Tom Wicker discusses his Civil War novel, Unto This Hour
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GUEST: Tom Wicker
AIR DATE: 04/27/2013
Original Air: 2/18/84
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, where occasionally we interrupt our regular weekly schedule of contemporary on-air conversations to present – In Memoriam – a past program with a distinguished guest who has passed.
Today we celebrate the New York Times late, great reporter, editor and columnist Tom Wicker, who died in November, 2011 at age 85.
The following Open Mind about his Civil War novel, Unto This Hour, was first broadcast in 1984.
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. A good many weekends over the past two and a half years I’ve particularly delighted in producing another program, From the Editor’s Desk, always when one of my editors has been Tom Wicker, Associate Editor of The New York Times, and one of its great columnists. Now Tom Wicker writes novels too. Viking has just published Unto This Hour, a giant, awesome in its way book about the Civil War, about its humanity and inhumanity, about the leadership, Lincoln’s and the generals’ that impacts upon us even today.
And since I’ve always thought of Wicker as a most present–minded journalist, I want to ask him to begin with whether essentially Unto This Hour is scarcely veiled fiction, or scarcely veiled history. Tom?
WICKER: Well, I hope it’s neither. It’s a novel. And it’s a novel of people in the Civil War and what happens to them during the Civil War in the same sense that one might write a novel about people during the Depression or people living through World War II. It’s very narrowly focused on five days, and therefore the history plays a particularly prominent part in it. But I hope that it’s first, and I think that it’s first and foremost a novel in which the historical aspects are accurately presented.
HEFFNER: But you’re, obviously you pick the subject for your novel in terms of the larger framework of your interests in contemporary affairs.
WICKER: Well, that’ true. I wondered if, when I began the research on this, the specific research, whether it would be illuminating about contemporary affairs. I think it is. But I found that sort of thing difficult to work into fiction, particularly since I had limited my time scheme to five days. And so it’s very hard to have a kind of century-long, bird’s eye view saying because of that then we have a certain kind of politics today. But I think the Civil War does have a great impact upon American life today.
HEFFNER: What is that impact?
WICKER: Well, there are any number of traces that you could make from the Civil War. I think probably the most obvious one is that that war certainly decided the development of this nation as a great industrial power.
Now, in all probability even had there been some peace between the two sides and the Southern nation and slavery existed somewhat longer, then we still would have developed as a great industrial nation.
But I think the Civil War not only speeded that development but it really settled that question for all time. And I think it also left us with a sense that national power is fundamentally based on industry and on armed force.
And the military historians will tell you, or some will at least, that American army doctrine today is still based on the fact that Grant with his massed armies and massed fire power defeated Lee with his army of maneuver and finesse, based on the fact that he had smaller manpower.
Lincoln’s early actions in developing the Northern power were the prototype. They practically formed war powers that all presidents depend upon today. We don’t think it very strange in this country – some of us are very critical of it – but we don’t think it very strange at this time that President Reagan could send the Marines to Lebanon without the support of Congress, which he did in September of ’82, without the specific support of Congress. Well, when Lincoln did things like that in 1860, 1861, it was startling. It was just the beginning of the president’s war powers.
HEFFNER: Do you think that…Well, I know that you’ve written that “The nation’s just-under-the surface militarism may not be based entirely on the Civil War experience, but I think our quick resort to military solutions for political problems is influenced by that experience.” Now, that’s, I wondered what you meant about “just-under-the-surface militarism.”
WICKER: Well, because I think that – and I think readers of my articles in The New York Times wouldn’t be surprised by this – I think that we are too quick in this country to resort to armed force. And I think that’s been particularly so since World War II when we emerged on the world scene as one of the, or as then the only superpower, now as one of the two superpowers. I think we’ve been too quick to resort to force in our national experience, or to the threat of force, to the implication that we would use it unless we have our way on something.
HEFFNER: More so than others?
WICKER: No, I didn’t say that. I’m talking about the United States. We like to congratulate ourselves in this country too much, in my judgment, on being absolutely peace-loving. You know, we like to think that we will only resort to force if somebody’s really been kicking us around. But if you look at the history since the end of World War II, that isn’t true.
And I think that willingness to resort to force to settle political matters has its roots in the national experience, that the gravest single political matter that ever came before the people of this country was disunion, based on slavery and the other issues that brought on the Civil War. And we handled the issue of disunion ultimately with force. And in my own judgment not only, while it may be arguable as to whether or not there was any alternative, in my own judgment there was an alternative rather than the resort to force.
