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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Lindbergh and antisemitism: Chapter 2


Once home, Lindbergh joined the debate over whether or not the U.S. should get involved in the European war. Lindbergh was firmly in the isolationist camp. He publicly sparred with President Franklin Roosevelt and fell in with the America First Committee, an organization known mostly for its isolationism, but also for its belief that white people were under siege.

Lindbergh gave radio addresses and speeches all over the country advocating against involvement in the war. While America First had only 800,000 members at its height, Lindbergh gave the group both clout and visibility.

In his speeches, personal correspondence and diary entries, it is clear that Lindbergh believed and trumpeted age-old, antisemitic tropes. Sometimes, his antisemitism was merely a dog whistle.

“We must learn to look behind every article we read and every speech we hear,” he said in a radio address on Sept. 15, 1939. “We must not only enquire about the writer and the speaker — about his personal interests and his nationality, but we must ask who owns and influences the newspaper, the news picture, and the radio station.”

Other times, as in this speech from June 15, 1940, the antisemitism was more direct: “The only reason that we are in danger of becoming involved in this war is because there are powerful elements in America who desire us to take part. They represent a small minority of the American people, but they control much of the machinery and influence and propaganda. They seize every opportunity to push us closer to the edge.” 

For the thousands of people who attended America First rallies, heard Lindbergh’s speeches on the radio, or read them in the newspaper, this was familiar territory. Letters and postcards archived at the Missouri History Museum reveal that a lot of people found Lindbergh’s speeches inspirational, and they heard his dog whistles quite clearly.

“I have listened to every one of your radio programs so far, the only one I failed to catch was your program last Monday which was cut off of station W.O.R. New York City,” wrote Albert K. Dawson of Jackson Heights, N.Y.  “This station is run by a bunch of Jews who want to drag us into this war in order to take out their spite on Hitler — and I would appreciate very much receiving a copy of this speech if you have a spare available.”  

America’s willingness to either endorse, tolerate or ignore Lindbergh’s antisemitism changed after the speech he delivered on Sept. 11, 1941, in Des Moines, Iowa.

“The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt Administration.” Of the Jews, he said, “Instead of agitating for war, Jews in this country should be opposing it in every way, for they will be the first to feel its consequences. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”

Americans knew enough about what was happening to Jews in Germany and Nazi-occupied countries to know that Lindbergh’s comments went too far. The mainstream newspapers filled with letters to the editor decrying Lindbergh’s speech. Several newspapers had editorials condemning Lindbergh’s speech for its antisemitism.

“The assertion that the Jews are pressing this country into war is UNWISE, UNPATRIOTIC AND UN-AMERICAN” intoned an editorial on Sept. 15, 1941, in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph. In Carthage, Mo., the Carthage Democrat’s editorial headline read “Farewell to Lindbergh,” and the author called Lindbergh a “sucker” for his admiration of the German Luftwaffe and a dupe who is being used by domestic groups, “elements whose interests are diametrically opposed to the United States.” 

In the aftermath of the speech, St. Louis newspapers reported that there was an effort to return Lindbergh Boulevard to Denny Boulevard — albeit a fairly anemic effort. In an opinion piece in the St. Louis Star and Times, the writer noted that only 15 people showed up at a “rally” to advocate for the name change, noting one of the people at the meeting “walked out on the principal speaker, saying: ‘That’s a lot of boloney.’” 

WWII seems to have obliterated the memory of Lindbergh’s rhetoric for most Americans. Yet when his name is mentioned today in Jewish circles, the first word that comes up is “antisemite.” But what does that really mean for someone living at that time?

Lindbergh in Lindbergh’s time

To be Jewish in America in the 1930s and ‘40s was to live with the understanding that you were never considered fully American. Whether a family could date its ties to the U.S. from the 17th century or if it was among the thousands who immigrated around the turn of the 20th century, Jews knew that they were accepted into American society conditionally. 

To be Jewish in America at that time meant that elite universities had a cap on how many Jews they would admit; Jewish doctors couldn’t practice at many hospitals; country clubs wouldn’t accept Jews as members; and Jews were barred from certain restaurants and resorts. 

