Lindbergh's lesson needs notice today
There's danger in the isolationism and appeasement that's signaled by the stall in American aid for Ukraine
The heroism of Charles Lindbergh was tainted by his appeasement of Hitler. (Boston Public Library photo collection)
In 1927, after he flew across the Atlantic Ocean alone in the little fabric-covered, single-engine Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh became the most famous and most honored American alive. He got a tickertape parade in Manhattan, the Medal of Honor in Washington and marriage proposals from around the globe. More than 200 songs were written about him, and Time magazine designated him as its first “Man of the Year.” During a triumphant tour of all 48 states, Lindbergh was cheered by 30 million people — a quarter of the nation’s population at the time.1
But a little more than a decade later, Lindbergh had become deeply unpopular. He had announced that Germany under Adolf Hitler was both a model society and the inevitable ruler of Europe, and repeatedly insisted that the Third Reich posed no threat to the United States. Even after the brutal assault on Jewish Germans during Kristallnacht, and after Germany invaded Poland, Lindbergh identified himself with an isolationist strain that always runs strong in America. The nation, he declared, shouldn’t be drawn into a fight off its shores.
“These wars in Europe are not wars in which our civilization is defending itself against some Asiatic intruder...,” he declared, in a nationwide radio address on behalf of the America First Committee. “This is not a question of banding together to defend the white race against foreign invasion.” Protecting European societies, and especially Jews in Europe, he said, wasn’t in the interest of the United States — a position he stubbornly refused to abandon as Hitler’s forces pushed on into France and started their blitzkrieg bombing of England.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt denounced Lindbergh’s stance; maybe more personally painful to Lindbergh was what happened in Little Falls, his Minnesota hometown, where community leaders removed his name from the water tower.
It wasn’t until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into World War II and shifting public opinion overwhelmingly in favor of standing up to the Axis powers, that Lindbergh reconsidered his isolationism. But his role as an apologist for the Nazis, and as an antisemite, still shadowed him. Postwar America never fully forgave the America First gang, and the popularity and admiration Lindbergh had enjoyed proved elusive for the rest of his life.2
History never actually repeats itself, but it is always instructive. If you look at American politics some days, you have to suspect that a lot of officials got to the end of their school years without completing their lessons. Not that anybody is asking for my advice, but if I were a highly-paid political consultant for Republican politicians just now, I’d be urging my clients to pay attention to the story of Charles Lindbergh’s fall from hero to louse.
The growing Republican opposition to supporting Ukraine’s fight against Russia is putting the party ever more squarely into the camp of Vladimir Putin — and creating a risk of backlash if Putin eventually rolls over Ukraine. Of course, political peril in the United States is hardly the worst result that would follow a Russian victory in Ukraine. Here’s the outlook laid out in a paper published last month by Globsec, a think tank based in Central Europe:
“A Russian victory over Ukraine would herald the end of the world as we know it. The West would be disavowed as a guarantor of stability, security, and order. Revisionist actors such as China, Russia, Iran, and others, together with their allies, would impose their ideas of international order. The universality of human rights would be relativized; autocratic regimes would be strengthened globally, democracy would be weakened worldwide and made contemptible, and global flows of goods and global prosperity would be diverted away from us. Our lives in Europe would be more insecure, poorer, and lonelier.”3
That sad outlook should stand as a warning of one more danger posed by Donald Trump, who seems inexorably headed toward his third straight Republican presidential nomination. Trump has long been harshly critical of NATO, suggesting that it’s a waste of tax dollars for the U.S. to invest money in protecting the western alliance. And he has said he will easily solve the fight between Russia and Ukraine “in 24 hours” — presumably by withdrawing the U.S. from the Ukraine Contact Group, the 50-nation coalition that America now leads.4
You would think that the experience of Trump’s first term would have made Republicans wary of cozying up to Russia: A bipartisan Senate report established how eagerly Russia had pushed for Trump to beat Hillary Clinton, and noted that Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, made millions of dollars doing consulting work aimed at bringing Ukraine back under Russia’s control. As Trump neared nomination at the 2016 Republican National Convention, his aides demanded that the party platform be changed to drop support for Ukraine. And Trump’s first impeachment came because he pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to try to tarnish the reputation of Joe Biden in exchange for U.S. aid.5
A second Trump term in the White House would surely yield an American pullback from its commitments abroad — meaning that Putin in Ukraine could easily become Putin knocking on the door of Western Europe, as Hitler did in Charles Lindbergh’s time.
So if I were the head of RepubliClever, my own political consultancy retained by, say, the Speaker of the House, I’d be freaking out about now. “Mike,” I’d say to the deceptively mild-mannered Christian nationalist from Louisiana, “you don’t want to be the guy who lost Ukraine to the Commies.” This is no time, I would tell Speaker Johnson, to sit on a $60 billion package of military and humanitarian aid that could enable Kyiv to hold the line.