There could have been, there should have been. But I think that is something that’s embedded in the national consciousness now. Admittedly that’s the sort of national psychoanalysis end. But I think that if you study these things, you’re entitled to make judgments like that.
HEFFNER: Would your judgment also be that Lincoln’s defense at Fort Sumter led us into a war, the war that you seem to feel we needn’t have fought? That his active concern that this last great hope of mankind needed to be held together and that the union was going to be preserved with force if necessary?
WICKER: No, I think by the time the question appeared before Lincoln as to the resupply of Fort Sumter, which indeed was, that brought on the first shot so to speak in the Civil War, by that time I think the opportunity for alternatives had passed.
I didn’t mean to imply and I don’t imply that Lincoln was wrong in pursuing the trying to hold the Union together as he did, even to the extent of war. I’m simply saying that in the long history of that conflict, 30 years or more in which it was specifically before the American public as a major issue in the national consciousness. That is when I think many opportunities were missed, on both sides.
HEFFNER: But Tom, do I understand you correctly that you just said that you would not second-guess Lincoln in going to war to preserve the Union? Was the experience not that harrowing? As I read your book I can’t imagine any other description than “harrowing” for that national experience.
WICKER: All war is harrowing. And that war was particularly harrowing, you’re quite right, because the tactics were outmoded by the technological developments. For example, the rifle barrel had made the defense infinitely superior over the offense. Yet most of the generals of that war learned their tactics in the Mexican War just a little over a decade earlier, at which time they didn’t have rifle barrels and the frontal charge of the offense was the basic tactic. So that resulted in just untold slaughter in the Civil War, and all that took place just before the modern flowering of medicine.
So the medical treatment of these excessive number of wounded was very primitive. I think the figure somewhere is if we had suffered, the entire United States had suffered casualties in World War II the equivalent of the Confederate casualties in the Civil War, instead of having about 300,000 men killed we would have had something like six million men killed.
So you’re quite right. The word “harrowing” is right. I would say however that by the time Lincoln came to office he, and even despite his appeals to the South in his Inaugural message, his first Inaugural, to try to, still to try to settle this issue peaceably. When the question arose at Fort Sumter, I don’t really think that he had found an alternative to the re-supply of the fort. Now remember, he didn’t go down and start a war; he re-supplied the fort. Now, that had the effect of starting a war. But what I mean is he didn’t send troops down to fire on the Southerners, and they still didn’t have to do it. So I think the issue at that time of maintaining the Union, which was always Lincoln’s overriding aim, not to free the slaves, not do a lot of other things, but to maintain the union, I think that issue was the overriding issue, and by April 1861 I think he had very little choice. I would almost say no choice but to do what he did, which was to maintain the nation’s, that is the United States’ forts.
HEFFNER: Tom, I have the feeling – stop me if I’m wrong – that today you would be less generous in your interpretation of Ronald Reagan’s alternatives. I doubt that you would say he had no choice, he had no alternative. The scene had been set 30 years before. His hands were tied. If he were going to meet the principles that this nation subscribed to, war was necessary.
WICKER: On what issue are you referring to…
HEFFNER: Well, pick your issue.
WICKER: Well, if there were some issues that had been festering on the national consciousness for 30 years, the size of the issue of disunion, and Ronald Reagan were faced with it, why, depending on what he did I certainly think that the 30 years controversy should be taken into account in doing whatever he did.
I don’t see today that Ronald Reagan faces any such thing. And I mentioned Lebanon for example. I think he had lots of choices rather than leaving the Marines in Lebanon in the circumstances they were in. I still think he has choices.
When he sent the Marines to Lebanon in September 1982 you will recall it was to supervise the departure of the PLO forces from Beirut. I think that was perfectly supportable. And in fact the PLO was evacuated and, I’ve forgotten the exact time, it was only a matter of weeks. The Marines withdrew.
Then there followed the massacre of Palestinians in the camps around Beirut and he sent the Marines back in. When he sent them back in the mission was less clear. And as time goes along it’s become even less clear. Until now the president is in the position of not really being able to explain in a way that Americans rather unquestionably accept. He can’t explain what it is that 1,600 Marines are supposed to do there. And so I don’t see that the issue of having no choice really arises there.
