My father left behind, or more accurately my mother, carefully saved, a box of voluminous letters from the Pacific. As will all such letters from a war zone, they were often written under difficult conditions -- typewriter perched on knees or packing crate -- and composed before a battle or even during a bombardment or air attack. Then, after the flimsy onionskin paper had been filled to its every inch, without margins or spacing between the lines, and the contents had been cleared by military censor, the letters were flown the thousands of miles back home.
The letters cover the last year of the war in the Pacific: the island campaigns and the carrier task force raids against Tokyo; the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa; the naval bombardment of Japan and the dropping of the atomic bomb; the surrender ceremonies aboard the USS Missouri and the occupation of Japan, and the subsequent first inspection tour of what was left of Hiroshima. How he managed to write nearly every day, in such length and detail, and still pour out daily dispatches for his newspaper is a mystery that I, after meeting newspaper deadlines for a generation, do not pretend to understand, War and the emotions it inspires, work in strange ways on different people.
But that is not why I write now, 35 years later, sitting here in the hills of Connecticut, happily removed from the petty squabbles of political Washington and, for the moment, aloof from the aimless speculation about whether it will be the erstwhile Georgia farmer again or the aging actor. What shines through those letters is something more inportant than style, anecdote, family memories or recounting of history. It is the attitude that stands out.
Throughout his descriptions of war and its terrors, its sacrifices, barbarisms, stupidities and grim humor, not a hint betrays any doubts about the rightness of the effort or any lessening of pride in what America represented. Implicit in the words is a belief in the country and its leaders, a conviction that the United States could accomplish anything it wished, a faith in the future and a sense that out of the suffering would some a better time for the nation and the world.
He was on Okinawa when Franklin Roosevelt died. As he wrote, the new "could not have come at a more hideous time" -- during an all-night artillery shelling.
I stayed up until 7 a.m., then crawled back into bed during a lull in the firing, and dropped off to sleep. We were awakened by Norman Paige, radio reporter, who said: "Gentlemen, brace yourselves. Harry Truman is the President of the United States. Roosevelt is dead!" We literally rolled out of our cots. We couldn't believe it. We were obsolutely stunned. Then one of the boys mumbled: "All right, here's where I turn in my ticket right now." I felt exactly the same way. But suppose everybody back home threw up his hands and quit? We'd be in a hell of a fix and it would be a sad commentary on our country and our alleged greatness. We must do everything in our power, politically and otherwise, to achieve the things our men are fighting and dying for all over the world. We can't let them down . . . .
Those same kinds of sentiments keep cropping up amid his recitations of daily events (and daily frustrations) -- the struggle with the censors, the snafus of transmission facilities, the desperate hunger for mail and the depression that set in when letters from home failed to arrive, the gripes, the self-doubts over the quality of his work, the tobacco road atmosphere of the press tents, the rumors always making the rounds, growing wilder and more fearsome with each telling.
Then something would happen to trigger deeper emotions. He received a moving letter from a Pfc's mother while aboard a battleship heading for the first naval bombardment of Japan. Her son had just been killed on Okinawa, and, as she wrote: "My husband and I would be very grateful if you would write and let us know the honest truth of his condition, as we feel after reading your story [in which the soldier was mentioned] that you must have had some conversation with him the day he drove the jeep for you to tour the battlefield,"
After three painful tries, he finally composed an answer, but, as he told my mother, he worried if he had overdone the feelings expressed. Then, he added: "I feel a strange and powerful kinship and affection for these boys who are fighting and dying. I cannot look at a freshly filled military cemetery without feeling that each and every one of them could be our son. They are our sons -- all American's sons. Could anybody deny them as his own? Then let no one betray them!"
In a few more weeks, he was writing home about another event, the anniversary of which is this Wednesday -- the bombing of Hiroshima.
I suppose you have been reading about the new atomic bomb. It's a terrible weapon. It makes me shudder even to think about. I'm almost sorry that even we have it, but just imagine what a world this would be if the Germans had had it or the Japs! Still, I hate to see such a destructive force loosed upon the world. We hope the secret now, but who knows what other nation or nations may have it in the future, or something even more lethal?
Reading those letters today, along with the yellowing newspapers reporting those dramatic events in the summer of 1945, comes as something of a shock. It's not just the old-fashioned patriotism, but a sense of how much had changed in so relatively short a period. Those words evoke a time when America was about to command the center of the world's stage. Now, 35 years later, they signal an age that appears to have passed.
After the rescue attempt of the hostages last spring, when American helicopters were left smoldering on the Iranian desert along with charred American bodies, I had a long conversation with a gifted young journalist. The debacle in the desert was about what he expected, he said. He had grown up in the Vietnam-Watergate years conditioned to believe America would fail. Many of his generation share that feeling; they don't expect the country to perform wisely or well.
In the stale atmosphere of Washington these days you hear the narrowest kinds of opinions expressed. Selfishness, personal survival and politics-for-the-short-run prevail. Instead of the great issues being discussed, the discourse runs to questions about a president's wayward, pathetic, younger brother. The presidential campaign that is about to begin ought to be one of the most important since World War II, given the nature and complexity of the problems facing the country. It promises instead to be filled with personal assaults and empty -- and easy -- rhetoric about making America great and strong again. (That's our old, foolish, childish need to boast of being "number one" at work again.)
What's missing is perspective, a true understanding of where we've been in the 35 years of the atomic age, what historic achievements we've accomplished in art, science, medicine and technology, what changes for the better we have wrought at home and abroad in raising standards of living and easing racial and religious prejudices, all the while standing watch abroad at additional sacrifices in lives and treasure, and what new directions we need to take in the very different and difficult era that now dawns.
I find myself, reflecting up here at "the farm," with my father's grave behind the house on the hill and his old letters stirring memories of the past, personally feeling caught somewhere between the generations -- between his unbounded confidence springing out of those closing days of the war and the inherent pessimism of my talented young colleague. Our story isn't over. We're better than we give ourselves credit, and yet less able at the moment to find our way. t