Charles Lindbergh: Radio Address Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Shortly after Britain, France, and other European nations declared war on Nazi Germany, famed American aviator Charles Lindbergh took to the airwaves to urge America to stay neutral on the European war. Lindbergh argued that the United States was ill-prepared to wage a successful campaign against Germany. He also stressed that the United States should remain focused on its own regional security and the preservation of its democratic ideals.

Summary Overview

Shortly after Britain, France, and other European nations declared war on Nazi Germany, famed American aviator Charles Lindbergh took to the airwaves to urge America to stay neutral on the European war. Lindbergh argued that the United States was ill-prepared to wage a successful campaign against Germany. He also stressed that the United States should remain focused on its own regional security and the preservation of its democratic ideals.

Defining Moment

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles brought an end to what many referred to as “the war to end all wars”—World War I. However, two decades later, and as a result of the punitive economic and political sanctions the Versailles treaty imposed on Germany, that nation would reemerge in the 1930s embracing the nationalist, racist, and anti-Semitic attitudes espoused by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. Hitler launched a domestic campaign to rid Germany of non-Germans and looked to expand Germany's geographic domain to accommodate the growth of the German race.

Hitler's efforts began with an illegal insertion of troops into the Rhineland (an area of Germany that had been demilitarized under the terms of the Versailles treaty), then into Austria, Czechoslovakia, and finally Poland. Meanwhile, fascist Italian leader Benito Mussolini led his own troops into the North African nation of Ethiopia, while Spain (with the help of Hitler) brought to power fascist dictator Francisco Franco. On the other side of the world, Japan (which would ultimately ally with Hitler and Mussolini) invaded the Chinese region of Manchuria, setting up a puppet government and advancing toward Beijing (a close trading partner of Europe and the United States) and into the South Pacific.

With the specter of war haunting virtually every corner of the world, nations looked to one another for alliances, partnerships, and aid. Shortly after the Nazis invaded Poland in the fall of 1939, France, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada declared war on Germany. However, Germany's military prowess and speed proved too much for these European allies.

The United States, still weary of foreign entanglements after its involvement in World War I, remained on the sidelines. A majority of Americans felt that the growing crisis in Europe did not concern them, and that neutrality was the better course of action. Aiding in this prevailing isolationist attitude was the information provided to leaders from Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh was an American aviation hero, and while living in Europe was recruited by the US government to assess Hitler's growing military capability. His resulting analysis painted a picture of a highly advanced military infrastructure that was more than capable of defeating many of Europe's militaries.

Although the isolationists prevailed in the 1930s, a growing number of Americans advocated for, at the very least, providing aid and supplies to its allies in Europe as they fought against Germany. Many called for US intervention against Hitler to fight for the democracy and freedom that were threatened due to Nazi fascism. In 1941, Lindbergh, who had seen the German military's abilities first-hand and who also espoused the isolationist philosophy, took to the radio to share with listeners his point of view.

Author Biography

Charles Augustus Lindbergh was born in Detroit, Michigan, on February 4, 1902. He was raised in Little Falls, Minnesota, where he attended high school and worked his family's farm before pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. Lindbergh, however, changed course and moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, to train to fly and maintain aircraft. In 1924, he entered an Army flying school in Texas and graduated at the top of his class. From May 20 through May 21 of 1927, Lindbergh made his famous solo transatlantic flight in a plane he helped designed and build, the Spirit of St. Louis. After his son was kidnapped in 1932, Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh lived in France, where he helped Dr. Alexis Carrel develop a special perfusion pump (dubbed an “artificial heart”) that made future organ transplants possible. During the 1950s, Lindbergh moved to Hawaii and became an avid and vocal environmentalist. Lindbergh authored seven books and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He died on August 26, 1974, in Maui, Hawaii.

Historical Document

There are many viewpoints from which the issues of this war can be argued. Some are primarily idealistic. Some are primarily practical. One should, I believe, strive for a balance of both. But, since the subjects that can be covered in a single address are limited, tonight I shall discuss the war from a viewpoint which is primarily practical. It is not that I believe ideals are unimportant, even among the realities of war; but if a nation is to survive in a hostile world, its ideals must be backed by the hard logic of military practicability. If the outcome of war depended upon ideals alone, this would be a different world than it is today.

I know I will be severely criticized by the interventionists in America when I say we should not enter a war unless we have a reasonable chance of winning. That, they will claim, is far too materialistic a viewpoint. They will advance again the same arguments that were used to persuade France to declare war against Germany in 1939. But I do not believe that our American ideals, and our way of life, will gain through an unsuccessful war. And I know that the United States is not prepared to wage war in Europe successfully at this time. We are no better prepared today than France was when the interventionists in Europe persuaded her to attack the Siegfried line.

I have said before, and I will say again, that I believe it will be a tragedy to the entire world if the British Empire collapses. That is one of the main reasons why I opposed this war before it was declared and why I have constantly advocated a negotiated peace. I did not feel that England and France had a reasonable chance of winning. France has now been defeated; and, despite the propaganda and confusion of recent months, it is now obvious that England is losing the war. I believe this is realized even by the British Government. But they have one last desperate plan remaining. They hope that they may be able to persuade us to send another American Expeditionary Force to Europe, and to share with England militarily, as well as financially, the fiasco of this war.