In reaction to the systemic antisemitism, Jews created their own enclaves. They founded hospitals where Jewish doctors could work and law firms for Jewish lawyers. They created Jewish country clubs and resorts.

Many Jews had no choice but to live among fellow Jews. In St. Louis and around the country, housing deeds had restrictive covenants that prevented Black people and people of “Hebrew descent” from owning homes. As a result, where you lived determined the level of antisemitism you were exposed to.

Just take the disparate experiences of one married St. Louis couple, Lou and Evelyn Cohen of Clayton. Lou, 91, grew up in St. Louis County and recalls almost no brushes with antisemitism. 

“I know there were quotas in schools and for getting jobs, which I never felt,” he said. “My first experience was in the army and it was only with one particular officer who had some pretty nasty things to say.”

Evelyn Cohen, 87, however, experienced life as a Jew very differently. She grew up across the river in O’Fallon, Ill., population 3,000 with one Jewish family.

Her father owned the dry goods store in town and was mostly well-respected. But every now and then, she said, people would call her family “dirty Jews” or spit at them on the sidewalk. And, in some cases, Evelyn said, they were barred from participating at all.

“I couldn’t learn to swim,” Evelyn said. “They didn’t have a pool in O’Fallon, but they did in Lebanon. But there was a sign up at the pool in Lebanon: ‘No Jews or dogs allowed.’ ”

This is the zeitgeist in which Lindbergh lived. His diaries reflect what many Christian Americans likely felt about Jewish people. In one 1939 entry, Lindbergh reflects on a visit he had with one Dr. Flexner. “He is a wonderful old man, and one of those Jews who makes you wonder why his race has been persecuted throughout history — until you remember the other kind, the kind that crowd clothing stores, the refugee ships, and beaches and New York streets.”

Or, as he wrote in his journal in August 1939: “Whenever the Jewish percentage of total population becomes too high, a reaction seems to invariably occur. It is too bad because a few Jews of the right type are, I believe, an asset to any country.”

The right kind of Jew is fine … in small numbers. This attitude was not unique to Lindbergh.

“Even if you associated with Jews during the day, there was a 5 o’clock shadow,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. “After work ended, you didn’t associate with them. This was true of Lindbergh, but it was true of many others as well, including [Harry] Truman.”

The “5 o’clock shadow” represents the genteel side of mid-century antisemitism. There was an ugly side as well. 

“There were so many times my father came home bloody,” said Elsie Shemin Roth, 94, who now lives at the Brentmoor Retirement Community in Ladue. Shemin Roth grew up in the Bronx in the 1930s. Even though New York City had (and still has) the largest Jewish population in the U.S, Roth said she didn’t live in a Jewish area.

“We lived in a very Italian neighborhood where a lot of our neighbors were also immigrants,” Roth said. “There was a high level of antisemitism. In school, I remember one nasty situation. A kid much smaller than I kept calling me a dirty Jew. He reached out and hit me and I smacked him back so hard. He fell down and his lip was bleeding.”

Roth recalled the park near her house that hosted American German Bund (group) rallies. “American citizens of German heritage would come in and there was terrible antisemitic rhetoric,” she remembered.

In St. Louis, a group called the Amerikadeutscher Volksbund, or the American German Nazis, had a meeting house at 2960 Oregon Ave., and a summer camp near the Meramec River off of Lemay Ferry Road. American and Nazi flags flew at the summer camp, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on Aug. 9, 1937. The group held at least one rally in Forest Park, parading with a Nazi flag to the Friedrich Ludwig Jahn monument on a Sunday morning.

