Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 436
SOURCE: "The Mystery of a Bronze Head," in America, Vol. LXI, No. 10, June 17, 1939, p. 237.
[In the following review, O'Connor maintains that Schlesinger's Orestes A. Brownson is "the history of [America's] intellectual development, the biography of a mind in its lonely search for truth."]
Two years ago a bronze head, knocked off a pedestal by a group of playful boys and found rolling down Riverside Drive, New York, started zealous reporters searching for someone who knew something about the name "Brownson" on the monument. Only after a hectic day of interviews and research—a sad commentary on American Catholic scholarship—was the search concluded with the knowledge that the original head belonged to Orestes A. Brownson, 1803–1876, philosopher, controversialist and convert to Catholicism. The bronze head brought Brownson back to public attention; Mr. Schlesinger's biography [Orestes A. Brownson] will keep him there.
For Brownson's career was as violent, as astonishing, as unpredictable to the people of his day as his rolling likeness to Riverside Drive residents. At an early age he renounced Presbyterianism for ordination as a Universalist minister. His unorthodox preaching and rebel theology jarred his congregation. Rejected, he fell into agnosticism, rose to announce himself an independent minister. He dabbled in politics, sifted and discarded Transcendentalism, edited controversial reviews, and attempted to reform Unitarianism. He shocked staid Boston with his avowed purpose of making religion an ally of the laboring classes and with his untiring quest for the Church of the Future, which his logical mind and passionate love of truth led him to find in the Church of the Past and the Church of the Present—the Catholic Church.
This book is not a biography of the man Brownson. It is rather the history of an intellectual development, the biography of a mind in its lonely search for truth. Practically devoid of comment, of easy humor, of charm, it is, as was Brownson himself, swift, eager and rugged. The author prefers to let Brownson speak from his own formal essays, but occasionally the reader catches a fleeting glimpse of the man behind the pen, enthusiastic, worshiping logic and honesty, irascible, puzzled, lonely. In the author's annotated exposition of Brownson's doctrinal viewpoint several minor faults occur. The development is sketchy, and usually only one side of Brownson's many controversies is given. Too much reverence is paid, unwittingly I think, to the epistemological system of Hegel and Marx. But the book not only fills a gap in the history of prominent American Catholics but will go a long way toward accomplishing what the mystery of the bronze head started, making Brownson a part of our national heritage.
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SOURCE: "At the Roots of Democracy," in The New York Times Book Review, September 16, 1945, pp. 1, 26.
[In the following review, Nevins praises Schlesinger's The Age of Jackson for its broad scope, but criticizes it for being "excessively hostile" toward the Whig party.]
When American democracy is most kinetic, when its transitions are most abrupt, and when its ideas take on their most revolutionary hue, then it is best worth studying. The so-called Jacksonian revolution has always made a deep appeal to the American imagination. The tremendous bouleversement which dislodged the old ruling class typified by John Quincy Adams and brought to power an untried aggressive set of leaders with a new backing, was mightily dramatic. Jackson's imperious personality was the most ruggedly picturesque that public life had yet known, and his election opened a series of political battles which shook the country. But the chief reason for our interest in the Jacksonian overturn lies deeper than these considerations. It lies in the fact that it brought up from the depths of American life a set of powerful new forces; it revitalized our politics by the impact of profound impulses from below.
Behind such political forces always lie ideas, and it is remarkable that the ideas of the Jacksonian revolution have waited until now for adequate analysis. Those of the Revolution and Constitution-making periods, for example, have long ago been sifted and examined. One reason for the delay is that the rough and tumble of Jacksonian days has tended to obscure the role of ideas. Another is that the energies behind the overturn came from a rough Western population and an inarticulate body of Eastern workingmen, both long supposed to be strong in emotions but weak in reasons.
In due time, however, the whole range of Jacksonian doctrine, and its relationship with antecedent Jeffersonian theories and subsequent Wilsonian and Rooseveltian thought, was certain to receive attention. A long list of recent writers—Parrington, Van Wyck Brooks, Abernethy, Curti, Gilbert H. Barnes, Carl Swisher, Turner, Charles Warren—have dealt with various facets of the thought of the time, and they have proved that it was much more important than old style historians supposed.
The old conventional explanation of Jackson's rise to power was simple. "A mob of malcontents," as John W. Burgess put it, got together, gave a strong pull, and brought the old order toppling in ruins. This mob represented a combination of South and West against the propertied, conservative East; but the group also held control of two Eastern States—New York, where the wily Van Buren had gained power, and Pennsylvania, where Jackson's martial feats had given him immense popularity.
The revolution, according to stock explanations, emphasized frontier "individualism" and Western "egalitarianism." In its inception it was purely political, a revolt against the old monopoly of office holding by the rich, the well-born, and the well-educated.
When the mob filled Washington in 1829 to roar applause of the old hero and romp through the White House, there was little indication that the change would sharply modify economic policies and social structures. The fact that it did, according to the old view, was largely an accident. It resulted from the personal conflicts, Jackson vs. Clay and Biddle, which precipitated the war against the Bank of the United States.
Mr. Schlesinger's service, performed not merely adequately but brilliantly [in his The Age of Jackson], is to reinterpret Jacksonian democracy in the light of an immense body of facts which had previously been ignored. Examining the politics of the era not in terms of "party battles" but of animating ideas, he makes the period far more richly instructive. The whole force of the Jacksonian movement takes a new orientation. Mr. Schlesinger argues that it stemmed more largely from the Eastern working man than the Western settler; that it was more intimately connected with the Industrial Revolution than with the trans-Appalachian frontier. Jackson, as he puts it, struck fire with the working classes because he seemed to them the embodiment of political democracy. There was plenty of radicalism in the West, but it was the spasmodic and opportunistic radicalism of an unstable society, where men might enjoy prosperity one year and wilt under hard times the next. The discontented Eastern workers, however, developed a stable and permanently fruitful body of radical doctrine.
The West, according to this interpretation, furnished the old hero, Jackson himself, a man of far broader vision, acuter judgment, and better education than the Whig historians had ever dreamed of. It furnished some subordinate leaders of importance: Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, Polk of Tennessee, Robert Dale Owen of Indiana and Benjamin Tappan of Ohio. It and the South furnished the great initial agitation in a revolt against the "Tariff of Abominations," against monetary stringency, and against Eastern snobbery and privilege; but when the time came to transmute agitation into a reform program, asserts Mr. Schlesinger, Eastern leaders and ideas rose to control. It was in the East alone, among the embittered working men who, toiling for a few shillings a day, saw their union movement snuffed out by employers, courts and police while corporate wealth grew arrogant, that the spirit of revolt had perdurable power. The East "had the consistent and harsh experience which alone could serve as a crucible of radicalism."
As the Jacksonian program developed, Mr. Schlesinger admits, it actually tended to estrange the old hero's original supporters. Jackson's opposition to the use of Federal money for local improvements, written into his Maysville Road veto, displeased Michigan and Illinois, where Democrats no less than Whigs liked to spend national money on roads and canals. Jackson's ultimate financial policy was equally repugnant to the West, and was accepted there only because its real intent was well cloaked. The West wanted paper money, and plenty of it; as a debtor area it liked inflation. Jackson's advisers wanted hard money, and his "old bullion's" war on the bank culminated in deflationary measures. But the Eastern workers and shopkeepers, hating corporate monopoly, demanding the right to organize, and wishing the Government to vindicate its powers as against business and banking, were satisfied with the trend of the Jacksonian Administration. The new spirit, with its emphasis on the rights of the masses, and the practical reforms, with the crushing of the Bank and promotion of general incorporation laws, delighted the toiling millions. Such spokesmen as the fiery William Leggett and the class-conscious George H. Evans geared the Jacksonian movement to a new social conscience. And Jacksonianism in the East shot up as a vital force in politics, political theory and literature. Mr. Schlesinger's most interesting section treats the movement in relation to intellectual trends, religion, the law and letters. In polemics it produced a striking figure in William M. Gouge, Philadelphia editor and economist, who wrote the classic indictment of paper currency, formulated a set of hard-money theories, applied them to the new finance capitalism, and devised means to give them practical effect. In political theory the movement brought forth a galaxy of controversialists—Orestes Brownson, C. C. Cambreleng, Theodore Sedgwick Jr. and Thomas Brothers—who sharply revised the old Jeffersonian gospel. They wrote of the economic element in government where Jefferson had written of political equality; they dilated upon the worker's needs and the control of industrialism instead of the virtues of rural independence. In law, Roger Taney and David Dudley Field shook out the banner of reform and codification.
Most striking of all was the way in which the Jacksonian crusade, thus oriented toward the new economic problems, the town worker and a novel concept of governmental control, captured a broad segment of literature. It flowered out into new magazines, notably the Democratic Review and Boston Quarterly. It found a brave voice in Fenimore Cooper, hater of Whig editors and the commercial oligarchy, until he became worried lest the radicals go too far. It gave fire to the editorials of William Cullen Bryant and Walt Whitman, and sang in their verse.
Emerson refused to commit himself between Democracy and Whiggism, thinking the former had the best principles and the latter the best men; so did Thoreau. But Hawthorne had more nerve and decision. Most notable of all in some ways was the work of George Bancroft. Most critics have been content to quote J. Franklin Jameson's remark that Bancroft's History voted for Jackson and let it go at that, supposing that he offered some rhetorical generalities about democracy and the common man. But Bancroft, as Mr. Nye's recent life showed, and as Mr. Schlesinger points out, had a true philosophy, and several of his chapters embodied no little profundity of thought on modern democratic trends.
All in all, [The Age of Jackson] is a book which gives the Jacksonian movement new meaning. Treating it primarily as the outgrowth, not of frontier development but of new economic strains and torsions, and describing it as pivoted upon the relations between the state and the business corporation, it links the Jacksonian doctrine with ideas of our own day. Before Jackson's aides and successors could codify their philosophy of state interference with economic life in the interests of the common man, the slavery struggle supervened and national attention was riveted on the sectional clash.
But in due time the Wilsonian and Rooseveltian democracy, intent upon the general welfare, suspicious of corporate power, and hostile to Jefferson's doctrine of the weak state, revived the philosophy of Jacksonian radicals. That philosophy, Mr. Schlesinger believes, holds high promise for the future. It is not a philosophy of regimentation, but it holds that no one group or class shall dominate the Government in such a fashion as to sacrifice liberty to its own interests. It holds that there is a perpetual tension in society, a doubtful equilibrium which breeds problems that demand constant vigilance and effort.
Crisply written, full of pungent comment and quotation, and abounding in vivid thumbnail sketches of important figures, Mr. Schlesinger's book possesses unflagging interest. Parts of it will excite dissent. It perhaps overemphasizes the East as against the West; equal attention to Western utterances and opinions would furnish a different view. It is excessively hostile to Whig leaders and Whig ideas, the caustic treatment of Daniel Webster and Horace Greeley seeming especially unfair. It sometimes rides its thesis a bit too hard. But it is a remarkable piece of analytical history, full of vitality, rich in insights and new facts, and casting a broad shaft of illumination over one of the most interesting periods of our national life.
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SOURCE: "Mr. Schlesinger's Vital Center," in Religion in Life, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Spring, 1950, pp. 205-12.
[In the review below, Ahlstrom contends that the liberal, democratic outlook defined in Schlesinger's The Vital Center is based on a relativistic ethic that denies the fundamental tenets of the democratic system it advocates.]
One of the minor tragedies of the present time is that most descriptions of our crisis have become clichés. It was, therefore, very fortunate that Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., should have written a terse volume on the "politics of freedom." The Vital Center is a statement of "mid-twentieth-century liberalism," an outlook that has been shaped by "the hope of the New Deal, the exposure of the Soviet Union, and by the deepening of our knowledge of man." More explicitly it is a study of the circumstances that now demand a center position between the business-oriented politics of Calvin Coolidge and the politics of the total planner. Of central importance for this program is Mr. Schlesinger's desire to maximize freedom within the limitations of the social needs of an industrial age and to improve the general welfare to the extent that freedom is not endangered. All of these considerations of public policy, however, he relates directly to the concept of Western man adrift in an "age of anxiety." Accordingly, the irrationality and depravity of man, which have been traditional justifications for authoritarianism, are here used to strengthen the case for democracy. It is also in this context of despair, impersonality, and conflict that he outlines the past attempts of the Right and the Left to cope with the problems which industrialism and urbanism have created.
Conservatives have failed, by his analysis, because they have too often heeded the counsels of the business mind and yielded to the acquisitive instincts of the "plutocracy." They have not displayed the concern for the public weal that has characterized leaders of the "aristocratic" tradition from Alexander Hamilton to Theodore Roosevelt. Moreover, following Joseph A. Schumpeter's thesis, he sees capitalism itself to be bringing about its own undoing. The failure of the Left, the nature of totalitarianism, and particularly the "case of Russia" are given more extended analysis. For these purposes Mr. Schlesinger abandons the traditional device of polarizing Right and Left on a linear scale, and uses instead the diagram of a full circle in terms of which divergences that begin as conservative versus liberal or radical versus reactionary finally meet, as Communist and Fascist, 180 degrees around from the "vital center" on a common ground of violence and terror. Mr. Schlesinger takes no chances that the absolute tragedy of totalitarianism will be underestimated, nor does he have any doubts about the impossibility of co-operating with Communists or fellow-traveling progressives whom he terms Doughfaces—"democratic men with totalitarian principles."
Affirming the value of freedom, welcoming the aid of conservatives more than doughfaces (because they value freedom more), and recognizing the well-nigh insuperable problems that confront sinful and erring man, the book is a summons to liberal action, not a blueprint for Utopia. In foreign policy, Mr. Schlesinger asks for active support of the non-Communist Left wherever it is found and world-wide action in behalf of freedom. Domestically, he emphasizes the responsibilities of government for maintaining freedom, extending its social services, and restoring the sense of community. Although the details and institutional aspects of these proposals could hardly be charted in so brief a compass, the book is a comprehensive and compelling formulation for radical democratic men with libertarian principles.
This essay, however, is not concerned with the program of action which the book outlines, but rather with its theoretical and presuppositional structure. Although Mr. Schlesinger has stated in his Foreword that "novel or startling political doctrines" have not been set forth, he does present a very considerable theoretical foundation for his program. These aspects are especially important because the book has been very widely read and because it is a "report on the fundamental enterprise of re-examination and self-criticism" which virtually a whole generation of liberals has undergone in the last decade. It is, therefore, an important case study. Despite the wide acceptance of the outlook presented in this volume, it is my conviction that a long-term basis for hope has not been presented; and that the church must not only concern itself with this liberal analysis in general, but conduct the re-examination and reaffirmation of doctrine that will give substance and vitality to such a program and to our collective hopes.
The Leitmotiv of this book is moral crisis and the flight from freedom of modern man. Its basic demand is for recharging the moral resources of man. This is in itself a departure from the cant of most American liberalism, and appearing thus in what is primarily a discussion of public policy, it actually confers on the book a certain pioneering status. Nor has Mr. Schlesinger stopped with the mere announcement of a moral problem.
In diagnosing our ills, he has presented an interpretation of the human predicament which has in it much that is Pauline, although it has been phrased in the terminology of psycho-socio-economic theory. The message is an old one, a hard one, and a tough one. With a certain Calvinistic fervor it exposes the great liberal fallacy about the nature of man. Though often couched in terms of frustration, it says with the Apostle:
Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for its will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.
For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. (Romans 7:17-19)
This approach constitutes a fundamental revision of the ideas of man's benign goodness and his inexorable progress to a kingdom of heaven on earth.
Again, in finding the basis for man's anxiety in the social complexities that leave man homeless and rootless, without sense of communion or brotherhood, Mr. Schlesinger suggests a New Testament theme. To be sure, there is no citation of Holy Writ and he is not trying to bolster dogmas relating to the Mystical Body of Christ; but as one reads in page after page of the lonely, torn, unintegrated mass-man that industrial society has created, one sees a new richness in the words of St. Paul:
…. God hath tempered the body together,…. that there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. (I Cor. 12:24-26)
None of my remarks which follow could detract from the value of this insight.
As will soon be made clear, however, Mr. Schlesinger has not written a biblical interpretation of our predicament. Nor has he allowed the profoundest spirit of the Hellenic tradition to inform his basic conceptions. The resulting philosophical orientation, therefore, seems inadequate to the needs imposed by present-day pressures. It is entirely possible, nonetheless, that a few of the following criticisms would be unnecessary if Mr. Schlesinger had depended less on a psycho-sociological notational system, and if it had been possible for him to amplify some of the theoretical problems and to define more adequately certain concepts. With these reservations in mind, and from a point of view which is essentially evangelical, though eschewing the anticlassicism and antirationalism of much modern orthodox thought, a more detailed explication of what seem to be the shortcomings of Mr. Schlesinger's analysis can be considered.
The reader is not left long to doubt that the basis of the politics of freedom is essentially relativistic. Liberalism, we are told, must not be disdainful of the "pragmatic compromise"; there is the familiar insistence on the overarching importance of "results" as the final test of the validity of our ideas; and we are not spared the deprecation of logic common to emergent philosophies from Emerson to James. Mr. Schlesinger also commits himself to a social interpretation of history. "The state and the factory are inexorable"; James Madison's statement of the economic interpretation of history (before Marx was born) is applauded as "magistral"; and Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke are praised not so much for the articles of their faiths as for their insights into the function of social myths—Paretos before their time, as it were. We hear of the "manic-depressive cycle" of American business, the "capitalist death-wish," and the "compulsive mass escape from freedom [of industrial man] into the deep, wombdark sea." We are bidden, finally, to have hope that "cultural pluralism" and "spontaneous group activity" will satisfy "those irrational sentiments once mobilized by religion" and, thus supplying "outlets for the variegated emotions of man,…. restore meaning to democratic life."
This is a capitulation to that very approach which Mr. Schlesinger criticized in such strong terms while reviewing a recent study of the psychology of the American soldier. The review filed a protest against the methods, language, and pretensions of the "Social Sciences." It may be suggested, however, that were his animadversions taken literally, a very considerable portion of this book would suffer the maledictions its author himself pronounced. One can readily agree with him about the importance of "American study of village sociology" in problems of world reconstruction; but in the present theoretical framework the democratic idea of freedom is seriously vitiated and individual dignity in either the classical or the Judeo-Christian sense tends to lose its meaning. These matters must, therefore, be considered briefly.
Although not as a direct result of this social interpretation of man, the ideal of freedom tends to become a muscular rather than a rational concept. Democracy in the Western tradition has always been linked inseparably with the idea of free man reasoning. The emphasis is now changed. Democracy becomes not a reasoning faith but "a fighting faith." We are given frequent citations to the effect that praiseworthy aristocrats have not failed to love the sword whereas plutocrats have preferred "tranquillity." Without questioning for one moment the need to defend our heritage, one can wonder how this view differs from the somewhat less than profound message of Carl Sandburg's recent novel (which, for that matter, reiterates much of Walt Whitman's demand for "a large and resolute breed of men"): have faith in continuity and struggle—so it has been and ever shall be. The problem of freedom, however, is related more directly to the idea of individual dignity; and here Mr. Schlesinger's social interpretation is revealed again. The "essential strength of democracy," he admits, lies in its "startling insight into the value of the individual"; but in the same paragraph he asserts that "individualism derives freely from the community," Freedom, too, it is said, "has acquired its dynamism from communion in action."
Yet there is another dimension in which The Vital Center must be evaluated, because it has been supplemented by the author's appreciation for the philosophical temper that can be traced from Pascal, Dostoievsky, and Kierkegaard to Sartre and Niebuhr. All of these men have made the predicament of the individual a crucial fact and each of them, judging by frequent citations and references, has informed Mr. Schlesinger's present conclusions. We must "strengthen the human will," he says, following Albert Camus. "The reform of institutions can never be a substitute for the reform of man." "The death pallor" will come over free society "unless it can recharge the deepest sources of its moral energy." This insight, however, is insufficient in itself. In fact, study of the combined effect of these views of freedom, the individual, and our ethical problem reveals the deepest tragedy of Mr. Schlesinger's analysis.
This tragedy lies in the fact that the value of his trenchant statement of our crisis is doubly canceled by the contradictions brought on by his sociologism. On the page after his affirmation of the anterior need for the "reform of man" he asserts that "the hope for free society lies…. in the kind of men it creates." (Italics mine.) Furthermore, the goal is shifted: it is not moral man but "emotional and psychological stability" that is wanted. Man is "instinctively anti-totalitarian." (Italics mine.) What he lacks is "profounder emotional resources" and effective group activity.
Now nobody would dismiss the anxiety and loneliness of modern, industrial man or deny that he would be happier if he were less lonely. He is often made happier even now by joining the Rotarians. He would be happier still if by some miracle the medieval village (or even the nineteenth-century American town!) could be made a much more significant factor in the total social pattern. To the extent that practical corrective measures are possible they should be undertaken. But these considerations are in the strictest sense of the word peripheral.
In the first place, this idealization of "rich emotional life," whether in context or out, seems deficient in explicitness, and insofar as it is a poetic summons to a stronger Volksgeist it is actually dangerous. But more important, it overlooks the central issue. Human dignity is our real concern and this rests on other things than the pragmatic value of an erect, intelligent animal. The insights of our "classical and religious past" must be consulted. Yet, except for occasional references, Mr. Schlesinger seems to place more confidence in social psychoanalysis. This resort is not entirely successful, for it is never made clear why the totalitarian methods of providing "emotional resources" are categorically wrong. Stalin has appealed to those "irrational sentiments once mobilized by religion," promising a way, a truth, and a life, complete with parousia and paradise. He has integrated his converts socially: cells, collective farms, and a nationalistic mission. There seems to be no shortage of "group activity." Nor is there a love of tranquillity! And the conclusion drawn is that ultimately this abolition of freedom is wrong only because it will not work. Due to the nature of Mr. Schlesinger's philosophy of the individual, the crucial weapon is lacking.
What are the "spontaneous sources of community," the "springs of social brotherhood" which we must tap again? If there is something in man which unfreedom thwarts even if it could remove his anxiety, we must define it. Moreover, a moral crisis is a demand for ethics—not just a choice between "conflict and stagnation." We must turn reason to the task of erecting a logical framework of principle. Neither man, the will of man, nor society is going to be made moral by minimizing the frustrations brought on by urbanism! This merely suggests a new optimistic fallacy. There is more than a simple faith in progress that needs to be revised. There will be no "rededication to concrete democratic ends," no "revival of the élan of democracy," no "resurgence of the democratic faith" until man, rational man, defines the ends of democracy in terms that do justice to his rationality and to his dignity. We must not think that illogical reasoning is going to "get results." Using every concept and technique that the sciences can give us, we must try to transcend ourselves and our culture in search of what Plato called the "outline of virtue." This means that we must direct our intellectual energies to defining what Mr. Schlesinger calls "the values which distinguish free society from totalitarianism." A check-list of political freedoms is insufficient. It is also essential that we do not blur our responsibilities by suggesting, as he does, that "the advocate of free society defines himself by telling what he is against." We cannot let it be said of us as Henry Adams said of another generation of liberals: they considered the intellectual difficulties in their path to be unessential because they were insuperable.
No one can deny Mr. Schlesinger's insistence that these are times requiring bravery. But one is reminded of Cicero's advice to his son: "It is impossible for the man to be brave who pronounces pain to be the greatest evil, or temperate who proposes pleasure as the highest good" [Moral Duties of Mankind, Book I]. We cannot scorn the rationalists or deprecate reason: there is too much glory in the "elevated and unsubdued mind." This liberating force of Hellenism the modern liberal needs in his search for principle and for his proper estimate of man.
Yet there is another response to the need for bravery, and the admonition of St. Paul imposes itself: "Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand." (Eph. 6:13.) It is true that Mr. Schlesinger, in his critique of Encyclopedist or Social Darwinist optimism, has sounded a Pauline note. But he has not emphasized the paradox of man's predicament and his anxiety regardless of social adjustment. Nevertheless his exposition points to the fact, and understanding the fact we can resort to the wisdom of our heritage.
Jacques Maritain has written that "democracy needs…. evangelical ferment in order to be realized and in order to endure" [Christianity and Democracy]. This implies a faith in man—to use our best metaphor—as created in the image of God. It implies that sin involves more than Aristotle's Punch-and-Judy show between reason and the appetites. It implies that the dignity of man is, in the last analysis, a spiritual truth. "We are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights." They are really rights: no man and no government can legitimately take them away. Democracy, as Bergson said, is evangelical. Without the inspiration of Christianity, it is just another formula—a reasonable formula, but ultimately caught in a paradox that only faith can resolve.
This, it seems to me, is the real sermon of our times, and modern political thought must be invested with its meaning. If the center holds, it will not be because men grounded their hopes in ephemeral psychic satisfactions, but because they searched for and found principle in the universe. If we fail—and we may fail—we must face the judgment of Hosea: "for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land…. Therefore shall the land mourn, and everyone that dwelleth therein shall languish." (Hosea 4:1-3.)
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SOURCE: "The Crisis of the Old Order," in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XL, No. 9, March 2, 1957, pp. 11-12.
[Woodward is an American historian, editor, and professor emeritus who has written extensively on the American South. He is the author of several books on American history, including The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) and The Burden of Southern History (1960). His Origins of the New South (1951) won the Bancroft Prize for American History in 1952 and Mary Chestnut's Civil War (1981), which Woodward edited, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1982. In the following review of Schlesinger's The Crisis of the Old Order, Woodward offers a favorable assessment of the book's treatment of fifty years of political and social trends that culminated in the 1933 election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency of the United States.]
