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The State of Aloha

Thousands welcomed him at the landing field outside of Paris to greet him. When Charles Lindbergh became the first human being to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, he became an international hero. The shy, slim aviator from Minnesota captured the imagination and hopes of millions of people.

But fame came with a price. In 1932, his son was kidnapped from the family home in New Jersey. Mysterious ransom notes followed. The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby transfixed the American public. Charles Lindbergh Jr.’s body was later found near the house. Bruno Hauptmann, a German immigrant who made a new life for himself in the aftermath of the First World War, was arrested, tried, and executed in 1936.

The trauma prompted the Lindberghs to relocate to Europe. The American saw firsthand the destruction of property and harassment of German Jews. Although he condemned it, he was still deeply impressed by the Nazi air force, the Luftwaffe. In 1938 he even accepted a medal of honor praising his aviation success. The medal was presented by Nazi officer and later war criminal Hermann Goering.

These were strange and terrible times. Democracy was in peril. The British government was looking more and more anemic in the face of growing dictatorships — be it fascism in Italy, Spain, and Germany or communism in the Soviet Union. Lindbergh nonetheless admired Germany’s maintenance of order, even if it was at the cost of its Jewish minority.

When the Lindberghs returned stateside, he spoke out against a war with Germany. He became the poster child for the America First movement — a collection of varying interest groups that publicly denounced any wars with foreign powers.

War with the Nazis, he wrote, was bad for “white races.” In 1939, in Reader’s Digest, of all publications, Lindbergh denounced American entanglements in Europe. The West, he wrote, “can have peace and security only so long as we bond together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood” and “guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.”

Lindbergh used his celebrity status to promote the anti-interventionist cause. He was a popular counterweight to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But at a rally in Iowa, he took aim at the Jewish people.

“Their greatest danger to this country,” he said, “lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”

He quickly added that he was not attacking Jews or the British. “Both races, I admire. But I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races . . . for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war.”

That was in 1941. The Nazis had already taken Paris and turned their aggression on the Soviet Union. Condemnation came quickly.

In his Midwestern hometown, his name was removed from the water tower dominating the town. By the end of the year, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States mobilized to fight wars on two fronts.

The America First movement collapsed. Lindbergh threw himself into the war effort. He was sent to the Pacific where he logged 50 combat flights. But his reputation never recovered.

After the war, Lindbergh withdrew from the limelight. He did not emerge from public life for nearly 20 years. He broke away from his past and spoke out about conservation of the planet and its endangered species. In the early 1970s, he discovered Kipahulu.

He found the tranquil and quiet way of life along the cliffs of East Maui irresistible and moved there. He built a modest A-frame home with stone walls and lived simply and in solitude.

He was later diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. He was whisked away to New York City, where he was told he would not survive. Lindbergh returned to Kipahulu to die. In the final eight days of his life, he planned meticulously his death. He designed his coffin made from simple wood and picked the spot in the churchyard next to the Palapala Ho’omau Church. He was 72 when he died in 1974.

The church is secluded, at the end of a narrow bumpy road under a serene canopy of trees. His grave stands apart from the headstones and markers of the locals, but he was still very much a part of the community. A small American flag is stands at his grave.

What do we make of Lindbergh now? The America First sentiment has been reincarnated in the form of little red baseball caps and hostility toward international alliances. Democracies around the world are once again in peril. Among the cliffs and trees in Kipahulu at the grave of the great aviator, you can’t help but wonder what Lindbergh would think of the world now.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”