A cautionary tale of hero worship and anti-Semitism

We live, as it is often said, in an age of celebrity. Movie stars and generals, talk-show hosts and computer millionaires, athletes and pop singers — all are given credibility in terms of politics they have not earned and do not deserve.

But our age is not unique.

For in the 1920s and 1930s and up to Pearl Harbor, as Max Wallace’s excellent “The American Axis” makes clear, two of America’s biggest celebrities — car manufacturer Henry Ford and aviator Charles Lindbergh — openly sympathized with Adolf Hitler and actively pushed an anti-Semitic agenda, influencing countless Americans to support the most notorious racist who has ever walked the earth.

What Ford did against the Jewish people can never be excused. A genius in his own field, Ford knew nothing of history except to call it “bunk.” He swallowed the lies of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and then published them in his paper, The Dearborn Independent.

He initiated a seven-year campaign against the Jews, which ended only when a Jewish boycott against Ford automobiles prompted an “apology.” Wallace shows that this apology was motivated by convenience rather than sincerity.

Ford’s plants in Germany used slave labor during World War II and, Wallace writes, Ford’s son Edsel, who died during World War II, was to have been indicted for trading with the Nazis.

Hitler kept a huge photo of Henry Ford above his desk and awarded him with a Nazi medal that Ford not only accepted but boasted about in private.

Lindbergh was a genuine hero and a genuine dupe, who, like Ford, detested Franklin Roosevelt but lauded Hitler and the Third Reich. Like Ford, he proudly received a Nazi medal, and admired Nazi Germany. Before World War II, his speeches for America First were isolationist and anti-Semitic. Lindbergh’s overestimation of German military strength set the stage, Wallace shows, for appeasement at Munich. Both men were far adrift as actors in a world they did not understand. Yet, because of their celebrity, millions followed their every word.

Wallace’s book, if read seriously, might give readers pause before they trust our 2003 celebrities from Noam Chomsky and on the left to Rush Limbaugh on the right.

Wallace concludes: “Unless we honestly examine the phenomena that fueled the destructive social forces championed by Ford and Lindbergh, we ignore, at our peril, a cautionary tale of intolerance, abuse of power and reckless hero worship just as applicable to our own times.”

“The American Axis: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and the Rise of the Third Reich” by Max Wallace (416 pages, St. Martin’s Press, $27.95)