"This is, I suppose, a bad time to be writing about Franklin Roosevelt," says Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in an apologetic foreword to his The Crisis of the Old Order.
Nonsense! As a matter of fact the Harvard history department, of which Mr. Schlesinger is a member, has for several years devoted a large part of its man-hours to the production of books on FDR and the military and political aspects of his period. Such industry could only have been based on the theory that this is a most excellent time to be writing about Franklin Roosevelt.
Weighing advantages against disadvantages, and using the book under review as a test case, one can find much to justify the theory. The obvious disadvantage is, of course, want of perspective. The compensating advantage is the opportunity for the exploitation of living memory. Assuming all the considerable risks involved in the foreshortened perspective, and by no means avoiding all the pitfalls, Mr. Schlesinger has made brilliant use of the compensatory advantages. The result of his daring gamble is a permanent enrichment of our historical literature.
Actually, most of the present volume is not about Roosevelt at all, but about the early years of a rather specially defined "Age of Roosevelt"—which turns out to be even longer than the "age" it seemed to the Roosevelt-haters. According to the author it embraced "half a century of American life." In this long volume he only gets down to the first inauguration in 1933. He goes back to the Populists for a bow to the founding fathers, then in turn pays his respects to contributions by the muckrakers, reformers, and progressives at the start of the century, as well as the accomplishments of the Republican Roosevelt and of Woodrow Wilson. Only with the end of the First World War, however, does he dig in for more than an impressionistic survey, and only with the crash of 1929 does he become systematic and detailed.
The special quality that gives Mr. Schlesinger's history the fillip of an intellectual cocktail is his use of analogy, a rather sinful indulgence in the eyes of orthodox historians. It was his bold assertion of the freedom to analogize that distinguished his Age of Jackson, in which there was an implied analogy between the 1830s and the 1930s. His analogies are not obvious and explicit, but subtle and implicit. The present work on Roosevelt is not so heavily seasoned with analogy as was the earlier one on Jackson, but there is enough to lend it a distinctive flavor. When he writes about the disillusionment over a lost peace that followed the First World War, about the effect of war upon reformers and their ideals, about the spread of anti-intellectualism, the excesses of the Red scare and the witch hunters, and the alienation of the intellectuals, he does not need to spell out the implications for the analogous phenomena of a later postwar era. "The old Wilsonians watched the New Era in indignation and contempt," he observes. And the alert reader can see the lips of the old New Dealers curl with scorn over subsequent goings on.
Another special quality of this gifted historian is his talent for perceiving and capturing the interplay between ideas and action, between abstract theory and concrete event, between thought and politics. We are shown how the imagination of a generation was fired by idealism, then chilled by disillusionment, anesthetized by cynicism, and finally all but alienated from the native heritage of freedom and drawn toward an alien creed. The account of the defection of artists, writers, and intellectuals in the early Thirties is especially perceptive. Shrewd also is the author's identification of certain influences in this process, particularly that of Lincoln Steffens's Autobiography, John Chamberlain's Farewell to Reform, and John Strachey's The Coming Struggle for Power.
For a historian whose primary interest is analytical and interpretative, Mr. Schlesinger shows no little ingenuity in evoking the mood and drama of time and place. A period that ranges between such extremes of hope and despair, luxury and bankruptcy, optimism and pessimism as the period between 1919 and 1933 offers plenty of scope for such ingenuity. The author is convincing in his portrayal of the gross complacency and Philistinism of the Harding and Coolidge era. But he is downright moving in his picture of the depths of depression: of Pennsylvania miners "freezing in rickety one-room houses, subsisting on wild weed-roots and dandelions, struggling for life in black and blasted valleys"; or of Kentuckians who "ate violet tops, wild onions, and the weeds which cows would eat (one wrote, 'as cows won't eat a poison weeds'), while wan children attended school without coats, shoes, or underclothes"; or of the thousands of "wild boys" who wandered the country. "I don't want to steal," a Pennsylvania man wrote Governor Pinchot, "but I won't let my wife and boy cry for something to eat…. How long is this going to keep up? I can't stand it any longer…. O, if God would only open a way."
The only questionable allocation of space in the book would seem to be the hundred pages devoted to a brief biography of Franklin Roosevelt down to 1933. This is skillfully enough done but interrupts the narrative unduly without contributing anything very new about the subject. A real contribution does appear, however, in a penetrating analysis of the FDR behind the public mask of grin and gusto and exuberant optimism. Even intimate friends rarely glimpsed the enigmatic and complex hidden man, an inscrutable combination of craftiness, hardness, and private sadness, "a man without illusions." A thesis is advanced about this man and his times. It is that the traditions of liberal reform were continuous from Populism to the New Deal, and that the antithetical elements of that tradition—agrarian and urban, Bryan and T.R., trust-busting and government regulation, New Freedom and New Nationalism—all found expression and apparent reconciliation in Franklin Roosevelt. It is too early to criticize the thesis, for it remains to be established in later volumes.
This is a long running start for a big jump: from 1933 to 1945. The publisher predicts it will be accomplished in three more volumes. It looks like more than that to me. At any rate, this book clearly launches one of the important historical enterprises of our time.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2465
SOURCE: "The Promise of the Blue Eagle," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 188, No. 5, January 31, 1959, pp. 100-02.
[Dangerfield is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning study The Era of Good Feelings (1953). In the following review, Dangerfield contends that the in-depth analysis of politics and economics in Schlesinger's The Coming of the New Deal is complemented by a "detailed exposition of theory and philosophy being put to work during a highly critical period" of the Roosevelt presidency.]
The exhilarating arrival of the New Deal; its introduction to the public at large of so many able, energetic, controversial, eccentric and brilliant figures; its vitality; the dramatic, visible, audible gallantry of the President himself—all of these are here [in The Coming of the New Deal], as might be expected. Schlesinger's previous books assure the reader in advance that the personalities behind those names once so familiar—Roosevelt, Wallace, Ickes, Johnson, Tugwell, Hopkins, Richberg, Perkins, Morgenthau, Douglas and all—will be brilliantly presented. The author is a master of historical characterization, which is, to be sure, the easiest kind of writing if one has a flair for it; he is also good at narrative, at compressing dense and resisting material into a formal and intelligible sequence, and that is by no means so easy.
Readability is important, literary skill is valuable; but history has been known to get along without either. What matters, obviously and finally, is the author's interpretation of the New Deal as a transforming force. The present volume deals chiefly with the years 1933 and 1934, when the New Deal was in its first phase, still searching in all directions for possible solutions, not yet in open conflict with the Court. Here a reviewer is in some difficulty: this is a work in progress, and in his final evaluation the author may well modify his conclusions on any phase of the Age of Roosevelt in terms of its relation to the period as a whole. So far Schlesinger appears to take the conventional view that the New Deal at this stage should be judged as much by its promises as by its performances; and that the more questionable of its performances—the National Recovery Administration is the most obvious of them—are to be examined by the light of the promises contained in them. I see no reason to cavil at this view: to be conventional in these days sometimes requires a strong mind.
But what were the promises? Here one is obliged to do a little guessing. The Coming of the New Deal implies that the New Deal did not at any time hold out the promise of a radical reorganization. It might have done so. In all our history, no reforming party had hitherto come to power at a time of economic collapse. But the legislation exacted from an obedient Congress during the Hundred Days, though profuse and exciting, could all be traced back to precedents in American history. What was breath-taking was the speed and the scope of the performance. Three followed a long search for the restoration of Demand—of consumers' purchasing power—and this gave the opposition time to shake itself back into what might be called respectable shape.
Sackcloth is not a robe banking and business wear with pleasure, still less with distinction; and the season of repentance was brief. Once it was over, the old ritualistic cries, the mating calls of sterile ideas, were heard again: back to the gold standard—a balanced budget—economy in government—hands off business. It was not here, however, that the really dangerous criticism lay. The really dangerous criticism was directed toward the relief aspects of the emerging program. At its most strident, this criticism sounds absurd today; it did not sound absurd then: such is the abyss which the New Deal has dug between the present and the immediate past.
When someone asked him about homeless boys riding the rails in search of employment, Henry Ford said equably, "Why, it's the best education in the world for those boys, that traveling around. They get more experience in a few months than they would in years at school." Even a liberal businessman like Robert E. Woods of Sears, Roebuck could identify relief as the New Deal's "one serious mistake." "While it is probably true that we cannot allow everyone to starve (although I personally disagree with this philosophy of the city social worker)," Wood wrote, "we should tighten up relief all along the line…."
The old equation between starvation and genius, or that infinite capacity for taking pains which was sometimes held to have something to do with genius, was handily transferred to the economic scene and easily related to national character. For the federal government to save people from starvation and intolerable anxiety was to destroy initiative, and so on and so forth. One need not trouble oneself with these primitive cries, uttered by comic millionaries who went to the Translux to hiss Roosevelt. Submarginal living might produce an Andrew Carnegie or a Jack Dempsey; the whole experience of America said that it had never, for example, produced a good farmer. What is significant is that this kind of thinking was not confined to primitive minds; men like Hopkins were troubled by it; the President was too. What is important is that these men never succumbed to their uneasiness.
Indeed, the later criticism that Roosevelt was an "enemy to his class" was only superficially (if savagely) concerned with banking reform or civilizing the Stock Exchange or soaking the rich: it was always directed toward the objectives for which the rich were being soaked. The rich, in any case, were not Roosevelt's class, though he had lived with them all his life and had little respect and certainly no veneration for them: he belonged to the Hudson River squirearchy. Far back in the past of this squirearchy there was a tradition of scientific farming and quasi-feudal land-owning; so that Roosevelt's soil conservation program, in the history of which he was deeply read, did not spring only from the example of his cousin T. R.; it was quite in the tradition of the Hudson River squires. What was not in this tradition was his concern for the people who lived on the soil. And this concern, which proclaimed him a traitor to his class and which was odious to the rich who were not of his class, did not come so easily as regards the urban unemployed, whose lives could not be touched by the rehabilitation of TVA. It is of the first importance, in contemplating the changes which took place within the first New Deal, to consider that, in 1933 and 1934, it may have been difficult even for men of good will to rid themselves of the notion that there was something debilitation, something anti-historical (i.e., anti-American) about the welfare state.
Ultimately, when all the debates had taken place between men of conflicting philosophies inside and outside the Administration, it was the President who decided what should be the nature and speed of the New Deal. Schlesinger here takes the administrative view and, with all the limitations which such a view implies, it is the correct one: what greater, unadmitted and unrecognized pressures dictated the President's decisions we are unlikely ever to know. His direction of events is naturally best observed in the field of foreign relations, where Presidents traditionally have a free hand; and here the story of the London Economic Conference of 1933 is full of interest.
Schlesinger admits that Roosevelt's handling of this conference was "deplorable"; but, to simplify an argument which he refrains from making very complex, he sees the issues involved in these terms. On the one hand, there were the gold countries, intent upon stabilizing the exchanges and restoring the gold standard; on the other hand, there was Roosevelt's determination that nothing should hinder America's drive for recovery. At the same time the author says, rather casually, that Roosevelt did think about the possible synchronization of world spending, with a view to raising world prices. In this way, he could be said to have favored a policy of international cooperation: one could discover, lurking in the recesses of his being, a personage who resembled a Wilsonian internationalist.
The conference was, no doubt, doomed from the start: yet Roosevelt's wrecking of the conference, a deliberate act if ever there was one, does suggest that at this time he was an isolationist. The Johnson Act of 1934 almost, if not quite, hardens the suggestion into a certainty. Not that there was, at this period, anything incompatible between isolationism and old-fashioned progressivism. First things first as a national policy—at least until 1936 when Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland and Franco started his insurrection—had merit, considering what Schlesinger calls the "controlling realities," and chief among the controlling realities was America's desperate need for recovery. First things first was light years away from "America First." But Schlesinger's interpretation of Hull's tariff policies in terms of "the triumph of reciprocity" is not too persuasive. In short, it is difficult to see the New Deal in its heyday as anything but isolationist: part of the fascination of Roosevelt is his ability to change, even gradually, even if it took a war situation to change him and, incidentally, to rescue the New Deal.
A similar gradualism can be seen in Roosevelt's attitude toward NRA. Just as, at the beginning of the Hundred Days, he refrained from nationalizing the banking system, so on this larger industrial scene he persisted in the belief that recovery could be achieved through a partnership between business and government: the result was the big-business formula of scarcity and high prices. It took him some time to realize all this, and he might not have realized it as soon as he did if the Court had not ably assisted him by striking down NRA. In the same conspectus one may place his attitude toward organized labor. "He sympathized with organized labor more out of a reaction against employer primitivism than as necessarily a hopeful new development in itself…. Neither politically nor intellectually was the New Deal much interested in the labor movement during Roosevelt's first years." The elements necessary for a change of thinking were all there, and specifically in clause 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act: they had not yet come together in the President's mind.
In the extraordinary ferment of the first Administration, and of Roosevelt's own mind, it is not surprising that so much that was cautious and conservative should have been found side by side with so much that was experimental, pragmatic and progressive. The promises of the first New Deal, like the performances of the second, can be interpreted in terms of a conflict between reform and recovery. Roosevelt only hinted at really basic reforms of the capitalist state: he was interested in the practical means and the logical consequences of recovery. That is to say, he tried to impose upon the repellent features of the capitalist state, as he found them, the benign image of the welfare state. He did not succeed wholly; but to the extent that the image has become ineffaceable, he succeeded magnificently.
This conflict was partly responsible for the administrative confusion of the New Deal; and The Coming of the New Deal stresses, very rightly I think, the question of Roosevelt as an administrator. He could be called a very poor administrator or an artist in administration; poor because he was wasteful; an artist because he was flexible. He believed in bringing into his government men of all kinds of economic and political beliefs: in this sense his Administration was one prolonged debate; but the debate was so arranged that the best information was made available to him and the last word was left with him. He had himself no discernible philosophy; he knew how to put conflicting philosophies to work. In the extraordinary chaos of temporary agencies, which so often overlapped or even nullified one another, he maintained, somehow or other, some kind of positive direction. His way of pitting one man against another, of leaving everyone uncertain as to the security of his position in the government, of subjecting people to a sadistic teasing, kept his advisers on their toes; just as his warmth and his charm held them together.
It was a personal triumph, and the personality behind was complex and baffling. Schlesinger, going back to Archilochus' distinction between hedgehog and fox, says that Roosevelt was all fox. He was devious, evasive, at times untruthful. Not even his intimates could be sure that they knew anything about him; there was, at the heart of the labyrinth, a solitary reserve which could not be entered. Schlesinger believes, however, that "one cannot exhaust the Roosevelt mystery by saying that he was complicated … he was complicated everywhere except in his heart of hearts." In his heart of hearts lay a simple, a rather naive idealism.
It was certainly this which the public sensed, or that majority of the public which listened to him with pleasure and voted for him without pain. It was because of his idealism, not in spite of it, that Roosevelt was able to dramatize so successfully one great constitutional event—the transformation of the Presidency from an organ of government into an influence which should pervade every corner of the national life. If we had not experienced the immanence of a Roosevelt, we might not today feel so crippled by the remoteness of an Eisenhower.
History is, in one sense, a translation. It takes the complex of the past and carries it across—makes it understandable—to those who think and live in the complex of the present. Obviously, it is an incomplete translation at best. There is a good deal in the past that is too idiomatic for a successful rendering, and a good deal more that is simply irrecoverable. Nor can any single work give more than a fragment of what is recoverable. I don't see much virtue in criticizing a book for not being what its author never intended it to be. One could remark on the absence of any intellectual history in this work; but then that may come, and presumably will come, in a later volume. What is more serious is the relative poverty of its social history—we are left with a very indistinct idea of the condition of the people under the first New Deal. But that would require another kind of book. The Coming of the New Deal presents an administrative and political study: not a close analysis of economic theory and political philosophy, but a detailed exposition of theory and philosophy being put to work during a highly critical period. As such it is a powerful, a memorable, an important book.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2076
SOURCE: "New Frontiers," in Commentary, Vol. 36, No. 1, July, 1963, pp. 76-8.
[In the review below, Coser argues that Schlesinger's The Politics of Hope, "attempts to define the lineaments of a new pragmatic liberalism," but that Schlesinger's conclusions are often partisan and do not reflect the "critical and unattached" judgment characteristic of his earlier works.]
This collection of essays [The Politics of Hope], written in the 1950's and early 1960's for a variety of magazines, reflects the amazing catholicity of Mr. Schlesinger's tastes and interests. His range is wide indeed. There are pieces here on the virtues of dissent (written in the age of Eisenhower) and pieces on the need for greatness and heroic leadership (written at the onset of the Kennedy age). Mr. Schlesinger has discussed the Oppenheimer case (in the Atlantic), Whittaker Chambers (in the Saturday Review), and in Esquire he raised the question, "What has unmanned the American man?" Other essays comment on the careers of Walter Lippmann and Reinhold Niebuhr, on the causes of the Civil War, and on numerous other subjects. This variety makes an assessment of the book difficult enough; the difficulty is compounded when one realizes how much Mr. Schlesinger's role on the intellectual scene has changed during the period covered. He used to be a critical and unattached intellectual. He is now attached—to the White House. Hence one must distinguish carefully between the old Schlesinger and the new, even though the book's organization, topical rather than chronological, plainly was not meant to invite such distinctions.
The earlier pieces, those written in the 1950's, continue in the vein of the author's Vital Center. They show a genuinely curious and troubled mind trying painfully to define a new liberal politics after the collapse of some of the traditional liberal certainties. Persuaded by Reinhold Niebuhr of the futility of utopian visions in an immoral society of sinful men, Mr. Schlesinger here attempts to define the lineaments of a new pragmatic liberalism in tune with realistic requirements and the conduct of practical affairs. Aware of the stubborn recalcitrance of political facts before the grand schemes of certain of the older liberal thinkers, Mr. Schlesinger counsels caution, a politics of responsibility, a plunge into the course of history rather than a desperate struggle against its current. If his translation of the somber pessimism of certain theological thinkers into the idiom of high-level political journalism often sounds rather shallow, this is perhaps not entirely Mr. Schlesinger's fault. He evidently does the best he can. And it remains that certain of these essays, those on Lippmann, De Voto, Niebuhr, and Chambers, for example, are perceptive, engaging, and sympathetic examinations of the life and thought of these men. In addition, certain of the polemical pieces of the 1950's—against the New Conservatives, against Time's disparagement of intellectuals, against those "revisionist" historians who would persuade us that the Civil War could have been avoided had everybody but been a bit more reasonable—are fine examples of the polemicist's craft. But all these are products of a phase of his career which Mr. Schlesinger has now left behind. His newer pieces are no longer questioning and tentative; instead, they bristle with new-found muscular certainties.
The new style reveals the new man. Invigorated by the sweet taste of power, Mr. Schlesinger writes now with aplomb. His more recent essays abound in "forward motion," "revived national energies," "faith in leadership," and long strings of similar clichés. Take, for example, the essay on "The New Mood in Politics," written in 1960. Here Mr. Schlesinger assures the reader that "From the vantage point of the 60's, the 50's … will seem simply a listless interlude, quickly forgotten, in which the American people collected itself for greater exertions and higher splendors in the future." Does this sound like political analysis or does it sound like campaign oratory? In fact, it is campaign oratory, indistinguishable from the highfalutin speeches of Mr. Schlesinger's master and hero—which, come to think of it, were at least partly written by the same author.
The old Schlesinger often probed deeply and was aware of the complicated ambiguities of political action. The new Schlesinger has wholly succumbed to self-congratulatory certainty. He can now write: "Our national leadership is young, vigorous, intelligent, civilized, and experimental…." All this is a bit hard to take, coming as it does from the pen of a man whose official address is the White House. Were there no self-employed trumpeters available?
The new Schlesinger, perhaps because of what John Dewey called "an occupational psychosis," seems to have developed a trained incapacity to perceive the somber side of the American experience in the 1960's. His complacency is formidable. He can now write, for example: "There are still pools of poverty which have to be mopped up; but the central problem will be increasingly that of fighting for individual dignity, identity and fulfillment…." Some pools these! A spate of recent books—see Dwight Macdonald's superb discussion of them in a recent issue of the New Yorker—have shown that at least one-fourth of the American population still lives in poverty. Reading Mr. Schlesinger's cultivated prattle about identity, fulfillment, and the like, one cannot help recalling Bertholt Brecht's "Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral." Brecht was often vulgar, but at least he was never smug.
If one is to believe Mr. Schlesinger, a truly remarkable transformation has occurred in American within a very short time span. In 1958 it was "a pompous society," the 50's were a "decade of inertia [when] we squandered, for example, a commanding weapons' lead until our own officials now frankly concede that by the early 60's the Soviet Union … will have a superiority in the thrust of its missiles and in the penetration of outer space." Things were falling apart, and the vital center did not hold. But enter the 60's and everything has changed: "We have awakened as from a trance; and we have awakened so quickly and so sharply that we can hardly remember what it was like when we slumbered." The old Schlesinger was much given to attacks against the alleged "deterministic" explanations of sociology and to the vindication of "human freedom"; but the new Schlesinger's belief in indeterminacy runs riot. Everyone has the right, I suppose, to invoke "heroic leadership" and to believe in the seminal and history-making actions of great men. But Mr. Schlesinger abuses the privilege. It is asking a bit much to have us believe that the mere advent of Mr. Schlesinger's employer on the scene has, as with one wave of a magic wand, changed the major characteristics of an era and of a society. This is no longer social analysis, even if it is dressed up in terms of an alleged law of historical alternation between Innovation and Conservatism "discovered" by Mr. Schlesinger's father a generation ago; it is just plain chutzpah. Are we really to believe that mass society with all its attendant signs and characteristics suddenly disappeared from America at the moment John F. Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. entered the White House? "Few," writes the author, "would describe American society any longer in last decade's condescending vocabulary of conformism and homogenization." Is he kidding himself or is he trying to kid us?
Finally, I wish to comment on Mr. Schlesinger's leading essay which carries the pretentious title "On Heroic Leadership and the Dilemma of Strong Men and Weak People." This is an important essay, not because it says anything important, but because it seems to express the ideology which is now dominant among the President's intellectuals in Washington. Here Mr. Schlesinger calls for a reconstitution of democratic theory since "maintained in rigid purity, it has been an abundant source of trouble." The citizen in a democracy, he says, simply cannot play the role in which classical democratic theory has cast him. This has led to political estrangement and frustration. Hence, Mr. Schlesinger argues, we need to rely on heroic leadership, we need to divest ourselves of our instinctive distrust of such leadership if the democratic polity is not to flounder in a sea of mass emotions. This, I submit, is a detestable doctrine.
I share Mr. Schlesinger's view that the American political process has been characterized in recent years by a devolution of democracy, and that at least one of the major reactions to this has been an increase in political alienation. But Mr. Schlesinger's heroic leadership doctrine, far from decreasing this alienation, would make it a permanent condition. It would institutionalize reliance on the tutelary powers of a government headed by heroic leaders. We would then truly have reached the condition that de Tocqueville always feared would threaten democratic nations: "As each member of the community is individually isolated and extremely powerless, no one of the whole body can either defend himself or present a rallying point to others; nothing is strong in a democratic country except the state." In such a condition, de Tocqueville thought, "the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again." According to Mr. Schlesinger, the crisis of democracy can be cured only by a strong injection of personalist appeals by a political hero. This is a pernicious remedy. What is needed is more participation in decision-making by the citizens, not less. If existing institutional restraints prevent such wider participation, they will have to be abolished. In the meantime, lunch-counter demonstrators and Freedom Riders, not Schlesinger's managerial demiurges, maintain one's faith in the possibilities of democracy. The future of democracy in America is tied to the chances of breaking up those illegitimate and irresponsible centers of power, both economic and political, which have grown up within the interstices of the democratic polity, and which effectively thwart the exercise of democratic decision-making, even as they strangle economic growth and equal access of the whole population to the good things of life. So far, one waits in vain for Mr. Schlesinger and his Washington co-thinkers to even mention, let alone deal with, this problem. Unless they do so soon, one will be forced to conclude that all this talk about heroic leadership is an ideological smokescreen behind which business can be conducted as usual.
All that I wanted to convey in this review has, in effect, already been said, and in the book itself. It occurs in a passage from Walter Lippmann's The Method of Freedom which Schlesinger quotes in his essay on its author:
It is only knowledge freely acquired that is disinterested. When, therefore, men whose profession is to teach and to investigate become the makers of policy, become members of an administration in power, become politicians and leaders of causes, they are committed. Nothing they say can be relied upon as disinterested. Nothing they teach can be trusted as scientific. It is impossible to mix the pursuit of knowledge and the exercise of political power and those who have tried it turn out to be very bad politicians or they cease to be scholars.
So be it.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1968
SOURCE: "JFK: A Memoir and More," in The New York Times Book Review, November 28, 1965, pp. 1, 84.
[In the following review, Burns praises Schlesinger's A Thousand Days for its scholarship, its encyclopedic account of events, and "diamond-bright" portraits of White House and Congressional leaders. However, Burns contends that the broad scope of the book prevents any significant indepth analysis of the Kennedy era.]
More than any other people, perhaps, Americans like to leave issues to the "verdict of history." When some problem seems too opaque or some leader too inscrutable, we comfort ourselves with the thought that some day the historians will decide the merits of the case or take the final measure of the man. The trouble is that historians never come in with a final verdict; usually they are a hung jury. History is written by the survivors—but new generations bring new survivors.
