Jeffrey H. Smith is an Army veteran and former general counsel of the CIA.
On Sunday, March 11, 1945, as his infantry unit paused in Acht, Germany, to prepare for the dangerous crossings of two rivers, the Moselle and the Main, a slender, bespectacled captain and former violinist in the Kansas City Philharmonic found a typewriter and wrote a letter to his son.
The captain, my father, had landed on Utah Beach on June 8, fought in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge and been awarded two Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars and a Bronze Star with a “V” for valor. As he sat at the typewriter, I was in Kansas, only four months old. Although the end of the war seemed to be in sight, he was undoubtedly aware that he might not live to see me.
He did not mail his letter but put it with his personal effects, knowing it would be safely shipped to my mother should he be killed. The letter remained in his personal papers until my younger sister found it in the spring of 2019.
I wept when I read it.
Dad’s letter is the best recitation of American values and guide for living a truly good life as anything I have ever read. Typed on buff-colored paper, it is only 2½ pages, double spaced, and contains several typos that he corrected in ink. But it is beautifully composed, with a depth of thought that must have evolved over the preceding months of hard fighting. It is simple but profound, like the Bach partitas for solo violin that he loved.
“We are on opposite sides of the world, “ he wrote, “but . . . I feel very close to you. . . . I gave you something of my life when you came into being, but, at the same time, you gave me something intangible that has a value in life which cannot be measured, the pride and joy of re-creation, the completion of one’s cycle of life, for this I am indebted to you.”
He continued, “I am glad for your sake that you were born an American, and, as you grow older, you will realize how many advantages and limitless opportunities lie before you. . . . Our country is not spotless or above reproach, but the precepts upon which it was founded still rule, and the fundamental conception of freedom, justice, equality, rights and religion make it a land of opportunity.
“I have seen enough of the world to know what all that means now. Before this experience, I was taking it for granted and did not realize what it would mean not to have it.”
He urged me to embrace “desirable character traits that are as fundamental as life itself, obedience, truthfulness, kindness, sincerity, tolerance, fruitfulness, and respect for other people’s rights.” And to “acquire a true sense of values so that you can recognize the things in life that are really important. . . . Learn to love beauty, wherever you find it, music, scenery, books, anything. Develop an inquisitive mind and always remember education is a never ending process. Culture is not a feminine word or a sissy trait. . . . Respect money for what it can do for you, but realize its limitations. Beyond a certain point it adds nothing to life. Never confuse ambition with greed.”
Dad survived the war and lived a long and wonderful life, dying just eight days short of his 100th birthday. He taught our family the values in his letter not by lecturing but by living a lifetime of faithful devotion to them.
On June 8, 1966, the Army re-commissioned him for a day so he could administer the oath of office to me when I graduated from West Point.
On Veterans Day, we honor them and, at the same time, reaffirm our duty to live up to the values for which they fought. Never before has that duty been so important. From 1776 until today, countless letters from countless veterans have spoken of allegiance to those values. In our individual lives and collectively as citizens those are the values upon which our democracy rests.
The nation has just refused to reelect a president who governed with contempt for core democratic values and who now refuses to accept the will of the voters. President Trump caused grave damage to the fabric of our democracy and our stature in the world. If we do not act promptly to repair that damage, it will forever alter who we are.
Let us begin.
The full letter