- Historic Sites
America Was Promises
An Interview With Archibald MacLeish
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
I was going to write. I was going to write verse. I was at least honest enough to know that I hadn’t written a poem yet, although I had written a lot of lines, and that it would be a long time before I ever did. I was honest enough to admit that. But the thing that I just would not admit was that I could live any other life than the life based on the writing of verses. I just took it for granted. My mother, who gave me the nearest thing to encouragement, said that I would get over the desire to write poetry when I found it necessary to do so.
Didn’t you publish your first book around this time?
It was largely Yale undergraduate poems and was called, very appropriately, Tower of Ivory .
When you went to Harvard Law School, did you really think that you were going to be a lawyer?
I never thought that. I did toy with the idea of practicing law and writing verse. I kept telling myself that you ought to be able to do that. It wasn’t possible, but it took me a couple of years to find out.
What did you do in World War I?
I was in my second year of law school. I was married to Ada by that time and we already had a baby. Two months after America entered the war, I was in France. I went over in what was supposed to be a front-line hospital unit. Quite a number of youngsters who were in my position—that is, who felt they had obligations to a family—got into this. When we arrived, we discovered that it was going to be a base hospital, at Clermont-Ferrand, almost three hundred miles behind the front. Along with quite a number of my friends, I transferred into the field artillery.
Do you think that you could still—and I’ll use your words—"stand on the Marne and quote Woodrow Wilson”?
Of course not. But that actually did happen at the beginning of the Second Battle of the Marne in the summer of 1918. I was assigned to a New Mexico National Guard outfit equipped with 155-mm GPFs—long rifles. Just when things began to become active, two of those lads, very tough lads, came up and asked if they could speak to me. And then one of them said, “Lieutenant, why are we here?”
“You mean this apple orchard?” I said. “I’ve sited the batteries here, and perhaps it’s not the best possible choice, but we’re stuck with it.”
“No, no, not the Goddamn orchard,” they said. “Why are we here, why are we in France?”
I suddenly realized that there was only one thing I could say, and that was Mr. Wilson’s “to make the world safe for democracy. ” They stood there shuffling their toes in the dirt, said thanks, and walked away.
That has bothered me ever since. I had every right, I suppose, as an officer of the United States Army, to quote the President. But to quote the President in a remark as flagrantly improbable as that—it still hurts.
Were you ever frightened?
Scared to death, yes. We were right back of Château-Thierry, and there was a great deal of desultory fire going on. Every time you opened a gate, you found that some marksman had his sights on you, waiting for just your appearance. The real fire began when the Germans moved up their equivalent of the GPF: it was a terrifying situation. I ran into some Harvard Law School boys who had joined a Massachusetts artillery regiment and who had been on the front for quite a long time. Their tales did not calm my nerves.
If you had to pick out an image from that war, is there one you particularly remember?
There is, very decidedly. It’s an image in the ear, not an image in the eye, and it occurred a few days later. I had just found out that I was being shipped back to the United States with two or three other officers to take over a new 155-mm GPF unit which was under training and was due to leave shortly. (It never did, of course, and I spent the rest of the war at Fort Meade.) We had to get out by rail. I got down to the railroad station with one of the other lads who had been ordered home and climbed into a freight car. Just as we pulled the doors shut, there came a crash of sound from overhead. The station had taken a direct hit. When we opened the door and looked out at where the station had been, we could see ten miles. No station, nothing. That seemed an almost unnecessarily enthusiastic farewell.
You once called the First World War “the most murderous, hypocritical, unnecessary and generally nasty of all recorded wars.” Did you see it that way while it was still going on?