Charles Lindbergh’s ‘America First’ Antisemitism Also Embraced Eugenics
Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America, now an HBO miniseries, is an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. After making “non-aggression pacts” with Germany and Japan, he almost succeeds in “assimilating” American Jews through forced relocation of children and then entire families to the South and West.
The real Lindbergh, were he president, might indeed have coerced Jewish “Americanization,” given his admiration for Hitler, his equation of Jews with communism, and his belief that only the harsh medicine of fascist dictatorship could save “the white race” and Western civilization.
In September 1941, as spokesman for the anti-war America First movement, Lindbergh gave a speech in Des Moines, Iowa blaming the British, the Roosevelt administration, and Jewish masterminds of the media and movies for America’s drift toward war.
But Roth’s depiction of Lindbergh as a Hitler apologist and antisemite omits an important influence: his commitment to eugenics, which was clearly impacted by his years experimenting in a basement lab of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York.
In 1930, Lindbergh had met Alexis Carrel, a vascular surgeon from France, and a Nobel Prize winner for medicine. Carrel became a father figure, consoling Lindbergh after the kidnap-murder of his infant son.
Carrel was a pioneer in preserving animal organs in vitro. He was also a reactionary who rejected both the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. In the mid-1930s, he authored an American bestseller combining rejection of democracy with a faith in mysticism. He wanted to return to Plato’s aristocratic republic, but with a ruling caste of scientists and seers. A self-taught Minnesota farm boy with Scandinavian family roots, Lindbergh absorbed all of Carrel’s politics — except his aversion to Germany and Hitler, a product of Carrel’s French patriotism.
Carrel and Lindbergh rode the wave of the international eugenics movement seeking to breed superior races and suppress the reproduction of inferior races through forced sterilization. American interest in the movement crossed the ideological spectrum, and the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations financed German as well as American research, until becoming more circumspect after the passage of 1935’s Nuremberg Laws and other developments.
Transformed into “positive” eugenics and race-neutral genetics, the eugenics movement survived World War II.
Lindbergh’s reputation was rehabilitated by the movie The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) and the publication of his sanitized writings, which obscured his pre-war praise for fascism. Lindbergh displayed a new-found humility about science and identified with environmentalists. He embraced the anti-communist Cold War, but never apologized for opposing America’s war against Hitler.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).