Charles Lindbergh: Aviation’s Unlikely Environmentalist

A figurehead for progress before his political disgrace, in later life Lindberg became concerned about the impact of technology on the environment.

A portrait of aviator Charles Lindbergh. SDASM Archives. Public Domain.

Technology was initially Lindbergh’s muse. He embraced it like most Americans of his day and became the embodiment of the country’s boyish, can-do image, yet he himself soon became ambivalent about it. Crediting his flight to rapid advances in the ‘scientific researches that have been in progress for countless centuries’, he was uncomfortable that those advances enabled the world to participate in his triumph through radio and radiographs, flashing across the ocean at speeds faster than his plane could travel. The mass media made him the world’s most famous person, but he was never entirely comfortable with fame, willing to use it in the cause of American neutrality in the Second World War, yet shrinking from its grip on his private life. He blamed the kidnapping and murder of his two-year-old son in 1932 on the excessive attention of the media.

Lindbergh’s ambivalence about technology increased with the years. By the 1960s the man who was once an icon for progress –  defined as humanity’s conquest of the earth through technology – had become a tireless advocate of nature and aboriginal peoples against the encroachment of civilization. Perhaps Lindbergh had always carried within himself visions contrary to the onward march of science. Late in life he claimed his ambivalence towards technology had begun in childhood: ‘Instinctively I was drawn to the farm, intellectually to the laboratory’. He also claimed in his memoir that misty spectres had followed him on his transatlantic flight years before, writing:

My visions are easily explained away through reason, but the longer I live, the more limited I believe rationality to be. I have found that the irrational gives man insight he cannot otherwise attain.

Born on February 4th, 1902, Lindbergh spent much of his youth roaming his family’s sprawling homestead on the Mississippi River. The family wealth gave Lindbergh first-hand experience of the latest technological advances and their impact on twentieth century life. The Lindbergh’s first car with its hand crank was soon replaced by a model with a self-starting engine; machinery supplanted manual farm labour. The social transformation caused by steam turbines, automobiles, electricity and telephones ‘confirmed my growing desire to become an engineer and take part in the world’s unprecedented progress’, as he recalled. Though eloquent and intellectually curious, Lindbergh never enjoyed school and was too much of an individual to conform readily to any curriculum. Bored with his studies, he was expelled in 1922 from the engineering course at the University of Wisconsin for poor grades. He had been thinking of dropping out anyway. Lindbergh wanted to learn how to fly.

The Wright Brothers built and flew the first successful aeroplane less than two years after Lindbergh’s birth. Within a short time their rickety invention became a potent weapon. The acceleration of aircraft design spurred by the First World War also raised hopes that the new technology would bring together a world it had helped destroy. With safer, more dependable aircraft, the dream of commercial aviation was becoming reality. Lindbergh became a ‘barnstormer’ who entertained paying customers with aerial feats such as wing-walking and flying suspended from the belly of a plane. Envious of the more powerful aircraft being built for the army, Lindbergh enlisted as a reserve officer in 1925 while earning a living by delivering airmail.

Inspired by the much-publicized transpolar flights and other aeronautical adventures, his dreams soon turned to the flight, nonstop from New York to Paris, that would earn him such acclaim. It was a daring journey under the best conditions, given the fragility and limited range of contemporary aircraft. Unruffled by danger, accustomed to altitude and solitude, Lindbergh decided to fly the Atlantic alone.

His plane, The Spirit of St Louis, was a feat of engineering, a single-engine monoplane designed to his specifications. Soon after landing in Paris, the young aviator was dubbed ‘Lucky Lindy’ by the media despite his insistence that the flight represented a triumph for American engineering rather than a trial with fate. Lindbergh found the adulation uncomfortable. He was more concerned with extolling his US-made earth-inductor compass and air-cooled engine than his own act of derring-do. After Lindbergh had completed a whirlwind tour of European capitals, President Calvin Coolidge ordered him home, promoted him to colonel and decorated him in a ceremony listened to by millions on the radio.