HEFFNER: Well, then let me go back again. Are you suggesting that the issue of union was what carried us into war? You’ve said that. I read your book. I couldn’t help but think of All Quiet on the Western Front. I couldn’t help but think of Johnny Got His Gun. I couldn’t help but think of all those other descriptions of war is hell. And I wondered whether you weren’t saying that and whether you weren’t saying, and gather from what you’ve just noted that you weren’t, that was an unnecessary war.
WICKER: Yes, I think, what I hope you’re saying is my book is apolitical in that sense. It’s a book about war and about people living in war and trying to cope with the conditions of war. And I don’t particularly, other than when certain characters voice their views in here, I don’t try to tilt the scales one way or the other in that sense.
It is an anti-war novel, and it is meant to be an anti-war novel in the sense that you’ve already stated: that war is harrowing and terrible, and before it should be resorted to – and I’m only talking about conventional war now; we haven’t even got to the nuclear question – before it should be resorted to for anything I think that you have to have a really overriding issue of enormous importance even to the life of a nation, and one in which politics, whether it should have been the case or not, has obviously failed. Now, I’m inclined to think that that was the case by April 1861 on the issue of disunion and the maintenance of the American Union. I’m not inclined to think that that was the case or is the case in Lebanon. I don’t think it’s the case in Nicaragua. I didn’t think it was the case in Vietnam. So I think the parallels are fair enough.
HEFFNER: That’s why I wonder whether you aren’t being more generous to President Lincoln than you were to the presidents who took us into Vietnam, who are taking us into Lebanon and so on.
WICKER: Well, I’ve tried to explain that I don’t think that the issues upon which they took us into Vietnam let us say were anything like the issues, anything like the overriding importance to the fundamental life of the nation, to the existence of this nation that were faced by Lincoln, as were faced by Lincoln in 1861.
HEFFNER: All right. Then let me ask Commentator Wicker, writing in 1860-61, is this a war that should be fought?
WICKER: The war of, the American Civil War?
HEFFNER: The War Between the States as we’ve called it occasionally.
WICKER: Well, if I transported myself whole in my present…
WICKER: …experience and everything back to 1861 I would like to think that I would have been a fervent supporter of Mr. Lincoln’s inaugural address in which he clearly called for conciliation and peace. I would also believe however that, assuming I had been in the commentary business for some time, as long as I have been now, at that time, I would have thought that while that was a salutary and justified call with very little likelihood of its, in fact, being accepted, and indeed it wasn’t.
HEFFNER: But might you not have said nothing is worth what Tom Wicker a hundred and more years from now is going to describe as that harrowing nature?
WICKER: No, I wouldn’t say that nothing is worth maintaining the Union.
HEFFNER: But maintaining the Union?
WICKER: Maintaining the Union in my judgment was an issue that justified going to war, even though President Lincoln right to the last moment tried to avert that. And as I said, when he re-supplied Fort Sumter that wasn’t an act of war. That was an American fort, a U.S. national fort. And he was re-supplying his troops on his own territory. That’s not an act of war. It was unquestionably an act, seen as a provocation, and it brought on acts of war.
HEFFNER: Lincoln did not have to reinforce Sumter. When he did he knew what the result was going to be. War.
WICKER: Well, I think he had a pretty solid idea, yes.
HEFFNER: So that strategy of his, that strategy of defending Sumter was his way of declaring war.
WICKER: Yes, but it was also a necessity because American forces were surrounded. He could’ve, I suppose, as at least I counsel President Reagan to do today, he could have withdrawn those forces. But in that case you have to understand what in fact he would have been doing. He would have been surrendering a national property, a fort, to an insurgent nation which I don’t believe you can draw that parallel to Lebanon.
HEFFNER: I didn’t know you were such a nationalist. I mean, I’ve been reading Wicker all these years. I never would have dreamed that, particularly having described the hell of war…
WICKER: I’m an American and a patriot, and I believe in the American Union, and I believe that the United States of America, when it’s true to its fundamental nature and to its constitutional nature is a valued force in the affairs of men. And I think that it would have been tragic and greatly dissipating even to the potential force of this country had we drifted into disunion, separate nations in the middle of the nineteenth century.
HEFFNER: So better dead than separate?