The great historian combines the feel and immediacy of the participant with the distance and perspective of the critic who can put events in their broadest context, tap wide sources of data and judgment, and enjoy all the blessings of hindsight. He can accompany the main actors down the rutted, twisting road and feel—as well as record—the bumps and turns. But he can also step back, and, with his fellow historians as his jealous and watchful constituency, he can gain a perspective that sees a man and his era against the long prologue and epilogue of events.
Such a historian is rare. I doubt that Arthur Schlesinger Jr., with all his self-confidence, expected at the outset that he would write virtually a history of the Age of Kennedy. He describes his work [A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House] as a "personal memoir by one who served in the White House during the Kennedy years," and one notes that he faithfully records his own background (O.S.S., Stevenson aide, etc.) and his own White House activities (mainly foreign relations) as well as his chief's. His work ends up, however, as a remarkable feat of scholarship and writing, set in the widest historical and intellectual frame—and all the more astounding for having been written in something less than 18 months.
It is exciting in this book to see the historian take over, to see the mere chronicler of events, at first content to use his limited and staccato exposure to great events, give way to the scholar of contemporary America. Certainly Schlesinger's presence in the White House helped give him Verstehen—that quality of being able to feel one's way into complex situations and to know, if not how things were done, how they could not have been done.
Yet I think that Schlesinger's achievement is due less to his having been a member of the Kennedy White House than being a member of the Kennedy era. He shared with Kennedy, though from a different perspective, the worlds of Boston, Harvard, military power, state and national politics, convention rooms, Washington. Like Kennedy, he was born during World War I, came of age in the Great Depression, knew, admired and criticized the New Deal, rejected many of the old liberal stereotypes, suffered through the platitudes of the Eisenhower years and embraced the politics of modernity.
In this long volume Schlesinger has caught both the sweep and the ferment of the thousand days. He has chronicled Kennedy's long and skillful nomination campaign, the battle with Nixon, the feverish preparations for office, the scintillating inaugural days, and then the burdens of power—Latin America, Berlin, Southeast Asia, Africa, and always Moscow and Peking; and at home, economic recovery, the civil rights revolution, the fight with Big Steel, and all the rest. Nor does he ignore the disappointments—the burning humiliation after the Bay of Pigs, the frustrations on Capitol Hill, and the immovability—as Schlesinger sees it—of the bureaucracy in general and of the State Department very much in particular.
The chronicle is fresh, vivid and informative, but what the historian has done is to re-create the historical, political and personal context in which the events take place. He reaches back into the Truman and Eisenhower years to dissect the web of forces that variously empowered and constrained the Administration. He has a sure grasp of the party rivalries, factional quarrels, intellectual and policy differences and quirks of personality in which issues and policies were entangled.
His closeness to White House aides, bureaucrats, and Congressional politicians has not dulled the author's ability or willingness to portray them in diamond-bright vignettes. The result is a continuously fascinating but almost encyclopedic treatment not only of the big events and of the less crucial but still instructive topics like Laos, the Congo, the Skybolt missile mixup, Santo Domingo (Kennedy came close to occupying it), Goa, and even relations with South Africa.
Thus the United Nations:
Not until I began making regular visits to that great glass tower glittering above the East River did I start to grasp the intensity of the UN life. It was a world of its own, separate, self-contained, and in chronic crisis, where a dozen unrelated emergencies might explode at once, demanding immediate reactions across the government and decisions (or at least speeches) in New York. It had its own ethos, its own rules and its own language: delegates would argue interminably over whether to "note" or to "reaf-firm" a past resolution, to "deplore" or "regret" or "condemn" a present action…. Stevenson, presiding over this hectic outpost in American diplomacy, had a far more arduous and exhausting job than most Washingtonians appreciated; and, because he had the grace of making everything look easy and the habit of disparaging his own success, people in Washington did not realize how superbly he was discharging an impossible assignment.
Nehru: By 1961
Nehru, alas, was no longer the man he had once been. It has all gone on too long, the fathership of his country, the rambling, paternal speeches to his flock, the tired aristocratic disdain in New Delhi, the Left Book Club platitudes when his face was turned to the world. His strength was failing, and he retained control more by momentum of the past than by mastery of the present.
The difficulty of opposing the Bay of Pigs:
The advocates of the adventure had a rhetorical advantage. They could strike virile poses and talk of tangible things—fire power, air strikes, landing craft and so on. To oppose the plan, one had to invoke intangibles—the moral position of the United States, the reputation of the President, the response of the United Nations, "world public opinion" and other such odious concepts.
When, to the general indignation of the bar and press, he was appointed Attorney General, he was widely regarded as a ruthless and power-hungry young man devoid of principle or scruple, indifferent to personal freedom or public right, who saw life in rigidly personal and moralistic terms…. And Bobby's public bearing—the ominous manner, the knock-the-chip-off-my-shoulder look, the stony blue eyes, clenched teeth, tart, monosyllabic tongue—did not especially dispel the picture of a rough young man suddenly given national authority. I do not know of any case in contemporary American politics where there has seemed to me a greater discrepancy between the myth and the man.
It is not accidental that these examples relate mainly to foreign affairs, for so does the book. Schlesinger, being "only irregularly involved" in domestic matters, felt that he had less to say about them. This conclusion stemmed from a mistaken premise, as I see it, that the author could describe best what he had most witnessed. Here again, Schlesinger the historian is not dependent on Schlesinger the White House aide.
He handles domestic policies and politics superbly when he finally comes to them, but the treatment is relatively too brief. Schlesinger makes perceptive judgments about Kennedy's relations with Congress, the radical right, various groups and personages of the left, the leadership of labor, the intellectuals—but there is simply not enough background and depth. Incredibly, this long book is not long enough. Or perhaps it should be in two or even three volumes to do justice to the Age of Kennedy.
What manner of man emerges from these pages? Clearly Kennedy was a hero to Schlesinger, as he was, evidently, to all his friends and aides (we have yet to hear from his valet). Like other biographers, Schlesinger was struck by Kennedy's detachment, coolness, restraint, self-control, distaste for emotional display. But these qualities, he feels, overlay deep feelings, involvement, commitment.
The President feared to make an unnecessary display of himself, to seem to be histrionic or corny. He saw no sense in knock-down and drag-out fights if he did not win them. "There is no sense," he said, "raising hell, and then not being successful. There is no sense in putting the office of the Presidency on the line on an issue, and then being defeated." He would rather compromise and win a bill than lose dramatically and win a heightened moral issue.
Kennedy regarded crowds as irrational, the author says. He did not want to play on a mob's emotions, as Franklin Roosevelt had done so brilliantly and demagogically in his Madison Square Garden speech at the climax of the election of 1936. He was fearful of the proposed march of civil rights forces on Capitol Hill (but pleased when the rally around the Lincoln Memorial turned out to be one of the most luminous moments in the nation's life). He violated his own restraint only once, in Berlin ("Ich bin ein Berliner!") and was afterward worried about it. Why this fear of arousing mass feeling, of using popular emotion as a tool in politics?
The author finds a more basic reason for this quality than the usual explanations of rationalism or pragmatism. The "basic source may have been an acute and anguished sense of the fragility of the membranes of civilization, stretched so thin over a nation so disparate in its composition, so tense in its interior relationships, so cunningly enmeshed in underground fears and antagonisms, so entrapped by history in the ethos of violence." It was this kind of sensitivity that Kennedy brought to civil rights. His relation to this issue in the 1950's, the author suggests, was more a matter of intellectual and political commitment than of emotional identification.
By the 1960's American Negroes were in a state of semi-revolution. Kennedy used a wide array of executive powers, but he used them slowly and prudently, and he did not come to command the nation's mood and conscience, as Franklin Roosevelt had done in coping with protest born of depression. "A sweeping revolutionary force is pressed into a narrow tunnel," Martin Luther King complained. Only after the crises in Oxford and Jackson and countless other Southern towns did the President take his place in the Negro revolution.
Schlesinger feels that his timing was right—that the President could act only after the nation's attention was focused on civil rights. Some Negro leaders still believe that Kennedy should have moved earlier and more boldly—that the leader must set in advance the moral tone that will inform a people's perspective and in turn strengthen the President's hand.
History will continue to render "verdicts" on such questions, as we try to learn more about the interrelations of Presidential deeds, the people's moods and the political process. History will also bring new evaluations of Kennedy the man, as we hear more, for example, from the "Irish mafia" types who saw Kennedy's robust, earthy and less cerebral side. History will reassess both the Thousand Days and The Thousand Days. But I will offer one man's verdict now. This is Arthur Schlesinger's best book. A great President has found—perhaps he deliberately chose—a great historian.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1972
SOURCE: "Schlesinger's Kennedy," in The New Republic, Vol. 153, No. 23, December 4, 1965, pp. 21-4.
[In the following review, Blum argues that Schlesinger's A Thousand Days accurately depicts "the spirit and the style of the New Frontier, and its leader," and gives the reader a personal glimpse into the workings of the seat of government.]
For Andrew Jackson, so we learned from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the sun broke through the clouds as he set out for his inauguration; for Franklin Roosevelt, the mist and wind under a sullen sky were witness to the nation's applause for buoyant call to action; for John F. Kennedy, Schlesinger tells us now, "it all began in the cold," as so soon thereafter it was all so tragically to end. In A Thousand Days, Schlesinger, as he did before for Jackson and for Roosevelt, brings his sure knowledge, his lucid prose, and his unmatched gift for understanding the endless adventure of governing men to the analysis of the Administration of a great President. The book, Schlesinger says at the outset, is "not a comprehensive history of the Kennedy Presidency. It is a personal memoir." But the intensity of the author's personal experience with Kennedy does not, in spite of the disclaimer, diminish the range, the quality, and the authority of the history recorded. Schlesinger's is the first account of the Kennedy years to catch and convey the spirit and the style of the New Frontier and its leader. It will be for many years the account against which all others must be measured, and on which all others will in some degree depend.
Kennedy, as Schlesinger portrays him, served both as the agent and the symbol for an indispensable reformation of public policies as those policies were made and applied and understood at home and abroad. "let us," the President said of the Alliance for Progress, as by implication he often said of his own country, "let us once again transform the American continent into a vast crucible of revolutionary ideas and efforts—a tribute to the power of the creative energies of free men and women—an example to all the world that liberty and progress walk hand in hand." The Kennedy whom Schlesinger reveals believed in those possibilities and dedicated himself to their fulfillment. He did so even though his political perceptions told him how perilously slow the course of progress had to be, and—more important—even though his reading of history and his consequent sense of irony reminded him always of the distance that lay between the noblest, most vigorous intentions and their invariably lesser products. That sense of irony contributed to Kennedy's humor, which he wryly turned against himself, without in the least reducing Kennedy's stamina, born partly of rare courage, partly of confidence, and essential to his imperturbability in crisis.
Irony has meaning only to man thinking, only to an intellectual, and Kennedy, as Schlesinger demonstrates, was the most incisive intellectual of the whole brilliant galaxy of men whom he summoned to his side. More than any one of them, he commanded the entire array of difficult subjects to which he adverted. Yet Kennedy, even in repose, exuded the poised grace of a man trained and resolved to act. His command of his mind—thorough in its instruction, jugular in its drive to the essence of a problem—whetted his impatience to be on with his tasks. The impulse to action, the swift concentration on the practicable, the mistrust of the rhetoric of idealism, the unhesitating recourse when circumstances so indicated to the power of the military or of the Irish Mafia—all these led some intellectuals, particularly those who did not know Kennedy or who disagreed with him, to misread his high purpose and to underrate his arresting capabilities, to disown their closest kin to hold the Presidency since the time of Thomas Jefferson. For his part, Kennedy was hurt and puzzled when intelligent but cloistered men in 1960 found him neither less nor more than Richard Nixon. As Schlesinger observes, two years later no one could properly any longer confuse the adversaries; Kennedy in office had proved his right to the margin of support the electorate ultimately awarded to his successor.
Schlesinger's vignettes serve the New Frontiersmen well, especially Averell Harriman whose wise and selfless engagement merited the unstinted admiration it receives. Some thirty years the senior of most of his colleagues, Harriman nonetheless shared their ebullient youth. Adlai Stevenson, as Schlesinger portrays him, was less at home in Kennedy's Washington, but the picture of Stevenson that emerges captures his spirit, even though Schlesinger ruefully admits the continual uneasiness of Stevenson's relationship with Kennedy. A lesser President might have failed to enlist Stevenson in the common cause which the older man had defined and clarified while the younger was preparing himself for the responsibilities of power. Those who, as Schlesinger describes them, perhaps best represented the essential qualities of Kennedy's use of power, his preferred processes of government, and his goals for the United States were the trenchant, systematic, indefatigable McNamara, and the tough, steady Attorney General—hungry to learn, more and more the most effective and reliable liberal in the Cabinet.
Others fare less well. Lyndon Johnson, for one, whose strength Schlesinger gladly recognizes, appears, as he was, at some remove from the center of affairs—restless, egocentric, but an impressively loyal soldier to an army he had only reluctantly joined. In Los Angeles in 1960, Schlesinger writes, after Kennedy had won the nomination, Johnson was "far from Isaiah," and for the heathen Schlesinger adds, in a footnote other historians will envy, "'come now, and let us reason together'. Isaiah 1:18. L.B.J. passim." But Johnson is the object only of respectful fun, while Dean Rusk is the object of exasperated disappointment.
The American Establishment (the subject of a puckish footnote that pays special respect to Richard Rovere) has questioned Schlesinger's taste, even his patriotism, for reporting Kennedy's private statement that Rusk would be permitted to resign. In the full context of Schlesinger's book, that report is neither tasteless nor unpatriotic nor undeserved. Schlesinger devotes a major portion of his total narrative and analysis to examining the inertia of the State Department, the Joint Chiefs, and the CIA, and to explaining Kennedy's efforts to break through the depressing influences of those agencies. The crisis for the President arose with the Bay of Pigs, an episode that Schlesinger makes a kind of fulcrum for his own critique of government as Kennedy inherited it. The implications of the story Schlesinger tells are as disturbing now as they must have been to the President at the time. State, CIA, and the Joint Chiefs displayed an invincible inability to question the premises from which the original planning of the operation had proceeded. In a series of small decisions built upon those rigid premises, a series that became irreversible in its momentum (in precisely the manner discussed by D. Braybrooke and C. E. Lindblom in A Strategy of Decision), they led the new Administration to the calamity of the invasion. That affair, shattering the gay confidence of the spring of 1961, opened a long season of gloom that spread with the troubles in Berlin, Laos, and Africa. But the travesty of the Bay of Pigs had reminded Kennedy that specialists in intelligence and weaponry and protocol were attached to the particular interests they represented and, with singular exceptions, were incapable of comprehending or of representing the general interests of the Presidency or of the United States. Accordingly Kennedy turned increasingly to generalists in whom he had personal confidence, men charged with the dual duty of prodding the bureaucracies to perform at a high level of energy and imagination, and of transcending the advice of bureaucratic expertise. As the White House took over the strings of policy, Kennedy gained the initiative and scope necessary for his later achievements, especially for his superb resolution of the second Cuban crisis and for his delicate diplomacy for the test ban. But Rusk, apparently by his own choice, ordinarily stood apart from involvement in those and other major issues, and Rusk only hesitatingly, if at all, endeavored to purge his department of its sluggishness, parochialism and banality. Thus Kennedy's statement about Rusk's resignation, and thus Schlesinger's report.
After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy's largest difficulties in foreign policy, as Schlesinger sees it, derived not from American weakness or fumbling but from the strength and will of adversaries or off-and-on friends, particularly the Soviet Union and France. The accounts of Kennedy's trials with Khrushchev and de Gaulle profit alike from Schlesinger's care with details and his prefatory excursions into the backgrounds of Russian and French policy. Here and else-where in the book—for example, in sections on Latin America, Africa, Italy and Great Britain—the author's grasp of the past enhances his rendering of the immediate. His candor, moreover, exposes certain failures of the Administration which he views more generously than will some of his readers—for one, the lapse in communication with and consideration for an ally that intensified British disappointment over the cancellation of Skybolt; for another, the preoccupations that kept Kennedy from reversing the flow of decisions about Vietnam, decisions that originated in large part with various New Frontiersmen. Though no apologist for Diem, Schlesinger suggests in the intractable case of Vietnam how crippling were the limits of Kennedy's available choices. In that and other cases, Schlesinger tends to applaud the practicable and meliorative, and tends to deplore the radical and millennial. Here he reflects the tough but creative mood of the New Frontier. Yet that mood leaves, perhaps, too little room, not for agreement with, but for sympathy for those theorists who help to preserve a millennial vision against which the impact of the practicable can be measured. And Schlesinger, without being necessarily wrong, is nevertheless harsh in his asides about H. Stuart Hughes and those of like mind.
Schlesinger's more gentle but still critical treatment of the radicals in the civil rights movement appreciates their success in advancing their cause. At the same time, the Kennedys and their associates lent considerable thrust to that accelerating movement, and the Attorney General, in Schlesinger's assessment, receives the credit that his detractors have refused to grant him. Still, some of Robert Kennedy's admirers, including Schlesinger, for their part have not discussed the significance of the New Frontier's judicial appointments with the skeptical detachment of Alexander Bickel in his Politics and the Warren Court. Overall, however, Schlesinger's approach to civil rights and other domestic issues is distinguished by its clarity and balance. Indeed his discussion of economic policy provides a model for any general exploration of technical questions. Most important, with marked restraint Schlesinger shows conclusively that Kennedy did get the country moving again. The accomplishments of Lyndon Johnson rose from the strong foundations Kennedy built, for Kennedy's celebrated style was no trick of public relations but the graceful expression of a powerful mind, a powerful person, and a powerful program, admirably timed.
"Is there some principle of nature," Richard Hofstadter asked in a question Schlesinger quotes, "which requires that we never know the quality of what we have had until it is gone?" Perhaps. Those close to Kennedy knew before that dreadful day in Dallas. Many others did not. It is the special triumph of Schlesinger's [A Thousand Days] that those who read it, now or years from now, will know the quality of Kennedy. They should then conclude, with Schlesinger, that above all Kennedy "gave the world for an imperishable moment the vision of a leader who greatly understood the terror and the hope, the diversity and the possibility, of life on this planet and who made people look beyond nation and race to the future of humanity." In a sense, then, it did not come to an end in the cold.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2846
SOURCE: "Vietnam Legacy," in The New Republic, Vol. 156, No. 6, February 11, 1967, pp. 25-8.
[In the following excerpt, Schoenbrun examines The Bitter Heritage, focusing on Schlesinger's controversial interpretation of the escalation of the Vietnam War.]
The Bitter Heritage is a bitter-sweet essay that will please few but stir all who read it. Despite some serious flaws, it is by far the best short history and analysis of the war in Vietnam available in book form. It is not, strictly speaking, a book. It totals less than 40,000 words, most of them previously published in three magazine articles. One whole chapter, "On the inscrutability of history," first published in Encounter, is a long, brilliant discursion with minimal relevance to the subject….
Its sweetness is found in its dedication and its last chapter. It is dedicated "for those fighting in Vietnam." (The hawks are by no means the only patriots, the only supporters of our soldiers.) And the last chapter, "Vietnam and American Democracy," is a moving, lucid appeal to reason and the best democratic traditions of responsible dissent, as well as a warning against a recrudescence of McCarthyism in the course of the increasingly bitter national divisions on the war.
The bitterness is there, too, if well concealed by the "cool" style of the sophisticated pamphleteer that Schlesinger has become. He uses his pen as a rapier, "that silent, white weapon of the gentleman," swiftly, skillfully and with deadly precision. The man he slashes most deftly is Secretary of State Dean Rusk but his principal victim is President Johnson.
Scholar-duelist Schlesinger does not confine his thrusts at Rusk to Vietnam. He goes far back into the records to make Rusk look foolish, such as this quote from May 18, 1951, when Rusk was an Assistant Secretary of State: "The Peiping regime may be a colonial Russian government—a Slavic Manchukuo on a larger scale. It is not the government of China. It does not pass the first test. It is not Chinese." In the light of the current Sino-Soviet split and China's competition with Russia for world communist leadership, Rusk's 1951 estimate is grotesque. Mr. Schlesinger might have strengthened his case, largely built on hindsight, by pointing out that the then Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, was already talking publicly about a Sino-Soviet rift, predicting the split that followed. Rusk was wrong by almost any standard, hindsight or foresight.
The most devastating use of quotations to cut a man to pieces is directed against President Johnson:
Some others are eager to enlarge the conflict. They call upon us to supply American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do. They ask us to take reckless actions which might risk the lives of millions and engulf much of Asia. (August 12, 1964 election campaign speech)
I have had advice to load our planes with bombs and to drop them on certain areas that I think would enlarge the war and result in committing a good many American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia to help protect their own land. And for that reason I haven't chosen to enlarge the war. (August 29, 1964)
There are those who say you ought to go north and drop bombs, to try to wipe out the supply lines, and they think that would escalate the war. We don't want our American boys to do the fighting for Asian boys. We don't want to get involved in a nation with 700,000,000 people and get tied down in a land war in Asia. (September 25, 1964)
We are not going north and we are not going south; we are going to continue to try to get them to save their own freedom with their own men, with our leadership and our officer direction, and such equipment as we can furnish them. (September 28, 1964)
We are not going to send American boys nine to ten thousand miles from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves. (October 21, 1964)
Perhaps the cruelest cut of all is Schlesinger's quoting Senator Johnson's criticism of President Eisenhower's brief attempt to obtain congressional approval to intervene to save the embattled French legions in Dien Bien Phu. The then Minority Leader charged that the United States "is in clear danger of being left naked and alone in a hostile world…. Our friends and allies are frightened and wondering, as we do, where we are headed." Mr. Schlesinger might, here again, have strengthened his case had he pursued his research more carefully in a longer study, for he overlooked the more telling fact that it was Minority Leader Johnson who led the opposition against the Eisenhower-Dulles intervention scheme by demanding prior consultation and consent of our allies, notably the British. Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden—no appeasers—were appalled by the proposal and turned it down flat. Eisenhower could not deliver to the Senate the guarantee Johnson had demanded and therefore had to abandon the idea.
Schlesinger's faults of omission become grave and injure his otherwise effective essay when he commits serious errors in a reference to the Geneva Conference of 1954: "… And negotiations in Geneva, in which the United States declined to take part, resulted in the de facto partition of Vietnam at the 17 parallel" (italics added).
The phrase "declined to take part" would leave the uninformed reader with the impression that the United States had no part in the Geneva Conference, was not even there. In fact the United States delegation, headed by General Bedell Smith, was not only there but participated in the Conference. Schlesinger is correct only in the very narrowest and most unimportant sense of the phrase "to take part"; the US was indeed not an official participant in the Conference. But General Smith did attend the meetings as an interested party and, at the concluding session, when the final agreement, now known as the "Geneva Accords," was read, he spoke on behalf of the United States and pledged that we would not take any actions against those accords if they were not forcibly violated by others. This is a most important point, for it has been falsely argued that we were in no way committed by the Geneva Accords.
It is also regrettable that Schlesinger states there was a de facto partition of Vietnam. The Geneva Accords very precisely stated that there was to be only a "temporary, military demarcation line," for the purposes of regrouping hostile troops on either side, leading to a period of calm that would permit free elections and unification of the country. A temporary demarcation is legally and morally very different from a partition. It is true that the divisions of Berlin and Korea became partitions but there was not much doubt that this was the Soviet intention. Partition was not the intention of the Geneva conferees. Schlesinger should also have recalled the agreement on free elections. How can the public judge the validity of the Geneva Accords, so often referred to as a possible solution today, if its most basic clauses are not precisely stated?
Schlesinger is on much firmer ground when he attacks the Administration argument that we are legally committed, under SEATO, to defend South Vietnam. He cites the Dulles testimony at the original SEATO hearings in November '54: "If there is a revolutionary movement in Vietnam or Thailand, we would consult together … but we have no undertaking to put it down: all we have is an undertaking to consult." He also cites the transcript of August 1964, of the Senate Foreign Relations hearings, when Rusk testified: "We are not acting specifically under the SEATO Treaty." And Senator Morse's statement that Rusk had twice told the Committee, in Executive Session, "that we are not acting in Vietnam under SEATO."
Schlesinger succeeds in angering hawks and doves both in his argument about the validity of our involvement in Vietnam. First, he knocks down the SEATO commitment argument, stating that "No President of the US before President Johnson interpreted the SEATO Treaty as compelling American military intervention, and no other signatory so interprets the treaty today … [it] is an exercise in historical and legal distortion." Having shot down the hawks' favorite argument he then shoots at the doves by arguing that Eisenhower's offer of economic aid to Diem plus the special protocol of SEATO "did draw a line across Southeast Asia," and that, although this did not "in any legal way compel American military intervention," it did, "in a political way," involve the United States in holding that line. In other words, Schlesinger feels the intervention was not legal, it involved "no vital strategic interest," but it was drawn, "for better or for worse," and "we must deal with the situation that exists."
The best and most important chapters are II to VI, some fifty pages of tightly written, finely reasoned answers to the most fundamental questions that Americans are asking more and more insistently. These chapters are entitled: "What We Did There," "Where We Are Now," "The Price We Are Paying," "The Roots of Our Trouble," and "Is China the Enemy in Vietnam?" Briefly these are Schlesinger's answers:
What We Did There
Eisenhower on Dulles advice, offered South Vietnam's Premier Diem economic aid, on condition that he carry out political and economic reforms. He took the aid but not the advice. Kennedy then increased the number of our "advisors," less than 1,000 under Eisenhower, to 10,000 and gave them arms and authorized them to shoot back if fired at. Schlesinger, a devotee of Kennedy, puts the blame for the escalation on General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow and absolves Kennedy. He is less considerate of Eisenhower and Johnson. He blames them, not their advisors.
