President Donald Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington Va., about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
Carolyn Kaster—AP
October 20, 2017 9:35 AM EDT

President Donald Trump’s interactions with military families have come under scrutiny this week, particularly the question of how he has expressed sympathy for those who have lost loved ones in the line of duty. As the controversy has developed, individual parents and partners have come forward to say whether or not the President contacted them directly.

While there is no single right way to speak to someone grieving, Trump is part of a long and complicated White House tradition — and one that has changed substantially over the last century. And, as some experts see it, the politicization that has been decried by some this week is a key part of that history.

The earliest origins of the practice of the Commander-in-Chief reaching out are not clear, and historians differ about when exactly presidents began communicating with the families of fallen troops, but the practice goes back at least as far as the Civil War era. In fact, a Nov. 1864 condolence note to Lydia Bixby, who President Lincoln had been told lost five sons in the Civil War, has been hailed as one of the greatest letters ever written in the English language. (Nowadays, forensic language researchers believe the letter was actually written by his secretary John Hay, but it was “from” Lincoln.)

But the Bixby letter was an outlier. Until relatively recently, the families of fallen soldiers would not have expected to be directly contacted by the President. Well into the 20th century, between the smaller size of the White House staffs and the sheer number of fatalities, administrations probably had to be selective about whom they responded to, according to Steven Casey, author of When Soldiers Fall: How Americans Have Confronted Combat Losses from World War I to Afghanistan.

“Lincoln had only two secretaries, [John] Nicolay and [John] Hay,” he points out. “The Roosevelt White House staff was much bigger, but with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of American servicemen dying each week [during World War II], the War Department sometimes struggled to provide timely casualty totals — and the White House certainly did not have the capacity to write to each family member.”

When Presidents did reach out directly, it was sometimes in response to a direct query, as was the case when Alleta Sullivan in Waterloo, Iowa, wrote to the Navy in January of 1943 to ask if the “rumor” was true that the warship that her five sons staffed had sunk the previous November. Within the month, she received a letter personally signed by the President. “We all take heart in the knowledge that they fought side by side,” it said. “As one of your sons wrote, ‘We will make a team together that can’t be beat.’ It is this spirit which in the end must triumph.”

But, Casey says, the numbers weren’t the only factor. In a war that had broad support, like World War II, those Americans lives given to the cause were less likely to be seen as so many more reasons why the war should or should not be fought. The political need for presidential outreach increased in the second half of the 20th century. During the Vietnam War in particular, individual deaths became a key touchstone on both sides of the national debate over the war.

During that conflict, the White House regularly reiterated “how deeply [President Johnson] felt every single loss, which, I think, was a break from past practice,” Casey argues, citing White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers’ statement in November of 1965, right after one of the deadliest single-day battles of the war at that point. “I do not know of any situation which concerns the president more and I do not know of any matter that causes him deeper personal anguish,” Moyers said, “or any matter over which he grieves more than the loss of American lives in Vietnam.”

Casey also argues that President Richard Nixon then went on to talk about his correspondences with individual fallen troops’ families to show that his policies were better than Johnson’s. “This week I will have to sign 83 letters to mothers, fathers, wives, and loved ones of men who have given their lives for America in Vietnam,” he said in his famous “Silent Majority” speech on Nov. 3, 1969. “It is very little satisfaction to me that this is only one-third as many letters as I signed the first week in office.” (The Library of Congress holds a form letter that Nixon used for this purpose around that time.)

Personal meetings and phone calls became even more common in the post-Cold War era, as advances in battlefield medicine contributed to a drop in American military fatalities. “When the death toll gets lower, it becomes possible to give individualized attention to the families of the fallen,” says Peter Feaver, who worked for the National Security Council during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

But, Feaver says, live television news coverage of military operations has also given Americans a way to see the toll on troops up-close, and put more eyes on the President’s interactions with civilians in general. As in Vietnam, American deaths in the service of less popular causes quickly became part of the general disagreement over those wars. Feaver notes “a rise in opponents using the wounded as part of the political argument against [Presidents],” citing tense encounters between George W. Bush and Cindy Sheehan, whose son died in Iraq, and the Obama administration’s controversial meetings with families of the Benghazi victims.

As Feaver sees it, over the course of these last few decades, “the process of interacting with the families” has become something inescapably political.

Still, one thing that has not changed is the emotional side of such interactions. Feaver points to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ memoir Duty, in which he talks about how he “wept” during evenings spent writing condolence letters, and cites the emotional toll as one of the reasons he stepped down in 2011.

It’s a similar feeling to the one expressed by Richard Nixon in his memoir In the Arena. Nixon describes how, about two weeks after signing the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, he had an Air Force plane fly the family of Lt. Col. William B. Nolde, the last American killed in action in the war, to Arlington National Cemetery. He met with Nolde’s widow, 19-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter at the White House to express “the appreciation of the nation for his sacrifice and [his own] profound personal sympathy for them in their time of grief.” As the family went to leave, the teenage girl asked if she could give the president a kiss good-bye — a request that hit him “with the force of a sledgehammer” with the sadness of all the American children who no longer had a father to turn to.

“I never hated the war in Vietnam more,” he wrote, “than I did at that moment.”

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