THE LETTER TO FDR
In the winter of 1942, a couple of months after Pearl Harbor, I wrote to President Roosevelt.
I was eleven, living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was the third year of war for Canada, and our strategic port was a vital assembly point for convoys crossing the Atlantic to keep Britain's war effort alive. My father, a lieutenant-commander in the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, commanded one of the corvettes protecting those merchant ships from Hitler's submarine wolf packs.
Even a boy my age could feel the high adrenaline of wartime Halifax. Men in the uniforms of many countries filled our streets; there were blackouts and air-raid drills, collections for scrap paper and metal, and the excitements of my dad's brief times ashore. Chocolate was scarce, my mother fretted over ration books for food and clothes; they built an antiaircraft gun tower beside my school, and we played war games in Point Pleasant Park. I could catch glimpses of the harbor from many places and watch gray warships of different navies slipping by-destroyers and corvettes, sometimes cruisers, even full battleships-inspiring awe and pride. Occasionally I could visit one and be taken over every inch by sailors fresh from the real war at sea.
For the rest, life was filled with school, helping with a baby brother born the day after Pearl Harbor, sledding, skating, snow forts and snowball fights, radio programs like The Green Hornet, movies like They Died with Their Boots On, comic books, real books, and my stamp collection.
My friend Harold Stevens and I were stamp collectors, but with limited pocket money we almost never bought stamps. We hoped to be given them.
We must have read about FDR's collection because it suddenly occurred to us to approach him, and I wrote something like this:
Dear President Roosevelt,
We have heard that you have a very big stamp collection and people send you stamps from all over the world. But you must be very busy with the war right now and may not have time to play with your collection, or use all the stamps people send you. We were wondering whether you had any extra stamps you didn't want. If so we would be very happy to have them.
How two painfully well-mannered boys found the effrontery to concoct this brazen missive, I don't know. But I stuck on the red four-cent stamp of King George VI in his wartime uniform, addressed it to the White House, Washington, D.C., U.S.A., and forgot about it.
We did not write to our king, who we knew had a stamp collection at least as fabulous as the president's. The king seemed utterly unapproachable and FDR did not.
Six weeks or more later, a letter arrived from the American consul in Halifax. Indeed, he wrote, President Roosevelt was too busy with the war to reply personally, but if we cared to come down to the consulate, he was sure they could find us some stamps. We went and were overwhelmed. They gave us a shoe box with hundreds of stamps, including exotic specimens from the Malay Straits Settlement, which had been overrun by the Japanese.
It was my first experience of American generosity. Thinking about it now, it is tempting to try to reconstruct the actions our childish letter set in motion. It would have come to a Washington still new to the turmoil of war. Compared to its size today, the White House staff was tiny and informal. But among the thousands of letters pouring in, someone had read ours, on a generous impulse had sent it to the State Department, itself a fraction of the vast bureaucracy of American diplomacy today. Someone at State decided to be nice to these kids in Halifax and sent it on to the consul, and that gentleman had to ask around his office to discover they had stamps to give us.
All this while the American government was being wrenched through the first months of global responsibility; adolescent growth spurts that were to transform the executive branch forever, from the size and modesty befitting a nation trying to mind its own business to the behemoth with the habit of minding everybody's.
I have a fantasy that on that day Eleanor Roosevelt might have been trailing through the White House mail room dispensing sympathy and patriotic encouragement to overworked volunteers, when someone showed her my childish handwriting and the Canadian stamp. "How sweet!" she exclaims. Her first impulse is to take it to Franklin, who after all has zillions more stamps than he'll ever know, but he's busy just now with Winston Churchill, who is smelling up the White House with his cigars....
Or, for all I know, the letter might have been intercepted by the busybody Royal Mail in Canada and given directly to the consul in Halifax. It doesn't matter. Americans reacted with extraordinary generosity and I never forgot it.
In fact, I remembered it particularly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, listening to President Bush at a news conference:
I'm amazed that there's such misunderstanding of what our country is about, that people would hate us. I am like most Americans, I just can't believe. Because I know how good we are.
I know how good we are. The phrase buzzed in my head as though many phone lines were ringing at once.
I know how good America is. To me personally, America and Americans have been good in measures too large to calculate. As for American goodness to its own people and to the world generally, I could probably calibrate its extent and limits objectively, and how differently goodness might be defined, historically and now. So I have a pretty confident idea of how good America is. And I know that to many, perhaps most Americans, the logic in the phrase I know how good we are is unassailable, admitting no irony. But I also know how such a statement might be heard by others, even by friends and allies.
I knew how it would fall on ears as sympathetic as those of America's closest friends and neighbors, the Canadians. The least paranoid would smile indulgently, but some would enjoy thinking, Typical...ingenuous, naive, too boastful.
In other words, the phrase would send a little pulse along the synapses of anti-Americanism that lurk in the nervous systems of even the most well-disposed non-Americans, including Canadians, because it is part of their self-definition.
I knew that, but I also knew that September 11 had changed something in me. While I understood how the president's words could be interpreted outside the U.S., my heart understood them differently. Watching the Twin Towers being attacked that day-watching in my city, New York-I awoke to a realization of how far I had traveled emotionally. For the first time in my long history of equivocation, I felt defensive about America as one feels about family and home when they are threatened. It shocked me differently from anything before. It made me want to examine what nationality, citizenship, and patriotism mean to me.
It forced me to consider what I believe in-and don't-and my choices. I am, after all, what my choices have made me, many of them oblique choices in my mind, distracted by various fevers-love, ambition, money, boredom, escape-induced me to move on, to start over.
For a long time I was a man with a nationality but no inner country; or a man with a country but no psychic nationality. Put otherwise: I was a man still looking for his country. And what did country mean? Literally a nation, or a culture, or those pieces of several I had assimilated and found congenial?
In a poem, "The City of Tomorrow," the poet laureate Billy Collins writes that it
was not a place we would come to inhabit but a place that inhabited us.
For me, there was often a disconnect between the country I inhabited and the country that inhabited me. After September 11, the two came together.
Perhaps a Canadian who has made this