Where We Are Now
Johnson took the final decisive plunge over the brink increasing Kennedy's 10,000 advisors by geometric proportions to 25,000, 75,000, 150,000, 400,000, now on the way to a half million. He carried the war from the ground to the air, from the South to the North, from purely conventional weapons to chemical weapons, napalm, fire bombs and defoliation bombs, practically everything short of A-weapons. We are, says Schlesinger, carrying out "the physical obliteration of the nation" in the course of protecting it. Schlesinger wonders "what other country, seeing the devastation we have wrought in Vietnam, will wish American protection?" Finally he wonders whether we are really fighting to save the Vietnamese, or "are we doing it for less exalted purposes of our own?"
The Price We Are Paying
At the time Schlesinger was writing, the war was costing a billion-and-a-half dollars a month. Since he closed his book it has shot up over two billion a month. "Everything is grinding to a stop" in domestic programs, Schlesinger asserts. He states that Johnson was on his way to "a place in history as a great President, for his vision of a Great Society; but the Great Society is now, except for token gestures, dead." We are estranged from our allies, divided among ourselves, putting great strains upon the loyalty of a wonderful new generation of American youth, risking a revival of McCarthyism, weakening our economy, infecting the body politic.
The Roots of Our Trouble
We have been imprisoned by "old illusions—the illusion of American omnipotence and the illusion of American omniscience." Johnson does not have the "knack for discrimination in his use of power." "His greatest weakness is his susceptibility to overkill." "The appearance of flimflam showmanship and manipulation in Washington has created a crisis of credibility from which it may take the nation a long time to recover."
Is China the Enemy in Vietnam?
Schlesinger charges that, "hovering behind our policy is a larger idea," that this is a "fateful test of wills between China and the United States." The proof that the real enemy is China, advanced by "our leaders," is, in Schlesinger's view, "exceedingly sketchy and almost perfunctory." Most of the countries directly threatened by Chinese expansion—Russia, Japan and India—"apparently do not accept it" (the proof, that is). We have not understood that communism is not monolithic but polycentric, which is why we profess to see China as the real reason for revolution in Vietnam.
Schlesinger points up the absurdities of official analogies between Southeast Asia and aggressions in Manchuria by the Japanese or Czechoslovakia by Hitler. Vietnam will "not be solved by bad historical analogies," Schlesinger insists. He states that "the containment of China will be a major problem for the next generation," but wisely warns us against confusing "the prevention of Chinese aggression with the suppression of nationalist revolution."
Schlesinger's natural allies among those who oppose Administration policy in Vietnam will find excellent documentation and argument to serve their cause in the five chapters cited above. They will also respond warmly and gratefully to his closing chapter on American democracy and his plea to "preserve mutual trust among ourselves as Americans." It is these chapters that make one hope that this valuable, if uneven, essay will enjoy the widest possible circulation. It comes so close to being exactly the right book, at the right length, by the right man, whose byline commands national attention and respect, that it is altogether lamentable to find in the very heart of the essay—his proposals for a solution, "A Middle Course"—so many grounds for controversy not only with the hawks but with the doves. Perhaps Schlesinger is right to stop flying around and propose a middle ground on which to alight. But his middle ground proposals suffer from the weakness of most middle-of-the-road ideas: they please neither side. And he puts his proposals in such a manner as to provoke angry argument.
For example, Schlesinger, having disposed of the spurious legal argument that we are committed under SEATO, goes on to say that we have taken "moral obligations" to those South Vietnamese who, because of collaboration with us, would be imprisoned or suffer "death" if the Viet Cong should take over South Vietnam by force. Many Americans would not agree that the Administration has committed us all morally to its errors. Many remember that this same argument was long used by the French to justify their refusal to pull out of Algeria. But, were there mass arrests and killings when the French left Algeria? There were not. There is also another alternative which he does not even mention. Those who were most marked by collaboration with us can be offered asylum by us rather than our having to commit more men to fight and die because an error has been made.
There are many flaws of this kind in his reasoning, but the most glaring and controversial is Schlesinger's treatment of the question of our bombing North Vietnam. He impressively reviews all the arguments and demonstrates that the bombing is not only cruel, inhuman, destructive of those we are trying to protect, but that it is basically futile as a military means of winning the war or even bringing about a negotiation. Having proved that, does he therefore conclude that we should stop bombing? No, Schlesinger concludes: "Let us therefore taper off the bombing of the north as prudently as we can." Basically, Schlesinger proposes a general tapering-off: a reduction of bombing, a de-escalation which is, "of course, something a good deal less than withdrawal." He proposes recognition of the Viet Cong as a legitimate indigenous group entitled to share in an interim regime that would prepare for elections after a negotiated truce, but says that they must first lay down their arms and open their territories. He suggests generous amnesty provisions such as those "which worked so well in the Philippines"—where the communists were defeated. He approves the theories of Generals Ridgway and Gavin who argue that "it is possible to slow down a war without standing still." Finally, he suggests that we should accept a "neutralization under international guarantee," as our "long-run objective in Vietnam." Unfortunately this last proposal is glossed over in a very few words without any attempt to make a strong, thoughtful case for neutralization. That is the main trouble of this chapter's reprint of the New York Times article in which it was originally published. It is sometimes brilliantly but often too briefly argued. It goes too far to placate the hawks and not far enough to satisfy the doves.
Most of us, it seems to me from frequent traveling and lecturing across the nation, are confused, worried and frustrated by the war in Vietnam. The majority lies between the hawks and the doves. Whether this middle group will find a new place to stand in Schlesinger's middle ground is a question that can only be answered if and when millions of citizens read his book. One can always argue with and try to perfect an excellent presentation. Without one, nothing can be done. This is so very good a presentation that it is a pleasure to be able to argue with it, to hope for its great success and, eventually, a more thorough, bolder advance by Arthur Schlesinger, a man who has already served his country well and has made a valuable contribution to liberal democracy.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1689
SOURCE: "Downward the Course of Empire," in The New Yorker, Vol. XLIX, No. 42, December 10, 1973, pp. 190, 193-94, 196.
[Rovere collaborated with Schlesinger on The General and the President and the Future of American Foreign Policy (1951). In the following review, he examines Schlesinger's The Imperial Presidency, commending his thoroughness and commenting on his blatant democratic partisanship.]
No other American institution has held as much fascination for either Americans or foreigners as the Presidency. In its Constitutional and separation-of-powers setting, it is an American invention. Though certain attributes of it have been put to use elsewhere, it is still uniquely American. Perhaps it has already seen its best days, but it has endured and worked well for by far the better part of two centuries. "Not many Presidents have been brilliant," Lord Bryce wrote in 1921. "Some have not risen to the full moral height of the position. But none has been base or unfaithful to his trust, and none has tarnished the honor of the nation." Warren G. Harding became President that year, and if the former British Ambassador had written a bit later he might have added a few words to this judgment. It is doubtful, though, whether the case of Harding would have led to any significant alteration of that judgment. What Bryce wrote a half century ago expressed the opinion of most students of the office until at least the late sixties. Far more than any other aspect of the American polity, the Presidency has been under constant scrutiny—hence Watergate—since the early days of the Republic, and it has been the subject of a truckload or two of books, nearly all of them admiring. Yet during the last years of Lyndon Johnson and the first five of Richard Nixon, things have changed greatly, and generalizations by the hundred have been undermined. In domestic affairs, Johnson rose in moral stature, but this was no compensation for the evil that he did in foreign affairs. Bryce's "base" may be rather too strong a word to characterize the motivations of these two men (though a good many Americans have used much stronger terms of condemnation), yet the honor of the nation has been tarnished—not for good and all, one may hope, but for the better part of a decade, and in particularly ugly ways.
After Harding died and Bryce wrote, the cult of the Presidency flourished again, despite pedestrian performances by Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, and no American celebrated the office more enthusiastically than the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who, when he was a very young man, wrote a laudatory account of the stewardship of Andrew Jackson. Then, some years later, he went on to produce three volumes of a still uncompleted work in praise of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and followed that with a lengthy account of the brief tenure of John F. Kennedy, in whose Administration he served. Though never a cultist in the true sense and almost always judicious as a chronicler, Schlesinger has probably had more to say than anyone else in praise of the Constitutional arrangements that provide, with a certain amount of elasticity, the powers of the Presidency; it is therefore most fitting that Richard Nixon's career in the White House and on beaches here and there should be examined by Schlesinger, and it is reassuring to find him several times conceding some of the errors of his own earlier generalizations. In his The Imperial Presidency, there are more mea culpas than are to be found in the works of many professional historians. This book, which, like several of its predecessors, is huge and compact, can serve as both a history of the Presidency—particularly the role it has played in wars and foreign policy—and an almost up-to-the-minute study of the present regime. When he gets to Nixon, however, the author spends nearly as much time on domestic as he does on foreign affairs.
Schlesinger is, as he always has been, at once partisan and judicious, and he gives one the feeling that his distaste for the character and methods of Nixon would be about the same even if they were ideological twins and co-chairmen of Americans for Democratic Action, though he is a good deal more generous and impersonal than most severe critics of Nixon. He concludes that "Nixon's Presidency was not an aberration but a culmination"—a judgment that, I expect, a good many readers will be unable to accept. The opinion, though, grows out of the stress Schlesinger places on foreign affairs. The word "imperial" in his title is basic to his view of what has happened over the years. Most of the conflicts between the Executive and the Legislative have in one way or another been related to the roles assigned each on war and foreign policy by the Constitution; it has been the tendency of Presidents almost from the start to place a broad construction on their powers of military command and diplomatic negotiation, while Congress has done the same thing with its control over expenditures and the Senate's powers of advice and, more notably, consent. In the early days these conflicts led to some heated disputes, but we were a distinctly minor power for a century, and such threats to our "security" as there were came mostly from powers that were even more minor or, if major, remote. Meanwhile, though, we were growing in strength, and just before the start of this century the word "imperial" became us. Wilson, the second Roosevelt, and those who followed after Roosevelt had troubles that involved at least some of the issues that have bedevilled Nixon. The language of the Constitution is on the whole admirable, but it is almost two centuries old, and in two centuries not only the country but the precise meaning of words has changed in many respects. For example, the Constitution accords the House the authority to "declare" war, but it is not altogether clear whether "declare" means to initiate war or to "declare," in the sense of "acknowledge," the existence of a state of hostilities. Over such matters there have been several polite tussles and some less than polite ones, but until lately, according to Schlesinger, they were, with the assistance of large-minded men from the third branch, the Judiciary, worked out in the spirit of an old-fashioned word that Schlesinger seems determined to restore to everyday usage—"comity." (I doubt whether any other book published in recent years has used the word as frequently as this one does. A somewhat coarser and more snobbish phrase, "gentlemen's agreement," is closer to today's fashion.) Schlesinger does the language as well as history a service by insisting on comity as the spirit that has so far kept the Constitution alive instead of becoming the series of mere "parchment barriers" that Madison feared it would become unless it embodied the spirit of the people and held their respect. And Schlesinger holds that many of Nixon's shortcomings are the result of his failure to understand the comity and civility that have been essential to making the system function satisfactorily. He not only lacked them himself but staffed almost the entire executive branch with men who were not necessarily less honest or competent than professional politicians but who had not come to understand that ignoring certain rules by which the game is played can make the separation of powers unworkable.
In an uncharacteristic mood of near-despair, Schlesinger, who would like very much to see Nixon out of office, examines the ways in which he could be forced or induced to clear out, and finds all of them lacking. He favors impeachment—the "genius" of which, he says, is to be found in the "fact that it could punish the man without punishing the office"—but he would rather not try it than try it and have it fail, and he is afraid that Nixon has so arranged things that he is sheltered from charges of deliberate complicity in any of the crimes of which the Administration and various of its members have been accused: either he has not been directly involved or, realizing the dangers of complicity, he has destroyed the evidence that would be needed for conviction. Moreover, regarding the Administration as a culmination rather than an aberration, Schlesinger thinks what should be sent to the cleaners is not merely one branch of our government but most of our public and private institutions, which have been for some time in a state of decline that made Nixon inevitable. It is an odd approach, and I, for one, cannot go along with it: Vietnam has been a demoralizing influence, and may in the end prove, particularly since it was so swiftly followed by Watergate, to have been thoroughly destructive. But Schlesinger, like his eminent father, is a cyclical theorist, and he notes that corruption on a grand scale has a way of turning up in our society every fifty years—1823, 1873, 1923, 1973. This seems at odds with his belief that Nixon is a kind of Spenglerian phenomenon, and he offers no evidence that the institutions he finds to be in advanced decay right now will have rejuvenated themselves sufficiently to be ready for another ride down the slippery slope in 2023. Moreover, he feels that Watergate—the investigation, not the developments under investigation—is the best thing that has happened in a long time, since it has alerted us to the wickedness all about us. (Applying his numerology, he writes, "Around the year 2023 the American people would be well advised to … start nailing down everything in sight.") But he fails to point out that the corruption of Watergate was on a scale never before known, and its chastening effect could be on a similar scale. At the moment, there seems to be an opportunity for death and an opportunity for revival.
The foregoing should not suggest that this is a book heavy with speculation and prophecy. What there is of that comes at the very end, and some, though not all, of it is in a spirit of playfulness. This is a work of substantial historical scholarship written with lucidity, charm, and wit.
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SOURCE: "Politics by Other Means," in Saturday Review/World, Vol. 1, No. 15, April 6, 1974, pp. 25-7.
[Kirkpatrick is a former professor of political science and American ambassador to the United Nations. In the following review of The Imperial Presidency, Kirkpatrick finds that Schlesinger's analysis of the expansion of the power of the president of the United States lacks balance and is clouded by his political loyalties.]
We move quickly in America from political conflict to constitutional controversy. The authority and ambiguity of the Constitution encourage recourse to its provisions to strengthen an argument or to prove a point. Since no given division of powers can be proved to be exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind, dissatisfaction with incumbents is readily translated into dissatisfaction with the balance of power among the branches of government. Not only does constitutional debate seem more serious, more elevated, than simple criticism of personalities, but also the constitutional argument can be made to reinforce the case against particular incumbents. Thus, in the Thirties liberals were not content to excoriate the conservative judges who found the New Deal unconstitutional; they also questioned whether the Constitution had really given the Supreme Court the power to review statutes passed by the representatives of the people, and they proposed reforms ranging from packing the court to outlawing judicial review. Three decades later it was conservatives, stimulated by the "permissive" decisions of the Warren court, who worried about the judicial usurpation of legislative power. We are witnessing today a comparable shift in attitudes toward the presidency. Liberals, who for decades were articulate champions of presidential power, have become increasingly sensitive to the dangers of concentrating power in the executive department, while conservatives, long jealous of executive encroachments on congressional power, have lately opposed bills that aim to limit presidential initiative in foreign affairs. The Nixon presidency has won more liberals to the cause of legislative supremacy than have all the constitutional arguments of the century.
Arthur Schlesinger, longtime friend and warm supporter of presidential power, understands this very well, but the knowledge does not inhibit him. In his new book, The Imperial Presidency, Schlesinger argues that presidential power has finally been so expanded and abused that it threatens the constitutional system. Richard Nixon, he asserts, "… not only had an urgent psychological need for exemption from the democratic process. He also boldly sensed a historical opportunity to transform the presidency—to consolidate within the White House all the powers, as against Congress, as against the electorate, as against the rest of the executive branch itself, that a generation of foreign and domestic turbulence had chaotically delivered to the presidency."
Nixon, Schlesinger argues, not only expanded presidential power in the manner of many of his predecessors but also usurped power, violating the requirements for separation of powers, threatening to replace constitutional government with executive autocracy. To prove his case, he goes where everyone concerned with the proper distribution of power in American government must go—back to the Founding Fathers.
It is not hard to demonstrate that the farsighted, creative men who wrote the Constitution feared the concentration and abuse of political power and took pains to devise a political system which divided power vertically, between the states and national government, and horizontally, among the branches of the latter. Nor is it difficult to trace the expansion of presidential power through successive more or less real emergencies, more or less clear and present dangers. Edward S. Corwin's masterful work on the office and powers of the President (much cited by Schlesinger) broke this ground several decades ago. Schlesinger warns us in the foreword that much of his material is "a thrice-told tale" but feels that it provides the necessary context for the consideration of contemporary problems. Of course, Schlesinger does not merely recount constitutional history; he selects, interprets, and judges.
Bertrand Russell once noted that all the observation and experimentation of animal behavior had produced few surprises because "one may say broadly that all the animals that have been carefully observed have behaved so as to confirm the philosophy in which the observer believed before his observations began." So it is with Schlesinger's Presidents. Those whom we knew to be his heroes—especially Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy—fare very well in this new recapitulation of the development of the presidency. And vice versa. It is not entirely clear why this should be the case. Franklin Roosevelt was hardly a strict constructionist. Instead, he combined an expansive conception of presidential powers with a nearly total disdain for the Supreme Court and its constitutional requirements. The famous "destroyer deal," undertaken in May 1940 in disregard of an explicit congressional injunction against providing matériel to belligerents, may have been desirable and farsighted, but Corwin was probably right when he called it "an endorsement of unrestrained autocracy in the field of our foreign relations." (At least those new converts to strict construction, Senators Fulbright and Church, think so.) Schlesinger, who is especially concerned that Presidents should not have the power to involve the nation in war, justifies as legitimate uses of emergency powers the "destroyer deal" and a series of subsequent unilateral presidential initiatives that took the United States to the edge of war. He does not apply to Roosevelt's acts the tests by which he judges Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Nixon guilty of the illegitimate use of emergency powers.
The judgment merits scrutiny. However monstrous, Hitler in early 1940 did not constitute a "sudden," "direct," or "immediate" threat to the United States. In issuing the "shoot on sight" orders to our convoys, Roosevelt did not act "in the case of a neighboring country or an imminent invasion of the United States." In early 1940 it was Britain whose life was threatened, not the United States. The purpose of these remarks is not to suggest that Roosevelt was wrong, but to recall that in the year-and-a-half before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt, claiming emergency powers in a situation in which the survival of the nation was not immediately threatened, repeatedly took actions that risked involving the nation in war and took them, moreover, without consulting or accurately informing a Congress which would certainly have disapproved. Schlesinger's willingness to accept Roosevelt's justification for these and later unilateral claims of presidential power illustrates the flexibility of his criteria.
Indeed Schlesinger applies not a double standard but a whole host of standards in approving and disapproving Presidents' behavior. Though very tough on other coldwar Presidents, he hardly glances at John F. Kennedy. The Bay of Pigs, a clear-cut case of unilateral presidential action that might have involved the nation in war, is brusquely dismissed with a reference to the prevailing atmosphere. That atmosphere, incidentally, had some curious characteristics. Almost no one seems to have been himself. Congress was "mesmerized" by the "supposed need for instant responses," and Congress and the executive alike accepted executive supremacy "as if under hypnosis." This hypnosis hypothesis contributes a fascinating new dimension to our understanding of how "the best and the brightest" made so many mistakes in those years. Otherwise, Schlesinger finds Kennedy's action in the Cuban missile crisis an example of the justified and successful use of emergency powers.
Kennedy is the only one of the post-World War II Presidents who on this reading is not found guilty of having arrogated new powers to the presidency. Even Eisenhower, when he finally got around to resisting Joe McCarthy's guerrilla war on the executive departments, made new claims—"the most absolute assertion of presidential right to withhold information from Congress ever uttered to that day in American history." Korea "beguiled" Truman into making, and Congress into accepting, "an unprecedented claim for inherent presidential power to go to war." Meanwhile the Taft-Coudert Amendment, which prohibited committing U.S. troops abroad "in advance of aggression solely by executive decision," was beaten back by such presidential liberals as Paul Douglas, J. W. Fulbright, Herbert Lehman, Wayne Morse.
Under Lyndon Johnson, violation and distortion of the Constitution proceeded apace. John Kennedy's dispatch of 16,000 American "advisers" to Vietnam "took place under familiar arrangements for military assistance based on congressional legislation and appropriation," and so created no problem even though a good many of these "advisers" found their way into combat. But "there were no serious precedents" for Johnson's decision to send 22,000 combat troops and to start bombing without a declaration of war by Congress. "There was of course the Tonkin Gulf resolution, rushed through Congress in August 1964 in a stampede of misinformation and misconception, if not of deliberate deception." But Johnson, Schlesinger confides, "did not believe for a moment that the resolution provided the legal basis for his action."
Schlesinger does not doubt that Johnson could have had a declaration of war for the asking, but he does not give him any credit for the desire to limit the conflict by not formally declaring war and "scaring the hell out of the people."
Bad as they were, Johnson's offenses pale beside those of his successor. For Schlesinger, Watergate is only the symptom of a much more serious constitutional crisis. Schlesinger's Nixon is a "genuine revolutionary" bent on transforming the American system of government by checks and balances into a plebiscitary presidentialist regime with himself cast as Louis Napoleon or Charles de Gaulle. Watergate symbolizes the revolutionary presidency, the theory of presidential power that places the President above the Constitution.
It is easy enough to demonstrate that Richard Nixon has attempted to arrogate new, objectionable, and probably unconstitutional powers to the presidency. But, in a context that stresses the progressive concentration of powers in the chief executive and the questionable actions of his predecessors, it is not easy to demonstrate that Nixon is a "revolutionary." There is also the problem of the relationship between the "imperial presidency," which the author tells us was "essentially a creation of foreign policy," and the "revolutionary presidency," which presumably is the creation of the present incumbent. Sometimes the terms are used as if synonymous. Perhaps the explanation is that Schlesinger's distress with the Nixon administration has led him to exaggerate when he calls Nixon a revolutionary. Perhaps he means to say that Nixon's new claims accelerated the trend to executive autocracy and that the cumulative impact on the system of concentrating so much power in the presidency has produced a constitutional crisis.
Certainly Schlesinger's distress is acute. He deplores Nixon's staff, his style, his policies. He reproaches Nixon for constitutional offenses: attempting to circumvent the will of Congress by impoundment, abusing executive privileges, continuing the war in Vietnam after the repeal of the Tonkin Gulf resolution, conducting an air war in Cambodia after the withdrawal of American troops. He holds him squarely responsible for the criminal offenses of his subordinates. He reproaches him for his solitary habits; for his immoderate concern with leaks; for his tendency to see enemies everywhere, to exaggerate dangers, to misuse "national security"; for his choice of a cabinet; for his expansion of the White House staff; and above all for his debasement of the White House ethos ("this was not the White House we had known"). Repeatedly Schlesinger raises the question, Has not the time come for impeachment? His answer: "Only condign punishment would restore popular faith in the presidency and deter future Presidents from illegal conduct." Laws limiting presidential authority will not solve the problem and might, furthermore, have the undesirable effect of limiting some future Roosevelt. Only impeachment, as object lesson as well as punishment, can make Watergate "the best thing to have happened to the presidency in a long time." That, plus the reinvigoration of Congress and the people, would ensure us against the revolutionary presidency—provided that we also elect the right sort of man to the office.
Writing books (like making war) may be a continuation of politics by other means. This is a political book written to influence the way we feel and think about the current scene. It is as timely as the moment, and the passion of the author adds zest to his writing. But the fact that Arthur Schlesinger is one of the most prolific and honored historians of the period does not make this a scholarly work. Schlesinger is also a political man who has strong views and a personal stake in many of the events of our times.
His antipathy for Richard Nixon is of long standing and great intensity. It leads him to some omissions, some hyperbole, some purple prose, and some unfair argument. To describe the establishment of a volunteer army as though there had been no popular discontent with the draft, no clamor in Congress for its end, as though the whole policy derived from Nixon's desire to "solve the problem of the undependable army" and "liberate Presidents for a wider range of foreign adventure," is to engage in fantasy. So is the suggestion that price and wage controls were undertaken as a way to gain "even more power."
To imply that if it were functioning properly, the U.S. government would more nearly resemble the Fourth, rather than the Fifth, French Republic is quite simply incredible. To assert that the American middle class was unconcerned about the Indochina war "as long as the Americans killing and dying in Vietnam were sons of poor whites and poor blacks" is an unhistorical calumny (albeit a fashionable one). To argue that the Tonkin Gulf resolution did not constitute congressional authorization for the Vietnam war but that its repeal made the war less legal is farfetched.
The list could easily be extended, but its only purpose is to illustrate what a knowledgeable reader will readily see for himself: that, in The Imperial Presidency, Arthur Schlesinger is writing as a partisan of a particular interpretation of recent times. Some Nixon haters will love this book, and supporters of the Nixon cause (if such remain) will scorn it. Persons seeking a balanced discussion of the presidency are advised to look elsewhere.
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SOURCE: A review of Robert Kennedy and His Times, in The New York Times Book Review, November 12, 1978, pp. 7, 54, 56.
[Wills is an American syndicated columnist and the author of books on such widely diverse subjects as Jack Ruby, race relations in America, and G. K. Chesterton. He is probably best known for his incisive political commentaries, especially those contained in his Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of a Self-Made Man (1970) and Confessions of a Conservative (1979). A critic of both the American liberal and conservative establishments, Wills has been described by one critic as "an undogmatic conservative who is ready to let his experiences influence his conclusions" and who is "cheerfully resigned to being a singular conservative, a renegade in the eyes of others who crowd under that rubric." In the following review of Schlesinger's Robert Kennedy and His Times, Wills praises Schlesinger's presentation of the complexities of Robert Kennedy's character and milieu.]