In 1929 Lindbergh married Anne Morrow, a shy, intellectually-sophisticated ambassador’s daughter, and pushed her to become an independent woman, an early, if perhaps inadvertent, feminist. Anne Lindbergh became a skilled aviator and one of the best-selling female authors of her time, an inspiration to women across America. The Lindberghs were a model modern couple, at the cutting edge of technological developments. Together they pioneered the use of aerial photography as an aid to archaeologists, focusing on Central American sites. When they flew  to East Asia in 1931 scouting for US-Chinese air routes, Anne served as co-pilot, navigator and radio operator. The mission was part of Lindbergh’s campaign on behalf of commercial aviation. As adviser to Pan American and TWA, he helped choose flight plans and locations for terminals, and became the poster boy for the dawning age of air travel. His flights over several continents sharpened his impression of the Earth’s beauty. As early as the 1950s, he was dismayed by the changes visible from the air, the scars on the land, the pollution. 

Following the kidnap and tragic murder of their first son, the Lindbergh’s aversion to publicity and fear that kidnappers might strike at their other children compelled them to leave the United States in 1935. After a sojourn in the United Kingdom where they lived quietly in the Kent countryside in a house rented from the writer Vita Sackville-West, the family moved in 1938 to a remote island off the coast of Brittany. Here Lindbergh worked with a French physician and Nobel Prize winner, Alexis Carrel, with whom he had begun collaborating years before at the Rockefeller Institute, New York. While at the institute, Lindbergh and Carrel perfected the perfusion pump, an apparatus that permitted an organ to live outside the body, making organ transplants feasible.

In 1936 Lindbergh was invited to Germany at the request of the US military attaché in Berlin, Major Truman Smith, who asked him to report on German air power. Following this visit Lindbergh was an honoured guest in Nazi Germany on several other occasions. Profoundly impressed, he pronounced the Luftwaffe as Europe’s most powerful air force, though he was concerned about the uses to which it might be put. While his widely-reported remarks may have buttressed the mood of appeasement in Britain and France, Lindbergh took little pleasure from his observations. He regretted that aviation, which symbolized the advance of civilization, might lead instead to its destruction. As political storm clouds gathered over Europe, he began to wonder whether the technology that caused Western civilization to rise would lead to its fall. Lindbergh had first addressed the issue during his first visit to Germany at a lunch in his honour.

Postwar, the cooling of passions  enabled Lindbergh’s rehabilitation as a national hero. He worked quietly as an advisor to the Strategic Air Command, troubled by the atomic bomb and the growth of weapons technology but fearful of the Soviet Union and the threat of a totalitarian victory in the arms race. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1953 bestseller The Spirit of St Louis, an account of his transatlantic flight, was appointed an Air Force brigadier general by Dwight D. Eisenhower, invited to the White House under John F. Kennedy, and honoured by Lyndon B. Johnson for his support of the pioneering work of Robert Goddard, the father of rocketry, on the technology that put man on the Moon. At Lindbergh’s recommendation, Goddard was financed during the 1930s by the Guggenheim Foundation at a time when rocketry was often dismissed as science fiction.

During his final years in the 1960s and 70s Lindbergh’s thoughts were focused more on the earth than the sky. Stripped of his status as an American idol, Lindbergh enjoyed the privacy he had long sought and was able to pursue his interests outside the public spotlight. As early as the 1930s the Lindberghs had flown to India, ostensibly on behalf of civil aviation but also in search of yogis and mystics. They spent many hours with Alexis Carrel at that time discussing subjects ‘beyond conventionally-accepted fields of science’. Lindbergh became fascinated with the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which emphasized harmony with nature. Perhaps these interests, considered exotic before the 1960s thrust them toward the mainstream, prepared Lindbergh for the final campaign of his career.

‘I felt revolted by some of the values I had held in the past, and on the martial and material development of science,’ Lindbergh wrote near the end of his life about his postwar reflections. ‘I considered renouncing my profession and living far away from modern technology, some place where I could be in touch with nature and the earth’.

