ON MONDAY, May 16, 1966, John Steinbeck and his nineteen-year-old son John visited President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office of the White House. The brief meeting took place a few weeks after John, Jr., had completed basic training in the army and a few weeks before his departure for Vietnam.
Although Elaine Steinbeck, John's wife, and Lady Bird Johnson had known each other years earlier when they both had attended the University of Texas, the president and the Nobel Prize-winning author first met in late 1963 when the Steinbecks attended a private dinner at the White House. At that time, the couple had just returned from a trip to Eastern Europe and the then-Soviet Union, as part of the U.S. Information Agency's (USIA) cultural exchange program. The Steinbecks were in Washington, D.C., for three days of debriefing by the State Department. The dinner at the White House was their opportunity to report directly to the president on their travels behind the Iron Curtain.
Following the dinner, the two couples developed a warm relationship. In the summer of 1964, Steinbeck helped Johnson write his acceptance speech for the democratic nomination. In September of that year, LBJ conferred upon Steinbeck the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. Throughout the Johnson administration, the Steinbecks were frequent overnight guests to the White House, and in the spring of 1966, at the request of his son, John Steinbeck asked the president for a favor--to make sure that his son would be given orders to go to Vietnam. In a July 1966 letter to his son, Steinbeck claimed that it was the only request he ever made of the president and that he was not happy about making it; but if he'd had to request that his son not be sent, he would have been "far more unhappy."
So in the spring of 1966, when Steinbeck contacted presidential assistant Jack Valenti to set up a meeting to introduce his son to LBJ, it was not out of the ordinary. According to the president's daily diary, the meeting lasted only four minutes, but it prompted Steinbeck to write a letter of thanks twelve days later.
In Steinbeck's single-page note, typed in all uppercase letters on his personal stationery, he thanked the president for reassuring his son that "responsibility is behind him and backing him." He also asked the president to remember to pray for his son, and he included a paragraph offering the nation's leader encouragement in the face of demonstrations against his Vietnam policy. He asked the president to "remember that there have always been people who insisted on their right to choose the war in which they would fight to defend their country"; he explained this statement through a number of historical examples.
He told the president that there were many who would have no part of Mr. Adams' and George Washington's war. We call them Tories. There were many also who called General Jackson a butcher. Some of these showed their disapproval by selling beef to the British. Then there were the very many who denounced and even impeded Mr. Lincoln's war. We call them Copperheads. Then there were those who not only denounced but destroyed President Wilson's policy. Because of very special circumstances, we will not call them anything--for a while.
Finally, he assured the president that "only mediocrity escapes criticism."
President Johnson found a great deal of encouragement in these words, and sent a thank you note of his own on June 21, 1966, that is featured in this article. Johnson was apparently dismayed at the lag time between Steinbeck's letter and his own reply. (In the correspondence file at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, there is a dictation note from the president to his secretary that reads, "I am going to cry next time there is a letter being answered so late. I never want more than three days to go by without an answer.")
John, Jr., did serve in Vietnam; Steinbeck's older son Thom served also. …