[In Robert Kennedy and His Times] Arthur Schlesinger has a kind of proprietary right to this subject. He was the craftsman of the framework within which Kennedys have been most often studied—the claim that Kennedys mature late; but that the maturity, when it comes, is spectacular. That was the theme of the books appearing just after Robert Kennedy's death. Authors like Jack Newfield, David Halberstam, Jules Witcover, William vanden Heuvel and Milton Gwirtzman granted that there had been a "ruthless" edge on the younger Robert Kennedy, but they maintained that tragedy and experience had mellowed, had deepened him by the time tragedy claimed him. Unfortunately for that thesis, Mr. Kennedy's last political act was to launch the charge at Eugene McCarthy in their television debate before the California primary: "You say you are going to take ten thousand black people and move them into Orange County." The authors I mention muted this problem by neglecting to quote the sentence. Mr. Schlesinger, to his credit, not only quotes it but adds: "This sounded, and was, demagogic." One comes to respect Mr. Schlesinger's confidence that Robert Kennedy does not need special pleading. All Kennedy critics are quoted frequently and fairly. The challenging, somewhat prickly charm of Mr. Kennedy is by this means more forcibly conveyed than in more protective works.
The last part of Mr. Schlesinger's title, referring to "His Times," is as important as the treatment of Mr. Kennedy's own character. He takes this opportunity to rewrite, in large part, his version of the Kennedy Presidency in A Thousand Days. A great deal more is known than when he wrote his 1964 history of Camelot. Squalid characters from the C.I.A. and the under world now move among the knights and princesses. Names like Judith Exner and Sam Giancana must be included, and Mr. Schlesinger does not balk at his duty. The Church Committee's findings are drawn on, along with material released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The C.I.A. findings are important in a biography of Robert Kennedy, because Mr. Schlesinger recognizes that the Attorney General, after the Bay of Pigs, became the principal cheerleader for Operation Mongoose, the campaign of terror and sabotage directed at Castro. Mr. Kennedy's own notes of a White House meeting on Nov. 4, 1961, present his determination: "My idea is to stir things up on island with espionage, sabotage, general disorder, run & operated by Cubans themselves with every group but Batistaites & Communists. Do not know if we will be successful in overthrowing Castro but we have nothing to lose in my estimate."
Two months later, Mr. Kennedy met with the C.I.A. organizers of Mongoose and told them their work was "top priority," that "no time, money, effort—or manpower—be spared." Chemicals to incapacitate sugar workers were discussed, and the encouragement of "gangster elements" in Cuba. When an opportunity for reassessment arose, Mr. Kennedy wrote: "I am in favor of pushing ahead rather than taking any step back." Mr. Schlesinger concludes that Mr. Kennedy wanted Mongoose to unleash "the terrors of the earth" on Cuba because "Castro was high on his list of emotions." Like others, Mr. Schlesinger can find no direct evidence that Mr. Kennedy knew of the assassination plots against Castro. But the C.I.A. was being urged to acts of secret war that involved killing; it probably felt authorized by what Mr. Schlesinger calls "a driven sense in the administration that someone ought to be doing something to make life difficult for Castro." "Mongoose was poorly conceived and wretchedly executed. It deserved greatly to fail. It was Robert Kennedy's most conspicuous folly."
The one place where Mr. Schlesinger seems to hedge a bit on the evidence is his treatment of the missile crisis. A Thousand Days, preceding Mr. Kennedy's own book on that crisis (Thirteen Days), could report Robert's private pledge to remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey after a decent interval ("I mentioned four or five months"), so long as this was never presented as a quid pro quo. Mr. Schlesinger thinks this offer invalidates the argument (of I. F. Stone and others) that President Kennedy did not, as he claimed, "make every effort to find peace and every effort to give our adversary room to move." But the Russians knew as well as Americans that the Turkish missiles were obsolete (they had already been recalled, but the order had not gone into effect). The missiles' bargaining potential was only as a "quid pro quo" that would allow Russia to back off with better grace; their withdrawal sacrificed nothing, militarily, on our part. Robert Kennedy quotes his brother as saying, "I am not going to push the Russians an inch beyond what is necessary." But in risking nuclear war rather than admit the private deal he was making, John Kennedy pushed them hard indeed, and backed up that push with an arbitrary deadline of 48 hours. Mr. Schlesinger tried to defend the deadline as prompted by fear that nuclear warheads might be delivered to Cuba within that period. But it was not known for sure that they had not been delivered, or that 24 hours one way or the other made any difference.
Mr. Schlesinger's difficulties in this area are complicated by the fact that his own Watergate-era book, The Imperial Presidency denounces secret Presidential pledges as a device of executive diplomacy. To say that Mr. Kennedy did make a deal on the missiles (and so was being pacific), he has to admit what critics like Richard Nixon accused Mr. Kennedy of—some secret concession. The Kennedy Administration, when it denied that charge, was both usurping power and lying about it—the very thing Mr. Schlesinger's Imperial Presidency finds distasteful in the Nixon Administration. Mr. Schlesinger nods warily to "those who think that no President would ever make a secret commitment," slips into the supposition that "perhaps there may be a place for secret diplomacy," then sprints hopefully toward the conclusion that "the missile crisis was a triumph, perhaps the only triumph of flexible response." Mr. Gwirtzman and Mr. vanden Heuvel say that Robert Kennedy considered the missile crisis his finest hour, and Mr. Schlesinger makes it clear that Mr. Kennedy took a stand far more sensible than that of his own hero, Maxwell Taylor. But Mr. Kennedy joined others in "jumping on" Adlai Stevenson for proposing an open bargain of Turkish missiles for those on Cuba.
There is no denying that Robert Kennedy was fierce in his enmities—toward, Roy Cohn, Jimmy Hoffa, Lyndon Johnson, Eugene McCarthy; or that he personalized struggles, even at the highest policy level (as in turning the C.I.A. loose to get Castro.) He was also fierce in his loyalties, and paradoxically, fiercer in tenderness. Mr. Schlesinger quotes Shirley MacLaine on the way his "psychic violence" produced gentleness. Mr. Kennedy had the scrapper's instinct for underdogs, and a restless desire to know about the different forms of human suffering. All these aspects of the man are captured in this learned and thorough, balanced yet affectionate book. I don't know if Mr. Schlesinger is right about the gradual but inevitable improvement of Kennedys with age; but his own books about Kennedys keep getting better. The one on Edward, when he gets around to it, should be a gem.
Mr. Schlesinger is most admirable in his restraint when it comes to the "might-have-beens" of 1968. Others indulge the hope that Mr. Kennedy could have made sense of that year's chaos—won his party's nomination and the Presidency, ended the Vietnam war and brought us peace, with ourselves as well as other nations. I doubt all that, for reasons strengthened by a reading of Mr. Schlesinger. People do not want to remember how torn and angry the nation was; and Robert Kennedy polarized, at his best as well as his worst. The war was losing popularity in 1968, but the critics of the war were losing popularity more dramatically. Mr. Nixon and Mr. Wallace, between them, took a landslide number of votes.
Mr. Kennedy was not popular in the South because of his civil rights achievements as Attorney General. He would have been even less popular when he arrived there trailing his antiwar "kids." And no Kennedy would move in 1968 without Mayor Daley. Through all his in-again-out-again lunges and withdrawls of 1968, Mr. Kennedy thought constantly of Mr. Daley, consulted and cultivated him. How would he be able to keep Mr. Daley and keep his kids?
President Johnson's anger and will to sabotage would have been something on an entirely different scale with Mr. Kennedy than it was with Hubert Humphrey's late not-quite rebellion.
To say Mr. Kennedy could not have put the nation together again in 1968 is less an indictment of him than of the nation. Richard Nixon actually looked moderate between the kids of Mr. McCarthy and the anti-kids of George Wallace.
Mr. Schlesinger, an adviser during the time when Mr. Kennedy felt drawn both to run and to withdraw, reflects the dragon flying of his spirit as new depths paradoxically tossed him on the surface. The feckless gestures to Mr. McCarthy, the meetings where Edward Kennedy said "I don't know what we are meeting about," the insomniac pacing of Mr. Kennedy from those he wanted to urge him on and those he wanted to hold him back—all show that the man of narrower earlier focus was giving way to a freedom that felt the chaos but made him helpless to handle it with Mr. Nixon's nasty efficiency.
Mr. Kennedy had become a person gulping at delayed knowledge with an almost haunted ferocity. Some of the signs looked like delayed adolescence—the Tennyson quotes, and sudden tears; the maudlin use of post-Camelotisms. "His favorite song—one heard it so often blaring from some unseen source in his New York apartment—was 'The Impossible Dream.'" This was the Kennedy who slandered Mr. McCarthy while he envied him, who wondered if there was not something to Adlai Stevenson after all. Death did not take away a successful candidate in 1968, but something more interesting.
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SOURCE: "Man in the Middle: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Postwar American Liberalism," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 80, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 119-38.
[In the following excerpt, Engelhardt examines Schlesinger's concept of liberalism as it is developed in many of his writings, contending that Schlesinger, by maintaining a centrist position, has tried to value "realism more than idealism." Yet, Engelhardt argues, "by stressing the role of pragmatic intellectuals, he has made a fetish of empiricism … and has identified too closely with the existing power structure."]
During the 1950's many American intellectuals believed in the exhaustion of political ideology, the pluralist theory of politics, and the consensus interpretation of United States history. As a leading intellectual, Schlesinger not only shared these beliefs, he anticipated them with The Age of Jackson (1945) and The Vital Center (1949), two highly influential works that did much to shape the new liberalism. "Professor Schlesinger," Arthur Mann [in "The Progressive Tradition," The Reconstruction of American History, edited by John Higham, 1962] has said, "writes history as he votes and votes as he writes." Clearly there is a connection between Schlesinger's liberalism, his conception of the intellectual as political activist, and his historical scholarship. Just as he has sought to combine ideas and politics in his career as political commentator, so he has combined intellectual and political history in his studies of the Jackson, Roosevelt, and Kennedy administrations. Narrative history in the grand style, these works are also partisan in extolling the virtues of strong Democratic presidents who, aided by the reform ideas of leading intellectuals, carried on the liberal tradition in America. Schlesinger's choice of historical subjects is significant because it reveals his predilection for the charismatic leaders he sees as essential for achieving liberal reforms.
The foreword of The Age of Jackson established the book's contemporary relevance by suggesting that "the world crisis has given new urgency to the question of the 'meaning' of democracy," and by insisting that "the key to that meaning is … to be sought in the concrete record of what democracy has meant in the past." From his study of the concrete record Schlesinger concluded that the tradition of Jefferson and Jackson—and in fact the basic meaning of American liberalism—involved the movement on the part of other sections of society to restrain the power of the business community. He emphasized the role of eastern intellectuals and labor reformers in giving intellectual coherence to the demands of the common man for social change. Faced with the new problems of industrial development, the Jacksonians, a coalition of reformers and the disadvantaged groups of society, rejected the antistatism of Jeffersonian tradition and resorted to a strong president and government intervention to restore relative economic equality among the classes of the country. Thus the Jacksonians were pragmatic realists who recognized the basic issue of power: the need for a liberal government strong enough to resist the demands of the business community. In response to this realistic revision of liberalism some orthodox Jeffersonians were so committed to their agrarian, antistatist ideology that they abandoned the Jacksonian cause and condemned themselves to political irrelevance, a sin which pointed up the dangers of ideological commitment and which Schlesinger could not forgive in Jackson's time or his own.
For Schlesinger the historical lessons of Jacksonianism to contemporary liberals were clear. To preserve democracy and achieve social justice, liberals must be pragmatic, nonideological, and have a realistic view of human nature. Although supporting strong government to restrain business, they should be pluralists, committed to a multi-interest state, seeking to preserve as much variety within the state as is consistent with energetic action by government. The balance of government, business, and other interests can be achieved not by some rigid ideological system but only by "an earnest, toughminded, pragmatic attempt to wrestle with new problems as they come, without being enslaved by a theory of the past, or a theory of the future." And finally, Schlesinger admonished liberals facing the problems of postwar America to remember that man is neither all brute nor all angel, and that there are no easy solutions to social problems.
Historical scholarship, represented by The Age of Jackson, marked Schlesinger's first step toward redefining American liberalism as the vital center. Two further steps in this process were his participation in the formation in 1947 of Americans for Democratic Action—the organizational expression of centrist liberalism—and the appearance in 1949 of The Vital Center, which provided the intellectual justification for a new liberalism appropriate to the realities of the postwar world. In Schlesinger's view, mid-twentieth-century liberalism required restatement because of three developments: first, the New Deal, which demonstrated the success of pragmatic reforms in making capitalism work; second, the exposure of the Soviet Union, which revealed the excesses of a messianic ideology that sacrificed individuals to its vision of a future utopia; and third, a deepening knowledge of man, which reflected Reinhold Niebuhr's emphasis on sinfulness as a basic quality of human nature. To preserve freedom amidst the terrors of technology that produced the alienation leading to totalitarianism, both the democratic Right and Left must overcome past failures. Because of their close identification with business, American conservatives had neglected their social responsibilities, while liberals' sentimental beliefs in beneficent human nature and automatic social progress had blinded them to the realities of power. Suggesting that a successful defense of the vital center required the cooperation of the democratic Right and Left, Schlesinger was sufficiently skeptical of the extreme right wing of the business community to insist upon a revived liberalism that would reject totalitarian solutions to the problems of industrial societies, reassert its faith in the integrity of the individual, and seek to protect both the liberty and security of individuals through the "mixed system" of the welfare state. Although the vital center must of necessity be both anti-Fascist and anti-Communist, in the book Schlesinger emphasized the latter because it seemed a greater contemporary danger.
In a chapter entitled "The Communist Challenge to America," Schlesinger analyzed the twofold menace: the external threat of Soviet power in the world and the internal threat of Communist subversion from within. Schlesinger attributed the start of the Cold War to Soviet aggression, which he saw rooted in traditional Russian expansionism made more ominous by a dynamic Communist ideology. It was more dangerous because "Communism can rally its fifth columns in any corner of the world where injustice and poverty give it a foothold." Moreover, "nothing less than the entire world can in the end satisfy totalitarian imperialism, for totalitarianism charges imperialism with the fear and frenzy of an ideological crusade…." Given the inherent expansive logic of the Russian system, Schlesinger feared that "tomorrow Soviet power will surely spread everywhere that it meets no firm resistance."
The anxious tone of Schlesinger's rhetoric indicates the temper of postwar liberalism. Obviously liberalism had to become increasingly toughminded to survive. To meet the external threat Schlesinger argued that Soviet expansion could best be checked by the realistic policy of containment (Truman Doctrine) and the idealistic policy of reconstruction (Marshall Plan and Point Four) in both Europe and Asia. It was necessary to build up Western military capabilities to deter the Russians from further aggression acts, but Schlesinger recommended stopping short of outright intimidation because that would only unite the Soviet people behind a totalitarian regime. Schlesinger shared George Kennan's hope that containment of Soviet expansion would eventually generate internal pressures forcing modification of their system. Further, by abandoning colonial imperialism, supporting nationalist movements, and furthering technological progress through programs like the Marshall Plan and Point Four, the West could provide an attractive alternative to communism in the Third World and frustrate its messianic hope for world-wide revolution.
Thus in his initial statement of liberal foreign policy objectives, Schlesinger was at one with the Realist school of American diplomacy in recognizing the necessity for use of power in foreign relations but restrained in his recommended uses for that power. Yet idealism was combined with realism; Schlesinger saw containment as more than a military policy and urged the creation of a non-Communist Left throughout the world to reform the social evils that give communism its toehold in society. The Left must be non-Communist because the Soviets aimed at subverting the independent Left in order to advance the interests of Soviet foreign policy and to destroy existing social systems. Therefore, liberals must exclude Communists from their organizations and regain their "radical nerve," which meant being as progressive, realistic, and toughminded as the Communists. To this end Schlesinger attacked and rejected the sentimentality of the "Dough-face Progressives"—those Popular Front liberals who had supported Henry Wallace in 1948 and who were "fellow travelers" as a consequence. Because of their sentimental belief in progress and their unwarranted optimism about human nature, Schlesinger charged, the Progressives were "soft," "shallow," and "impotent." Because their philosophy did not have room "for the discipline of responsibility or for the danger of power," the Progressives could not be trusted to deal with the internal and external Soviet dangers.
When viewed together it is clear that The Age of Jackson and The Vital Center were both shaped by Schlesinger's revulsion at the ideological excesses of fascism and communism and that both assumed that democratic capitalism, when tempered by realistic reforms, provided an acceptable alternative to totalitarian systems. Both demonstrate Schlesinger's commitment to pluralism by suggesting that competition among several groups is essential for preserving freedom in a democratic-capitalist state. Finally, The Age of Jackson established a reputable political ancestry for the new liberalism articulated in The Vital Center. Thus the new liberalism was not so new; it had deep roots in the American past. Although Schlesinger is seemingly at odds with the consensus school because of his stress on conflict and discontinuity in United States history, these two books show that for him conflict takes place within carefully circumscribed limits and that his discussion of the vital center implies belief in a consensus of opinion on the value of freedom and the continuity of this widely shared commitment from the nation's founding.
Taken by itself The Vital Center indicates that anticommunism has been fundamental to Schlesinger's analysis of the postwar world and his reassessment of American liberalism. His anticommunism was frequently expressed in terms of a hostility to ideological thinking in general. The problem with ideology, according to him, is its rigid and dogmatic abstraction from the untidy reality of human experience. He insists that the most vital American social thought has been empirical and pragmatic and that American liberalism has functioned best when it has been open to a variety of ideas and has avoided hardening into an ideology. To provide a respectable philosophical pedigree for the new liberalism's hostility to ideology, Schlesinger appealed to the ideas of William James and Reinhold Niebuhr. Following James he insisted that liberals must be empirical and pragmatic because social reality is complex and constantly changing; empiricism and pragmatism are methods which keep liberals free from frozen ideological patterns of thought, enable them to test their ideas against experience, and allow them to keep abreast of the changing world. Schlesinger credited Niebuhr's combination of political pragmatism and Christian theology with reshaping postwar liberal thought and acknowledged his own intellectual debt to Niebuhrian assumptions about the mixed nature of man, the necessity of power and dangers of moral absolutes in politics, and the impossibility of achieving social utopia.
Given his hostility to ideology, it is ironic that Schlesinger's defense of centrist liberalism as a "fighting faith" constituted an ideology in Karl Mannheim's classic definition of the term [Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia]. During the 1950's it came to represent the dominant outlook of most American intellectuals, and in their hands it became an interest-bound defense of existing United States society as an acceptable alternative to communism and fascism. Borrowing insights from neoorthodoxy, sharing anti-ideological, pluralist, and consensus beliefs, Schlesinger, among many American intellectuals, became a liberal with conservative assumptions: a pessimistic view of human nature, a fear of radicalism and mass democracy, a reliance on groups and their leaders that became a force for moderation and compromise, and a belief in slow, moderate change within the framework of a stable society.
Schlesinger's anticommunism, with its correlative rejection of ideology and blindness to his own ideological assumptions, has had several serious consequences for his liberalism. By rejecting ideology, Schlesinger not only excluded from consideration radical ideas he did not like, but he also neglected the utopian and idealistic elements of his own liberalism. His empiricism, pragmatism, and realism led him to identify closely with the existing structure of American society. Whether it is possible to achieve meaningful social change from a position of such close identification with society is questionable; it may be necessary to take a more critical stance and give more attention to the "ends" of reform than Schlesinger has done in his defense of centrist liberalism. Anticommunism also led Schlesinger and other liberals to emphasize the issues of foreign policy and loyalty at the expense of domestic reform. Since the United States stressed military containment and national security in the 1950's and neglected the progressive social change Schlesinger had so strongly advocated in The Vital Center, one must ask why his liberal objectives were not achieved? Were liberal intellectuals like Schlesinger in some way responsible for the conservative drift of American policies? For his part he has denied liberal responsibility and has blamed conservatives for these developments. Whether liberals must share responsibility for the excesses of military containment and national security, despite Schlesinger's denials, can be determined by the examination of Schlesinger's anticommunism and its impact on his thinking about foreign and domestic policy.
On the anti-Communist issue Schlesinger characteristically mediated between extremes: how does one eliminate Communists from positions of influence in the United States and yet preserve civil liberties? He wanted to avoid the witch-hunting tactics of right wingers Martin Dies and Joseph McCarthy on the one hand, while on the other he rejected the "sentimental" idea of "Doughface Progressives" that prosecution of Communists or fellow travelers in any circumstances is a violation of civil liberties. As an alternative to repression he maintained that reform was the best way to combat communism, which could be defeated in the long run "only by removing the internal sources of its appeal." In two magazine articles published in 1952, Schlesinger defended his reform position from right-wing attacks by arguing that New Dealers had been anti-Stalinist and that communism had failed in the 1930's because "the New Deal showed that reform and recovery were possible within the framework of free institutions."
Schlesinger also distinguished himself from the Right by his greater concern for procedural safeguards to protect the civil liberties of the accused. For example, he advocated following the doctrine of "clear and present danger," which suggests that freedom of speech can be curtailed in the interests of national security and yet limits any restrictions to genuine national emergencies. On these grounds Schlesinger thought Communists in strategic government positions—the State Department and National Security agencies—constituted a "clear and present danger" and could therefore be dismissed. This did not violate civil liberties, because the First Amendment did not give the Communist party the constitutional right to be a secret espionage network nor did American citizens have a constitutional right to work for government. Although Schlesinger supported government loyalty investigations, he did not want government loyalty programs to degenerate into purges of liberals and nonconformists. He did criticize Truman's Executive Order and the State Department for lack of procedural protection for the accused, and he did propose criteria he hoped would prevent witch-hunting and correct abuses in the Truman Loyalty Program.
In taking this stand Schlesinger did not consider the effectiveness of his proposed measures for protecting the constitutional liberties liberals traditionally have sought to preserve. He ignored the possibilities that greater procedural safeguards actually increase the potential damage to anyone adjudged disloyal by an administrative tribunal and that by focusing on Communists as a special case the clear-and-present-danger doctrine actually threatened the rights of free speech for everyone else. Schlesinger neglected to reflect on these issues because like right wing anti-Communists he believed communism to be a genuine internal threat to the security of the United States—a questionable assumption given the small size of the Communist party and the failure of the FBI and the Truman Loyalty Program to discover a Communist espionage network—and he was therefore willing to sacrifice traditional liberties in order to meet this perceived danger.
Schlesinger also applied the doctrine of clear and present danger to the issue of employing Communists as college teachers. In 1949 he criticized the University of Washington for dismissing three faculty members—two Communists and one fellow traveler—without recourse to the doctrine which placed their proceedings outside the American civil liberties tradition, transformed "those wretched nonentities into living evidences of the capitalist assault against freedom," and made them "far more powerful in martyrdom than they were in freedom." As Schlesinger's shrill language indicates, he had no sympathy for the "loathsome ideas" of "these wretched nonentities," but he insisted that tenured Communists could not be dismissed on grounds of beliefs alone short of clear and present danger. Free discussion in the market place of ideas was Schlesinger's final defense against Communist influence: "if democratic ideas are as good as we believe them to be, this is the testing which will prove it beyond all doubt" ["Right to Loathsome Ideas," in Saturday Review (14 May 1949)]. But if the market place were really so effective in excluding "loathsome ideas," then why restrict the hiring of teachers at all? It seems that on this point Schlesinger significantly moderated his liberal principles, conceded some important ground to right-wingers, and contributed to the anti-Communist hysteria of the late 1940's and early 1950's.
Despite his agility Schlesinger's attempt to maintain a middle position has not satisfied everyone. Over the years radicals like Carey McWilliams, Christopher Lasch, and Ronald Radosh have argued that liberals like Schlesinger shared many common assumptions with right wing anti-Communists. There is some merit to the radical critique in that liberals did agree with conservatives that communism represented a serious internal danger and that the Truman Loyalty Program, the official listing of subversive organizations, and the prosecution of Communist party leaders were necessary to meet the threat, but radicals blur essential distinctions between the two species of anticommunism. Unlike the McCarthyites, Schlesinger did condemn hysterical forms of anticommunism, did criticize the poor procedures of the Truman program, did urge better procedural safeguards to protect innocent victims from witch-hunts, and did stress social reform as the best way to combat communism. One may question the effectiveness of these actions, but their existence does indicate that Schlesinger attempted to preserve some elements of his liberal heritage and does distinguish him from right-wing anti-Communists.
