Charles Lindbergh: Neutrality and War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the 1930s, Charles Lindbergh was one of the most visible American figures who argued that the United States should have nothing to do with conflicts in Europe, or anywhere outside the Western Hemisphere. As Europe descended once again into war in the fall of 1939, Lindbergh gave a number of speeches like the one he delivered on October 19, 1939, arguing that the United States should avoid getting involved again in a bloody struggle. This speech came early in the conflict, before the rapid German victories of 1940 and the initially successful German assault on Russia in 1941, and, therefore, the possibility of muddy, entrenched fronts was still very much alive in the minds of many Americans.

Summary Overview

During the 1930s, Charles Lindbergh was one of the most visible American figures who argued that the United States should have nothing to do with conflicts in Europe, or anywhere outside the Western Hemisphere. As Europe descended once again into war in the fall of 1939, Lindbergh gave a number of speeches like the one he delivered on October 19, 1939, arguing that the United States should avoid getting involved again in a bloody struggle. This speech came early in the conflict, before the rapid German victories of 1940 and the initially successful German assault on Russia in 1941, and, therefore, the possibility of muddy, entrenched fronts was still very much alive in the minds of many Americans.

Indeed, Lindbergh–while his wishes were ultimately denied in December 1941, when the United States declared war on Japan–demonstrated the American public's ambivalence over the role the nation should play in the world and also showcased the very real popularity of neutrality during the 1930s. While Lindbergh thought the United States could allow no foreign incursion into the Western Hemisphere, he preferred for the nation to remain a symbol of democracy and freedom to other continents, rather than an active participant in the potentially bloody events in those places. Such thinking had largely been the dominant American mindset regarding foreign policy during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Only in the 1910s had the ideas of President Woodrow Wilson–that events abroad mattered enormously for American security–begun to change such thinking. In addition, when combined with other trends of the 1930s such as the Nye Commission and the various Neutrality Acts, Lindbergh's prominence revealed that, at least for a while, many Americans were conflicted over whether or not the nation should get involved in the violent world events of the 1930s and 1940s.

Defining Moment

American entry into World War II was not a given when the war erupted in September of 1939. In fact, it took more than two years and a direct attack by Japan before the United States joined the conflict, and several events earlier in the 1930s seemed to indicate that the United States might refrain from fighting altogether. When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, Americans had to decide how to react to an increasingly violent world. In 1935, 1936, and 1937, Congress passed various Neutrality Acts that both prohibited loans and the sale of American weapons to countries involved in a conflict and blocked US citizens from sailing on vessels owned by such nations. In addition, the American public was not eager to go back to the battlefields of France, especially after the Nye Committee, led by Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota, held a series of hearings and investigations between 1934 and 1936 into the role of bankers and arms manufacturers in the country's participation in World War I. The committee's reports drew connections between corporate profits and the march to war, sparking public outrage and support for US neutrality going forward.

The more immediate context of Lindbergh's speech must also be noted. He was arguing his points at a time when Poland was just about to fall to Germany, but the rest of Europe remained untouched. He likely held the expectation that once again, German forces would get bogged down in an attack on France and the immovable fronts of World War I would return to grind up millions of men as before. He, and indeed most world leaders, could not predict the vast success of German Blitzkrieg tactics in the spring and summer of 1940 that conquered the Low Countries, Norway, and France. So when the war began and President Roosevelt called for a revision to the earlier Neutrality Acts, which would result in the “cash and carry” policy, allowing countries at war to buy war material from the United States if they paid cash and carried the goods on their own ships, Lindbergh feared it would open the door to American participation.

Author Biography

Charles Lindbergh was one of America's most famous aviators, mostly because he made the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, but also because of the kidnapping and murder of his young son in 1932. He was also an ardent proponent of American isolationism–that the United States should abstain from involvement in foreign conflicts. He, therefore, actively sought to convince Americans that only the Western Hemisphere mattered for US security and that the United States should avoid wasting its strength elsewhere in the world. After he opposed altering the Neutrality Acts, Lindbergh went on to help start the America First Committee, a group opposed to US involvement in World War II. He also supported President Roosevelt's Republican opponent in 1940, Wendell Willkie, who campaigned in part on the idea that it was only a matter of time until Roosevelt sent American troops to Europe. After the war, he was a writer and an environmentalist until his death in 1974.

Document Analysis

Lindbergh begins his address by assuring his listeners that he is not arguing for a pacifist stance. He believes that the United States can and should fight for certain objectives and defend certain territory. Further, he claims that if the United States adopts a policy of neutrality and non-involvement outside of the Western Hemisphere, that policy will only be taken seriously by other powers if the United States makes it readily apparent that it will fight with all its strength should outside armies and navies encroach on that hemisphere. At this time, Lindbergh was already worried that the actions of countries in the Western Hemisphere would bring foreign involvement or invasion: on September 10, 1939, Canada had declared war on Germany, only seven days after Britain and France. Thus, Lindbergh's desire to keep the Western Hemisphere entirely out of the European war had already been thwarted.

Lindbergh wants Americans to be clear about the point at which the nation should be willing to go to war, both for the sake of warning off foreign nations and for helping Americans avoid getting entangled in needless foreign wars. “The policy we decide upon should be clear cut as our shorelines, and as easily defended as our continent,” he says, going on to explain that only a military threat within the Western Hemisphere should be cause for a military response from the United States. He says, “Let us give no promises we cannot keep–make no meaningless assurances to an Ethiopia, a Czechoslovakia, or a Poland.” Between 1935 and the time Lindbergh is speaking, all three of those nations had fallen to fascist aggression, and Lindbergh does not want the United States to make hollow commitments to faraway places. With regard to the arms embargo and restrictions on shipping and credit to belligerent powers, he believes that the United States could still try to prevent the deepening of the conflict: “The action we take in America may either stop or precipitate this war.” Overall, Lindbergh wants clear distinctions as to what American interests truly are, and he sees those interests as existing only within the Western Hemisphere.

Essential Themes

Lindbergh was trying to combat the growing Wilsonian world view that many US leaders had been adopting over the previous two decades, and which would become sacrosanct in US foreign policy after 1945. In the 1910s, President Wilson was the first US leader to make a compelling case that the structure of other governments around the world and the events that occurred in other nations had a direct bearing on the national security of the United States, especially because democracies tended not to fight each other. Lindbergh tried to convince Americans that, while he thought this was true about nations within the Western Hemisphere, such a view of the world at large was not accurate and that the United States was safe behind its oceans as long as foreign armies and navies did not enter the region. Therefore, he sought to return the United States to the dominant mindset of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that the nation should be a beacon for democracy and freedom, but should not seek to actively protect or advance those concepts outside of the Western Hemisphere with armed force.

While Lindbergh's vision clearly lost out, it enjoyed wide popularity for many years, reflected in Roosevelt's hesitancy to involve the United States in the conflict, prior to the actual attack on American shores when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Lindbergh's efforts to preserve American neutrality indicate the internal tensions that democratic nations regularly experience over the massive use of armed force abroad.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “1921–1940: September 4, 1934: ‘Merchants of Death.’” Senate.gov. US Senate, n.d. Web. 11 June 2014.
  • “Charles A. Lindbergh–Biography.” Lindbergh Foundation. Lindberg Foundation, 2012. Web. 11 June 2014.
  • Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations since 1776. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
  • Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
  • “Second World War (WWII).” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Foundation, n.d. Web. 11 June 2014.
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