America has a long and troubled history of public figures attacking religious, national, racial, and ideological groups for political gain, but rarely have individuals managed to stay in the spotlight for long while doing so. Eventually they push their attacks over a line beyond which even some of their followers refuse to go. Iowa just showed that voters will only go so far in supporting those who scapegoat others. Donald Trump had stirred up the nation by deriding immigrants and calling for “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and other measures against Islamic organizations in this country. He seemingly had a lock on the Republican primary there, but failed to win.
In raising the ominous specter of people whom he declared other than fully American undermining the country, Trump brought out huge crowds and won at least noisy support. He also set off a backlash against him and his views—and Iowa shut him down.
Iowa has played this role before. After World War II broke out in Europe in September 1939, while the United States watched anxiously from the sidelines, many voices rose up to condemn as un-American people who sought to intervene against Hitler and Japan. Most prominent among them was another celebrity who joined the political fray, Charles Lindbergh. Like Trump, the famed trans-Atlantic solo pilot’s racially tinged, anti-immigrant rhetoric seemed to sweep up America. Like Trump, Iowa brought him up short.
At the time, Lindbergh was the most recognizable and respected American other than President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His previously seemingly impossible feat of flying solo in a single nonstop leap over the ocean made him an instant American icon. “The Lone Eagle” was among the first truly global celebrities.
Even before the start of World War II, Lindbergh, who previously had loathed public appearances and detested the media, became a leader in the opposition to intervention in the war by the then-neutral United States. He had made two extended visits to Nazi Germany, a country where the success of Hitler’s dictatorship, particularly pushing advances in aviation, came to fascinate him. He and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, even made plans to move to the outskirts of Berlin. He felt convinced that Americans need not fear Hitler. He found a far greater danger lay in potentially intervening in what he termed Europe’s “fratricidal war.” In a November 1939 Reader’s Digest essay, portentously titled “Aviation, Geography and Race,” he wrote that the battle for European dominance was an internal power struggle and that, should America get involved in the war, the nation risked what he called “race suicide” in cataclysmic violence powered by aerial weaponry. He believed that “the White race” faced a far greater peril from “a pressing sea of Yellow, Black, and Brown” on Western European and American borders. Seventy-five years later, Trump spoke time and again to similar fears of darker skinned immigrants pressing against U.S. borders.
Eschewing mainstream politics like Trump, Lindbergh became the spokesman for the country’s leading anti-intervention organization, the Committee for America First, which claimed more than 800,000 paying members in 450 chapters. Tens of thousands turned out to hear Lindbergh speak at America First rallies held coast to coast, with millions more listening in on the radio and watching him on newsreels. A Chicago talk drew close to 40,000 people. A speech at the Hollywood Bowl brought out the largest audience for a political event up to that point in California history. So many people turned out for an America First rally at New York City’s Madison Square Garden that 20,000 people who couldn’t get in filled the streets outside to listen to Lindbergh over loudspeakers. Calls of “Hang Roosevelt” and “Lindbergh for President” rang out through the arenas where he spoke. Much like Trump rallies, those crowds sometimes turned on the protesters opposed to Lindbergh and America First, leading to shouting matches, scuffles, and street battles.
President Roosevelt grew convinced that the United States would eventually have to get into the war—and before then should support the British to keep them in the fight against the Germans. He sent American-made weaponry, ships, and airplanes to Great Britain. He also moved American military forces increasingly towards direct confrontation with Germany and Japan, particularly in the North Atlantic where German submarines were sinking large numbers of ships carrying those American munitions, oil and fuels, grain, and other vital supplies bound for England. Despite national polls consistently showing that Americans did not want to send their soldiers into the fight, war grew increasingly probable. As the likelihood for war grew, Lindbergh privately pointed blame at Jews and what he believed, despite all evidence to the contrary, was their excessive influence through their supposed control of American media. “A large part of the Jewish ownership of newspapers is indirect, and therefore difficult to prove,” he admitted in a journal entry, repeating a by-then standard anti-Semitic canard. That didn’t stop him from believing Jews were secretly behind the push leading an unwilling country to war.
In his journals he describes Jews “as distinct from other Americans.” (His writings about Jews were mostly expurgated from the published version of his journals.) He believed, he wrote in his journals, that an American “pogrom,” an attack on Jews greater than Germany’s widely known anti-Semitic assaults awaited if they did not desist from pushing the country into war. “Instead of agitating for war … [Jews] should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.”
Over time, his private thoughts evidence a growing conviction that he must “combat the pressure the Jews are bringing on this country to enter the war. This Jewish influence is subtle, dangerous, and very difficult to expose …”
Still, he hesitated to speak out directly against Jewish pro-war forces. In late summer 1941, with U.S. war aid surging and conflict with the Axis Powers growing more frequent, he worked for six weeks on a speech he hoped would put the spotlight on those groups he believed were driving the country against its will to war. Finally, at a nationally broadcast September 11, 1941, America First rally in an arena in Des Moines, he declared that the White House, “the British and Jewish races … for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war …” He told the crowd of 8,000 in the auditorium and millions more over the radio that Jews represented a particularly insidious threat. “Their greatest danger to this country,” he said, “lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” He warned, “We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction.” A near-riot broke out in the Des Moines arena as pro- and anti-intervention forces tried to shout down Lindbergh and each other.
Just like Trump’s calls for banning Muslims, news about Lindbergh’s stinging speech singling out Jews for pushing for war for reasons that were “not American” convulsed the nation. A deluge of criticism swept aside the debate about intervention in Europe and replaced it with arguments about intolerance and prejudice at home. The backlash against Lindbergh came from nearly across the political spectrum. The 1940 Republican president candidate Wendell Willkie called Lindbergh’s speech “the most-un-American talk made in my time by any person of national reputation.” Even the most arch-isolationist major newspaper in the country, the Chicago Tribune, criticized Lindbergh’s “impropriety.” The almost equally anti-interventionist Hearst chain of newspapers termed his talk “intemperate and intolerant.” Lindbergh’s few public defenders were those already well-known for their own anti-Semitic stances, such as the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, who urged him to run for president.
Much like Trump’s effect on the Republican primary field, Lindbergh’s Des Moines talk left America First and its anti-intervention campaign in disarray. Stung by the backlash against the Lindbergh speech and fearful that the campaign would now be tagged as anti-Semitic, the committee’s national chair discussed disbanding the organization altogether. Unlike Trump, who so far seems to relish the reactions he provokes, Lindbergh was shocked at the damage his words did to the antiwar movement. He offered to resign his membership in America First. The antiwar campaign continued, but Lindbergh now played a diminished role. He did not speak again publicly about Jewish war instigators.
Much like Trump, Lindbergh had crossed a line from political speech into vilifying and scapegoating a single religion and ethnic as less than truly American. While the attack on Pearl Harbor three months later finally put to rest the questions about going to war plaguing the nation, even before then the anti-intervention movement had lost much of its steam. In a time of greater world crisis and threats to America than at present, Iowans finally said enough. Will New Hampshire follow suit?
Marc Wortman’s book about the period prior to U.S. entry into World War II, 1941: Fighting the Shadow War, A Divided America in a World at War, will appear in April. He can be found at marcwortmanbooks.com.