In "Letters of the Century," 676 pages of American letters written from 1900 to 1999, editors Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler argue that "Letters are what history sounds like when it is still part of everyday life." The book, which begins with a letter from the author of the Uncle Remus stories bemoaning the death of letter writing and ends with an e-mail from an online therapist to a woman who believes she's fallen in love on the Web, sheds light on the American Century in its various and sundry parts. The following excerpts focus more keenly on one part (somewhat anomalous, they keep telling us): Washington, District of Columbia.
Politics of the Heart
* 1971: FEB. 9
H.R. Haldeman to Alexander Butterfield
Alexander Butterfield was an assistant to H.R. Haldeman, White House chief of staff for Richard Nixon. The Henry in this memo was Henry Kissinger, then assistant for national security affairs.
In seating at State dinners, the President feels that Henry should not always be put next to the most glamorous woman present. He should be put by an intelligent and interesting dinner partner and we should shift from the practice of putting him by the best-looking one. It's starting to cause unfavorable talk that serves no useful purpose.
* 1964: AUG. 25
Lady Bird Johnson to Lyndon Johnson
The day after the opening of the Democratic convention in Atlantic City, despite an overwhelming majority ready to nominate him to run in his own right for the office he assumed after the death of John F. Kennedy, LBJ hesitated, fearing his "desire to unite the people" was doomed by his many detractors. It was this letter, from his wife, Lady Bird, that seemed to change his mind.
You are as brave a man as Harry Truman--or FDR--or Lincoln. You can go on to find some peace, some achievement amidst all the pain. You have been strong, patient, determined beyond any words of mine to express.
I honor you for it. So does most of the country.
To step out now would be wrong for your country, and I can see nothing but a lonely wasteland for your future. Your friends would be frozen in embarrassed silence and your enemies jeering.
I am not afraid of Time or lies or losing money or defeat.
In the final analysis I can't carry any of the burdens you talked of--so I know it's only your choice. But I know you are as brave as any of the thirty-five.
I love you always.
* 1915: AUG. 26
Woodrow Wilson to Edith Galt
Widowed in office after 29 years of marriage, Woodrow Wilson was still in his first term as president when he met Edith Galt, a 42-year-old Washington widow. Though beset by the war in Europe, Wilson quickly fell in love, and Galt wrote to him: "I . . . love the way you put one dear hand on mine, while with the other you turn the pages of history." Then, as now, such attachments were difficult to keep secret. Though his advisers warned him about damaging his 1916 reelection prospects, Wilson did not desist, as this letter illustrates. He would marry Galt less than four months later.
My own Darling,
. . . . I must beg you, my sweet Darling, not to attach too much importance to Washington gossip, or to what anyone is saying. If we keep within bounds, as we shall, and give them no proofs that they can make use of, we can and should ignore them. And there are some very big reasons why we should ignore them, within the limits we, of course, mean to observe. Our happiness is not an ordinary matter of young lovers; it is for me a matter of efficiency.
I hate to argue the matter in my own interest, but I know you are thinking of that side of it, too, and will, in your generosity, forgive my speaking of it. I can of course practice self-denial to any extent--spend any proportion of my energy upon it that is required--so far as it is a mere question of strength and resolute self-control; but it costs me more than anyone but you and I can know, and I doubt if it is my duty to use myself up in that way any more than is unavoidable. I am absolutely dependent on intimate love for the right and free and most effective use of my powers and I know by experience--by the experience of the past four weeks--what it costs my work to do without it to the extent involved in entire separation from you. And so we are justified in taking risks.
If during this dreadful week that has gone by--the most anxious week of my whole term as President, when loneliness sat upon me like a pall--I could have had you actually at my side, if only once or twice a week. I would have laughed at the strain and carried it with a light heart . . .
Rights and Wrongs
* 1964: NOV. 20
The FBI (anonymously) to Martin
Luther King Jr.
Coretta Scott King opened the package containing this letter as well as a tape recording of her husband apparently engaging in sexual activity with a mistress. The unsigned letter was written by FBI Assistant Director William Sullivan. Ten years later, Sullivan would tell congressional investigators that the intention had been to force King to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King and his aides saw the incident more darkly, believing the letter was meant to drive him to suicide.
In view of your low grade . . . I will not dignify your name with either a Mr. or a Reverend or a Dr. And, your last name calls to mind only the type of King such as King Henry the VIII . . .
King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes. White people in this country have enough frauds of their own but I am sure they don't have one at this time that is anywhere near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. You could not believe in God. . . . Clearly you don't believe in any personal moral principles.
King, like all frauds your end is approaching. You could have been our greatest leader. You, even at an early age have turned out not to be a leader but a dissolute, abnormal, moral imbecile. . . . Your "honorary" degrees, your Nobel Prize (what a grim farce) and other awards will not save you. . . . you are done. . . .
King, there is only one thing for you to do. You have just 34 days in which to do [it]. . . . There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.
* 1939: FEB. 28
Eleanor Roosevelt to Mrs. Henry M. Robert Jr.
