans without just cause (based only on ethnicity), and the two atomic bombs dropped on civilian populations in Japan.

    That the Germans killed Jews in their camps and that the Americans only imprisoned American citizens of the “wrong” ethnicity were both evil, differing only in their degree of evilness.

  4. Submitted by Terry Nagle on 07/15/2009 - 09:44 am.

    We each, to varying degrees, reflect the mores of our times. Some rise above and reach beyond commonly accepted prejudices. Others, in spite of the gifts of time and resources, seem mired in hate and intolerance and sadly lack the capacity to examine and revise earlier held beliefs. It is time, it is well past time, to downplay the name Lindberg at Minnesota’s gateway to thousands of visitors and residents.

  5. Submitted by Danny McConnell on 07/15/2009 - 11:01 am.

    By that logic, I guess all references to Washington and Jefferson should be removed from public places, they were slaveholders after all. Benjamin Franklin had several mistresses himself, should we remove all references of him? Why hasn’t the Nobel Prize been stripped from Dr. James Watson, or his honorary degrees from Harvard etc.?

    Each individual has faults. Yes, some of them more extreme than others. I would counter, Ms. Gray, that we should “take the halo off” of every public figure, as nobody is perfect.

    Lindbergh’s name isn’t on a foreign relations museum or a human rights monument, its on an airport, where his contribution is, undeniably, quite significant. I don’t believe that the only skill required to fly across the Atlantic is the “ability to stay awake,” especially in 1927.

    Let the name stay and how about we donate the $2.2 million to alleviating world hunger. By doing so, perhaps we can all, as Minnesotans, serve as better examples for our children.

  6. Submitted by Jon Larson on 07/16/2009 - 05:31 am.

    I often wonder at the political motivations for those who seem to think they need to bash Charles Lindbergh. Nothing is accomplished by this.

    Lindbergh was possibly the most public figure of the 20th century. His views on everything are easily available. One need not rely on secondary sources for their information because Lindbergh wrote big fat books about himself.

    I think the reason we really have to put up with nonsense like Ms. Gray’s is because there is a bigger agenda here. We must discredit Lindbergh, NOT for what he got wrong in his life, but what he got right. And some of things Lindbergh got VERY right include his contention that war is unspeakably evil and the aerospace industry helped make it even worse.

    Lindbergh must be discredited because that also helps discredit America First–the largest and most effective peace movement in USA history. Can’t have old-fashioned American “isolationism” rear its ugly head, now can we. And we certainly cannot have USA’s most famous aviator question the validity of conducting human affairs from above.

    Ms. Gray. I must warn you. If you ever bring up your ignorance about the life and times of Lindbergh in a conversation with me, be prepared to listen to a two-hour lecture on why your goofy narrative is nothing more than fourth-rate slander.

  7. Submitted by Kathleen Winters on 07/16/2009 - 09:10 am.

    Of all people, Anne and Charles Lindbergh would approve our airport sign change to Terminal 1, rather than bearing the Lindbergh name. Neither sought publicity throughout their lives, and the change, if accepted, will aid currently confused travelers. As aviators and explorers, the couple recognized the importance of signposts.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and replies, but to correct a few discrepancies: Charles flew solo from New York to Paris, 3,600 miles, compared to the much shorter distance the British airmen flew from Newfoundland to Ireland; and Anne did not build a “career writing about her unsatisfactory marriage.” You could say I’m intimately acquainted with the Lindberghs because I’m the author of a biography about Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Yes, our heroes have feet of clay, and their fall from the lofty pedestal on which we place them disappoints us.

  8. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 07/18/2009 - 05:50 am.

    ‘Hero’ is such a dangerous label. Setting people up on this pedestal just positions them for a tumble. Labels like ‘Aviation Pioneer’ are much more specific and less subjective. One person’s hero can be another’s scoundrel – or felon.

    But I still don’t understand how a name change will help prevent 20,000 people from going to the wrong airport. Is it because the names Lindbergh and Humphrey are too long to print on tickets and airline data, but 1 and 2 will be included?

    When I’m driving to the airport, I can remember that my departure terminal is either Terminal 1 or Terminal 2! How will that help me to get to the correct terminal?

    And did the MAC do any scientific testing to determine if this name change with a 2.2Million sign cost will actually solve the problem? Is there any chance it could amplify the problem of people going to the wrong terminal?

  9. Submitted by Maria Giannuzzi on 06/23/2020 - 08:48 am.

    Yes, the old “feet of clay” excuse. Only it doesn’t apply to Lindbergh. How easy it is to overlook or gloss over the sins committed by the famous, rich and well-connected. How easy it is to assail the sins of the poor, the humble and the immigrant. It’s easy to honor a “hero” and downplay his “flaws.” Much more difficult to see Lindbergh as the disordered character he was.

    No, his fame as an aviator because of one transatlantic flight does not make up for the fact that he allowed, even encouraged, the unfair investigation and trial that resulted in the conviction and execution of Hauptmann.

    Lindbergh refused to take responsibility for his actions. He depended on America, including those who have commented on this opinion piece, to buy into his “hero” narrative. The media used him (and his poor dead baby) and he used the media–newspapers and books–to craft that hero story and it still goes on today. We worship the story rather than see the ugly truth of our own failure to take responsibility–Bruno Hauptmann, Sacco and Vanzetti, George Floyd.

    It’s time to stop being Minnesota Nice and become Minnesota Truth.

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