Schlesinger's anticommunism also had a significant impact on his thinking about foreign policy. His responses to the Korean and Vietnam crises reveal the problems of his attempt to maintain the vital center in foreign affairs. In reacting to the Korean War in 1950 Schlesinger revealed an important characteristic of postwar liberalism: its tendency to support limited objectives with unlimited rhetoric. What threatened United States national security in Korea, according to Schlesinger, in a book coauthored with fellow-liberal Richard Rovere [The General and the President, 1951], "was not the possible conquest of South Korea but the possible conquest of millions of minds throughout the world." If the United States had not challenged North Korean aggression, "millions of people … would have found rich confirmation of their fear that Russian power was in fact invincible, that American big-talk was a shameless bluff, and that the UN was a snare and a delusion…." Notwithstanding that containment had originally been developed to check Soviet expansion in Europe, Schlesinger and Rovere now argued that the policy required fighting a limited war in Korea to discourage Russia from expanding elsewhere, thus making manifest the globalism inherent in the Truman Doctrine. Although Schlesinger and Rovere assumed the existence of monolithic World Communism and their defense of the Korean war had global implications, they rejected the alternative of unilaterialism posed by General MacArthur because it involved an unlimited ideological crusade that would risk atomic war with the Soviet Union. Whereas MacArthur wanted "total victory" over communism in Korea, Schlesinger and Rovere supported Truman's more limited goal of negotiated settlement. While the conservative MacArthur and the liberal Schlesinger and Rovere shared common assumptions about the global nature of the Communist menace, their shared commitment to unilateral action was less apparent to the liberals. Misled by the terms "collective security" and "UN action," Schlesinger and Rovere ignored the fact that Truman's decision to intervene was made unilaterally without consulting the UN or the European allies of the United States.
As a good empiricist Schlesinger subsequently modified his stand somewhat in response to changing world realities. By 1960 he was writing about the varieties of communism but still insisted that the Soviet Union was a theological society characterized by commitment to a dogmatic ideology. Then the Vietnam crisis further contributed to the modification of his thinking at the same time it forced him to defend his earlier position.
As the Vietnam War escalated after 1965, the New Left and revisionist historians increased their criticism of both the war and Cold War liberalism, charging that Vietnam was the logical result of the excessive anticommunism and aggressive United States foreign policy of the postwar period. Schlesinger responded to these attacks by defending his anti-Communist stance of the 1940's and by denying a necessary connection between liberal anticommunism and containment policy of that time and the Vietnam disaster. As he said in 1967, "I write as an unrepentant anti-Communist—unrepentant because there seems to me no other conceivable position for a liberal to take." He argued that official and intellectual reactions of the 1940's have legitimacy if one understands that communism at that time meant Stalinism, which was brutal, repressive, and in secure control of Communist parties throughout the world. Schlesinger cannot accept the revisionist argument "that Russia was moved only by a desire to protect its security and would have been satisfied by the control of Eastern Europe." Schlesinger still insists, as he did in 1949, that "postwar collaboration between Russia and America … [was] inherently impossible" because Communist ideology committed the Soviet Union to a steady expansion of its power and to a distrust of capitalist democracies like the United States. Although Schlesinger regrets that the United States eventually exhibited its own forms of excessive self-righteousness, he maintains that given the dynamic of a totalitarian ideology plus Stalin's paranoia, even "the most rational of American policies could hardly have averted the Cold War."
Vietnam posed special problems for Schlesinger because of his commitments to anticommunism, containment, and the foreign policy of the Kennedy administration. In late spring 1966, alarmed at the growing Americanization of the war, he switched to moderate opposition. One result of his decision was the publication in early 1967 of The Bitter Heritage, a book intended to stir public opinion against widening the conflict and for a negotiated settlement. Both the book and Schlesinger were destined to become quite influential in shaping the views of the intellectual community on Southeast Asia. From his study of the problem Schlesinger concluded that Vietnam represented the illegitimate extension of two legitimate assumptions of American foreign policy: that the United States has an obligation to maintain international collective security and to spread democracy throughout the world. This illegitimate extension dated from the 1950's when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles defined the issues of the Cold War in absolutist moral terms, pitting the virtuous Free World against an evil, monolithic communism bent on world revolution. Dulles' absolutist philosophy, a perfect example of ideological dogma, became institutionalized in the State Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA, all of which acquired a vested bureaucratic interest in resisting communism on a global scale. Consequently the doctrine of collective security was transformed. The United States, unilaterally, began to apply it in areas where major power involvement was slight, where no balance of power existed, and where there was internal revolt rather than external aggression. The culmination of this process, and the ultimate perversion of America's democratic mission, was Lyndon Johnson's attempt to apply the Great Society to Southeast Asia, which, Schlesinger maintains, was a fantastic overcommitment of American power. Implicit in Schlesinger's analysis is the notion that this overcommitment would not have occurred if John Kennedy had lived. Indeed, in his recent biography of Robert Kennedy, Schlesinger argues explicitly that John Kennedy had decided to withdraw American advisers by 1965 but that the mood of the country compelled him to defer action until after the 1964 election.
Schlesinger's Vietnam analysis rests on a distinction he articulated in 1967 between obsessive, conservative anticommunism and rational, liberal anticommunism "graduated in mode and substance according to the threat." With this overly neat distinction Schlesinger asserted rational anticommunism as a moral necessity for all liberals, absolved Kennedy liberals of liability for the war, and placed blame on conservatives. In other words, military containment and loyalty investigations were a rational response to the genuine threat of Stalinism in the 1940's, but conservative anti-Communists erred in applying military solutions to Vietnam. Unfortunately for Schlesinger his argument is shaky on at least two counts: first, the men who formulated Vietnam policy (Johnson, McNamara, Rusk, the Bundys, and the Rostows) were Kennedy advisers and liberals, not conservatives; second, they proceeded in what they considered to be a rational manner in steadily escalating the pressure on North Vietnam. The problem is that the difference between "obsessive" and "rational" anticommunism on foreign policy issues is not as great as Schlesinger would like to believe. Both groups started from the same assumption of monolithic World Communism as a moral evil to be resisted around the globe. It is true that liberals like Schlesinger and Kennedy were "Realists" who argued that the United States should pursue its national interests within the limits of its power and should avoid the extremes of capitulation to communism or the messianic moralism of right-wingers who advocated total victory. Yet it was difficult for liberals to maintain a middle position. Given their hostility to communism, their global assumptions, and the generalizing tendencies of their anti-Communist rhetoric, liberals were also susceptible to moral crusades, as Schlesinger's support for Korea and his initial support for Vietnam indicates. One might say that Schlesinger has introduced his own ideological abstractions in distinguishing between rational and obsessive anticommunism and thus is blind to the reality of liberal culpability for the Vietnam War.
Vietnam and its aftermath was a time of reassessment for Schlesinger, but his basic presuppositions changed very little as a result. Like that of most intellectuals who turned against President Johnson's policy, Schlesinger's opposition was based on pragmatic rather than moral grounds. One consequence of this pragmatic opposition, as Charles Kadushin has pointed out, "is that it allowed old Cold Warriors to have opposed the war in Southeast Asia … and yet continue to hold views of the world that are not appreciably different from those they held in 1960" [Charles Kadushin, American Intellectual Elite, 1924]. The major change in United States policy produced by the Vietnam experience, according to Schlesinger, was a retreat from the messianic globalism which had dominated United States diplomacy in the 1950's and 1960's. This change was dictated by a realistic recognition of the practical limits of United States power and by a realization that "in this new age of polycentrism the extension of Communism no longer means the automatic extension of Russian or Chinese power." Despite substituting polycentric for monolithic communism, Schlesinger's thinking about foreign affairs retained its global assumptions and its peculiar blend of idealism and realism. The United States must pay attention to the realities of national self-interest and power, it should continue to contain communism where its vital interests are threatened and where it has the power to do so successfully, and it ought to advance the moral goals of human freedom and welfare around the world. Faced with circumstances in the 1970's far different from those which confronted him in the 1940's, Schlesinger still urged liberals to seek a foreign policy based on "realistic idealism," a foreign policy immune from the excessive moralism of the Right and the New Left, one "which will at once protect the national interests of the United States and advance the welfare of a diverse and suffering humanity" ["New Liberal Coalition," Progressive 31 (April 1967)].
Although the Communist challenge in the postwar period led liberals to be preoccupied with foreign affairs and to neglect domestic issues, Schlesinger did his best to keep the lamp of domestic reform burning bright as a necessary precondition to a successful foreign policy. He concluded The Vital Center with a chapter entitled "Freedom: A Fighting Faith," intended as a stirring call to action for liberals of his generation. Unfortunately for Schlesinger, liberals had to wander in the wilderness of the 1950's before beholding the promised land of the New Frontier. Facing the conservatism and complacency of the Eisenhower presidency, Schlesinger responded by working for presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, by studying the "Age of Roosevelt," and by writing several essays in which he articulated new tasks for liberalism. He also derived solace from his father's cyclical theory of "the tides of national politics," in which periods of liberalism and conservatism alternated throughout American history. Liberals could thus take heart that their time would come again.
As with The Age of Jackson, Schlesinger's The Age of Roosevelt was intentionally relevant to contemporary politics. The first three volumes, published between 1957 and 1960, attempted to provide Schlesinger's beloved Democratic party with a reawakened interest in the New Deal tradition at the same time they implied some striking parallels between Republican conservatism in the 1920's and the inaction of the Eisenhower administration in the 1950's. Consistent with Schlesinger's views of what American liberalism required, he saw Franklin D. Roosevelt as a strong president and as a pragmatic realist, a man who avoided the ideological extremes of "either/or," who was open to the ideas of intellectuals, and who took an experimental approach to politics. When the national planning and structural reforms of the First New Deal did not end the depression and when the Supreme Court demonstrated its hostility to structural reform by striking down the first agricultural Adjustment Act and the National Recovery Administration, Roosevelt's pragmatic realism led him to adopt the Keynesian approach which became the Second New Deal. Thus the genius of Franklin D. Roosevelt is that he "always resisted ideological commitment," and the significance of the New Deal is that it combated the depression in a practical, experimental way without resorting to ideology.
Notwithstanding that it repeated several themes of The Age of Jackson—commitment to a strong president, emphasis on the role of intellectuals, preference for ideas over ideology, and stress on realistic pragmatism—The Age of Roosevelt revealed the increasingly moderate character of Schlesinger's liberalism and its growing accommodation to the existing system of corporate capitalism. The historical lesson of the New Deal for American liberals is that American society can be improved by moderate Keynesian reforms; the goals of the society need not be questioned nor the structure changed.
Schlesinger did not limit his political activities during the 1950's merely to writing the history of past liberal accomplishments, however. As part of the regular revision for liberalism to meet new social needs, required by his empirical and realistic premises, Schlesinger attempted to distinguish between "quantitative liberalism," which had so brilliantly met the economic needs of the 1930's, and "qualitative liberalism" now needed to fight for individual dignity, identity, and fulfillment by improving the quality of life in a mass society. Despite his attempt to distinguish between economic and cultural issues, "qualitative liberalism" implied no repudiation of "quantitative liberalism," as is seen in Schlesinger's list of new issues for 1956: education, medical care, the well-being of the sick and aged, equal opportunity for minority groups, urban planning, slum clearance, better housing, bettering the mass media, and improvement of popular culture. Essentially this list represents the unfinished business of the New Deal wrapped in an attractive new slogan. Quite clearly these programs would require increased government spending to improve the quality of life for groups that lacked economic resources. Even though quantity and quality, economic and cultural, tended to blur, Schlesinger's phrases "new America," "quality of life," and "qualitative liberalism," growing out of his work with the Finletter group, were his particular contributions to Stevenson's 1956 campaign and helped prepare the way for the New Frontier and the Great Society of the 1960's. Schlesinger's call for renewed reform at home was tied closely to his concerns about foreign affairs: "a truly creative and progressive foreign policy can only come from a truly creative and progressive America—we can't further freedom, equality, and opportunity in the world unless we further it at home."
Undeterred by Stevenson's second defeat, Schlesinger carried his "qualitative liberalism" into the 1960 campaign. Attaching himself to John Kennedy as the strong leader to fulfill these expectations, he worked to convince dubious liberals of the validity of Kennedy's reform credentials by numerous speeches and by the publication of Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference? As was clear at the time, and became even more clear in retrospect with the publication in 1965 of the third installment of Schlesinger's historical treatment of liberalism—A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House—Kennedy's presidency was the answer to Schlesinger's liberal hopes and indeed represented the high tide of "qualitative liberalism." The book made explicit the connection between Roosevelt and Kennedy. It praised the New Frontier for its toughmindedness and realistic use of power in the Laos negotiations, the Berlin Crisis, and the Cuban Missile Crisis; for breaking with the Republican's rigid ideological view of a polarized world (the free world vs. communism) and presenting the alternative pluralistic idea of a "world of diversity"; and for respecting intellectuals and the world of intellect. Schlesinger insisted that "both the New Frontier and the Great Society [which was the result of John Kennedy's initiatives] have done a good many things to improve the quality of American life—and of American lives."
Schlesinger's apologetics for John Kennedy vividly reveals his commitments to strong presidents and to pragmatic intellectuals as means of furthering liberal reform. Both commitments, however, raise serious questions. Schlesinger's historical analysis and political career suggest that American liberals have been unable to develop programs which attract sufficient popular support and therefore must rely on charismatic individuals—Jackson, Roosevelt, Kennedy—to achieve political change. This is a weak and dangerous position for two reasons: first, there is the authoritarian potential of a strong president—a danger Schlesinger belatedly recognized during the Johnson and Nixon years; second, it leads to constant compromises of position because loyalty to a strong leader is so crucial. These weaknesses have attracted the attention of radical critics. Ronald Radosh, for example, recently attacked Schlesinger for his service to power in the Boy of Pigs invasion. Radosh charges that Schlesinger lied to newsmen in the interest of national security, helped President Kennedy fabricate a cover-up, and distorted the historical record by his less-than-truthful account in A Thousand Days. In reply Schlesinger simply states that he initially opposed the venture and that he did not resign because he trusted Kennedy, who would not have planned the Bay of Pigs invasion and who held out great promise for the future of the country. This debate illustrates what Schlesinger has called the irresolvable conflict between the two types of intellectuals, pragmatists and utopians, who represent the major social roles intellectuals have played throughout American history. Schlesinger, the pragmatic realist, risks the corruptions of power by trying to change society from within; Radosh, the utopian idealist, risks irrelevance by attempting to change society from without. Their mutual disdain is evident as are the weaknesses of their respective positions. On the one hand, the intellectual is condemned to impotence; on the other, infidelity.
Facing the unacceptable ideological alternatives of the New Left and the New Right, Schlesinger responded in 1968 by resurrecting the political strategy of the vital center in the form of "the New Politics" personified by a new charismatic liberal, Robert Kennedy. The New Politics by passed the traditional political intermediaries—political bosses, trade unions, ethnic federations, and trade associations—and relied on mass involvement aided by the mass media. Schlesinger thought Kennedy promised "a basic reconstruction of American liberalism—a reconstruction that had he become President, might have marked as emphatic a stage in the evolution of American democracy as that wrought in other times by Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt." As the last liberal politician who could communicate with students, nonwhites, the middle class, and the white working class, Kennedy had the power to reconstruct the Roosevelt coalition. Moreover, Kennedy's commitment to a strong presidency was essential for securing racial and social justice.
Unfortunately Robert Kennedy's assassination left Schlesinger's great expectations unfulfilled. Complicating an already troubled political scene, the abuses of presidential power during the Vietnam War and Watergate forced Schlesinger to reconsider his position in The Imperial Presidency. Characteristically he sought a moderate solution between two extremes: "The American democracy must discover a middle ground between making the President a czar and making him a puppet…. We need a strong Presidency—but a strong Presidency within the Constitution." Schlesinger insisted that politics, not law, was the best means of control. He rejected institutional arrangements such as an executive-congressional commission to oversee foreign policy because he feared it might introduce dangerous rigidities into the American system. A first step toward restoring constitutional comity, he maintained, was impeachment. The Nixon White House must be held legally accountable for its illegal behavior in Watergate or all hopes of constitutional limits would be lost. In addition, the American people should develop a less reverent, more skeptical attitude toward the office; skepticism leading to withdrawal of support by Congress, by the press, and by public opinion could effectively limit presidential power. Thus, despite the imperial presidency of Lyndon Johnson and the revolutionary presidency of Richard Nixon, Schlesinger still hoped to preserve a strong presidency under the Constitution. This is not surprising because, as we have seen such a president is essential for furthering Schlesinger's liberalism. Less apparent, perhaps, is the weakness of his proposed political restraints. Given his adulation of Jackson, Roosevelt, and the Kennedys, one wonders if Schlesinger would adopt a less reverent, more skeptical attitude toward the presidency if it were held by a liberal Democrat.
Much to Schlesinger's regret no great leader has appeared on the American political horizon since Robert Kennedy's death. Lamenting both candidates' lack of public vision in the 1976 election, Schlesinger reluctantly voted for Jimmy Carter, but he later had several occasions to criticize his lack of leadership: Carter was no innovator; he had no unifying vision and consequently no coherent policy. Worse yet, Carter appeared to be drifting into conservative Republicanism by advocating a balanced budget and free market solutions to the problems of energy and inflation. In opposition to Carter's policies Schlesinger, as he did in the 1950's, stressed the priority of qualitative liberalism, the necessity of affirmative government, and the need for a strong president to generate action. Reaffirming his belief in the cyclical pattern of American politics, Schlesinger maintains that the 1980's will witness a resurgence of liberalism to deal with the unresolved issues created by the conservative 1970's.
Schlesinger has pursued the political strategy of vital center and has remained a "man in the middle" throughout his career; characteristically he adopted middle-of-the-road positions between what he defined as unacceptable extremes. Liberal intellectuals like Schlesinger, moreover, have provided the rationale for the most important government policies since World War II. The global policy of containment which resulted in Vietnam, the strong presidency which culminated in Watergate, and the welfare state which yielded a cumbersome bureaucracy have all produced a storm of criticism in recent years. Yet Schlesinger has been reluctant to modify his political position; he denies that liberalism is in any way responsible for American disasters. Containment is a valid liberal policy to check communism, Vietnam a perversion of its principles; the strong presidency is necessary to advance reform and guide foreign policy, Watergate a misuse of power; the welfare state is essential to achieve social justice, bureaucracy a technical problem to be overcome. Through all the disturbing events of the postwar period, Schlesinger has been steadfast in his liberalism. He argues that his political pragmatism and Niebuhrian assumptions about human nature are validated empirically by the facts of history and are the only possible grounds on which to base a realistic politics. Stripped of unrealistic, utopian assumptions, Schlesinger's liberalism is a peculiar blend of realism and idealism: it is confident that society can be improved and freedom maintained by human effort, but like French existentialism it knows that the struggle will be unending and that the perfect society will never be achieved. These are the historical lessons Schlesinger has gleaned from his studies of the Jackson, Roosevelt, and Kennedy administrations. These are the liberal principles he believes can guide humankind toward a better future in an endlessly troubled world.
But one may ask whether the vital center is a relevant position for a person seeking social change in American society. In adopting centrist liberalism it would appear that Schlesinger has valued realism more than idealism. By avoiding ideology and by stressing the role of pragmatic intellectuals, he has made a fetish of empiricism, has blurred the distinction between is and ought, and has identified too closely with the existing power structure. This is a strange stance for a liberal to take; perhaps the fact that Schlesinger's brand of realistic liberalism dominated the postwar intellectual scene helps to account for the absence of serious social debate and the lack of meaningful social reform in America since 1945.
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SOURCE: "A Reply," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 80, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 139-42.
[In the following essay, Schlesinger responds to Engelhardt's essay "Man in the Middle: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Postwar American Liberalism" (see above), commenting that Engelhardt "is essentially fair-minded" but misinterprets Schlesinger's positions regarding ideology, the dangers of Communism in the United States, and the role of private property under social control.]
It is a bit disconcerting for an historian to find himself the target of history. But, as we were long ago authoritatively informed, "All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword"; so I accept the occupational risk and thank the South Atlantic Quarterly for the opportunity, before the sword finally falls, to comment on the comment.
Let me say at once that I do not envy anyone the awful task of reading a forty-year flow of words, some historical in purpose, some biographical, some polemical. I think Mr. Engelhardt's piece is essentially fair-minded and often generous, though not always, in my view, quite accurate.
Early on, for example, he credits me with anticipating the alleged belief of the intellectuals of the 1950's "in the exhaustion of political ideology, the pluralistic theory of politics, and the consensus interpretation of United States history." I am unquestionably a pluralist in my view of politics, and of life as well. As William James said, temperaments determine philosophies; and, like James, I temperamentally abhor monisms. I agree with Isaiah Berlin in doubting "a final harmony in which all riddles are solved, all contradictions reconciled" and in seeing conflicts of value "as an intrinsic, irremovable element in human life."
But I must demur on the other two charges. My point has been not the exhaustion but, on the contrary, the danger of political ideology. Mr. Engelhardt goes on to suggest that I am a closet ideologue myself. Not by my definition of ideology, a word I have always used to denote an all-encompassing, all-explanatory, monistic system; but Mr. Engelhardt evidently prefers to blur what I continue to regard as the useful distinction between a systematic and rigid body of dogma on the one hand and a cluster of general ideas and ideals on the other. Karl Mannheim had a bizarre definition of ideology—one that would, for example, exclude Marxism.
As for the consensus interpretation of American history, I am more commonly—and I am sure more correctly—regarded as the author of one of "probably the last … historical studies to be written squarely in the Progressive [i.e., anticonsensus] tradition" (Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians). My historical as well as my political writings have always opposed the notion that the American past was devoid of conflict and that there was no substantial difference between, say, Jackson and Biddle or Roosevelt and Hoover.
Am I, as Mr. Engelhardt darkly suggests, "a liberal with conservative assumptions?" Only if one accepts the idea that liberalism requires faith in the perfectibility of man and society. If Mr. Engelhardt really believes that this is what modern liberalism is about, he misses the whole point. The postwar generation premised its liberalism on Reinhold Niebuhr's mighty dictum: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." Even before I started reading Niebuhr, I regarded the recognition of human limitations as providing the firmest intellectual foundation for liberalism (see the last paragraph of The Age of Jackson).
Like many younger scholars, Mr. Engelhardt displays a mysterious queasiness when confronted by the phenomenon of anti-Stalinism. Why this should be, I do not know. Even post-Stalin Russia is nobody's prize, surely not Mr. Engelhardt's (though he does appear to criticize me for "still" insisting, as late as 1960, "that the Soviet Union was a theological society characterized by commitment to a dogmatic ideology," as if this were not an accurate description of the Soviet Union even in 1981); and Stalin's Russia was beyond all dispute a horror. Why does Mr. Engelhardt suppose a liberal could have been anything but anti-Stalinist?
He is quite wrong in writing that liberals like myself considered communism, apart from Soviet espionage, "a genuine internal threat to the security of the United States." As we used to put it at the time, communism was a danger to the United States, not a danger in the United States. Mr. Engelhardt, however, dismisses the distinction between rational and obsessive anticommunism and seems dubious about the feasibility of "a middle position" between sober defense of national interest on the one hand and messianic crusades on the other. What would his recommendation have been? To have renounced anti-Stalinism altogether?
On the whole, he does not deal with anti-Stalinism on its merits but rather rests his disapproval on alleged secondary effects: not only messianic crusades against communism at home and abroad; but emphasis on foreign policy at the expense of domestic reform; undue identification with the existing structure of American society; responsibility for the conservative drift of American policy.
In my own case, far from favoring foreign policy at the expense of domestic reform, I argued for domestic issues so insistently in the 1950's that Max Ascoli excommunicated me as an isolationist in the pages of his magazine The Reporter. As for the American social structure, I do indeed believe that a free society requires the diversification of ownership. In that sense, I suppose, I am a defender of the existing structure. Indeed, I would very much like to see someone explain sometime how the means of political opposition and of free expression can survive the abolition of private property.
Individual freedom surely requires two conditions: economic resources relatively safe from the state, and a system of justice relatively independent of the state. The nationalization of the means of production and distribution would, so far as I can see, destroy both these conditions. Nor do syndicalist fantasies of decentralization, workers' control, etc., seem to me to provide any realistic answer to the power drive of the modern communist state. In short, I see no way of protecting autonomous institutions if they have no property base from which to defend themselves against the state. So I conclude that the Bill of Rights requires the retention of private property and that the problem of politics is to place private property under social control. Does Mr. Engelhardt disagree with this line of thought? If so, he should stand forth and declare himself. If not, why is my position so reprehensible?
Within the framework of mixed ownership, I remain, as I have always been, an opponent of business domination and an advocate of affirmative government on behalf of the poor and powerless: "One must ask," Mr. Engelhardt writes, "… were liberal intellectuals like Schlesinger in some way responsible for the conservative drift of American policies?" My answer to this, only briefly noted by Mr. Engelhardt, is that liberalism and conservatism ebb and flow in American politics according to a discernible cyclical rhythm. As the reform activism of Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson wore out the American people after two decades and ushered in the do-nothing twenties, so the activism of Roosevelt and Truman was followed by the Eisenhower lull, and the activism of Kennedy and Johnson by the Nixon-Ford-Carter-Reagan stasis. (In this connection, I should note that I did not vote for Carter in 1976. I expected to vote for the Democratic candidate, as I had always done in the past, but, once in the booth, could not bring myself to pull the lever for a man so hostile to the Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy tradition and consequently did not vote at all for president. In 1980 I voted for John Anderson.)
Little is more predictable than that seasons of action, passion, idealism, and reform should give way to seasons of apathy, hedonism, cynicism, and recuperation—and that these latter periods should continue until the national batteries are recharged and until the problems recently neglected demand a new burst of social innovation. It is this cyclical rhythm, not the sins of liberal intellectuals, that in my view accounts for conservative swings in American politics.