By the 1960s he cautiously emerged from seclusion as a champion of the rising environmental movement. Echoing Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), books which influenced the rising counterculture, Lindbergh promoted clean air and water and measures curbing pesticides and development. In an article for the Readers Digest called ‘Is Civilization Progress?’ in 1964 he declared: ‘Where civilization is most advanced, few birds exist. I realized that if I would have to chose, I would rather have birds than airplanes.’ During this last period of his life Lindbergh focused on East Asia and the South Pacific. His interest in the latter region was sparked through his association with British cultural anthropologist Tom Harrisson, who had lived among natives in the New Hebrides and Borneo.

The one-time champion of aviation tried to ban US landing rights for the supersonic airliner Concorde, and succeeded in blocking construction of an airbase on the Indian Ocean island of Aldabra, the breeding ground for the giant land tortoise. His name gained him the ear of government and corporate officers who might have ignored the pleas of lesser-known ecological activists.

In 1968 he gave his first public speech since America First, convincing the Alaska legislature to preserve wolves against extinction. He also adopted the cause of the great whales, persuading the Archer Daniels Midland corporation to reduce harpooning. He became an adviser to the Nixon administration, which proved remarkably eager to extend government regulation of the environment. As a member along with Prince Charles and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands of the World Wildlife Federation’s Committee of 100, Lindbergh lobbied heads of state on behalf of endangered species and habitats. He was especially persuasive with Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, who he met in 1969 and who established a preserve for the tamarau, a wild buffalo, at his behest. Flying incognito to foreign destinations, Lindbergh was not content simply to remain in the conclaves of the powerful. For example, he embarked on a helicopter trip through the Philippine island of Mindoro to build community support for wildlife conservation. In 1970 Lindbergh became a leader of the Private Association for National Minorities (PANAMIN), a Filipino advocacy group championing tribal peoples against the encroachment of farmers and loggers.

Unlike many celebrity foreigners with a cause to push in the media, Lindbergh largely shunned publicity, lived for months with the tribes he supported and nearly came to blows with unsympathetic local authorities. He was photographed in a peasant’s conical hat, brandishing an assault rifle in 1970.

In his final adventure, in 1972, Lindbergh joined an expedition to establish contact with a tiny tribe, the Tasaday, among the last remaining Stone Age people, in the remote Philippines jungle. Lindbergh admired the Tasaday for their ability to exist within nature, but was perplexed by their lack of curiosity over the wider world. He fretted over disturbing their primeval idyll, but ruefully conceded that the Tasaday’s time was fast expiring in the age of global travel and communication he had helped advance.

Lindbergh died of cancer on August 25th, 1974, after refusing life support. As a holder of the Congressional Medal of Honor, he was entitled to interrment at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC, but chose to be buried in a traditional Hawaiian tomb near his winter home on Maui. Questions about his support for Nazi Germany and public opposition to America’s entry to the Second World War continue to darken his reputation even today, while public recognition for his environmental work faded, in part due to his own reluctance to court publicity for it.

At the height of his adulation, many Americans extolled Lindbergh’s courage and conviction as the pioneer spirit manifest in the age of air travel. Lindbergh was one of a long line of archetypal American cultural figures, laconic, lonesome and marching to the measure of their own stride. He reflected upon many of the central issues of his age, and his resolute refusal to apologize for mistaken political views from the 1930s and 1940s, a product of the stubbornness that characterized him, was balanced against the actions he took in the 1960s and 1970s. Always in the vanguard, the exponent of technology had become its tireless opponent. An intensely private person, Lindbergh made few efforts to work with the news media to shape his image and agenda and treated reporters with antagonism. As a result, the press came to view him with suspicion. Eventually, he was largely ignored in the media, leaving unsung his accomplishments on behalf of environmentalism and relegating his energetic final years to obscurity.

Further Reading

  • A. Scott Berg, Lindbergh (Putnam’s, 1998)
  • Charles A. Lindbergh, We (Putnam’s, 1927)
  • Charles A. Lindbergh, Autobiography of Values (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978)
  • Joyce Milton, Loss of Eden: A Biography of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh (HarperCollins, 1993).

Glen Jeansonne is professor of American history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the author of Messiah of the Masses: Huey P. Long and the Great Depression (Talman, 1995). David Luhrssen is arts editor of the Shepherd Express, Milwaukee’s weekly newspaper.