WICKER: Well, you can put slogans like that to it if you want to, Richard. I’ve never used the slogan, “Better dead than red.” I‘ve never used that slogan. I don’t believe in, I don’t much believe in slogans, and I certainly don’t believe in these absolutes. What I believe is in, what I believe in most is in trying to work things out. And I think things can be worked out if people have a will to work them out. And what’s right, quite clear it seems to me when you look back over the history of the period preceding the Civil War, is that there was not sufficient will, particularly in the Southern states, there was not sufficient will to work that problem out.
HEFFNER: Then why not let them go?
WICKER: Well, because that would have meant disunion, and it would have meant the dissipation of the strength and the hope that men had for this nation.
HEFFNER: And that strength and that hope were worth what you describe in your book?
WICKER: I think so. I think so. In the more than a century now following that, and particularly in the nearly a half-century following World War II, I think we have many times essentially failed to live up to the hope. We have certainly shown the potential of the strength.
HEFFNER: You know, I’m not going to stand corrected with the business about you’ve never used slogans like that. I wasn’t talking about the slogan; I was talking about what…
WICKER: The idea?
HEFFNER: …you had described as your feelings about the inevitability once the 30 years had gone by, neither part of the country had accepted the negotiations, the real negotiations that would have to go on, and…
WICKER: Yes. Well, in the current era George Kennon, I believe, has said, and I thoroughly agree, that nothing, and he used the flat word “nothing,” and he went on to describe a great list of things that most of us think are valuable. But he said, “Nothing is worth a nuclear war.”
And I subscribe to that for the reason that that’s a fundamentally different order of things from the Civil War or World War I or World War II. Because I am persuaded, I’m convinced by people who I think have solid scientific knowledge of these matters that nuclear war cannot be held to some small regional or limited conflict. That nuclear war would be a worldwide disaster, a disaster for mankind. It would mean not the development of the strength and hope of some country or the possible development of the strength and hope of some country; it would mean the end of civilization as we know it. And I quite agree with George Kennon that nothing is worth that, to the Soviets or to us.
HEFFNER: I want to get onto something else because I’m getting the signal that time is going. In this note I made, one of many, you say, talking about the ordeal of the Union.
HEFFNER: That description of the Civil War: “Terrible as it was, it is nevertheless the most dramatic and fascinating story I know. I think it tells much about what we are as a people and how we came to be that way.”
And then I was thinking about your, not disclaimer, you say this is, or as we began the program, it’s not history, it’s not fiction; it is a nice combination of both. Does this mean that you generally accept the notion that, you say it’s not faction in your book, you indicate it’s not faction. Do you generally accept the notion of docudramas that one can not just legitimately but successfully, accurately mix the modes, trying to set the scene, trying to give your reader or your viewer an understanding of what has happened in the past and still fictionalize, use quotations that you don’t know wherever?
WICKER: Well, I think docudrama in the television sense…
WICKER: …of the docudramas that we’ve seen, I think that’s a very difficult form because you are, if you’re going to use that phrase about it, a “documentary drama,’ in effect, then I think you’re pretty well obligated to stick to the documentary side of it. You may be having actors play, let’s say, President Lincoln or someone of that sort, but you’re pretty well obligated to stick right to fact, because you’re doing a documentary as well as a drama. And that gets very difficult because fact doesn’t always unfold itself in the properly dramatic ways. It doesn’t build to a climax just when you want it or how right the characters do it.
On the other hand, if you’re going to do the historical fiction, I think you’re quite obligated to really do a novel. I mean, you can’t just stack up historical facts and say, “Gee, isn’t this interesting,” to the reader. I mean, you’re writing about characters. You’re writing about people who live and hope and who dream and die. And so you have to make that real or try to make that real.
I think that the, what I try to do in my historical fiction here, if that’s the proper phrase for it, I did not, I try to avoid a historical romance. I did not invent, for example, any scenes for real life persons, President Lincoln or General Jackson or General Lee. Every place in which they appear in the novel is to the best of my ability documented as historical fact. So that in that sense it’s sort of a documentary.
On the other hand, I don’t try to make dramatic fictional characters out of General Lee or someone of that sort. I merely have him as a presence in the novel because he was a presence in the lives of the characters to whom I do try to develop. So I think it’s possible, and that’s what I wanted to do was to write a novel with a historical setting in which real-life personages would appear but which would be first and foremost a novel and which would focus primarily on the lives and the feelings and the sentiments of those fictitious characters.