When the Daughters of the American Revolution barred the great black singer Marian Anderson from performing at its Constitution Hall, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt sent this letter to the DAR's president general. Less than two months later, on Easter Sunday, 75,000 people would gather in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear Anderson sing a public recital organized by the federal government.
My dear Mrs. Henry M. Robert, Jr.
I am afraid that I have never been a very useful member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, so I know it will make very little difference whether I should resign, or whether I continue to be a member of your organization.
However, I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist. You have set an example which seems to me unfortunate, and I feel obliged to send in to you my resignation. You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.
I realize that many people will not agree with me, but feeling as I do this seems to me the only proper procedure to follow.
Very sincerely yours,
War and Peace
* 1939: AUG. 2
Albert Einstein to Franklin
Like many scientists in Germany, Albert Einstein fled the Nazis to come to America. A realist though an ardent pacifist, the Nobel Prize-winning author of the theory of relativity felt the need to write this letter of warning to the president.
. . . In the course of the last four months it has been made probable--through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America--that it may become possible to set up nuclear chain reactions in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future.
. . . It is conceivable--though much less certain--that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat or exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.
. . . In view of this situation you may think it desirable to have some permanent contact between the administration and the group of physicists working on chain reaction in America. . . .
Yours very truly,
* 1944: FEB. 2
George Marshall to Herby
Gen. George C. Marshall was U.S. Army chief of staff when he took the time to respond to a letter from young Herby Funston of Keota, Iowa.
My dear Herby,
I like your letter, the fact that you want to do your full part in licking these Japs, and that you are training every day to prepare to serve the country as a soldier.
It is true "that selling and buying bonds and stamps and salvaging is fighting a war." These things must be done, so somebody must do them and that seems to be your duty at the present time. But I sympathize with you in your desire to avenge the "nice kid" from your town who became a prisoner in the Philippines.
Be patient and don't give up the effort you are now making, but I must confess to you that it makes me sad as well as very angry to think that these Japs and Nazis have brought us to such a pass that fine, clean young boys like you must be thinking of killing men, of machine guns, bombs and other deadly tools of war. We are in a terrible business of straightening out this demoralized world so that you and your friends and millions of boys and girls like you may think more of kindness than of death and hatreds and may live useful lives in a peaceful world. But today your older brothers and your fathers and cousins need your backing at home every day of the week.
GEORGE C. MARSHALL
* 1977: JUNE 16
Jimmy Carter to the cosmos
This "We Come In Peace" letter rocketed into the cosmos aboard the space probe Voyager. Along with it went a gold-plated phonograph record featuring music and greetings in 55 languages, as well as the sounds of animals, volcanoes, rain, laughter and a mother's kiss.
. . . We cast this message into the cosmos. It is likely to survive a billion years into our future, when our civilization is profoundly altered and the surface of the Earth may be vastly changed.
Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy some--perhaps many--may have inhabited planets and spacefaring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message:
This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.
We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.
United States of America
Offense and Defense
* 1969: DEC. 3
Bill Clinton to Eugene Holmes
While he was still a Rhodes Scholar, future president Bill Clinton prevailed on political connections to help him sign up for the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) program at the University of Arkansas Law School, earning him a 1-D deferment from the draft. Sometime in October 1969, for reasons that have been the subject of much debate, he asked his draft board to reclassify him as 1-A--draftable. But it wasn't until Dec. 3, two days after Clinton drew the nearly draft-proof number 311 in the draft lottery, that he wrote this letter to the University of Arkansas ROTC director, Col. Eugene J. Holmes, possibly in part to explain why he would not enroll in the program after all. Clinton attended Yale Law School instead.
Dear Col. Holmes,
. . . First, I want to thank you, not just for saving me from the draft, but for being so kind and decent to me last summer, when I was as low as I have ever been. One thing which made the bond we struck in good faith somewhat palatable to me was my high regard for you personally. In retrospect, it seems that the admiration might not have been mutual had you known a little more about me, about my political beliefs and activities. At least you might have thought me more fit for the draft than for R.O.T.C.
Let me try to explain. As you know, I worked for two years in a very minor position in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I did it for the experience and the salary but also for the opportunity, however small, of working every day against a war I opposed and despised with a depth of feeling I had reserved solely for racism in America before Vietnam. . . .
Interlocked with the war is the draft issue. . . . I came to believe that the draft system itself is illegitimate. No government really rooted in limited, parliamentary democracy should have the power to make its citizens fight and kill and die in a war they may oppose, a war which even possibly may be wrong, a war which, in any case, does not involve immediately the peace and freedom of the nation. . . .
Because of my opposition to the draft and the war, I am in great sympathy with those who are not willing to fight, kill, and maybe die for their country (i.e., the particular policy of a particular government) right or wrong. . . . One of my roommates is a draft resister who is possibly under indictment and may never be able to go home again. He is one of the bravest, best men I know. His country needs men like him more than they know. That he is considered a criminal is an obscenity.
The decision not to be a resister and the related subsequent decisions were the most difficult of my life. I decided to accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system. For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterized by both practical political ability and concern for rapid social progress. It is a life I still feel compelled to try to lead. I do not think our system of government is by definition corrupt, however dangerous and inadequate it has been in recent years. . . .
