National Commentary

Helen Thomas: Letters Maybe a Thing of the Past

WASHINGTON — Sad to say, with the popularity and availability of email, personal letters may soon be a thing of the past.

Historians, too, will lose out. Communications may soon be reduced to instant messages and sound bytes on the air.

That's why we should savor the National Geographic's new collection of letters to first ladies titled "Dear First Lady" that give us some insights into their personal sorrows and joys.

The authors — Dwight Young and Margaret Johnson — selected some poignant missives, love notes between presidents and their wives and letters that marked great moments in history, such as President Lyndon B. Johnson's sympathetic messages to Jackie Kennedy following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

As a reporter, I had covered some of the events referred to in the letters and was asked to write a foreword for the anthology.

The letters show that each first lady — from Martha Washington on — tried to do her own thing. Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, defined herself in a stream of correspondence with her husband, who was often away on official business.

Many of the letters sent to the first ladies involved personal appeals. The president's wives often said they were helpless to intervene.

Sophie Rosenberg thought Mamie Eisenhower could be a "sympathetic ally" in saving her son, Julius Rosenberg, and his wife Ethel from execution in 1953 for espionage. They had been found guilty of passing atomic secrets to the Russians.

Despite Rosenberg's grief-stricken appeal as a mother to Mrs. Eisenhower, the first lady apparently made no attempt to change President Dwight D. Eisenhower's decision to let the execution proceed.

Eleanor Roosevelt, the icon of all first ladies in the 20th century, plunged into the social issues of the day.

She took a bold stand — for the times — in resigning her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution when the DAR shamefully barred Marian Anderson, the famed contralto, from singing at Constitution Hall because she was black.

As the result of Mrs. Roosevelt's intervention, the concert was held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939. Her electrifying performance drew 75,000 people and made civil rights history.

Later, despite a written appeal from author Pearl Buck, Mrs. Roosevelt said she regretted the need to relocate more than 110,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. It had to be done, the first lady insisted.

Buck — who spent a lifetime trying to build links between East and West — had written to Mrs. Roosevelt "as one woman to another."

Buck told the first lady: "The way these people are being treated is so much more German than it is American."

Also included in the book is a letter to Mrs. Roosevelt from Pvt. Clifton Searles, a black man serving in the Army. He was visiting Washington in 1943 and waiting to be sent overseas in World War II.

Searles said he had gone into a drug store and asked for a Coke, which was served to him in a paper cup, although other customers who were white were being served their sodas in glasses. When he asked the man behind the counter why the difference, he was told it was the "policy of the store."

Searles sent Mrs. Roosevelt the crushed paper cup and said wryly: "I'm going to feel fine, fighting in a Jim Crow (segregated) army for a Jim Crow government."

Mrs. Roosevelt wrote back that she understood his bitterness but told him that he would not have had the freedom to write under the Germans and Japanese. She did try to offer comfort by telling him that larger groups of white people were gathering who were conscious of racial wrongs and who were working "to correct them."

In President Johnson's letter to Jackie Kennedy, he told her that she "has a warm place in the heart of history."

He added a rueful note: "I only wish things could be different and I didn't have to be here."

Words do count. They seem to have more meaning in handwritten letters.

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