War came, and tried to do so with a minimum of noise. That was the single important fact of the summer. It came with the stumbling, heavy-footed steps of the funny papers' drunken husband (reeling home at two a.m. with shoes in hand): the neighbors tried not to notice. But war was there, a large black fact somewhere to the west, and whether you were sweating in an Indiana hayfield or pitching into the cold Atlantic swell, or addressing packages in a musty New York stockroom the war existed for everyone as a thought, or a hope, or a dread.
It was a strange war. It was, first of all, what they called a "limited war," something new for a nation which had been raised on world wars with world peaces in between. A limited war, it turned out, could be convenient. It allowed you to keep the pleasant illusion of peace at home while you fought; you had your cake and ate it. But at the same time a limited war was a strained thing, full of contradictions and paradoxes: Army divisions sailed under security orders with flashbulbs blinking and bands playing, and in Japan F-80 pilots ate breakfast were driven to the airfield by their wives, kissed these wives goodbye, and in an hour were dodging gunfire from the Korean valleys. And to the men in those valleys there was considerable question whether it was a limited war at all.
It was a strange war because nobody claimed to want it, except perhaps for a strange group of quiet men in the Kremlin--and nobody know what they wanted. And at the same time nobody--certainly nobody in the Kremlin--seemed willing to make the sacrifices necessary to stop it. The war had little of the crusade in it. The UN called it a "police action" and in common with most police actions it was tough, and sometimes brutal, and often unpopular.
To the student in the hayfield or the stockroom it was a personally relevant war. If you were a reservist living in a number of states or holding a number of ratings this was a simple one-two relevance the war called you and you want to it. If you were between 18 and 25, unmarried, strong of body and sound of mind, there was perhaps a year, as best, intervening between one and two. No matter who you were, this distant, limited war was there a fact.
And the war was relevant to Harvard too. The University had just graduated its last wartime class; you could look at the little numeral after a student's name, now, and tell when he would get his diploma. But in a year or so, the neat sequence of classes would be Sheffield and broken and there was the uncomfortable possibility that if the class numerals were juggled long enough uniforms would reappear in the Yard, and companies would again stand at attention before Sever Hall and march to class. Of course, if things got very much worse there was an equal possibility that Sever might not exist to stand before.
But through all this, on the day-to-day level there was really nothing you could do. That was another summer fact. In Korea there was a war, and in Cambridge you bought ashtrays, and stood in book lines, and told the University whether or not you operated a car. For a year that was the way things would be. For the more distant future, you could walk at night down to the Charles, stand there with the lights of the Business School reflecting clean and bright off the water, and quietly hope.