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December 20, 1962, Vol. VIII, No. 9
An Open Letter to JFK From Norman Mailer
Dear Mr. President:
For a few days I thought I might be going to the conference you will have in Nassau with Prime Minister Macmillan on December 19 and December 20. Then a personal matter interfered and I knew I couldn’t leave. It did not matter too much. There was only one question I wanted to ask, and it is doubtful if I could have posed it to you at a press conference. I would have had to clear the question first. That might not have been possible. And the question once asked would not have been picked up by the newspapers.
Of course, Mr. President, one does not even know whether it pleases you that America is to a degree totalitarian, or whether like us, in some half-hearted bewildered way you too are wrestling with the Leviathan of our communications, our regimented communications. Yes, it is difficult to know. Your personality has nuances, almost too many nuances. Will you be the one to save us or to blow us up?
Now, of course, this would not have been my question. It would have been unprofessional. It would also have been impossible to answer. Like any complex man of our time, you know that the final intent of your heart is inscrutable even to yourself. You could answer with the fiercest sincerity that you trusted yourself, that you believed your motive was good, and yet one nerve might tingle in your fingertip. That nerve might be the only indication of a demon buried within yourself.
During that historic week in the fall of 1962 when America and Russia were on a collision course, and it was possible the death of all we had known could come at one minute or another, I would try to contemplate how iron must be your nerve, and I came to the conclusion that your nerve was either very great or that you were nerveless, which is another matter. If Russia has been the villain of these years and we the relative heroes, if we — all guilt acknowledged — have been relatively more innocent than Russia, and our secret aim has been to avoid war, if possible, then your action was noble, your nerve worthy of the great generals of history. But if the existence of our being is not really essential to you or to your associates, if in depth beneath depth of your mind there is not fear but a high calm joy at the thought of atomic war, then what you were showing us that week was not fine nerve but nervelessness, for then you were like a poker player with a royal flush, a revolver in his hand, unlimited money to raise each bet, and a string of carefully graded insults calculated to tip the table and let the shooting begin.
One does not know the answer. But the sensation is uneasy…
It is not your secret atom-proof shelters in the mountains of Virginia which causes the terror — one can accept the fact that by the logic of war, you would have to be protected. It’s been true for almost half a century that the General with the highest rank is to be found in the deepest part of the ground. Besides, your physical bravery is not in
But there is panic at the thought that your own personal safety may affect the secret estimates of your mind. None of us can be certain that our own protection from death may not leave us secretly indifferent to the extinction of a million others. Which one of us can say we wept in childhood for the famine and death of ten million Chinese?
It provokes a further question. What of your family? Does your daughter, your son, your wife go down into the bomb shelter with you? Do you know yourself to be so pure that even if you lose nothing yourself, you still can feel concern for us? Or are we militarily
So I ask you this. Why not send us a hostage? Why not let us have Jacqueline Kennedy? The moment an invasion is let loose, and you as the Commander in Chief go to your deep bomb shelter, why not send us your wife and children to share our fate in this city? New York is the place where we have air raid drills every year and no way at all to save a single body from a single Russian bomb. Yes, let your wife’s helicopter land on the Hotel Carlyle, and we will know it is likely you are ready to suffer as we suffer, and that the weakness we feel before war is not merely our own pathetic inability to stare into the mountain passes of Heaven, the stench of Hell, or the plastic of cancer, but is the impotence of men who would be brave, and yet must look at the children they have become powerless to protect. You see, we in New York are now like the ten million Chinese. Show us that you understand our condition, put a hostage from your flesh into our doomed city, or know that we can never trust you completely, for deep within yourself may be contained a bright mad psychic voice which leaps to give the order that presses a button.
Yours respectfully, Norman Mailer
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