I do not blame England for this hope, or for asking for our assistance. But we now know that she declared a war under circumstances which led to the defeat of every nation that sided with her from Poland to Greece. We know that in the desperation of war England promised to all those nations armed assistance that she could not send. We know that she misinformed them, as she has misinformed us, concerning her state of preparation, her military strength, and the progress of the war.

In time of war, truth is always replaced by propaganda. I do not believe we should be too quick to criticize the actions of a belligerent nation. There is always the question whether we, ourselves, would do better under similar circumstances. But we in this country have a right to think of the welfare of America first, just as the people in England thought first of their own country when they encouraged the smaller nations of Europe to fight against hopeless odds. When England asks us to enter this war, she is considering her own future and that of her Empire. In making our reply, I believe we should consider the future of the United States and that of the Western Hemisphere.

It is not only our right, but it is our obligation as American citizens, to look at this war objectively and to weigh our chances for success if we should enter it. I have attempted to do this, especially from the standpoint of aviation; and I have been forced to the conclusion that we cannot win this war for England, regardless of how much assistance we extend.

I ask you to look at the map of Europe today and see if you can suggest any way in which we could win this war if we entered it. Suppose we had a large army in America, trained and equipped. Where would we send it to fight? The campaigns of the war show only too clearly how difficult it is to force a landing, or to maintain an army, on a hostile coast.

Suppose we took our Navy from the Pacific and used it to convoy British shipping. That would not win the war for England. It would, at best, permit her to exist under the constant bombing of the German air fleet. Suppose we had an air force that we could send to Europe. Where could it operate? Some of our squadrons might be based in the British Isles, but it is physically impossible to base enough aircraft in the British Isles alone to equal in strength the aircraft that can be based on the continent of Europe.

I have asked these questions on the supposition that we had in existence an Army and an air force large enough and well enough equipped to send to Europe; and that we would dare to remove our Navy from the Pacific. Even on this basis, I do not see how we could invade the continent of Europe successfully as long as all of that continent and most of Asia is under Axis domination. But the fact is that none of these suppositions are correct. We have only a one-ocean Navy. Our Army is still untrained and inadequately equipped for foreign war. Our air force is deplorably lacking in modern fighting planes.

When these facts are cited, the interventionists shout that we are defeatists, that we are undermining the principles of democracy, and that we are giving comfort to Germany by talking about our military weakness. But everything I mention here has been published in our newspapers and in the reports of congressional hearings in Washington. Our military position is well known to the governments of Europe and Asia. Why, then, should it not be brought to the attention of our own people?

I say it is the interventionists in America as it was in England and in France, who give comfort to the enemy. I say it is they who are undermining the principles of democracy when they demand that we take a course to which more than 80 percent of our citizens are opposed. I charge them with being the real defeatists, for their policy has led to the defeat of every country that followed their advice since this war began. There is no better way to give comfort to an enemy than to divide the people of a nation over the issue of foreign war. There is no shorter road to defeat than by entering a war with inadequate preparation. Every nation that has adopted the interventionist policy of depending on someone else for its own defense has met with nothing but defeat and failure.…

There is a policy open to this Nation that will lead to success-a policy that leaves us free to follow our own way of life and to develop our own civilization. It is not a new and untried idea. It was advocated by Washington. It was incorporated in the Monroe Doctrine. Under its guidance the United States became the greatest Nation in the world.

It is based upon the belief that the security of a nation lies in the strength and character of its own people. It recommends the maintenance of armed forces sufficient to defend this hemisphere from attack by any combination of foreign powers. It demands faith in an independent American destiny. This is the policy of the America First Committee today. It is a policy not of isolation, but of independence; not of defeat, but of courage. It is a policy that led this Nation to success during the most trying years of our history, and it is a policy that will lead us to success again.…

The United States is better situated from a military standpoint than any other nation in the world. Even in our present condition of unpreparedness no foreign power is in a position to invade us today. If we concentrate on our own defenses and build the strength that this Nation should maintain, no foreign army will ever attempt to land on American shores.

War is not inevitable for this country. Such a claim is defeatism in the true sense. No one can make us fight abroad unless we ourselves are willing to do so. No one will attempt to fight us here if we arm ourselves as a great nation should be armed. Over a hundred million people in this Nation are opposed to entering the war. If the principles of democracy mean anything at all, that is reason enough for us to stay out. If we are forced into a war against the wishes of an overwhelming majority of our people, we will have proved democracy such a failure at home that there will be little use fighting for it abroad.

The time has come when those of us who believe in an independent American destiny must band together and organize for strength. We have been led toward war by a minority of our people. This minority has power. It has influence. It has a loud voice. But it does not represent the American people. During the last several years I have traveled over this country from one end to the other. I have talked to many hundreds of men and women, and I have letters from tens of thousands more, who feel the same way as you and I.

