William Manchester and the Art of Popular History

William Manchester at work, Middletown, CT
William Manchester at work at his home in Middletown, CT

This essay is adapted from a talk I was invited to give at the Wesleyan University Library on the occasion of historian William Manchester’s archive becoming officially open to the public.

On June 1, 2004, when William Manchester died, I went to a shelf in my home where I keep some books from my late father’s library. A physician who loved to read history, and who died in 1998, he was a huge fan of Manchester’s, particularly his biography of Douglas MacArthur, American Caesar (1978), and the two existing volumes of the Winston Churchill biography, The Last Lion (1983, 1988).   When I announced my plans to go to graduate school in history in 1982, I think Dad may have had it in mind that I would write books like that. I’m not saying that he was disappointed that I became – well, the other kind of historian – but let’s just say that both my parents’ idea of success leans more towards an appearance on the PBS News Hour than to running a book prize committee for the American Historical Association.

This is not to say that my father did not appreciate my accomplishments as an academic: he did. But his idea of a really good read was a long, meaty biography or narrative history, a book with plenty of rich description that illuminated large events. Someone who took to reading for pleasure comparatively late in life, Dad could often be found in the evenings buried in a Manchester volume, or something by Barbara Tuchman, William Shirer, Shelby Foote, or Bruce Catton. One of his favorite books was Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia: the Story of the Constitutional Convention (1966). Mrs. Bowen actually lived alone up the street from us: she had a burglar alarm that went off periodically for no reason a couple night a year, causing my father and other gents in pajamas to run up the street brandishing golf clubs and other suburban weapons. Dad celebrated the Bicentennial in 1976 by giving me my own copy of Miracle At Philadelphia.

While he didn’t own all of William Manchester’s books, Dad did own the three I have mentioned, as well as The Arms of Krupp, the best-selling multi-century history of the German war machine that Manchester put aside to write Death of A President when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Like so many other passionate followers of Manchester’s work, he was eagerly awaiting the third, and final volume, of the Churchill biography. When I got my job in the history department at Wesleyan in 1991, believing that everyone in Middletown, CT lived around the corner from each other – which was actually kind of true then – Dad asked if I wouldn’t check in with Manchester to see when the third volume would be completed. Unfortunately, due to age, it was completed after Manchester’s – and my father’s – death by someone else.

Manchester, like many popular historians who were his peers, technically wrote for a mass audience during the several postwar decades when publishing boomed in the United States. However, there must have been some part of him that knew his audience was male, made up of men like Dad whose encounter with History – History with a capital H here – had occurred on a level at once deeply personal and impersonal. While Manchester chose his subjects for many reasons, I am sure that his work played an important role in helping people who were cogs in the machine of great historical events understand the big picture of what had happened. Even more importantly, men like my father may have wanted to know why those sacrifices had mattered. This is, some would argue, the most basic task of any history, scholarly or popular. Popular historians may or may not do it best, but they do it skillfully enough that academic historians like myself are often obsessed with how close we can get to the genre without being thought unscholarly.

And of course, “What happened?” was the most urgent question to emerge from the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963, an event that ranks as one of the most traumatic in the history of the modern United States. Death of a President was, in many ways, an aberration in Manchester’s life’s work. He had brought the skills of a historian to contemporary events before, but nearly all of Manchester’s other published work had put at least a decade between him and his subject. But the Kennedy assassination required, if not an explanation (since in the minds of many that explanation has never emerged), an account of what happened on a day that nearly everyone alive then remembers vividly. Like many Americans, Manchester believed that Kennedy’s assassination had altered the path of a liberal American political history that, despite the domestic importance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, would stutter, stall and fail after 1963. So in this sense, Death of a President was what I would almost call a literary sit-down strike in response to the political and cultural disaster of the Kennedy assassination. Manchester wanted the reading public to stop, think about, know, and remember a six-day event that, in his view, changed the United States as much or more than four years of war against the Axis powers. Manchester was right: the Kennedy assassination was a turning point where the good sixties began its slow slide to becoming the bad sixties.

