America seems fully caught up in pulling down statues and renaming things these days.
As we shed a new light on old heroes, they become no longer acceptable to have their name or image portrayed. It’s a little bit like Russia in the last century or so, where whenever there’s a regime change, all the cities get a new name.
This re-evaluation of our forebears seems to raise the question: Do we judge these people by the totality of their life and the expression of that life, or do we start to weed them out because something they supported in their time has now become abhorrent to us?
In seems ludicrous, but do we cast aside Washington and Jefferson because they were slave owners? Do we vilify Jefferson because he had slaves and even had children with a slave, or do we somehow accept that flaw in the man who wrote probably the most precious document in our national heritage, and made the words “all men are created equal” into our most treasured credo?
Minnesota has not been immune to this great debate. Lake Calhoun is under constant attack on these pages because its namesake was a slaveholder and a staunch defender of states’ rights, including the right to be a slave state. Or do we take a broader view and see Calhoun as he was back in the old days when the lake was named, someone considered a statesman equal to Daniel Webster and Henry Clay? A Senate committee, chaired by John F. Kennedy, found Calhoun in 1957 to be one of the five greatest U.S. senators of all time.
And now the spotlight has shifted to whether the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport’s Lindbergh Terminal 1 should be renamed. As we look back at the life of Charles Lindbergh though our new lenses, the flaws of his life have become magnified to the point as to make his name unusable to some (“MSP has its own ugly connection: Lindbergh,” Sept. 5, and “At the very least, it’s now time for a reordering,” Sept. 8).
Which brings us back to my main question: Do we start changing names based on a person’s life as a whole, or can one heinous deed overshadow all else — and how heinous does that deed have to be, and how do we agree on its heinousness?
A big problem, of course, is not taking into consideration the life and historical times of the person in question. In George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s neighborhood, owning slaves was the norm. Indeed, putting our values on the choices made by people who lived in other times is a tricky business.
Charles Lindbergh is in that small pantheon of Minnesotans — Humphrey, Mondale, Dylan, Prince, Lewis, Fitzgerald — who had a major influence on America and the world. His solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, as H.L. Mencken said, was “the biggest news since the resurrection.” He became a worldwide hero overnight, and forever changed the perception of aviation and its uses in our civilization. Because he was in the Army Reserve at that time, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Lucky Lindy, the kid from Little Falls, was on the cover of every magazine and music sheet in America.
His fame had its downside. The kidnapping and murder of his son, called “the crime of the century,” made life so untenable for his family that they moved to England.
OK, this is where it gets dicey. Lindbergh, like many Americans, felt America should not get embroiled in another European war like the Great War. World War I had not made the world safe for democracy, its aftermath had left much of Europe in continued economic chaos, and it had been the scene of death for more than 100,000 of our nation’s great young men and women. Isolationism and the America First movement were very popular in the U.S., and rallies for that cause drew huge crowds.
Lindbergh was always courageous about his beliefs, and he felt strongly about staying out of war. Were his opinions skewed because of his respect for the German people, even accepting a German medal in 1939? Probably.
Lindbergh gave many speeches as he assumed a leadership role in the isolationist cause, and he tried to outline what he saw as the forces driving us into war. This is where he gets into trouble from a 2017 perspective. The three main forces he saw were the Roosevelt administration, Great Britain and the Jewish community in the United States. Historically, you could make a case that he was not far off the mark in that assessment. Roosevelt, for his good reasons, was pushing for U.S. engagement. Britain was fighting for its life. And Jews in America were horrified at the anti-Semitic terror being waged by Germany.
Lindbergh was clear about his feelings in a speech in Des Moines three months before Pearl Harbor: “No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany.”
And further on: “I am not attacking either the Jewish or the British people. Both races, I admire. But I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war.”
Back to that main question again. Can we accept the fact that all humans have flaws and live in flawed times, and that before we rip their name down from the entrance to the terminal, we need to consider the totality of their lives?
If you want to do some research, you can find plenty more about Lindbergh that blackens his character. He apparently had an interest in eugenics, a belief that some races are more dominant than others, and he apparently fathered seven children in Europe by three different women who were not his wife.
When World War II did start, Lindbergh abandoned his isolationist view and tried to get his Army commission back. Roosevelt said no. Instead, Lucky Lindy began working for American airplane manufacturers to try and make the best warplanes possible. He worked extensively with the Marine Corps in developing techniques for the Corsair fighter. He flew 50 combat missions in the Pacific during the war as a civilian.
After the war, he continued his writing career and earned a Pulitzer Prize. He used his prestige late in life to help preserve many threatened species.
Should his name be on the Twin Cities airport terminal? Yeah. He did not shame his country or Minnesota, as writer Steve Hunegs stated in one of the recent commentaries mentioned above.
But as an aside, in response to Hunegs’ final thoughts, why not have educational displays in the airport that tell us more about Lindbergh, great deeds and bad deeds, or about the Holocaust? I have noticed that other airports in the nation have begun using their space for art and education, why not here? The MSP airport seems bent only on creating a smaller version of the Mall of America.
In the meantime, don’t tear down the Lindbergh signs. (Actually, I don’t recall seeing any.) Let us consider the entirety of his life’s contribution while being fully aware — like Jefferson’s slave-owning — that he was a man of his times. We need to be fully educated before we can condemn from our modern perspective.
Al Zdon is the communications director of the Minnesota American Legion.