Season's Greetings From the War

By Jon Meacham
Sunday, December 24, 2006

Franklin D. Roosevelt loved Christmas. There were cocktails and stockings, and on Christmas Eve the president would read aloud from Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" -- the ham in him relished voicing the different characters in the old tale before family and friends. But after World War II broke out with Hitler's invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Roosevelt's holidays took on a darker tone, and his wartime Christmas words to the nation reflected the tension in his mind and heart.

Lighting the National Christmas Tree that year, the president opened with gloom, not good cheer. "The old year draws to a close," he said. "It began with dread of evil things to come and ends with the horror of another war." Twelve months later, frustrated by isolationist opposition to U.S. intervention, Roosevelt was equally bleak. "Sometimes we who have lived through the strifes and the hates of a quarter century wonder if this old world of ours has abandoned the ideals of the Brotherhood of Man," he said. Afterward he welcomed the crowd to return in 1941 -- "if we are all here."

It was a bitter remark, perhaps inadvertently revealing the depths of Roosevelt's anxiety about the chances of stopping Hitler if most Americans remained determined to stay out of the war. Democracy and all its customs were at stake, and FDR was clearly worried that a Nazified Europe could be only the beginning of a fascistic world empire.

For most of us, Christmas is a time of summing up and looking back; it is no less so for our wartime leaders. Their Christmastime words offer an unexpected window onto their hopes, their self-delusions, their fears and their genuine convictions. As the country's fortunes in war waxed and waned, so did their moods, which were often reflected in their words to the nation. Today, on another wartime Christmas Eve, the history of how presidents have used the season to frame the battles of their times may help us understand where we are as the conflict of our own era unfolds.

This year, struggling with how to move ahead in Iraq, President Bush chose to be simple and straightforward at the tree-lighting, asking for the nation's prayers for our troops and leaving it at that -- the safest course at a moment when he seems uncertain about what course to take on the ground. For the president, it may well be that for now, there is certitude only in prayer. And so, like those of his wartime predecessors, his words tell us something more than one might at first think.

In the wake of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Winston Churchill joined Roosevelt for Christmas at the White House, and the two men lit the national tree together. Roosevelt was relieved that America had at last joined the fight. He paid tribute to Britain for holding out so long while his own country struggled with whether to go to war. "We have joined with many other nations and peoples in a very great cause," Roosevelt said. "Millions of them have been engaged in the task of defending good with their life-blood for months and for years" -- implicitly reminding Americans that their own lifeblood had been kept safe by what Churchill had called our "protecting oceans."

Three years later, after D-Day but before the collapse of Germany, the Roosevelt who spoke to the nation at Christmas was anxious to manage expectations: Yes, the Normandy invasion had been a success, but there was much to be done. "The tide of battle has turned, slowly but inexorably, against those who sought to destroy civilization," he said. "On this Christmas day, we cannot yet say when our victory will come. Our enemies still fight fanatically. They still have reserves of men and military power. But they themselves know that they and their evil works are doomed. We may hasten the day of their doom if we here at home continue to do our full share."

For FDR, sacrifice and patience on the home front were immutably connected to sacrifice and patience at the front, and he never allowed Americans to take anything for granted -- nor to succumb to overconfidence or complacency.

When Harry Truman found himself celebrating the first Christmas of his presidency, the world still seemed -- and was -- a dangerous place. While many Americans, as the diplomat Averell Harriman put it, wanted to go to the movies and drink Coke, the burdens of world responsibility were becoming clear to Truman. "With our enemies vanquished we must gird ourselves for the work that lies ahead," he said at Christmas 1945. "Peace has its victories no less hard won than success at arms. . . . We must strive without ceasing to make real the prophecy of Isaiah: 'They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.' "

Isaiah's vision would not come to pass in the United States of the Cold War. Five years later, with Americans fighting in Korea, Truman tried to explain the struggle in the moral terms of the holiday. "We are all joined in the fight against the tyranny of communism," he said. "Communism is godless. Democracy is the harvest of faith . . . Democracy's most powerful weapon is not a gun, tank, or bomb. It is faith -- faith in the brotherhood and dignity of man under God." It is easy to dismiss such words as presidential platitudes, but Truman was speaking in the oldest of American traditions, one in which religion, like liberty and belief in democracy, was essential to creating the conditions for what Lincoln had called "the last best hope of earth."

To read Lyndon Johnson's Christmas messages, in contrast, is a dispiriting exercise. They reveal a president slowly losing control of events as the casualties mount and the country turns on him.

In 1964, his language was solemn but unswerving. "You who carry freedom's banner in Viet-Nam are engaged in a war that is undeclared -- yet tragically real," Johnson said in remarks to U.S. troops. "It is a war of terror where the aggressor moves in the secret shadows of the nights." In 1965, his tone was growing more defensive. "As in other Christmas seasons in the past, our celebration this year is tempered by the absence of brave men from their homes and from their loved ones," he said. "We would not have it so. We have not sought the combat in which they are engaged. We have hungered for not one foot of another's territory, nor for the life of a single adversary. Our sons patrol the hills of Viet-Nam at this hour because we have learned that though men cry 'Peace, peace,' there is no peace to be gained ever by yielding to aggression." In 1966, his self-pity was on display. "I know, as you know, that we face an uncertain future. Grave problems threaten us all. As your President, I struggle with these problems every waking moment of every day."

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