Some stories may not have made the textbooks, offbeat tales of people and events, fragments and glimpses of surprising lives. The past is an alien place, filled with strange and fascinating customs. But its citizens were human.
The Congressional committee room was jammed with public figures, legislators and admirers who had waited in line for a chance to see the legendary aviator.
Flashbulbs popped and newsreel cameras rolled as Charles A. Lindbergh, whose 1927 New York-to-Paris flight had made him a global hero, took his seat in the chamber to testify.
It was Jan. 23, 1941 — 75 years ago Saturday — and the American mega-celebrity was about to tell Congress that the country’s entry into the war raging in Europe would have little effect on the outcome, and would be a disaster for the country.
Germany had overrun France and much of Europe. The Nazis were raining bombs on English cities. And the Germans had one of the best fighting forces the world had ever seen.
“I see no possibility of success in a war involving the invasion of the European continent,” Lindbergh would tell the legislators. “It would be better for us and for every nation that the war in Europe end without conclusive victory.”
Besides, Lindbergh thought, Britain shared the blame with Germany for starting the war. “There is not as much difference in philosophy as we have been led to believe,” he said.
A negotiated peace was the best solution. Complete victory by either side would be a calamity for Europe: “I am in sympathy with the people on both sides,” he said.
Lindbergh’s testimony came five months before Adolf Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and 10 months before Germany declared war on the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
And it damaged the image of one the 20th century’s most celebrated and tormented figures.
In 1927, Lindbergh was hailed as “Lucky Lindy” and “the Lone Eagle” after making the first solo, nonstop, New York-to-Paris flight in his single-engine plane, the Spirit of St. Louis.
Almost overnight, he became an international superhero, and a symbol of American daring and know-how.
But five years later, Lindbergh’s 1-year-old son was kidnapped from the family home in New Jersey. The child was later found dead, with a fractured skull.
A German immigrant carpenter, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, was tried, found guilty and executed for the crime.
The story was a sensation — the biggest since the Resurrection, one commentator said.
Amid the hysteria, a photographer broke into the morgue where the toddler’s body was and snapped a picture of the corpse.
The fallout drove Lindbergh and his family to flee to Europe. There, over time, he became fascinated with the rise of German technology, according to biographer A. Scott Berg.
In October, 1938, on a visit to Berlin, Lindbergh received an achievement medal, decorated with swastikas, from Nazi air minister Hermann Göring, who said it had been granted at Hitler's behest.
A few weeks later, Germany erupted in two nights of anti-Jewish rioting, killing and looting that became known as Kristallnacht, or “night of broken glass,” for the shards that littered the streets.
Amid the general revulsion over the incidents, Lindbergh came under attack for being pro-Nazi. But after coming back to the United States in 1939, he became the nation’s leading isolationist until the country entered the war — and he became a figure of scorn.
As he sat before Congress in January 1941, his fame was still intact. Almost 1,000 people were packed into the committee room.
Lindbergh, 38, was testifying against the famous “Lend-Lease” bill, which gave President Franklin D. Roosevelt the power to provide enormous material aid to Britain and other the allies fighting Germany.
He argued that the United States should stop helping Britain. Further aid would only bring America closer to involvement in the war.
Admirers cheered many of his statements, and booed hostile questions from the congressmen.
Lindbergh stayed cool, and when the hearing was over, the pro-British committee chairman Rep. Sol Bloom (D-N.Y.) remarked, “You have answered all our questions as only Col. Lindbergh could answer them.”
Many in the audience rose and applauded, and Lindbergh worked his way around the room shaking hands.
The bill passed easily, despite Lindbergh.
The day before, Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that Britain had lost 60,000 people, almost half of them civilians, in the first 16 months of the war.