The group claimed not to have ties to Germany’s National Socialist Party, according to the Post-Dispatch article. But the article also cites the organization’s German language newspaper, which stated the group’s philosophy clearly: “… the National Socialist dictatorship is the best possible government for present day Germany, that Hitler has regenerated Germany, that the Nazis and the people who believe in Nazi-ism are persecuted in foreign countries, that Communism and the Jews are evil…”

While there may have been distaste for flagrant Nazism, most Americans were fine with low-level antisemitism, said Eric Goldstein, associate professor of history at Emory University and author of “The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity.” However, people weren’t comfortable with the large number of Jewish immigrants who poured into the U.S. from the late 1800s through 1923, and Lindbergh’s views were reflective of most Americans. People were deeply concerned about the way Jewish immigrants would change the character of America, Goldstein said. In 1924, Congress passed new immigration laws aimed at southern and eastern European immigrants. Jews were particularly targeted.

“That was an antisemitic policy, but it also hastened Americanization of the Jewish community,” Goldstein said. At some point in the 1920s and 1930s, the majority of Jews in America were born here. And that created a new conundrum for America’s antisemitic streak.

“I characterize it as acculturation without integration,” Goldstein continued. “Meaning, the American born, second generation were becoming American. They spoke English. Their dress and comportment were American. They were going to American public schools, consuming American fashion. From their exterior trappings, they were absorbing American culture.”

But this hardly led to greater acceptance.

The inter-war era in America was also a time of intense anxiety, Goldstein said. The emergence of communism and the success of the Russian revolution, labor unrest and the Great Depression combined to create a time of great uncertainty.

“People from all different classes and the leaders, they were all struggling with society and things that seem beyond their control,” Goldstein said. “And that is when antisemitism emerges. People are trying to blame someone for these problems in society.”

Sarna, from Brandeis, agrees. “Whenever a country or group experiences those kinds of rapid changes, there are going to be people — and Lindbergh was one of them — who worry that they are going to be displaced, that Jews are taking over.”

As the Jews — less than 2% of the country’s population — were blending into the larger society, other changes were occurring that deepened the country’s anxiety. Cars were becoming more commonplace, thanks in part to Henry Ford. Commercial aviation was beginning to seem like a possibility, thanks to national and international routes mapped by Lindbergh. And mass communication was moving into a new phase with the advent of the radio, a technology exploited quite successfully by a heretofore unknown Catholic priest, Father Charles Coughlin.

In 1919 Ford bought a newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, and used it to promulgate virulently antisemitic articles, frequently citing and promoting the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The Independent’s circulation was second only to the New York Times in the 1920s. 

Lindbergh was well acquainted with Ford and referred to him in his diaries as “one of the greatest men this country has produced.”

Coughlin began as a local broadcaster but by the mid-1930s his national radio show had an estimated 30 million listeners each week, according to a 1972 biography by Sheldon Marcus. 

Following Kristallnacht, Coughlin gave a radio address in which he explained to his listeners that Jews were to blame for the attacks. “Jewish persecution only followed — only followed — after Christians were first persecuted,” he said.

While Lindbergh may not have been as blatant in his antisemitism as Coughlin or Ford, his views certainly aligned with theirs.

“Bad ideas are always in the atmosphere. The problem is that when people in high positions give voice to them, they do extraordinary damage,” said Ken Burns, a documentary filmmaker who created “The U.S. and the Holocaust.”

Burns said even if Lindbergh wasn’t the most virulent antisemite in America at that time, he had a megaphone that others did not.

“What happens when these ideas get in the hands of people who have broad followings? These ideas gain more traction when you substitute Kanye West for Charles Lindbergh,” Burns said.

Lindbergh’s radio addresses and speeches gave voice to the genteel antisemitism of the time. People generally didn’t take issue with his warning about an unnamed group having undue influence over the media. 

“That was another great American speech you made Sunday afternoon. Hurrah for you!” wrote Mr. and Mrs. C.M. Hunter of Houston in 1940. “There are plenty of red-blooded Americans that believe in you and know that you are not a Nazi agent because you know enough about airplanes to get a medal from Hitler. I feel proud that he thought enough of your ability to give you a medal.”

“What was important about Lindbergh — like Ford — he was a national hero,” Sarna said. “And when a national hero attacks Jews, that is very serious because lots of people think he must know a lot. He is a hero. In that sense, it was more serious than Father Coughlin.”


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