Death of a President’s virtuoso turn is its encyclopedic capacity to track each movement of each player, second by second, often describing what they were wearing, what they saw, and the prickly feeling of sweat on skin. I was five when President Kennedy was assassinated, and can tell you exactly where I was and why I was there. So can anybody else who was capable of rational thought at 12:30 p.m. on Friday, November 22, 1963. Those were the days when middle class white mothers stayed home, there was almost no day care, and pre-school (or as it was called then, nursery school) lasted for about three hours – just long enough for a Mom to have a cup of coffee and a cigarette with the neighbors and maybe do a load of laundry before going to pick up her child again at noon. One of the ways my mother coped with the constant interruptions of housewifery, interruptions that prevented any serious thought or concentration, was that occasionally she, my younger sister, and I would go downtown to have lunch with Daddy at the hospital. We would then go food shopping at the Reading Terminal market, still one of Philadelphia’s great gourmet centers. This is where we were when the President went to Dallas on a short campaign trip. We were waiting in line at a butcher or a greengrocer’s stand when all of a sudden the adults around me erupted in agitation: my visual memory, since I experienced most adults as only legs before I grew tall enough to see their faces without effort, is of lots of legs in nylon stockings beginning to churn. My mother grabbed my sister, seized my hand tightly, and began to move us through the crowd to our car. “What happened?” I asked. She said, “We have to get home. Someone has shot the President.”

Why did we have to get home? Perhaps this was something about the Cold War, and the notion that national catastrophes were likely to topple the fragile balance of power that kept nuclear missiles securely in their silos. I don’t know. And why would being at home matter if we were all to be annihilated? But it did, and from a distance of 45 years I regard my mother’s actions that day as heroic. While my father had literally been an historical actor, however small, in large political events like the post-war American occupation of Europe, my mother’s childhood and youth had been shaped by events she could only watch — the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War. Furthermore, she had a husband who was mostly an ordinary doctor at a teaching hospital but also had mysterious visitors: they showed up at the house claiming to be old navy buddies who now ran a paper bag factory or an insurance dealership but  were actually CIA spooks. So if her first instinct – “Go home” – seems too stereotypically Cold War for words, imagine all these things and that just a year earlier for two weeks she had, with the rest of the world, been a spectator at a nuclear brinksmanship party between the United States and the Soviet Union over a newly revolutionized Cuba.

Re-reading portions of Manchester’s account of the assassination – of what happened, as opposed to what happened to me — brought back all these memories and more. Most of this personal history is too trivial to bore you with, except for one episode related to a passage I specifically looked for in the index of Death of a President. This was the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby on November 24. It is a portion of the book which exemplifies the kind of deep reading of events Manchester accomplished through the hundreds of interviews he did for the book, and which are now archived in the special collections at Wesleyan University. Culling accounts of responses to what was more or less a Texas-style lynching from public figures and obscure observers around the country, Manchester records them in snappy sentences, one after another, to produce a vivid picture about how history is made in real time. As cultural theorist Benedict Anderson would have put it, such events, relayed through media, create a sense of nationhood by evoking “imagined communities” and touchstone events that allow people who don’t know each other to say to each other, “I was there. I saw, and heard, and experienced what you did. This is what happened.”

Reading other passages in the book, many of which I chose randomly, brought back a much more recent life experience in my own research, back in the mid-1990s, when I went to Dallas to do research on Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The archive was downtown. Dallas was then what they call a “rim city,” one in which the urban center was deserted except for municipal buildings and new, modern skyscrapers loomed far away in North Dallas where the city’s economy had shifted. Moving the present somewhere else contributed to my impression that downtown Dallas was indelibly and forever mapped by the Kennedy assassination. When I was driven around, the taxi drivers would volunteer: “there’s the Public Library Depository;” and “there’s the grassy knoll;” and so on. Later, in the midst of research at the Dallas Police Department, passing through several tunnels that connected the air conditioned public buildings, my archives escort and I opened a door, walked into a garage, and I thought: “I have been here before.” My escort, a police officer and amateur travel guide like everyone else in Dallas, said, “This is where Jack Ruby shot Oswald.”

And of course, I had, in a sense, been there before. I had seen it on television since my parents, in all their wisdom and Benjamin Spockiness, had decided to address any potential trauma I had suffered because of the Kennedy assassination by sitting me down in front of the television on the day that Oswald as to be arraigned. The bad man, Oswald, was in police custody and wouldn’t hurt anyone again, they explained. At which point, at the age of five, I got to see someone murdered live on national television. But I had also “been there before” as a teenager when I read Death of a President. Manchester described Oswald’s entry into the place that would become his execution chamber: “In the basement Fritz and four detectives led their prisoner along a semi-circular route through the cluttered jail office and debouched into the gloomy garage, a tan-walled vault whose roof was supported by pillars which had once been painted yellow and which, after years of gusting exhaust, had become tawny, drab and flecked with particles of oil.”