HEFFNER: The tragedians, we hear, always want to be comedians; and the comedians tragedians. Why does the Commentator Wicker want to be the novelist?
WICKER: Well, it’s really the other way around. I started out as a novelist first. This is, I think, the seventh novel that I’ve published over the years. And I’ve written a couple of non-fiction books too. But my original intention was to devote my life to writing fiction. And while I, when I began needing to put bread on the table, why I took newspaper work as a sideline, took…
HEFFNER: You went bad?
WICKER: (Laughter) Well, no, I wouldn’t say that. I went into journalism as a sideline and unfortunately for me in that sense, I mean, not unfortunately perhaps otherwise, I found that for a good many years I did better as a journalist than as a novelist. But I’ve never lost the desire to do that. And the feeling that there are many things that one can do in fiction that you can’t do in journalism. That’s not to say that journalism is bad or anything of that sort. I have relished my life in journalism and I hope I have done will in it. But there are things that you can do in fiction that journalism simply doesn’t permit or won’t expand to encompass. And I’ve tried to do those things and it’s added a great deal of satisfaction to my life, and I’m glad.
HEFFNER: What are those things? Can’t let that go by.
WICKER: Well, because journalism, as I said about the docudrama before, you are largely restricted if you try to do an honest job. You’re largely restricted to the reportage of fact, to what people said and did at a given time as best you can find that out. And that may tell you something about, a good deal in fact about national affairs, but it doesn’t tell you much about the human heart. It doesn’t tell you much about what makes people do the things that they do. It doesn’t tell you much about how people react. And I think in fiction you’re not studying events; you’re studying people. And in journalism all too often, despite the idea of feature stories and all that, that kind of thing, you’re basically dealing with events. And that’s a great limitation.
HEFFNER: In the short time we have left, let’s go back to this business of the docudrama. Do you think we’re being poorly served, we as a people, being poorly served by television’s penchant for docudrama?
WICKER: Well, a docudrama in a sense was made from one of my books, a non-fiction book that I wrote about the Attica prison riot. And I felt that they, within the limits of a 90-minute presentation, that they did about as well as they could in that sense with it. And I didn’t feel it was a major transgression against the actual facts. I still think, and I thought then, and I wish devoutly that it could have been done, that presentations could have been expanded and it could have been made into a really neutrally factual documentary, because that did happen to have an unfolding drama that built just as, I mean the event itself, the Attica prison riot, that built just as any drama would.
And I think that could have been done, and I think it would have been better. Some docudramas I have thought have been really seriously culpable. I recall one some years back in which, it wasn’t just an implication, the allegation was made that President Johnson had been responsible for the murder of President Kennedy. I think that’s outrageous when that sort of thing is done. Truly outrageous. And when you just invent or speculate about historical events, when you invent episodes and dialogue or speculate about what might have happened and then present that as fact, I think that’s outrageous too.
HEFFNER: Do you think that that is particularly true of areas where one assumes that journalistic ethics are in place? In print, not in novels, but in necessarily in paper, in journalism, and in television where you basically think…
HEFFNER: …either of entertainment or of news? And anything that’s not pure entertainment is news.
WICKER: Yes. I resist very strongly the idea that in fiction, historical or otherwise, you can attribute to real-life persons fictional episodes and invented dialogue and that sort of thing. I think if you’re going to depict in any kind of fiction, if you’re going to depict historical personages you owe it to them to do it accurately. If you just, if you want to write a novel about a certain epoch in our public life and you invent all sorts of things that you think President Nixon, let’s say, might have done, but there’s no documentary proof or even any suggestion that he did it, I think that’s reprehensible. I think it’s outrageous to do that. And I work very hard in this book not to present the actual historical personages doing anything or saying anything that I didn’t know for sure that in fact they did do and did say.
There are one or two places, and I acknowledge them in an author’s word there, where you simply cannot establish with any certainty precisely what was said. Perhaps at a meeting that you know took place but you don’t have a record of what was said. You know the record of why the meeting took place and what the outcome was; therefore you can reasonably, I think, infer what must have been said. But even that sort of thing I think you have to keep, you should keep to a minimum, because even characters who have been dead a century or more can be libeled, in my judgment.
HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.
WICKER: Thank you.
HEFFNER: Thank you for joining us today … in Memoriam. I hope you’ll be with us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”
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