February/March 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 1
How should a President honor the war dead?
Since the beginning of the war in Iraq last year a small tempest has arisen in the media over whether or not George W. Bush should attend the funerals of American service-men and women killed in the line of duty. As of this writing, Mr. Bush has not done so, a decision that critics tend to view as indicative of the administration’s pre-occupation with “spin” and desire to avoid any negative images and associations. The White House has maintained, in its defense, that Bush’s first priority as Commander in Chief is to focus on the prosecution of the war and that to attend any one soldier’s funeral would obligate the President to go to all of them.
Certainly the administration has not helped its case with its needless public relations strictures, such as banning the media from covering the return of coffins and body bags (or “transfer tubes,” as the latest military euphemism has it) from Iraq. But a quick survey of past administrations, conducted with the help of our nation’s invaluable and obliging presidential-library archivists, reveals that in fact Mr. Bush is only following a historical precedent established by nearly every American President. Our leaders have rarely attended the funerals of military personnel or of any other individuals, because, in the words of Laura Spencer, an archivist at the presidential library of President George H. W. Bush, they “didn’t want to pick and choose” and because they were conscious first of their duty to the living.
Instead, most of our Presidents have confined themselves to ceremonies that commemorate our war dead in general. Their motives for this have generally been deduced, rather than stated. What President, after all, would want to say outright that he could not attend the funeral of one casualty of war because he expected there to be so many more?
Yet George Washington, as in so much else, laid down an explicit precedent on the subject, albeit in the case of a prominent civilian. Invited to attend the funeral of Cornelia Roosevelt, wife of the New York Senator Isaac Roosevelt, in the first year of his Presidency, Washington declined, even though the national government was in New York City. Were he to attend, our first President wrote, “it might be difficult to discriminate in cases which might thereafter happen.”
Even as the commander of American troops during the Revolution, Washington attended only one funeral of an individual soldier that American history specialists at the Library of Congress can confirm—that of Jack Custis, his stepson and aide, who perished of camp fever at Yorktown.
Lyndon Johnson, who was tormented by the deaths sustained by American forces in Vietnam, appears to have attended more individual funerals than any other wartime President in our history. Yet all of them were for men with whom he had had a personal connection: a Navy pilot who had been a member of his daughter Luci’s wedding party; an Army captain who was the son of the White House correspondent Merriman Smith; and Maj. Gen. Keith Lincoln Ware, whom Johnson had met on his tour of Vietnam in December 1967.
Franklin Roosevelt, wholed the nation through the bloodiest foreign war in our history (and who was the great-great-grandson of the aforementioned Cornelia), does not seem to have attended any individual funerals, although like nearly all Presidents he went to regular Memorial Day and Veterans Day commemorations at Arlington National Cemetery, and both he and his wife, Eleanor, visited the wounded on a number of different occasions. Even Presidents who have seen military service themselves have usually refrained from attending individual services. Dwight D. Eisenhower visited military memorials and cemeteries from London to Iwo Jima as President and President-elect—itineraries that spoke to the exponential growth of American power and influence. Yet he does not seem to have attended any individual services during the last year of the Korean War.
Nor did Harry Truman. Truman was hardly a squeamish man. He distinguished himself under fire and was the only President to see action in World War I, ordered the atom bombing of two cities, and once held a lamp over his mother while a doctor performed a hernia operation on her in their Missouri farmhouse. He built much of his political career on his service connections and was deeply involved in Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion activities. As President he attended the reburial of 20 World War II dead in Arlington, visited the memorial of the sunken battleship Arizona , in Pearl Harbor, and always enjoyed awarding Medals of Honor to surviving servicemen. Presenting a posthumous Medal of Honor to the family of a serviceman killed in World War II, though, proved to be something else again. The Truman aide Harry Vaughn wrote that the President found the occasion so “very distressing” that Truman never presented another posthumous medal or attended an individual funeral.
Woodrow Wilson visited the graves of Truman’s comrades-in-arms at Suresnes Cemetery in France and invoked that visit over and over again during his last, desperate train tour of the country, trying to get the American people to endorse the League of Nations, which he believed would make their sacrifice worthwhile. Speaking in Pueblo, Colorado, on September 25, 1919, the ailing President, his head throbbing so badly that he saw double, told a cheering crowd: “I wish some men in public life who are now opposing the settlement for which these men died could visit such a spot as that.… I wish that they could feel the moral obligation that rests upon us not to go back on those boys, but to see the thing through to the end and make good their redemption of the world.”
When the pain in his head kept him from sleeping that night, Edith Wilson and the President’s physician, Dr. Gary Grayson, had the train stopped in the middle of the prairie and walked the stricken Chief Executive down a lonely road, in the hope that some gentle exercise might help. There—in a moment that no modern spin doctor would believe—they encountered a wounded veteran, sitting on a front porch, and Wilson impulsively decided to climb over a fence and talk with the young man and his family for a while. The encounter appeared to ease the President’s pain, but by the following evening the tour had been canceled, and shortly thereafter Wilson suffered the massive stroke that left him a virtual invalid for the rest of his time in the White House.
In more recent years, as the idea of “closure” has taken hold in American society, our Presidents have chosen to honor the dead in collective ceremonies. President George H. W. Bush attended such commemorations for the dead from both the first Iraq war and the explosion of a gun turret aboard the USS Iowa . President Reagan attended similar ceremonies on four different occasions, including ones for the Marine dead in Grenada and Lebanon and the victims of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. This seems like a good compromise between a President’s obligations to the living and the dead, and it is likely that George W. Bush and future Presidents will honor the victims of the war on terror in the same way.
Yet just as Washington set the first precedent in this matter, the last word should go, as usual, to Lincoln. At the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, of course, he gave us the greatest funeral oration since Pericles. But more than two years earlier, during the first weeks of the war, Lincoln had attended the funeral of a close friend. It seemed to truly bring home to him the likely cost of the conflict the country had embarked upon. Elmer Ellsworth had been a clerk in Lincoln’s Springfield law office for two years before moving to New York City and becoming the colonel of his own volunteer regiment of Fire Zouaves. Soon after the outbreak of war he was shot by an Alexandria, Virginia, tavern keeper for having cut down a Confederate flag after a minor engagement there. He was just 24.
After attending his funeral, on May 25, 1861, Lincoln paid homage to his young friend, writing to his parents, “In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall.”
The tribute is characteristic of Lincoln: frank, unassuming, considerate, succinct, and brimming with real sorrow. He does not presume too much knowledge of Ellsworth: “My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet… it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit.” He seeks above all to console the Ellsworths, telling them that “I never heard him utter a profane, or an intemperate word. What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents.” His closing says all that can be said: “In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child. May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power. Sincerely your friend in a common affliction—A. Lincoln.”
No President could better honor the dead.