Mr. Engelhardt seems unhappy that the liberal periods should rely on strong leadership. I wish, by the way, that he and everybody else would stop using the word "charismatic." Max Weber, who invented the word, applied it to medicine men, warrior chieftains, and religious prophets, leaders ruling by magic, miracle, and revelation. The concept of charisma has nothing to do with leadership in a democracy, where, as Wilson said, "the dynamics of leadership lie in persuasion." Leadership has always seemed to me to have an indispensable role in the democratic process, both practically—in order to get things done—and morally—in order to affirm human freedom against the supposed inevitabilities of history. "The appearance of a great man," wrote Emerson, "draws a new circle outside of our largest orbit and surprises and commands us." Is this so terrible? Can Mr. Engelhardt really regard Washington, Jackson, and Lincoln, the Roosevelts and the Kennedys, as threats to American democracy?
Mr. Engelhardt's besetting problem is the Slippery Slope argument: don't do a good thing now lest it lead to someone else doing bad things later. So one must not contain the Soviet Union lest it result in Vietnam, nor favor a strong presidency lest it produce Watergate, nor support the welfare state lest it yield a bureaucracy. This is an argument for doing nothing at all. I don't suppose this is really where Engelhardt ends up. But he is singularly vague about his alternatives. Before rushing to judge others, historians surely have the obligation to consider what their own standards are and what choices they themselves would have made in the circumstances.
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SOURCE: "Conflict and Consensus," in The New Republic, Vol. 195, No. 22, December 1, 1986, pp. 28-31.
[In the following review, Brinkley asserts that the essays collected in Schlesinger's The Cycles of American History are eloquent reminders of the importance of history in forming an understanding of the present.]
It is a tribute to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s immense talents and protean accomplishments that he seems to defy conventional classification. In the course of his 40-year career, he has been a political activist (one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action), a public official (an assistant to President Kennedy), a campaign strategist (for Adlai Stevenson and the Kennedys), a memoirist, a political essayist, and even for a time a film critic. Above all, of course, he has been a historian—perhaps the best known and most widely read American historian of his generation. But even within the historical profession, the unusual range and variety of his work have made him difficult to categorize. His most familiar works are those examining American public life in the 20th century: his magisterial three-volume The Age of Roosevelt (a fourth volume is reportedly in progress), his celebrated studies of John and Robert Kennedy, his analysis of the modern presidency. Yet his first book was a highly regarded study of the 19th-century New England cleric and political activist Orestes Brownson. And probably his most influential work—a book that shaped scholarly discussion of an entire field for more than a generation—was The Age of Jackson, published in 1945 and recipient of the first of Schlesinger's two Pulitzer Prizes. (The second came 20 years later, for A Thousand Days.)
This new collection of essays [The Cycles of American History] reveals another area in which Schlesinger resists conventional categorization: his relationship to the dominant schools of interpretation within the historical profession. Politically, he is a well-known liberal, and his political convictions inform his scholarly work in countless ways. But liberalism takes many forms, and Schlesinger's does not fit neatly within any major scholarly camp. He has carved an interpretive niche for himself that is firmly his own.
In some respects, he is one of the last of the great "progressive" historians whose work dominated American scholarship during most of the period between World War I and World War II, and among whose most distinguished representatives was Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. The progressives (whose ranks also included Charles A. Beard and Frederick Jackson Turner) saw American history as a vast battleground in which economic or regional rivalries created continual conflicts and in which democratic elements fought constantly against the forces of entrenched privilege. Although the progressives never embraced the economic determinism of later Marxist historians, they did place economic inequality (and the struggles it inspired) at the center of the American past.
Among scholars of the postwar generation, the younger Schlesinger's own generation, the most powerful force in American historiography was a reaction against this approach and the emergence of what came to be known as "consensus" history. Consensus scholars emphasized not conflict but (in Richard Hofstadter's words) "the common climate of American opinion," the shared belief among almost all Americans in "the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the value of competition … the economic virtues of capitalist culture." Conflicts there had been, to be sure, but they had rarely been fundamental conflicts. Americans were in basic agreement even when they thought they differed. Schlesinger never accepted, however, the approach that came to enchant so many of his contemporaries. He never believed that surface controversies are mere distractions from broader agreement. The battles that seemed important to their contemporaries, he has always argued, should seem equally important to historians. And in his most influential historical works—his study of Jacksonian politics, his history of the New Deal—he has emphasized not continuity and consensus, but the centrality of conflicts between democratic forces and special interests.
The importance of such struggles remains very much at the center of his thinking in this book, perhaps most notably in the title essay ["The Cycles of American History"]. The idea that American history moves in "cycles," that periods of social activism alternate with periods of retreat in a reasonably predictable pattern, is not a new one. Emerson referred to it obliquely in the 1840s; Henry Adams developed it explicitly in the 1890s; and Schlesinger's father made it central to his own work. Schlesinger himself has insisted for many years on the importance of the cycle—"a continuing shift in national involvement, between public purpose and private interest"—as a key to historical explanation. The evidence, he claims, lies in the ebbs and flows of public life in the past, and particularly in the 20th century. The public activism of the early 20th century (the "progressive era") ultimately gave way to the conservatism of the 1920s, which gave way in turn to the renewal of energy of the New Deal. The postwar conservatism of the Eisenhower years succumbed in the early 1960s to the dynamism of the New Frontier and the Great Society, to be followed by another withdrawal into private interest in the 1970s and 1980s.
Troubling questions have always accompanied this theory. Schlesinger faces them squarely here. The cyclical pattern works reasonably well as a description of at least part of the American past. But can it serve, as its advocates like to claim, as a predictive device? Is the pattern simply coincidence (like the causally meaningless fact that presidents elected at 20-year intervals since 1840 have all, until now, died in office)? Or is there an internal dynamic, which makes the cycle self-generating? Schlesinger argues here that the cycle is, in fact, self-sustaining. "There is a cyclical pattern in organic nature," he notes, as well as "a cyclical basis in the very psychology of modernity." Most of all, however: "It is the generational experience that serves as the mainspring of the political cycle." Members of each generation shape their political assumptions in response to the public climate of their adolescence and early adulthood. When they come of age, usually some 20 years later, they attempt to give voice to assumptions shaped at an earlier time:
Young men and women whose ideals were formed by TR and Wilson—Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman—produced the New and Fair Deals in their own maturity. The generation whose ideals were formed by FDR—John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson—produced in their maturity the New Frontier and the Great Society. In the same way the age of Kennedy touched and inspired a new generation. That generation's time is yet to come.
Schlesinger has not answered, certainly, all the objections scholars have raised to the cycle as a basis of interpretation. He concedes, for example, that the generational view of the past must confront the fact that babies are born continuously, that "the division of people into generations seems arbitrary." His only answer is to say that most other social divisions—economic classes, for example—are to some degree arbitrary as well. The predictive possibilities of the cyclical argument would seem brighter, moreover, if there were more compelling evidence that the generation shaped by the "age of Kennedy" seemed about to produce a crusade for a restoration of public purpose. Still, he has in this essay provided a challenging basis—generally absent from earlier arguments for the "cycle"—for exploring the pattern not simply as a historical fact, but as a historical force.
Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of this argument, however, Schlesinger's commitment to it reveals an important facet of his own historical instincts: his emphasis on discontinuity as the central feature of the past. Not for him the consensus view of a history unbroken by fundamental conflict. The alternations in American public life between public purpose and private interest, he suggests, are not meaningless blips on the surface of broad continuities. They are the main event.
They are, moreover, to be welcomed. Some (although by no means all) consensus historians came to celebrate the absence of conflict, to welcome what they believed to be America's happy freedom from the class divisions and social turbulence that have beset other societies. But to Schlesinger (as to the progressive historians of the 1920s and 1930s), it is conflict that keeps the hope of progress and social justice alive. Indeed, he gives evidence throughout these essays of his preference for a sharply competitive, even turbulent politics over a consensual public life in which popular aspirations might not find adequate channels for expression. In his discussion of the American presidency, for example, he rejects proposals to insulate the president from the pressures of politics (through, for example, a single six-year term or a shift to a more purely parliamentary system). If anything, he argues, presidents should be less insulated from politics, more subject to the checks and balances of the electoral process and the separation of powers.
The most unusual essay in this book discusses the vice presidency, an office he proposes to abolish in favor of speedy "special elections" in the event of the death of a president. Again, the suggestion (implausible as it may be) is rooted in a belief that leadership must be subjected constantly to the healthy ferment of democracy. Perhaps that is why Schlesinger, although he has often been contemptuous of New Left historiography, is not as harshly critical of American radicals and not as aghast at their excesses during the 1960s as are many of his contemporaries. Wrongheaded as revolutionaries have been, he suggests, their agitation "exposes the hypocrisies of the standing order and sharpens objections to it." And the threat they pose "undermines the obstacles of imbecility and vested interest."
The belief in discontinuity is particularly clear in one of the book's best essays, "Vicissitudes of Presidential Reputations," in which Schlesinger takes on a generation of revisionists. For nearly two decades now, historians have been restoring the reputation of Herbert Hoover, portraying him as an important progressive whose policy innovations in the 1920s and early 1930s laid much of the groundwork for the New Deal. The inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt, they imply, was not a major turning point in our political history but another step along a broad continuum. The Eisenhower presidency, revisionists similarly argue, was not simply a somnolent interregnum between periods of dynamic reform but a time of wise and prudent restraint and healthy progress.
Schlesinger has little patience with either argument. He concedes the revisionist point that Hoover was not in all respects a hardened reactionary and that Eisenhower was more than an amiable stumblebum. But in most essential respects, he clings tightly to his own longheld views. Those familiar with his earlier discussions of the Hoover administration (in The Crisis of the Old Order) and the Kennedy administration (A Thousand Days) will recognize that Schlesinger sees no reason to recant. The New Deal and the New Frontier were, he insists, both dramatic breaks with a stagnant conservatism—evidence again of the importance of the "cycle" and the centrality of discontinuity in American history; and evidence too of his own refusal to accept the consensus view of a relatively unbroken, unconflicted past.
It would be a mistake, however, to view Schlesinger as somehow set apart from the major intellectual currents of his generation. Although he has balked at some of the assumptions of postwar historiography, in other respects his ideas have not only matched but shaped those of his contemporaries. Nowhere is that clearer than in the debate over "ideology" that did so much to guide American intellectual life in the 1940s and 1950s. Postwar intellectuals, appalled by the horrors they had seen millenarian ideologies (fascism, Stalinism, and later Maoism) produce in other societies, came to see in the more ideologically neutral world of liberal democracy a healthy antidote to dangerous political fervor. Americans, they argued, are a pragmatic, not an ideological, people. And it has been their ability to resist the appeal of fervent crusades and "total solutions" that has allowed democracy to flourish and prosper. Schlesinger himself produced one of the most eloquent expressions of this idea in his 1949 book, The Vital Center, which challenged the popular assumption that the center was a barren place, incapable of generating any real commitment or political energy. On the contrary, he argued, the center was not only the best defense against the dangers of millenarian excess; it was itself a vital stance, which could rely on its commitment to personal freedom to inspire social progress and public purpose.
He continues to advance that argument today, as the eloquent concluding essay in this volume makes clear:
The vast pervasive resistance of the psyche and of society leads some to forsake incremental change in favor of the millennial hope, "a new heaven and a new earth," the Kingdom of God or the kingdom of the proletariat…. Those who profess to execute the mandates of God or of History are menaces to humanity…. Reform avoids the arrogance of revolution…. The consent of the majority is essential if both the fabric of society and the freedom of the individual are to survive.
His commitment to that idea may help to explain some of his own most conspicuous political attachments. John Kennedy, for all the public passion he helped to produce, considered himself a cool pragmatist uninterested in the claims of ideology. Franklin Roosevelt, similarly, was openly and boastfully experimental, willing to tolerate any number of ideological currents but unwilling to commit himself irrevocably to any one of them.
Although certain themes are recurrent through much of [The Cycles of American History], it is a diverse collection, with no single concern. It begins with an evocative essay emphasizing the self-consciously experimental origins of American democracy and debunking the idea (now enshrined in presidential rhetoric) that the founders saw the republic they were creating as the expression of a God-given plan, a "divine consecration." It includes six important essays on facets of American foreign policy, which together sharply challenge the economic determinism of some New Left historians but which reject as well the missionary vision of the nation's international role so popular among conservatives and neoconservatives. It recapitulates many of the ideas Schlesinger developed in The Imperial Presidency about the nature (and abuses) of presidential power, and extends the examination to the post-Nixon era. It offers some of the author's own prescriptions for dealing with our present problems. (He favors, for example, a Felix Rohatyn-like industrial policy modeled vaguely on the New Deal's National Recovery Administration.) And it expresses repeatedly one of Schlesinger's most important convictions: a rejection of historical determinism—of the idea that innate social forces ensure that events will develop in a particular way—in favor of a belief in the importance of individuals and their capacity to alter the course of history.
Like most collections of previously published work, this one suffers occasionally from redundancy. And despite a substantial effort by the author to reshape old material in light of new scholarship and recent events, there is a dated quality to at least some of these essays. The book abounds with examples of characteristics that have often irritated Schlesinger's many critics within the historical profession: frequent invocations of personal friends (John and Robert Kennedy, Reinhold Niebuhr, Averell Harriman), easy shifts back and forth between scholarly detachment and partisanship, harsh dismissal and sometimes ungenerous characterizations of historians with whom he disagrees, abundant and at times perhaps excessive displays of erudition.
But this collection reveals as well why Schlesinger, despite the countless ways in which he has violated the conventions of his profession, remains one of its most important voices. It is not simply because he possesses a literary grace that few American scholars can match, and not simply because the range of his interests and knowledge far exceeds that of most historians in this age of narrow specialization. It is because he possesses a rare ability to make history seem important, because he is willing to argue that the search for an understanding of the past is not simply an aesthetic exercise but a path to the understanding of our own time. He is a reminder to professional historians of the possibilities of reaching beyond their own ranks to the larger world in which they live.
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SOURCE: "The Schlesinger Thesis," in Commentary, Vol. 83, No. 3, March, 1987, pp. 46-52.
[An American literary scholar whose works evidence his conservative principles, Lynn is the general editor of Houghton-Mifflin's "Riverside Literature" series and the author of numerous essays and books on American life and letters. In the following essay, Lynn censures Schlesinger for allowing his political loyalties to bias his historical accounts.]
Once upon a time, the books of the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. were worth reading. In The Vital Center (1949), for instance, he spoke with a fog-cutting scorn of those "progressives" who still clung to the miasmic dreams of the 1930's and were still blind, in consequence, to Soviet imperialism and the malevolence of the American Communist party. The modern liberalism which he represented was much more tough-minded. Thanks to a "restoration of radical nerve," he explained, in words that revealed how much he owed to the wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr, modern liberalism recognized the complexity of reality, the ineradicable sinfulness of human nature, the corruptive consequences of power, the narrow possibilities of all historical endeavor, the virtues of gradualism, and the horror inherent in every form of totalitarianism.
Today, having lost his nerve and so much else, Schlesinger speaks of the United States and the Soviet Union in the same breath as "international menaces," acting out fantasies of "innate superiority." In the American case, Schlesinger argues in his new book, The Cycles of American History, a messianic dream of America as the redeemer nation has flowed into the vacuum created in the national mind by the erosion of our sense of history and its attendant consciousness that all secular communities are finite and flawed. So far as interest and knowledge are concerned, we have become "an essentially historyless people," the author of Cycles complains. "Businessmen agree with the elder Henry Ford that history is bunk. The young no longer study history. Academics turn their back on history in the enthusiasm for the ahistorical behavioral 'sciences.'"
Precisely which contemporary businessmen the professor has in mind, he does not say—for the simple reason that he hasn't any; in characterizing their attitude by reference to a drearily familiar wisecrack tossed off by an automobile tycoon born in 1863, Schlesinger is not telling us something he has actually learned about executives in Lee Iacocca's Detroit and elsewhere; to the contrary, he is merely indulging an animus, on the flip side of which can be found, not incidentally, a striking tendency to worship men of inherited wealth, such as Averell Harriman, to whom Cycles is dedicated. "'My father always told me that businessmen were sons-of-bitches,'" the author of Cycles remembers John F. Kennedy saying in 1962, at the time of the young President's wage-price battle with the steel companies, and the relish with which Schlesinger repeats that unlovely epithet testifies to his own belief in its applicability to the social class in question.
But what is even more revealing about Schlesinger than his willingness to rely on prejudice instead of evidence in his judgment of businessmen is his unwillingness to engage in self-criticism while lamenting the current state of affairs in academia. For although there is truth in his assertion that students nowadays have a diminished interest in history and that many scholars prefer to work in the behavioral sciences, he need not have turned to grandiosely vague allusions to a national "tradition" of "narcissistic withdrawal from history" in order to account for these developments. More modestly and more usefully, he might have begun by asking whether the faded appeal of history in our colleges and universities is not the result of intellectual disorder in the historical profession, and from there he might have proceeded to take a hard look at his own special field of 20th-century American political history, which has declined to the point where senior-faculty positions in the field have gone unfilled at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and other institutions, for want of candidates who have proved themselves as scholars. How, and when, and why, did the discipline fall into such woeful difficulty? Conceivably, the author of Cycles could have filled at least a chapter with enlightening answers to these questions, except that doing so would have required him to rethink his most cherished assumptions about the American past.
The academicians who came to dominate 20th-century American political history in the decade and a half after World War II—Schlesinger at Harvard, Walter Johnson at the University of Chicago, Eric Goldman at Princeton, Frank Freidel at Stanford and Harvard, John Morton Blum at MIT and Yale, and William Leuchtenburg at Columbia may be taken as gifted representatives of the type—were men who had grown up during the New Deal and had been indelibly marked by their enthusiasm for it. Some of them, indeed, became personally involved in liberal politics. Walter Johnson played a role in persuading the Hamlet-like governor of Illinois to run for President, a feat which he later described in How We Drafted Adlai Stevenson (1955). Among Schlesinger's many engagé acts was his work as a speechwriter for Stevenson. Leuchtenburg held directorial posts both in New England and New York with the liberal pressure group, Americans for Democratic Action, and with New York's Liberal party as well. Goldman, in the fullness of time, would serve as a special consultant in Lyndon Johnson's White House.
Much more significant, though, is the fact that fond memories of FDR constricted the sense of history of this group of historians, whether they concentrated on the boom-and-bust years between the world wars, or on the era of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, or attempted to cover the whole first half of the century. In the collective view of these chroniclers, the most exciting way to tell the story of 20th-century America was to orchestrate it around what they regarded as the intermittent triumph of presidentially-conducted crusades for reform, with true reform being equated in their minds with the unfolding agenda of liberal thought.
From Johnson's portrayal in charming detail of William Allen White's America (1947) to Leuchtenburg's clear and thoughtful survey, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963), the group published a stream of books. Goldman's panoramic Rendezvous With Destiny appeared in 1952, along with the first of the three solidly documented biographical volumes on the early FDR that Freidel would produce in the 50's. During the close-out year—1954—of his associate editorship of eight volumes of Theodore Roosevelt's letters, Blum deftly distilled his encyclopedic knowledge of TR's Presidency into The Republican Roosevelt. In 1957, Schlesinger launched a projected multivolume study of the age of Franklin Roosevelt by dramatically recounting The Crisis of the Old Order: 1919–1933, and he reached even higher levels of narrative tension in The Coming of the New Deal (1959) and The Politics of Upheaval (1960), the latter a recreation of the turbulence of 1935–36.
The blurb by Blum on the back of the dust jacket of The Politics of Upheaval represented the sort of encomium that Schlesinger's Rooseveltian labors had already accustomed him to, and that served to set his work somewhat apart from that of his confreres, even though their books, too, were extremely well received. "As he has before," glowed Blum,
the author in this book commands the complexity, the contradictions, the vibrancy of the New Deal years. His astute judgments and his skillful organization clarify the meaning of those years for Americans then and now. His literary talents, unsurpassed among historians, recreate the richness and vitality of the period. He is the master of the vignette. Here are incisive portraits of Father Coughlin, Huey Long, Alf Landon, and the New Dealers, too. Here, above all, Franklin Roosevelt moves through history, now indecisive, now grandly constructive, always marvelously alive. This is an indispensable book for all Americans, not just for historians.
Yet for all the compliments that were lavished on their work, these liberal rhapsodists did not have much success with the best graduate students of the period. With only a scattering of exceptions, none of the young people with genuine historical interests was drawn more than briefly to their specialty, while the broad-gauged students who viewed political history as an aspect of social, economic, or intellectual history generally chose to write their dissertations in the latter disciplines under mentors who had their political allegiances, whatever they may have been, under firm control. Thus, the mediocritization of 20th-century American political history began thirty years ago with the failure of a group of specialists in the field to accumulate a critical mass of recruits who came up to their own level of analytical competence, flawed though it was. And the most likely reason for their pedagogical failure was the political bias that drastically narrowed their conceptions of what reform was and kept them from seeing that in modern America virtually every President has been a reformer. There was good theater, to be sure, in the group's vision of marvelously alive liberal leaders summoning the electorate to one rendezvous with destiny after another, but as a means of cutting into and understanding American history, it was an instrument of limited usefulness, and most of the intellectually sophisticated graduate students—that saving remnant—avoided having it thrust upon them.
The group's theoretical assumptions were buried in the stuff of their work and did not receive explicit statement as a creed—except by Schlesinger, whose favorite smear word, ironically, is dogma. Not only did he enunciate his black-and-white ideas, but he claimed that they applied to the whole sweep of American history. "Every great crisis thus far in American history," Schlesinger wrote in the closing pages of The Age of Jackson (1945), the book that brought him a permanent appointment at Harvard well before he was thirty,
has produced a leader adequate to the occasion from the ranks of those who believe vigorously and seriously in liberty, democracy, and the common man…. In the past, when liberalism has resolved the crisis and restored tranquillity, conservatism has recovered power by the laws of political gravity; then it makes a new botch of things, and liberalism again must take over in the name of the nation. But the object of liberalism has never been to destroy capitalism, as conservatism invariably claims—only to keep the capitalists from destroying it.
Although the author of Cycles deplores those who conceive of America as a redeemer nation with a mission to save the world, he himself passionately believes that liberalism has been the historic redeemer of America.
Schlesinger acquired his Manichean model of the American past from his historian father, Arthur Meier Schlesinger. As early as 1924 (when his precocious son was a lad of seven), the elder Schlesinger set forth in a lecture his growing conviction that American history had always been bound, and would forever be, by an oscillation of political sentiment between periods of concern for the rights of the few and periods of concern for the wrongs of the many, between eras of quietude and rapid movement, between emphasis on the welfare of human beings and the welfare of property. In 1939, after six years of the New Deal (whose advent he was sure he had predicted), Harvard Professor Schlesinger was more confident than ever that his theory was right, at which point he elaborated it in an essay in the Yale Review, entitled "The Tides of National Politics." Ten years later, he updated the essay and collected it in Paths to the Present.
Beginning with the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, the elder Schlesinger found that American history had gone through eleven alternating periods of liberalism and conservatism lasting an average of 16.55 years. The latest period of liberalism had begun in 1931, when the Democrats took over the House of Representatives to the discomfiture of President Hoover, and terminated in 1947, the year in which a Republican-controlled Congress "proceeded to reorient the country in a conservative direction." (For some reason, the author of Paths to the Present did not regard Truman's upset victory over Dewey in 1948 as a new lease on life for liberalism. Could it be that Paths to the Present had gone to press before the election?) Major deviations in the time span had occurred only in two instances: the eight-year "liberal span" from 1861 to 1869, encompassing the Lincoln and Andrew Johnson administrations, and the ensuing "thirty-two-year reign of conservatism" ending with the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. The likelihood of further deviations was not great, in Schlesinger père's judgment: "… [W]e may expect the recession from liberalism which began in 1947 to last till 1962, with a possible margin of a year or two in one direction or the other." "The next conservative epoch," the Nostradamus of Harvard proclaimed, "will then be due around 1978."
What generates these mass drifts of sentiment? the elder Schlesinger asked himself. No observable correlation existed with the peaks and valleys of the business cycle, he was honest enough to observe; two bad depressions had occurred in the 1869–1901 period without cessation in the "groundswell of conservatism," while the New Deal had held sway in an interval of almost unrelieved bad times. Nor was there any correlation, he continued, with foreign wars, or with enlargements of the electorate, or with the physical growth of the country, or with improvements in transportation and communication. Finally, in his puzzlement, he fell back on mass psychology, a difficult subject to deal with in the best of circumstances and especially so for a historian known for his suspicion of Freud and other explorers of the invisible world of the psyche. The oscillations spring from "something basic in human nature," Professor Schlesinger vaguely ventured. "Apparently the electorate embarks upon conservative policies till it is disappointed or vexed or bored and then attaches itself to liberal policies till a like course is run."
But if human nature was the key to the shifts, why did the electorate get bored at a different rate of speed from the electorates in other democracies? And what did the terms used to describe the shifts mean anyhow? What did it mean to say that Lincoln's Presidency was liberal, when everything in his administration from the day it began was subordinate to the conservative cause of preserving the Union? What sense was there in characterizing the post-Civil War period as an "era of quietude," when even Professor Schlesinger had to admit (albeit in a vocabulary scarcely in touch with the well-nigh revolutionary industrial violence of the late 1870's) that "the years from 1869 to 1901 were constantly disrupted by the reform agitation of agrarian groups and labor elements?"