Of course, no one would hire me to advise House Republicans, because I would also encourage them to approve a bipartisan immigration reform package — since it’s the right thing to do. That’s the issue holding up the Ukraine aid just now, of course — or, at least, so we hear from the Republicans who are not taking advantage of my advice. They say they won’t approve funding for Ukraine, or for Israel’s fight for self-preservation, or for shoring up Taiwan’s defenses, until Joe Biden makes major changes in U.S. border policy. Maybe we should be encouraged that there are bipartisan negotiations going on now in the Senate on immigration reform aimed at getting over that hurdle, but people who know today’s Congress far better than I do suggest no amount of compromise will yield an immigration bill that the Republican-led House will approve.6
It could make a reasonable person wonder if the Republicans really want to do anything about immigration — or if they’re happier simply using the issue, and Americans’ historic hostility to immigrants, to beat up Joe Biden. It’s a great campaign issue, so why give up that advantage just to achieve something that is both sensible and humanitarian?
You’ll recall the Trump administration’s approach to immigration: insistence on building a wall along the 1,954 miles of the U.S. border with Mexico. Although Trump considers himself a master builder, only 52 miles of new wall were built during his four years in office, along with reinforcing 406 miles of existing wall. That leaves about 1,496 miles of wall to be built to accomplish the only immigration reform that Republicans seem to agree they can support.7
So Ukraine is left hanging, increasing the likelihood that Putin’s naked expansionism will eventually pay off for him. Allowing that strengthening of America’s stalwart foe hardly seems like an effective way to deliver what Trump said in 2017 was his administration’s fundamental aim: “With every decision and every action,” he declared, describing what he said was his national security strategy, “we are now putting America first.”8
It was an unfortunate choice of terms, many noted at the time — one that a student of Charles Lindbergh’s experience might have advised him to avoid. After all, it was the appeasement of Adolf Hitler that left the field open for the Nazis’ early success in World War II, and if American policy had followed the isolationist urging of Lindbergh’s America First crowd, there’s little doubt that the world today would be a very different and even more dangerous place.
We look back today in relief. We look forward with alarm, since this lesson of history seems not to have drawn notice where it’s needed right now.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Norwich, Conn. (The Bulletin, norwichbulletin.com)
Adrian, Mich. (The Daily Telegram, lenconnect.com)
Pueblo, Colo. (The Pueblo Chieftain, chieftain.com)
Jackson, Miss. (Clarion Ledger, clarionledger.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes most Wednesdays, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Birthing center closures hitting rural hospitals
It is becoming a story repeated in small and mid-sized communities across the country: hospitals getting out of the business of delivering babies and caring for expectant mothers. It took three years before the Hartford-based healthcare company that owns Windham Hospital convinced the state to let it close the birthing unit there, and now closures are pending at two more small Connecticut hospitals, according to reporting by The CTMirror, a not-for-profit newsroom serving the state’s newspapers. Hospital owners usually contend that the volume of births is too low to make the care safe; opponents in the communities note the danger posed by distance from the remaining places where births are accommodated. Experts are dubious. “There are a lot of ways in which low-risk childbirth is very well done in low birth volume settings,” said Katy B. Kozhimannil, a professor of public health policy at the University of Minnesota. (Of course, hospital errors in childbirth have proven extraordinarily costly for healthcare providers. That’s worthy of some journalistic inquiry.)
State fighting moths that attack ornamental boxwood
Since April, a state-ordered quarantine of all plants of the genus Buxus has been expanding, so that it now includes 12 counties in southeastern and central Michigan. The box tree moth that is targeted by the quarantine can cause defoliation and death of ornamental boxwood, David Panian reports in The Daily Telegram. Under the quarantine, the whole plant, plant parts and nursery stock of the plants, including all living and dead material, cannot be moved outside of the quarantined area. But there’s a loophole, Panian’s story notes: Holiday greenery, such as wreaths, boughs, and grave blankets are exempt from the restriction if moved from Oct. 15 through Jan. 1. (One might think that renders the quarantine a bit less effective.)
Issue in local mayoral race: abandoned shopping carts
In Pueblo, a city of about 100,000 that is 100 miles south of Denver, more than 3,000 shopping carts have been removed from retailers this year, according to reporting by Josué Perez in The Pueblo Chieftain. They are a hazard to public safety and, some officials say, cause urban blight. Now a mayoral candidate has a proposal to offer temporary sales tax relief to stores that place locks on shopping carts or monitor them in some form. The candidate said she doesn't want any shopping cart ordinance, however, to target people who are homeless — because in some cities with such ordinances, people are subject to a potential fine if they are seen pushing a shopping cart in a public area. (Who would have imagined that wandering shopping carts would be an issue warranting government action?)
Child sentenced for urinating in public
An 11-year-old boy was sentenced by a judge to three months’ probation for urinating behind his mother’s car while she was visiting a lawyer’s office in Sanatoria, Miss., in August, The Associated Press reports. The judge also ordered the child to write a book report on Kobe Bryant. The child’s attorney said that the prosecution had threatened to upgrade the charge of “child in need of supervision” to a more serious charge of disorderly conduct if the boy's family took the case to trial. The child is Black, which his lawyer suggested was surely a factor in his detention by police — who took him to the police headquarters and, according to his mother, put him in a cell. The child is now required to check in with a probation officer once a month.
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