The Cycles of American History

Schlesinger identifies two divergent American traditions, experiment and destiny, which ebb and flow in cyclical rhythm: the former innovative, realistic, democratic, and magnanimous; the latter conservative, messianic, capitalist, and selfish. He clearly prefers the reformist “politics of public purpose” to the “politics of private interest,” yet argues that these “two jostling strains” share a commitment to individual liberty and the rule of law.

Schlesinger hopes that Ronald Reagan’s presidency, like William McKinley’s, Herbert Hoover’s, and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s, is a prelude to a new era of affirming experimentation comparable to Progressivism, the New Deal, and the New Frontier. He grudgingly admires Reagan’s ability to disassociate himself from the mistakes of his administration but claims that the President’s minions have “added the word ’sleaze’ to the political vocabulary.” In foreign affairs, Schlesinger concludes, Reagan’s rhetoric has been militant but his policies frequently moderate. Domestically, too, his right-wing posturings have been more symbolic than substantive.

Schlesinger longs for the emergence of a bold, charismatic leader dedicated to national planning and jobs programs reminiscent of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration and Works Projects Administration. “Where liberalism wants to regulate corporations and liberate individuals, conservatism, it would appear, wants to liberate corporations and regulate individuals,” he claims. Among his other recommendations: modification of the electoral college process and abolition of the office of vice-president.

The weakest section of the book is on foreign policy, which does not fit neatly into a cyclical schema, despite Schlesinger’s efforts to document periods of withdrawal and expansion. His attacks on new-left revisionist historians seem stale and overdrawn -- almost to the point of denying economic motivation as a factor in diplomacy. Schlesinger is more compelling when discussing the decline of political parties or distilling the wisdom of Henry Adams and Reinhold Niebuhr. “History walks on a knife edge,” he concludes. “Only hard work at the experiment will achieve the destiny. The outcome is by no means certain.”