Excerpt from Those Angry Days
On a soft April morning in 1939, Charles Lindbergh was summoned to the White House to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt, arguably the only person in America who equaled him in fame. The images of the two men had been indelibly impressed on the nation’s consciousness for years — Lindbergh, whose solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 had mesmerized and inspired his countrymen, and Roosevelt, whose energetic, confident leadership had helped jolt a Depression-mired America back to life.
When Lindbergh was ushered into the Oval Office, he found FDR seated behind his desk. It was their first face-to-face encounter, but no one would have guessed that from the president’s warm, familiar manner. Leaning forward to clasp Lindbergh’s hand, Roosevelt welcomed him as if he were an old friend, asking him about his wife, Anne, who, the president noted, had been a high school classmate of FDR’s daughter, Anna.
His head thrown back, with his trademark cigarette holder tilted rakishly upward, Roosevelt exuded charm, joie de vivre, and an unmistakable air of power and command. During his thirty-minute chat with Lindbergh, he gave no sign of the many grave problems weighing on his mind.
He was, in fact, in the midst of one of the greatest crises of his presidency. Europe was on the brink of war. The month before, Adolf Hitler had seized all of Czechoslovakia, violating the promise he had made at the 1938 Munich conference to cease his aggression against other countries. In response, Britain and France had promised to come to the aid of Poland, the next country on Germany’s hit list, if it were invaded. Both western nations, however, were desperately short of arms, a situation that FDR was trying to remedy. But he was faced with a dilemma. Thanks to the provisions of neutrality legislation passed by Congress a few years earlier, Britain and France would be barred from buying U.S. weapons once they declared war on Germany. As Roosevelt knew, his chances of persuading the House and Senate to repeal the arms ban were close to zero.
But he mentioned none of that in his conversation with Lindbergh. Nor, in the course of his genial banter, did he betray any hint of the considerable suspicion and distrust he felt for the younger man sitting opposite him. Five years before, Roosevelt and Lindbergh had engaged in what writer Gore Vidal called a “mano a mano duel,” in which the president emerged as the loser. FDR hated to lose, and his memories of the 1934 incident were still raw and bitter.
The clash had been prompted by Roosevelt’s cancellation of air mail delivery contracts granted by his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, to the nation’s largest airlines. Charging fraud and bribery in the contract process, Roosevelt directed the U.S Army Air Corps to start delivering the mail. Lindbergh, who served as an adviser to one of the airlines, publicly criticized FDR for ending the contracts without giving the companies a chance to respond.
Less than seven years after his history-making flight, the 32-year-old Lindbergh was the only person who could match the 52-year-old president in national popularity. They were alike in other ways, too. Both were strong-willed, stubborn men who believed deeply in their own superiority and had a sense of being endowed with a special purpose. They were determined to do things their own way, were slow to acknowledge mistakes, and did not take well to criticism. Self-absorbed and emotionally detached, they insisted on being in control at all times. A friend and distant relative of FDR’s once described him as having “a loveless quality, as if he were incapable of emotion.” Of Lindbergh, a biographer wrote: “The people he called friend were mainly, to him, good, functional, temporary acquaintances. He seemed to have taken much more than he gave in the way of warmth and affection.”
The conflict between the president and Lindbergh quickly became front-page news. A former air mail pilot himself, Lindbergh warned that Air Corps flyers had neither the experience nor the right type of instruments in their planes to take on the extremely hazardous job of delivering the mail, which often involved night flying in blizzards, heavy rain, and other extreme weather. To the administration’s embarrassment, his assessment proved correct. In the four months that army pilots flew the mail, there were twelve deaths, sixty-six crashes, and as one writer put it, “untold humiliation” for the Air Corps and White House. On June 1, 1934, following rushed negotiations between the government and airlines to come up with new delivery agreements, the commercial companies resumed mail delivery.
For the first time in his year-old presidency, FDR found himself bested in the court of public opinion. According to historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., “the fight dented the myth of Roosevelt’s invulnerability. It quickened the pace and intensity of criticism of the administration….[It] also uncovered in Charles Lindbergh a man who perhaps appealed to more American hearts than anyone save Franklin Roosevelt.”
The following year, Lindbergh took his family to live in England, then France. During his three-year stay in Europe, he made several highly publicized trips to Nazi Germany, where he inspected aircraft companies and air force bases — and made clear he thought the German air force was invincible and that Britain and France must appease Hitler.
And now he was home, ostensibly to join Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, head of the Air Corps, in an effort to build up America’s own air power as quickly as possible. But was he plotting something else? The last thing Roosevelt needed was a campaign to stir up public opposition to the idea of arms sales to Britain and France. He had invited Lindbergh to the White House to get a sense of the man, to try to figure out how much of a problem he might pose in the turbulent days to come.
During his session with Roosevelt, Lindbergh was well aware that the president was scrutinizing him closely. Writing later in his journal, he noted, “Roosevelt judges his man quickly and plays him cleverly.” Although he thought FDR “a little too suave, too pleasant, too easy,” Lindbergh still enjoyed the encounter. “There is no reason for any antagonism between us…” he observed. “The air-mail situation is past.” He would continue to work with the administration on ways to improve the nation’s air defenses, but, he added, “I have a feeling that it may not be for long.”
He was right. In early September, just five months later, Hitler invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany. The following spring, German troops swept through Western Europe, vanquishing France and threatening Britain’s survival. As unofficial leader and spokesman for America’s isolationist movement, Lindbergh emerged as Franklin Roosevelt’s most redoubtable adversary in what would become a brutal, no-holds-barred battle for the soul of the nation.