Making Things Happen

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The great public figures of the land seem so distant from us that it comes as something of a shock when a private person manages to persuade dozens of eminences to act at his or her behest. The private person in this case is Bill McCloud, an Oklahoma junior high school teacher; the public figures are among the most important of the Vietnam War era. Their responses to McCloud form the heart of this issue’s cover article. Here, in the words of American Heritage’s Managing Editor, Richard Snow, is how McCloud’s story came to us:

“Every editor I know hates to get anything handwritten, especially with a bold, black felt-tip pen. If it’s a proposal, it will be hard to read; if it’s a manuscript, there’s a good chance it will be a transcription of voices the author hears from time to time. Whatever it is, it will require an answer, and it won’t be useful.

“So I was not in a receptive mood one morning last October when I opened an envelope and saw beneath the letterhead of the Pryor Junior High School a message written in a strong, round hand. It began—as such letters always seem to—’Sir, I have something that you might think could be worked up into an interesting article for your magazine.…’ I read on without enthusiasm, but after a few lines my surly omniscience was derailed. Faced with teaching his junior high school students the meaning of the Vietnam War, Bill McCloud had taken the most direct possible approach: he wrote the people who directed the war, the people who reported it, and the people who protested it to ask what lessons the ordeal held for his students. Scores of them had responded, he said; would I be interested in seeing them?

“I had Bill McCloud on the phone as soon as I could, and the next day the letters were on my desk. Going through them was initially intriguing and then profoundly heartening. Some were embittered, some were rueful, some almost elegiac, but virtually every one of them took the question with the highest seriousness. It seems to me that something is working just the way it should in this country when a schoolteacher can pose a straightforward question and get a lengthy and considered response from the Vice-President. And the letters confirm that the learning of lessons is as much the statesman’s duty as it is the student’s. I think this is particularly hopeful, and as we move out of our national amnesia about those bitter years, the letters—and the quality of thought that they suggest—can serve as beacon lights.”

What McCloud wrought is covered in this issue. We thank him for making it happen.

Byron Dobell