To put it in context, The Death of A President was written in a period – the 1960s — in which journalists were experimenting with new ways of writing that by 1973 would be called the New Journalism, and what we might now call “contemporary history.” Truman Capote announced the invention of the “nonfiction novel” in 1959 with In Cold Blood; Theodore H. White inaugurated his Making of the President series in 1962, and would win the Pulitzer Prize; Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson would follow with bold experiments in narrative nonfiction that recorded history as it happened. Primarily a historical biographer, I don’t think Manchester would have grouped himself with these writers, but the research techniques and narrative style of The Death of a President were more similar than dissimilar to these popular, and generally much younger, authors. And like them, his life ran parallel to the escalating violence of the twentieth century.

Bill Manchester was born in Springfield Massachusetts on April 1, 1922; numerous accounts of his life refer to the chronic ill health he suffered as a child, something that he overcame as an adolescent. The son of a Marine Corps veteran, Manchester also enlisted in the Corps after Pearl Harbor, and World War II remained a persistent theme of his work. In a memoir, Goodbye, Darkness, he wrote about Okinawa, Guadalcanal and Saipan, using his own memories about the first battle and other people’s memories of the second two battles to construct moving accounts of the Pacific theater, battles so brutal that the father of one of my friends was never able to speak to his family – for over sixty years after the war ended — about what he saw there.

Returning from the war, Manchester worked briefly as a copyboy for the Daily Oklahoman, took his B.A. at the University of Massachusetts in 1946, and in 1947 took a Master’s Degree at the University of Missouri. He befriended H.L. Menken, writing a biography of the journalist as a master’s thesis that was later revised and published as his first book, Disturber of the Peace, in 1951. According to the Washington Post, Menken then helped his biographer get a job at the Baltimore Sun, where Manchester became a foreign correspondent and wrote a novel; he left the Sun a few years later to become Menken’s personal secretary until his mentor died in 1956. Manchester then came to Wesleyan University as Director of Publications and then, presumably after his book A Rockefeller Family Portrait came out in 1959, he ditched his administrative job and became a writer in residence and adjunct professor of history.

And can I say: What a world that must have been when such transformations were possible.

Three of Manchester’s 21 books were about John F. Kennedy, and Death of A President a 710-page behemoth of a book covering five days, was the second, published in 1967. It was preceded by a best-selling profile of Kennedy published in 1962, and followed many years later, by a retrospective on the Kennedy years, One Brief Shining Moment (1983). A criticism of Death of a President, one that is cited in all the obituaries, is that Manchester’s work on the Kennedy assassination (despite the fact that it won the Dag Hammarskjold International Literary prize and sold over 1.3 million copies), was his weakest. Criticis said that he was too close to the Kennedy family, and to JFK himself, to view events objectively. I reject that, in part because I don’t think anyone who lived in that time could have been objective about Kennedy, and we know how many people conspired to obscure what was really going in the living quarters of the White House. However, I also believe that this closeness may have actually been the book’s strength. Manchester’s common war experience with the President, rather than the seductions of what came to be known as Camelot, or a personal desire for celebrity on Manchester’s part, are responsible for the passion and commitment that the book exemplifies. Certainly it wasn’t money Manchester was after. While someone will have to dig into the archive to see whether he ever claimed any royalties from the book beyond his expenses, in the two decades after publication, this vastly profitable volume churned out over a million dollars that went to building the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

Becoming close to the Kennedy family turned out to be a mixed blessing for many people, and the author of Death of a President was no exception. Jacqueline Kennedy informally commissioned the project in the first place after the President’s funeral, offering Manchester exclusive and immediate access to the family and household. She then abruptly reversed course in the fall of 1966, after Manchester had turned copies of the manuscript over to representatives of the Kennedy family as he had agreed to do prior to publication. This book was not at all what the President’s widow had had in mind, apparently; in one of the only personal conversations before the attorneys took over, she explained to Manchester that she had imagined instead “a little black book to sit on dark library shelves.” Later, after she had commenced legal action, Jackie Kennedy’s representatives simultaneously claimed that she had not read Manchester’s book and that it contained material that would pain her and her young children to see published. Additional attacks on Manchester emanated from the Johnson White House. The President – who had not yet made removed himself from contention for the 1968 presidency, and faced a potential challenge from Bobby Kennedy, feared that his actions subsequent to bullets entering Kennedy’s brain and body had been portrayed in an unflattering light.