Most of these people have no influence or power. Most of them have no means of expressing their convictions, except by their vote which has always been against this war. They are the citizens who have had to work too hard at their daily jobs to organize political meetings. Hitherto, they have relied upon their vote to express their feelings; but now they find that it is hardly remembered except in the oratory of a political campaign. These people, the majority of hard-working American citizens, are with us. They are the true strength of our country. And they are beginning to realize, as you and I, that there are times when we must sacrifice our normal interests in life in order to insure the safety and the welfare of our Nation.

Such a time has come. Such a crisis is here. That is why the America First Committee has been formed-to give voice to the people who have no newspaper, or newsreel, or radio station at their command; to the people who must do the paying, and the fighting, and the dying if this country enters the war.

Document Analysis

Charles Lindbergh knew that by openly calling upon America to remain neutral in the face of Nazi Germany he was risking his own popularity as a heroic symbol of American ideals. He also understood that he was facing public criticism from American leadership (including President Franklin Roosevelt) as the isolationist–interventionist debate had by 1941 become widespread and heated. Lindbergh, in his address, thus told listeners he wished to eschew the rhetoric of this debate and instead offer a pragmatic point of view that was based on his own knowledge and experience.

One of Lindbergh's main points is that the United States should only enter a war if it were capable of winning that conflict. Germany, he explains, had reached a point in its military and technological development that it was highly capable of advancing throughout Europe. Britain and France had already embarked on a quixotic campaign to defeat Germany: France was already soundly defeated, and the British Empire was not far from defeat itself. It was understandable that these nations would look to other nations to aid them, but many of the countries that answered the call, such as Greece and Poland, suffered the same fate as they did, Lindbergh explains in his address.

Lindbergh reminds listeners that the United States is still rebuilding its military and economic infrastructures in the wake of World War I, and that the US military simply is unable to successfully engage the Nazis in every corner of Europe (as German forces had by this point expanded throughout the continent), especially given their untrained personnel and antiquated weaponry. The US Navy was formidable, he says, but is a “one-ocean” navy. If it were to be called into service in Europe, it would leave the Pacific, which had become destabilized by Japan, unguarded. Even if American forces were sent to Europe, there are few bases on the mainland from which they could launch their operations.

Lindbergh explains, however, that there was an imperative for the American military: the United States should be focused on its own sphere of influence, which he believes stems from the Monroe Doctrine. If the United States were to fight and lose in Europe, democracy would fall as well. Conversely, he explains, if the United States reinforces democratic institutions across North and South America, democracy will survive in the face of Axis-style fascism on the other side of the ocean.

Lindbergh warns that there is considerable rhetoric surrounding the war. He advises Americans not to be swayed by such politically charged language. There is an overwhelming number of Americans, Lindbergh says, who share his views. In fact, he states, interventionists go as far as to argue that isolationists who make similar arguments to Lindbergh's are undermining democracy. Instead, he says, those who speak out against the isolationists are the ones endangering democracy. The people without power still have the ability to vote, and their attitudes preferring neutrality should be respected and upheld. For this reason, his America First Committee was organized in order to provide a voice for those who otherwise would not have the ability to express their opposition to the war.

Essential Themes

Charles Lindbergh was considered an American hero. However, his opposition to America's involvement in the growing war in Europe was almost certain to make him a target by the increasingly vocal interventionists, including President Roosevelt. Lindbergh understood this, but he still held fast to his beliefs that the United States should remain neutral and uninvolved in the war.

Lindbergh's approach was pragmatic. He called upon his own experience in studying the German military's growth and development during the years leading up to the war. He also cited what he said was common knowledge: that the American military was not up to the task of involving itself in the war. If it foolishly entered the war in the same way as other nations, such as France and Great Britain, the world's most viable democratic nation would lose legitimacy. The United States should therefore remain neutral rather than enter a war it could not win.

Lindbergh argued that it was imperative, however, for the United States and its military to focus on protecting its own sphere of influence as outlined in the Monroe Doctrine, especially given the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan's Emperor Hirohito. The United States was obligated to bolster its own defenses and political infrastructure. Unless the Nazis or any other Axis nation attacked the United States, he suggested, America was better advised to safeguard its own institutions rather than look to engage the Axis nations in Europe.

Democracy, Lindbergh said, was the most pressing issue in the isolationist–interventionist debate. Interventionists argued that unless the United States became involved in the war, democracy was threatened by the ever-increasing power of fascists like Hitler. They also argued that those who speak out against America entering the war were also undemocratic. Instead, Lindbergh said, there was an overwhelming majority of Americans who simply believed that America should stay out of Europe, and this majority should be heard.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Charles A. Lindbergh—Biography.” Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation. Lindbergh Foundation, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.
  • Duffy, James P. Lindbergh vs. Roosevelt: The Rivalry That Divided America. Washington: Regnery, 2010. Print.
  • Giblin, James Cross. Charles A. Lindbergh: A Human Hero. New York: Clarion, 1997. Print.
  • Lindbergh, Charles A. The Spirit of St. Louis. 1953. New York: Scribner, 2003. Print.
  • Olson, Lynne. Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight over World War II, 1939–1941. New York: Random, 2013. Print.
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