Charles Lindbergh - far from being the first
A testament to the power of the mass media to create myths and to misinform
© Zak Keith, 2010
Who was the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic? Who was the first man to fly in a single-pilot aircraft across the Atlantic? Who was the first man to fly a fixed-wing aircraft across the Atlantic? Who was the first man to fly non-stop across the Atlantic? Who was the first man to fly in a heavier-than-air machine across the Atlantic?
If you answered “Charles Lindbergh” to any of these questions, then you, along with millions around the world, have been misinformed. It’s not your fault—this is what our school books still errantly teach us today. Even in this so-called Information Age, thousands of know-it-all “answer sites” like answers.com perpetuate (as of May 2010) the Lindbergh myth, parroting misinformation sans scrutiny, citing Charles A. Lindbergh as “born 4 February 1902 in Detroit, Michigan,” and “the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic.”
The truth is, Lindbergh wasn’t the first, nor the second, nor the third, nor anywhere close to the top ten—some 80 people had made the trip before Lindbergh even came along. And neither was Lindbergh the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic, nor the first to use a fixed-wing aircraft (as opposed to a floating airship) for the purpose.
Many spectacular firsts in the world of aviation—including many transatlantic flights—happened way before Lindbergh even came into the picture in 1927:
A closer look at the man, myth and legend
So what did Charles Lindbergh really accomplish then, that could be considered a “first?”
Besides being an Aryanist, Nazi sympathizer and bigamist, Lindbergh was the first person to fly between New York and Paris without a support team and/or companion aircraft . (NOTE: That still does not mean he was the first to fly as a solo pilot or the first to fly across the Atlantic!)
Lindbergh was the winner of the highly-publicized $25,000 Orteig Prize offered by the French-born New York hotelier Raymond Orteig (Lafayette Hotel), who designated the prize for the first person to fly nonstop in either direction, between the cities of New York and Paris (although many a successful transatlantic flight had already been made by others by this time).
Lindbergh was the first to have the progress of his transatlantic flight covered live by public-access radio. Scores of listeners in France had been glued to their radio sets following developments of his trip, and had rushed out to meet him when he landed. Due to the unexpected effect of this mass-media coverage and spontaneous public interest, Lindbergh entered popular culture, a.k.a. the collective consciousness of mankind, fallaciously to be known as the “first man to cross the Atlantic in a plane.” Through the years, this myth became established as “fact” taught in history books across the world—pure testament to the power of mass media to misinform and create myths.
Lindbergh could be more accurately hailed the World’s First Mass-media Hero—he was well aware of its power and played it to his advantage. At first a shy man in public, Lindbergh learned quickly to adapt, playing up to the public and perpetuating the egregious falsehood of his achievements. He never corrected the exaggeration of his being the “first,” but rather capitalized on his fame, riding on the generated publicity and utilizing it to his advantage. Lindbergh relentlessly used his misdirected fame to help promote the rapid development of US commercial aviation, as well as propagate racial supremacist ideology.
By 1936, Lindbergh was a seasoned celebrity, public speaker and political meddler. He visited Germany as an unofficial ambassador of the US, attending the Summer Olympic Games as a guest of Field Marshal Hermann Göring. In 1938, Göring, on behalf of the Fuehrer, presented Lindbergh the Service Cross of the German Eagle for his contributions to aviation, which Lindbergh wore proudly for many years despite protests by an appalled American public.
Taken in by all things German, including Nazism, Lindbergh made plans to relocate to Germany and began using his international fame as a platform to preach American isolationism, the futility of resisting Axis aggression, and the ineluctable German conquest of Europe. Lindbergh often echoed word for word, the speeches and writings of Hitler and other European fascists. He took it upon himself to deliver a nationwide radio address in which he criticized President Roosevelt and urged America to remain neutral: “These wars in Europe are not wars in which our civilization is defending itself against some Asiatic intruder... This is not a question of banding together to defend the white race against foreign invasion.”
In his second radio address in October 1939, Lindbergh stated clearly his belief in the importance of racial supremacy over the “luxury” of democracy: “Our bond with Europe is a bond of race, and not of political ideology.”
While Lindbergh did not have anything against the Germans taking over Europe, he certainly did have something against the “Asiatic intruder” and the “danger to western civilization” by the invasion of lesser breeds, the “pressing sea of Yellow, Black and Brown” who were “incapable of technological progress.” He considered the Soviet Union‘s “semi-Asiatic hordes,” being the best organized and armed, as the biggest danger to white civilization, and Nazi Germany as the answer to this threat. In a self-published article in the Reader’s Digest, Lindbergh stated his concerns for the future of the white race: “Our civilization depends on a Western wall of race and arms which can hold back... the infiltration of inferior blood.”