Other White House friends also ostracized Manchester. As Time magazine reported, Kennedy house historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and journalist Theodore White, author of the Making of the President Series, went on the attack. At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, usually not a location for breaking news reported by the national press, Schlesinger accused Manchester of unethical practices, and of having misused an interview that he, Schlesinger, had arranged with Jackie Kennedy. “Schlesinger [claimed that he] never imagined,” Time reported, “that Manchester would freely use the material. The relationship between husband and wife is a private matter, said Schlesinger, [and] ‘is not necessary to the historian writing in her lifetime.’” Coming from Schlesinger, this criticism was particularly odd. Only a year previously, he had been put on the defensive because of his own disclosure that Kennedy had planned to remove Dean Rusk as Secretary of State. In LIFE Magazine, he had also described an emotional scene between J.F.K. and Jackie after the Bay of Pigs debacle, one that drew so much criticism that he cut it out of his bestselling history because, he said, it “‘sounded sob-sisterish.’”

These attacks from other historians and journalists, other than being personally painful to Manchester I am sure, created the potential to derail the book’s publication entirely, or cause it to be published in a bowdlerized form that was not true to his vision. The problem was ultimately resolved when Jacquelyn Kennedy finally agreed to read the book in January 1967. This was something she had, as I mentioned, refused to do at earlier stages because she imagined that it would be too painful. It undoubtedly was, but the notoriety surrounding her attempts to suppress the book were causing even more curiosity what it might contain. Reversing her earlier decision, Jackie Kennedy settled the lawsuit in exchange for the author making a few “minor, meaningless changes,” as Manchester characterized them later, “most of them consisting of rewriting and rephrasing passages rather than outright deletions. Had I been asked to make them seven or eight months earlier, I would have agreed without hesitation,” he wrote in a preface to the 1985 edition.

If nothing else, Jacquelyn Kennedy had succeeded in making an example of Manchester to any other former White House intimates who might be considering a trip off the reservation. Having worked at a punishing pace to finish the book (Manchester was famous in his early career for writing marathons in which he neither slept nor really ate), he had then found himself hunted by reporters for weeks. Attempts to trap Manchester into an interview incited the precise spectacle that the former First Lady claimed she wished to avoid, a spectacle that he later claimed to have been mortifying. One episode featured Derry D’Oench, publisher of the Middletown Press, fending off process servers during a dinner party at his home, as Manchester hid in the kitchen feverishly telephoning his attorneys. Another had Manchester slipping into a drugstore to evade reporters outside the Hotel Elysée in midtown Manhattan, and purchasing “a pair of dark glasses” as a disguise. “I was in such a state, however,” he added, “that I didn’t notice that the frames were studded with rhinestones, which, in those pre-unisex days, meant they had been designed for a woman. Re-emerging on the sidewalk, I was accosted by a homosexual.” Well, at least he fooled the reporters.

Another thing Manchester’s archive might reveal is how, and why, he forgave the Kennedy family, and Jacqueline in particular, for impugning his loyalty to a man he loved dearly, and for an ordeal that temporarily wrecked his health with a bout of pneumonia. As late as 1985, when the book was re-issued with a new introduction, Manchester continued to maintain that the former First Lady was not responsible for what had been done in her name. “Jackie was unaware of the intermediaries’ intrigues,” he wrote. “She only knew that these men had served her husband loyally, and that when they told her that the manuscript included passages that invaded her privacy and that of her children, she believed them.” Well yes, but Manchester had been loyal to the President too, so this is all very confusing. Throughout this retrospective account of this professional crisis, Manchester refers to Jackie in only the most glowing and sympathetic terms: she is “gallant,” ladylike and remarkably lacking in the shrewdness, complexity, intelligence and guile that biographers have attributed to her.