When the draft came, despite political convictions, I was having a hard time facing the prospect of fighting a war I had been fighting against, and that is why I contacted you. R.O.T.C. was the one way left in which I could possibly, but not positively, avoid both Vietnam and resistance. . . .
But the particulars of my personal life are not nearly as important to me as the principles involved. After I signed the R.O.T.C. letter of intent I began to wonder whether the compromise I had made with myself was not more objectionable than the draft would have been, because I had no interest in the R.O.T.C. program in itself and all I seemed to have done was to protect myself from physical harm. Also, I began to think I had deceived you, not by lies--there were none--but by failing to tell you all the things I'm writing now. I doubt that I had the mental coherence to articulate them then.
At that time, after we had made our agreement and you had sent my 1-D deferment to my draft board, the anguish and loss of my self-regard and self-confidence really set in. I hardly slept for weeks and kept going by eating compulsively and reading until exhaustion brought sleep. Finally, on Sept. 12, I stayed up all night writing a letter to the chairman of my draft board, saying basically what is in the preceding paragraph, thanking him for trying to help in a case where he really couldn't, and stating that I couldn't do the R.O.T.C. after all and would he please draft me as soon as possible.
I never mailed the letter, but I did carry it on me every day until I got on the plane to return to England. I didn't mail the letter because I didn't see, in the end, how my going in the army and maybe going to Vietnam would achieve anything except a feeling that I had punished myself and gotten what I deserved. So I came back to England to try to make something of this second year of my Rhodes scholarship.
And that is where I am now, writing to you because you have been good to me and have a right to know what I think and feel. I am writing too in the hope that telling this one story will help you to understand more clearly how so many fine people have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military, to which you and other good men have devoted years, lifetimes, of the best service you could give. To many of us, it is no longer clear what is service and what is disservice, or if it is clear, the conclusion is likely to be illegal.
Forgive the length of this letter. There was much to say. There is still a lot to be said, but it can wait. Please say hello to Col. Jones for me.
* 1998: AUG. 17
An FBI examiner to the FBI
This report summarizes the results of tests comparing semen stains on a blue dress owned by Monica Lewinsky and a blood sample provided by President Bill Clinton. The same day this memo was written, the president admitted for the first time that he had misled the public about his relationship with the former intern. According to the numbers at the bottom of this memo, the genetic markers matching the president's DNA were characteristic of one in 7.87 trillion Caucasians.
Report of Examination
Unit: DNA Analysis I
FBI File No.: 29D--01C-LR-35063
Lab no.: 980730002 S BO
980803100 S BO
Results of Examination:
Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) profiles for the genetic loci D2S44. D17S79, DS17, D4S139, D10S28, D5S110 and D7S467 were developed from HaeIII-digested high molecular weight DNA extracted from specimens K39 and Q3243-1 (a semen stain removed from specimen Q3243). Based on the results of these seven genetic loci, specimen K39 (CLINTON) is the source of the DNA obtained from specimen Q3243-I, to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty.
No DNA-RFLP examinations were conducted on specimen Q3243 (a semen stain removed from specimen Q3243).
* 1972: NOV. 3
From Katharine Graham to John
Graham, who as publisher of The Washington Post presided over The Post's Watergate coverage, had come under increasing pressure from the White House as the scandal heated up. In an attempt to clear the air, she sent this letter to Ehrlichman, assistant to the president for domestic affairs and a major Watergate player.
A short while back you threw me a message over the fence, and I genuinely appreciated it. Here is a message I want to send to you.
Among the charges that have been flying over the past few weeks, many have disturbed me for the general misunderstanding they suggest of The Post's purposes in printing the stories we do. But none has disturbed me more than an allegation Senator Dole made the other day. It was that The Post's point of view on certain substantive issues was explained by me as proceeding from the simple fact that I "hate" the President.
There are so many things wrong with this "anecdote" that one hardly knows where to begin in correcting them. But I would begin with the fact that I cannot imagine the episode ever took place at all or that I ever expressed such a childish and mindless sentiment--since it is one that I do not feel.
I want you to know that. And I also want you to know that the fiction doesn't stop there. For the story suggests, as well, that somehow editorial positions on public issues are taken and decisions on news made on the basis of the publisher's personal feelings and tastes. This is not true, even when the sentiments attributed to me--unlike this alleged and unworthy "hate" for the President--may be real.
What appears in The Post is not a reflection of my personal feelings. And by the same token, I would add that my continuing and genuine pride in the paper's performance over the past few months--the period that seems to be at issue--does not proceed from some sense that it has gratified my personal whim. It proceeds from my belief that the editors and reporters have fulfilled the highest standards of professional duty and responsibility.
On this I know we disagree. I am writing this note because I think we have enough areas of sharp and honest disagreement between us not to need a harmful and destructive overlay of personal animosity that I, for one, don't feel and don't wish to see perpetuated by misquotation! (My turn, it seems.)
Best regards to you and Jean,
* 1974: AUGUST 9
Richard Nixon to Henry Kissinger
Dear Mr. Secretary:
I hereby resign the office of President of the United States.