Overconfident in his popularity and the support for his views, Lindbergh began speaking openly against Jews, only to be denounced as an anti-Semite, his own in-laws turning against him. But even with his reputation tarnished, by 1941, the formerly-shy Lindbergh had become so adept at using his influence and the manipulation of mass media, that he was able to bounce himself right back into the game.
When the US entered the war on two fronts against the Germans and Japanese, Lindbergh, ever the avid aviator, was eager to fly combat missions against the Japanese (but not Germans). However, the slighted President Roosevelt would not allow him to rejoin the military, declaring that “You can’t have an officer leading men who thinks we’re licked before we start.” Lindbergh then used his influence to land a job at United Aircraft, run by Henry Ford, who was also known for anti-Semitic views. Supposedly an observer and civilian consultant to develop aircraft engines, Lindbergh in actuality flew more than 50 combat missions in the Pacific Theater.
By 1945, when it was clear that both Germany and Japan were losing the war, Lindbergh began backpedaling on his earlier statements, but never going as far as admitting that he was wrong about anything—certainly not his Aryanist views. He withdrew from public attention, and worked quietly for a few years as a consultant to the chief of staff of the US Air Force. One could easily surmise that during this time-out from public life, Lindbergh—who was no novice to using the power of the media to his advantage—must have known that the best way to undo his damaged reputation would be to once again play up his exploits as the Great Aviator and tout his dubious achievements of being The First.
In 1953, after 25 years of coasting on his popularity with a misinformed public about his being the “first” to fly cross the Atlantic, Lindbergh published a self-promoting autobiographical work, The Spirit of St. Louis, which won him the Pulitzer Prize (credit where credit is due, it was actually some pretty good writing). In a two-part narrative “about flying and an aviator’s life in the beginning of the 20th century,” Lindbergh detailed the planning and execution of “the first nonstop flight between the continents of North America and Europe.” Interestingly, the book was 14 years in the making before its release, and numerous revisions were made to the manuscript afterwards, in many places.
By 1954, Lindbergh had re-emerged with a Pulitzer Prize in hand, and his untruthful and undeserved reputation of being the “first” and therefore “best” had been restored; his controversial racist and political views were now suddenly overlooked and forgotten, displaced by his comeback fame. President Dwight D. Eisenhower corresponded with this new turn in public opinion by restoring Lindbergh’s commission and appointing him a Brigadier General in the Air Force. PanAm eventually hired Lindbergh as a consultant, where he helped design the Boeing 747 jet.
In his later years, Lindbergh became interested in global environmental problems and traveled extensively to promote these causes. He emphasized his love of both technology and nature, and a lifelong belief that “all the achievements of mankind have value only to the extent that they preserve and improve the quality of life.” In a 1967 Life magazine article, he said, “The human future depends on our ability to combine the knowledge of science with the wisdom of wildness.”
(To those of you who think that such benevolent thoughts of humankind’s harmony with nature cannot originate from anyone with a mean bone in their body, much less an ardent racist, let me remind you that Hitler was a vegetarian who preferred the company of animals to people.)
Lindbergh is also known for the tragic kidnapping and murder of his infant son, Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., in 1932, which came to be known as the “Crime of the Century.” The resultant trial generated so much media interest it was called the “biggest story since the Resurrection.” (see The Lindbergh Kidnapping on Wikipedia).
Among his lesser claims to fame, Lindbergh is supposed to have been the “first” to come up with the idea of an artificial heart, and had approached French surgeon Alexis Carrel with a design in the early 1930’s. But among other laughable and dubious claims repeated across the Internet is one of Lindbergh “inventing” space travel. That would be equivalent to Al Gore claiming he “invented the Internet.”
If Lindbergh, who died in 1974, was such an eager achiever and perfectionist, the question that begs to be asked is: why didn’t he just tell the truth about his not really being the first to fly across the Atlantic? The answer may be that he was simply a man who lived a lie—what with double-speak about where his true loyalties had been in WWII, having secret affairs and even a secret second and third family with seven children resulting?
In 2003, DNA tests on 3 German siblings confirmed the famed aviator was their father. David and Dyrk Hesshaimer, and Astrid Bouteuil, who requested the tests, said that Lindbergh had carried out an affair with their mother, Brigitte Hesshaimer, from 1957 until his death in 1974. It was later revealed that Lindbergh also had four other children in Europe: Two by Hesshaimer’s sister Marietta, and another two by his personal secretary Veleska.
So successful has Lindbergh’s rewriting of history been, that despite these posthumous revelations, he will probably continue to be hailed a hero in history books for generations to come. To me however, he is no hero, just a great achiever, but the kind who died never doing the right thing.
Sites perpetuating the lie/myth that Charles Lindbergh was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic
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