My guess is that Manchester had extended the love he felt for the President to the family, not unthinkingly, but in the spirit of generosity that had not only caused him to write the book in the first place, but also dedicate the royalties to a lavish Presidential library. “Some may ask – many have –how I could become reconciled with those who, in the public eye, had been responsible for the slights and abuse inflicted on me during the controversy,” Manchester closed his account of this episode. Stubbornly, he insisted a second time that it was “intermediaries, not Kennedys” who had turned on him; paradoxically, he then admitted that Kennedys did turn on him, when he asserted that the trauma of such an event might have caused any family to have become “irrational.” But in the end that didn’t matter to Manchester: “The Death of A President was not written for Jackie or any of the others,” he wrote. “I wrote it for the one Kennedy I had known well and deeply loved, the splendid man who had been cruelly slain at 12:30 p.m. Texas time on Friday, November 22, 1963.”

As historian Eric Foner has noted, authors of histories written to be read for pleasure probably have “a greater impact on how we think about the American past than most academic historians.” William Manchester offered pleasure, but he also created a meticulous account of a moment in American history that may have changed everything. As I was leafing through the pages of Death of a President, it occurred to me that my father was William Manchester’s ideal reader. Manchester was treated unkindly by many of his critics – some of them academic historians, and others more popular historical writers who for some reason imagined themselves as either more sophisticated than he or more detached from their topics, although in many cases neither one was true.

But middlebrow readers – in other words, the vast majority of the vast post-war reading public – adored Manchester’s work, and were willing to set aside major portions of their leisure time to read his massive books. Dad was what we might call a regular guy. He was a doctor, a good citizen and a veteran of World War II. While he was an avid consumer of books about the Civil War too, the other topic he was most curious about was World War II and the Cold War. These events had swept him out of a frat house at the University of Delaware at the age of 16, deposited him in the United States Navy, which sent him to Swarthmore College and then to medical school. Since the war ended right before he was deployed, he was recruited into the Office of Naval Intelligence, which was then folded into the Central Intelligence Agency, who sent him off to occupy Europe. By 1956, although we now know that Dad was still involved with national security, he had returned to a residency at the University of Pennsylvania, and finally landed on the swanky Main Line of Philadelphia, a place he could not possibly have imagined he would raise a family when he was growing up in Wilmington, Delaware. So I think that – in addition to liking a good story – my father may have devoted a portion of his brain to trying to figure out his place in these great world events and how they had changed the world he expected to grow up in. And William Manchester’s work helped him do that.

While I personally view the commercial hoopla over the “greatest generation” as one of several factors that have kept the United States at war since 2002, I think that people who have lived through mobilization and war have a kind of double consciousness about the experience. They have to both suffer through other people’s ideas about what they did during war, and come to terms with their own experiences, some of which are dull, others disjointed, and still others unforgettably awful. War remaps the life you thought your would have, and I think that there was a whole generation of readers like my father who had had more or less the same experience he, and William Manchester, had had. They came from nowhere, and because of decisions made in Berlin and London and Washington, they ended up somewhere else, lucky to be alive, and then after the war, ending up somewhere else, in a somewhat unexpected life – whether it was in Haverford, Pennsylvania or Middletown, Connecticut.

Being a member of the “greatest generation,” or any generation that goes to war, means accepting a certain kind of survivor’s guilt as the wallpaper of your life. Some people come back from war, and some don’t. William Manchester did, having unaccountably survived some of the most vicious fighting of the Pacific theater. My father never saw a battlefield at all. He and several of his fraternity brothers took, and passed, a government aptitude test one Saturday in 1940. Given the chance to choose a branch of the service, on the advice of my grandfather, who had served as an ambulance driver for the French Army on the Western Front in World War I, Dad joined the Navy. All of his fraternity brothers joined the Army. My father was sent to medical school. His friends went to Officer Candidate School, were put in charge of machine gun units, and every single one of them died on beaches in Allied landings on Sicily and at Normandy Beach. So I like to think that part of what William Manchester gave my father by writing big, fat political history books about the twentieth century were what we might call the big picture, or the reasons, that similar people have different fates: that you can all take the same test and some of you die and some of you end up in a nice house outside Philadelphia. Or Middletown.

It doesn’t change history, but at the end of the day, at least we know what happened.


Speaking of what happened: this post was edited to remove statements about Manchester’s war record and his relationship to the Kennedy family on February 18 2016. It was brought to my attention that these statements, although widely believed to be true, may not be factual.


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