Home / Tom Morrow / Historically Speaking: Hero or Spy
Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Hero or Spy

By Tom Morrow

Charles Augustus Lindbergh, born Feb. 4, 1902, became the most famous man around the world when in 1927, he flew solo across the Atlantic from New York to Paris, France.

Nicknamed “Lucky Lindy,” “The Lone Eagle,” and “Slim, he was an American aviator, military officer, author, inventor, explorer, and environmental activist. And, maybe even a spy.

At age 25 in 1927, he went from obscurity as a U.S. Air Mail pilot to instantaneous world fame by winning the Orteig Prize: making a nonstop flight from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, New York, to Paris, France. Lindbergh covered the ​33 12-hour, 3,600-statute-mile flight alone in a single-engine purpose-built Ryan monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, which was built in San Diego. This was not the first flight between North America and Europe, but he did achieve the first solo transatlantic flight and the first non-stop flight between North America and the European mainland. Lindbergh was an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve, and he received the United States’ highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, for the feat.

Lindbergh’s achievement spurred interest in both commercial aviation and air mail, and he devoted much time and effort to promoting such activity. But his historic flight and celebrity status also led to tragedy. In March 1932, his infant son, Charles Jr., was kidnapped and murdered in what American media called the “Crime of the Century” and was described by H. L. Mencken as “the biggest story since the Resurrection.” The case prompted the United States Congress to establish kidnapping as a federal crime once the kidnapper had crossed state lines with their victim. By late 1935, the hysteria surrounding the case had driven the Lindbergh family into voluntary exile in Europe, from which they returned in 1939.

Before the United States formally entered World War II, some people accused Lindbergh of being a fascist sympathizer. An advocate of non-interventionism he supported the antiwar America First Committee, which opposed American aid to Britain in its war against Germany, and resigned his commission in the United States Army Air Forces in 1941 after President Franklin Roosevelt publicly rebuked him for his views. Nevertheless, he publicly supported the U.S. war effort after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and flew fifty combat missions in the Pacific Theater of World War II as a civilian consultant, though Roosevelt refused to reinstate his Air Corps colonel’s commission. In his later years, Lindbergh became a prolific prize-winning author, international explorer, inventor, and environmentalist.

Lindbergh and his wife, the former Anne Morrow, were the parents of six children. He fathered seven more children as a result of several covert adulterous affairs with three German women (two from Bavaria, one from East Prussia) beginning in 1957 when he was 55 years old. In 2003, (29 years after Lindbergh’s death and two years after his wife died) one of those children, Astrid Hesshaimer, revealed the story of Lindbergh’s affairs to the world.

A number of years later, a rather obscure news report indicated Lindbergh had been an undercover spy for the U.S., when he was invited to inspect Hitler’s Luftwaffe in the late ‘30s. His anti-war support for the America First Committee reportedly was a ruse to hide his true mission when he visited Nazi Germany.

In the 1930s, Lindbergh’s anti-communism stance resonated deeply with many Americans. Although Lindbergh considered Hitler a fanatic and avowed a belief in American democracy, he clearly stated elsewhere that he believed the survival of the white race was more important than the survival of democracy in Europe: “Our bond with Europe is one of race and not of political ideology,” he declared.

Lindbergh developed a long-term friendship with the automobile pioneer Henry Ford, who was well known for his anti-Semitic newspaper The Dearborn Independent.

To this day, Lindbergh remains an enigma. What was he really up to leading up to World War II? Was he, or wasn’t he a spy for the U.S. Army Air Corps, or was he just a voice against the growing war clouds in Europe and Asia – or, maybe both.

Lindbergh died Aug. 26, 1974. He is buried near the small village of Hana on the island of Maui in Hawaii. The real truth went with him to his grave.