"The Tides of National Politics," in sum, was a murky piece of work which raised far more question about the dynamics of American politics than it answered. But perhaps the least well-thought-out aspect of the essay had to do with the explanation of why the author preferred the image of a spiral to that of a pendulum as a symbol of the oscillation process. The chief governmental gains of any liberal era, Professor Schlesinger pointed out with unalloyed satisfaction in his voice, generally remain on the statute books when the conservatives recover power, and are duly added to when the liberals come back into office, with the result that "liberalism grows constantly more liberal and, by the same token, conservatism grows constantly less conservative." Hence the aptness of the spiral image. But was there a point at which the spiraling expansion in the size of the federal government would fundamentally alter the nature of the government, so that no democratic leader would be able to make himself master of it? Alas, the question never came up in Paths to the Present, even though by 1949 a bureaucratic political order was clearly emerging in Washington, D.C., in fulfillment of James Burnham's somber prophecy eight years earlier that the United States was destined to endure a "managerial revolution."
In the course of his career, the elder Schlesinger had written some highly valuable books and articles, most of them dealing with social and economic issues and ranging impressively over two hundred years of American history. Thus there was ample reason for his son to be proud of him, even if he found "The Tides of National Politics" embarrassing. But in fact he did not find it so, for the degree of identification between father and son would seem to have been so intense as to preclude such a disagreement. At birth, the son had been named Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger, in honor of his mother, a collateral descendant of the historian George Bancroft, as well as of his father. But when he was eleven or twelve, dusty volumes of Who's Who in America reveal, it was decided—presumably with the concurrence of all concerned—that he would thence-forward be known as Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr. To this day he still signs himself Junior—and still thinks of himself as the "legatee," to use his own word, of the theory of American history propounded by his father.
Thus, in The Age of Jackson, the first and by far the best of his big books, the twenty-eight-year-old younger Schlesinger made a whole era come alive by dint of keen attention to ideas and a perspicacious evocation of a host of individuals of different political stripes—and yet was dead wrong in his central thesis. "Jacksonian democracy," he insisted, "was … a second American phase of that enduring struggle between the business community and the rest of society which is the guarantee of freedom in a liberal capitalist state." How could such an alert historian have been incapable of figuring out that the democratic surge of Jacksonism was intimately linked to the expansion of wide-open, laissez-faire capitalism and was not a phase in the restraint thereof? Part of the answer is that his devotion to Franklin Roosevelt led him to conceive of Jacksonian democracy as an earlier version of the New Deal. But the young authors false thesis mainly derived from an even more intense devotion. In the Yale Review version of "The Tides of National Politics," published six years before The Age of Jackson, the years 1829–1841 had been denominated as a period in which emphasis on the welfare of property had given way to an emphasis on human welfare, and for Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., that was that.
At times in his age-of-Roosevelt series Schlesinger again showed that he was capable of a bias-free perspicacity, as in his splendid sketch of Alf Landon. And although his basic judgments of leading New Dealers were all too often predictable, he sometimes dressed them out with fascinating qualifications, even in the case of Roosevelt, while his trackings of the permutations of New Deal policy were admirably careful and clear. As noted earlier, John Morton Blum in his blurb called the third volume of the series an indispensable book for all Americans; indispensable or not, The Politics of Upheaval surely kindled an eagerness in thousands of American readers for the volumes that would carry the story forward to Roosevelt's death in 1945 and possibly as far as the end of the Truman administration—for had not the time span of The Age of Jackson extended through Van Buren's Presidency and beyond?
The Politics of Upheaval, however, came out in the same year John F. Kennedy was elected President. Following that event, various liberal historians were quick to compare JFK to TR and FDR. Here once more was a leader in the heroic mold of other liberal Presidents of the century. For Schlesinger, though, the Kennedy victory had an even headier meaning. Schlesinger père's historical timetable had called for a new liberal tide to come in in the early 1960's and here it was, more or less right on schedule. By the ineluctable laws of human nature that ruled American politics, a liberal hegemony of 16.55 years was clearly about to begin.
In the coruscating opening pages of The Best and the Brightest (1974), David Halberstam argues that the hubris of the New Frontiersmen was rooted in the good breeding and cerebral hotshotism to which his title refers. But certainly in Schlesinger's case, if not in others as well, lack of humility also derived from an intoxicating sense of moving to the beat of a powerful historical pulse. Reinhold Niebuhr, of course, had warned of the perennial tragedy of human history. Still and all, to a true believer in "Tides" the prospects for liberal governance looked extraordinarily bright, and never more so than on the gray, chilly afternoon of January 9, 1961, in Schlesinger's house on Irving Street in Cambridge, when the President-elect at last asked his host if he was ready to work at the White House. Schlesinger in A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1965) remembers replying, "I am not sure what I would be doing as Special Assistant, but, if you think I can help, I would like to come." Neither in word nor in thought, evidently, did he register the slightest regret at having to put aside his age-of-Roosevelt series, in which he had barely reached the end of FDR's first term in office.
In the days following his acceptance of Kennedy's remarkably unspecific invitation, Schlesinger was reputed to have invested a fair amount of time trying to convince colleagues in the Harvard history department that active involvement in politics would deepen his understanding of the subject and make him a better historian. But if these reports were true, he was profoundly self-deceived. Far from becoming a better historian, he would never again, for the next twenty-six years, be able to think critically, and the field of 20th-century American political history would be further damaged as a result. The proposal that he join the New Frontier constituted a test of his will to stay the course as a historian—and he flunked it, even as the test posed by the Vietnam war would snap his vaunted "radical nerve" and cause him to quail before St. Augustine's certainty, as restated by Niebuhr, that "to the end of history, the peace of the world must be gained by strife."
Schlesinger's confession of confusion about his duties as Special Assistant was waved off by Kennedy. "Well, I am not sure what I will be doing as President either," he said, "but I am sure there will be enough at the White House to keep us both busy." A graceful joke surely, and Schlesinger retells it well. Nevertheless, his account of that gray afternoon on Irving Street reads strangely. For Kennedy to have been unclear in his mind about the role he expected Schlesinger to play in Washington would have been totally out of character for him, and Schlesinger could not have been so naive as not to realize that he was being tacitly asked to take copious notes on the Kennedy administration and eventually to write its history. In the 1980's Edmund Morris, literarily the most gifted of living biographers of American political leaders, would also be granted access to a sitting President so that he might portray him in print, but both sides would recognize the problem of protecting the biographer's intellectual independence; wherefore it was proposed and agreed that Morris would have regular contact with the Reagan White House, but would not be of it. That kind of ethical concern, however, had never been characteristic of Joseph P. Kennedy's way of doing business, and it did not affect his son's. The Kennedys coopted people, if necessary they bought them (to ghostwrite a book or whatever), and when the Presidentelect created a slot on his staff for the eager Schlesinger he thereby made him his creature—and his family's.
A Thousand Days—published a mere two years after Kennedy's death—runs to more than a thousand pages and is crammed with excerpts from documents, quotes of conversations, and intricately detailed recapitulations of events. As such, it is a valuable historical source. Unfortunately, the memoir also warrants comparison with Parson Weems's pamphlet biography of George Washington, the purpose of which, Weems explained to a publisher in 1800, was to bring out the President's "Great Virtues." Not from A Thousand Days can the reader learn about Kennedy's dalliances, during his assignment as a fledgling naval officer in 1941 and early 1942 to the Office of Naval Intelligence, with a married blonde of Danish birth who was suspected of being a German agent; or about his personal friendship with Senator Joe McCarthy; or about the rockiness of his marriage ("Like all marriages, this one may have had its early strains," says Schlesinger in dismissal of the subject); or even about the full extent of the disease he suffered from and the daily implantation of deoxycorticosterone acetate pellets in his thighs that it required before the arrival of cortisone in a form that could be taken orally.
Minimizing threats to Kennedy's luster and making pitiless cracks about his opponents, especially Nixon, became the unseemly devoirs of a once-honorable historian. But that was only the beginning of his degradation. As the assassination of the President proved to be but a prelude to his brother's, as situation-room confidence in counter-insurgency was eaten away by guilt about body counts, as the civil-rights movement led to black power, Keynesian full employment to runaway inflation, and the poverty program to social pathology, as the entire liberal dream took on the aspects of nightmare, Schlesinger surrendered to sheer fantasizing. The most egregious example was the 900 pages of treacle entitled Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), which argued that in the role of tribune of the dispossessed young Kennedy came to haunt the American imagination and did so still, a decade after his death. Of how many imaginations besides those of Roosevelt Grier and Anthony Lewis could Schlesinger have been actually thinking?
With The Cycles of American History, the extent to which the historian has internalized his father's point of view becomes clearer than ever. In his central essay, "The Cycles of American Politics," the author sets forth a new version of what he refers to as "the Schlesinger formulation" of American politics. The emphasis now falls on 20th-century American history rather than the full run, and instead of being broken down into sixteen-year tides it is presented in three cycles, each of thirty years' duration. The first two cycles follow the same pattern: each began with two stirring decades (1901–20 and 1933–52) of "public action, passion, idealism, and reform," and were succeeded by one deplorable decade (the 1920's and the 1950's) of "materialism, hedonism, and the overriding quest for personal gratification." (Yes, that's right. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. deplores personal gratification.) The third cycle, however, began with a foreshortened period of commitment to larger purposes, extending only from the advent of Kennedy to the early 1970's, after which the "compass needle … swung toward private interest and the fulfillment of self."
Beneath the streamlined chassis, the chrome fender guards, and the body stripes, "The Cycles of American Politics" is the same old Tin Lizzie in which the elder Schlesinger took American history for a ride. As before, a view of human nature that stops at the borders of the Republic is invoked as the force governing everything. "A nation's capacity for high-tension political commitment is limited. Nature insists on a respite. People can no longer gird themselves for heroic effort. They yearn to immerse themselves in the privacies of life." But thanks to the miracle of mass psychology, people eventually "grow bored with selfish motives and vistas, [they] weary of materialism as the ultimate goal. The vacation from public responsibility replenishes the national energies and recharges the national batteries. People … ask not what their country can do for them but what they can do for their country." Which is why Schlesinger can speak of the future with the same air of authority as his father. The national batteries will soon be recharged, he prophesies. "Shortly before or after the year 1990," Manichean America is going to get moving again.
But recent swings in American politics have been so erratic and so frequent as to make a mockery of the cycle concept. In a preemptive strike against this horrid idea, Schlesinger acknowledges the seeming anomaly that the Environmental Protection Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act became law on the dreadful Nixon's watch, and that Nixon even proposed a guaranteed minimum income in his Family Assistance Program, as well as indexing social-security benefits, imposing wage-and-price controls, and presiding over the fastest increase in social payments since the New Deal. Not to fret. Even though by the terms of the cycle theory an era of selfishness surely ought to have begun with Nixon's inauguration in 1969, the "liberal tide of the 60's [was] still running strong."
It may further seem anomalous, Schlesinger goes on to say, that a Democrat was elected President in 1976, smack in the middle of an otherwise Republican line-up. Not to fret. The four-year Carter Presidency did not represent an inexplicably brief recrudescence of the reign of the good guys, for Carter was "the most conservative Democratic President since Grover Cleveland." He was a throwback, this Georgian, and from "a longer perspective, the differences between Carter and Reagan will seem less consequential than the continuities." So much for the fact that, for all his skepticism about big-government solutions, Carter significantly extended liberalism's domestic agenda in a number of areas, such as education, energy, and urban development (the action-grant program), while in foreign policy it would be hard for anyone to deny that he was a liberal for almost three years, inasmuch as liberalism in this realm has been equated since Vietnam with the abnegation of national power. Moreover, the alleged throwback to Grover Cleveland was actually a portent of things to come, for the streaky combination of conservatism and liberalism for which Carter stood is evident nationwide in today's Democratic party, and may well provide oratorical themes for its presidential nominees in the era dead ahead that Nostradamus, Jr. likes to think will touch off a new cycle of his kind of politics.
"Power is poison," Henry Adams darkly remarks in The Education of Henry Adams (1918), but if those sobering words are quoted in the pages of Cycles it is only because the author wishes to quarrel with them. Which is ironic, because being close to the President of the United States in the early 1960's unquestionably poisoned the wells of Schlesinger's historical imagination. The stories of Blum, Freidel, and Leuchtenburg (and of the other members of their historical group) unfolded somewhat differently; nevertheless, a grim complementarity to the fate of Schlesinger obtained.
There may be other reasons—there almost surely are—why Blum's later career would be distinguished principally by his service on one of Harvard's governing boards rather than by scholarship; and why Freidel, after churning out three volumes on FDR, bing, bing, bing, in 1952, 1954, and 1956, should not have been able to come up with volume four, Launching the New Deal, until 1973 and has since fallen silent as Roosevelt's biographer; and why the intellectual promise of Leuchtenburg's Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, published in the final year of Camelot, remains unfulfilled. Yet at the same time that we must concede the likely presence in their lives of other coercive factors, it is difficult not to believe that as historians these three men—and many others like them in universities across the nation—were disabled by the political events of the 1960's and their reverberating sequels in the 1970's and 1980's. History, it would seem, betrayed a whole generation of specialists in 20th-century American political history because it smashed their working model of the American experience, as constructed by them out of the New Deal in their impressionable youth.
Although this generation is now passing from the academy, its successors for the most part remain wedded to the study of presidential elections as the only way to understand the political scene. There is, however, another way, as a good many political scientists, economists, and sociologists have discovered. While the electorate in the past forty years has switched allegiances time and again, the linear development of a leaderless, bureaucratic government has proceeded unbrokenly. In the middle and late 1940's, the consolidation of the administrative apparatus of the New Deal, the emergence of a national-security establishment, and the recruitment into federal service of experts from the natural sciences and the social sciences had the effect of placing much of the government beyond the control of elected officials.
Schlesinger, in Cycles, creates the impression that because the liberal Presidents of the postwar period, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, kept their White House staffs small and served as their own chiefs of staff, they were very much in charge of things. The quantum leap in size of the White House staff took place under Nixon and was the product, Schlesinger avers, of his paranoiac insecurity as President. These vaporings merely illustrate the pathos of Schlesinger's intellectual situation, as does his anti-Nixon, anti-Vietnam war diatribe, The Imperial Presidency (1973). In fact, the only postwar President who has come even close to asserting presidential control over the executive bureaucracy was Eisenhower, and that was because he governed through a general-staff system with which he, as a long-time Army officer, was eminently familiar. And if the White House staff was enlarged during Nixon's Presidency, it was because he, too, sought to bring the bureaucracy to heel.
Today, an elaborate staff exists in the houses of Congress as well as in the White House, and the modus operandi for the staffs of the vast federal agencies is to lobby their counterparts on the Hill, rather than the Congressmen themselves. Meanwhile, "iron triangles" linking executive bureaus, congressional committees, and interest group clienteles protect their stakes in federal programs by frustrating the efforts of Presidents and their appointees to horn in on the policy-making action. Ramifying out beyond the Washington Beltway are the intermediary organizations—the consultants, the contractors, the city and state governments—through which the federal bureaucracy prefers to act so as to keep down its numerical strength (and thus silence protests about it), while at the same time expanding its political strength. And "issue networks," as the political scientist Hugh Heclo calls them, further politicize the nation at large by enabling such variegated people as the businessman with shady international contacts, the renowned economist sitting by the telephone in his book-lined study, and the citizens' group voicing its outrage at a planning-commission hearing to plug into the Washington power frame.
We like to think that when a new President comes into office he takes full command. Vertically and for brief periods, presidential authority has indeed been felt in the furthest reaches of the bureaucracy, most recently under the budget-cutting and deregulating Ronald Reagan. Horizontally and consistently, however, it has not.
In an age of bureaucracy, more historians ought to join the effort of their social-science colleagues to follow the connections between politics and administration. Many benefits might result from the rise of such a scholarship. It could serve to rejuvenate a badly ailing academic discipline. It might help to create a general appreciation of why so many of the episodes that have shaken the American Presidency in the past twenty-six years, from the decision to go forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion to the Watergate debacle to the Iranian arms scandal, have been bureaucratic dramas. On a considerably lower level of importance, it could also make even more apparent than is already the case that the prefabricated political responses of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. have very little bearing on the world that lies around him.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2430
SOURCE: "Equal But Separate," in The New Republic, Vol. 205, Nos. 3-4, July 15-22, 1991, pp. 41-3.
[In the following review of Schlesinger's The Disuniting of America, Woodward examines Schlesinger's view that the recent emphasis on ethnic and linguistic separatism will not exhaust the unifying ideal of the American republic.]
The current upsurge of American minorities goes under several names, each designating a different aspect of the movement and varied attitudes toward it: ethnicity, diversity, pluralism, multiculturalism, Afrocentrism, anti-Westernism. All these aspects have found lodgement in the universities, where their most vocal spokesmen are often concentrated and where students provide their most volatile followers. It was natural, therefore, that the current debate and concern should have focused first on academic questions such as who shall be admitted, what they should be taught, and who should teach them. And it is well that this should be so, for higher education is most immediately affected, and the discussion of the effects must continue.
In his brief and brilliant book, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is certainly not unaware of the academic aspects of the problem, and in fact he has a chapter titled "The Battle of the Schools." But Schlesinger is mainly concerned with larger and more lasting implications and their national consequences. The jacket of The Disuniting of America bears a subtitle, Reflections on a Multicultural Society, that is not carried on the title page but helps to indicate the nature of the book, while the main title suggests its graver and wider implications.
The outburst of minority assertiveness in the United States is taking place against a background of explosions of the sort within nation-states around the globe. Those abroad are often marked by old hatreds and deeply entrenched linguistic and religious differences; they take separatist forms, and use organized violence that threatens the existence of the nation in which they occur. On the larger scale one thinks of the Soviet Union and India, and with many variations the smaller examples include South Africa, Canada, Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Burma, Indonesia, and even the most recent liberated generation of nation-states, such as Czechoslovakia. History in the real new world order is made not primarily by what nations do to each other, but by what is done to nations by divisive ethnic feuds within.
Against this background of current foreign divisiveness and (until lately) in sharp contrast to it, Schlesinger brings to bear a historical perspective on the American tradition. He begins aptly with the celebrated question posed in 1782 by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur in his Letters from an American Farmer. "What then is the American, this new man?" And he follows with the familiar example cited by the Franco-American author, of one couple that in three generations united in marriage American citizens of eight different national origins. "From this promiscuous breed," continued Crèvecoeur, "that race now called Americans has arisen." He follows by coining in the same paragraph the melting-pot metaphor: "Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men," a race that had turned its back on "ancient prejudices and manners." Crèvecoeur's Letters were translated into several languages and became a favorite text for prominent America-watchers of Europe in the next two centuries, including Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835, James Bryce in 1888, and Gunnar Myrdal in 1944. All of them marveled at a unique capacity of America, what Bryce called "the amazing solvent power which American institutions, habits, and ideas exercise upon newcomers of all races."
Americans themselves proclaimed assimilation to be an ideal of the national creed from the start. Washington welcomed "the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions" not as groups or ethnic enclaves, but as individuals who would be "assimilated to our customs, measures, and laws: in a word, soon become one people." Wilson echoed him during World War I: "You cannot become thorough Americans if you think of yourself in groups. America does not consist of groups." What with more than 27 million immigrants pouring in between 1865 and 1917—more than the total population of the country in 1850—it is just as well for the national welfare that the tradition of assimilation generally continued to prevail. America seemed to have made diversity a source of unity.
It is true that the melting pot met with resistance from time to time. Assimilation was not automatic, and ethnic enclaves were formed in metropolitan quarters. Foreign languages and newspapers persisted, and so did a suspicion that the melting pot was a WASP device for imposing on newcomers from other nations the dominant Anglo-centric culture. And apart from European newcomers, certain oldcomers were held unassimilable from the start. Crèvecoeur answered his own question, "What then is the American, this new man?" in his very next sentence: "He is either an European, or the descendant of an European." That silently defined blacks out of an American identity. Later Tocqueville deplored the omission. The exclusion was supported by a consensus among whites for a long time to come, but for whites themselves—for newcomers as well as oldcomers—assimilation remained the goal. Even among the majority of blacks, down through Martin Luther King Jr., the fight was against segregation and separatism, and for desegregation and integration.
Then came the growing cult of ethnicity, the passion for "roots," for ancestral voices, for separate and inviolable group identities. As Schlesinger describes this shift from integration and assimilation to separatism:
Instead of a transformative nation with an identity all its own, America increasingly sees itself as preservative of old identities. Instead of a nation composed of individuals making their own free choices, America increasingly sees itself as composed of groups more or less indelible in their ethnic character. The national ideal had once been e pluribus unum. Are we now to belittle unum and glorify pluribus? Will the center hold? Or will the melting pot yield to the Tower of Babel?
Schlesinger readily admits that the republic, long dominated by white Anglo-Saxon males, owes overdue acknowledgement to the contributions of women, black Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Indians, and that their demands have had some healthy consequences. What he fears is the "disuniting" effects of overdoing both demands and responses. In 1989, for example, the New York state commissioner of education appointed a Task Force on Minorities to report on a history curriculum for the public schools. With no historian among its seventeen members, and with ethnic representatives in charge, the task force denounced as "terribly damaging" to the psyche of ethnics a prevailing emphasis on Eurocentric tradition and Western culture and demanded a new curriculum containing four other cultures to teach "higher self-esteem" to their children. The report contains no reference to the ideas of individual freedom and political democracy to which most of the world now aspires. Such ideas, along with their unifying effect, are presumably too Western. Instead the report sanctions racial tension and deepens racial divisiveness.
While numerous groups have joined in to voice their own grievances and claim redress as victims, black Americans, the largest minority with the oldest and most tragic grievances, have been the most prominent. To them Schlesinger devotes most of his attention in this book. The self-appointed spokesmen whom he quotes are not presented as typical or representative, but as pacesetters and extremists. A black psychiatrist attributes white racial inferiority to a genetic inability to produce the skin pigments of melanin that account for black racial superiority. Another black psychologist contends that the black mind works in genetically distinctive ways. Some argue that biological and mental differences make blacks "process information differently" and prove the need for teaching in "black English." This explains black learning difficulties under the present system. The solution is to break with white, racist, Eurocentric culture and embrace "Afrocentricity." Leonard Jeffries of the City College of New York offers his people a choice between the cold, materialistic "ice people" who brought "domination, destruction, and death" to the world, and the warm, humanistic "sun people" and their intellectual and physical superiority.
The multiracial curriculum conceived by the New York task force has inspired similar efforts in many parts of the country. An educational psychologist, Asa G. Hilliard III of Georgia State University, who conceived the collection African-American Baseline Essays, contends that "Africa is the mother of Western civilization," that Egypt was a black African country and the source of the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. Africans also discovered America and named the waters they crossed the Ethiopian Ocean, long before Columbus. Adopted first by the public school system of Portland, Oregon, Hilliard's ideas have inspired Afrocentric curriculums in Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and other cities.
How fully and faithfully all these metropolitan school systems have followed the Portland example framed by Hilliard and his six collaborators I have no means of knowing. As published in a revised edition of 1990 by the Portland Public Schools, African-American Baseline Essays runs to a total of 486 pages. All parts follow the common thesis that Africa gave birth to Western civilization, and that it was the birthplace of architecture, mathematics, medicine, music, and philosophy—not to mention the arts and sciences in general, social studies and history included. The theory of origins relies heavily on identifying Egyptians through the millennia as black Africans, an identification that leading American Egyptologists consulted by Schlesinger firmly reject—as firmly as classical scholars reject the dependence of Greek civilization on Egypt.
American blacks are not the first racial group with wounded pride to seek comfort in myths of a glorious past. The Irish also claimed to have discovered America before the Vikings and Columbus. Perhaps it is because the wounds of black Americans are so much deeper than those of white minorities, or because contemporary Africa offers little but famine, civil wars, and police states, that they reach back so desperately to mythic antiquities for solace. Their purpose is therapeutic, to instill pride and self-esteem in black children. That is a misuse of education and an abuse of history, and it will not work. The trouble is not the teaching of Afro-American history or African history. "The issue is the teaching of bad history under whatever ethnic banner," as Schlesinger puts it, and goes on to observe: "Surely there is something a little sad about all this."
One of the sad things is a seemingly unconscious resort to a type of racism of which American blacks have themselves been the main victims: the theory that biology or race determines mentality, once a favorite apology for slavery. But even sadder is the crippling effect of the Afro-centric therapy on the children it is designed to help. In Schlesinger's words:
The best way to keep a people down is to deny them the means of improvement and achievement and cut them off from the opportunities of national life. If some Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan wanted to devise an educational curriculum for the specific purpose of handicapping and disabling black Americans, he would not likely come up with-anything more diabolically effective than Afrocentrism.
The adoption of Afrocentric curricula for public schools from Portland to Baltimore illustrates the manipulability of white guilt and the danger of taking paths paved with good intentions.
Reflective black Americans must often find themselves embarrassed by the present rage for Africanization. They know that Americanization and rejection of Africa has long been the dominant message of black leaders from David Walker in 1829 to Martin Luther King, who declared unequivocally, "The Negro is American. We know nothing of Africa." W. E. B. DuBois noted a "fierce repugnance toward anything African" among his associates in the NAACP, who "felt themselves Americans, not Africans"—this before he moved to Africa himself in his last years. Among outstanding contemporary black scholars, John Hope Franklin draws a sharp distinction between propaganda "on the one hand and the highest standards of scholarship on the other," and Orlando Patterson scornfully denounces the "three Ps" approach to black history: princes, pyramids, and pageantry. At least one black journalist, William Raspberry of The Washington Post, begs his people "not to reach back for some culture we never knew but to lay full claim to the culture in which we exist."
Other minorities—brown, yellow, red, white—each with its own separatist slogans, myths, and programs of ethnicity, have joined in the common cult of victimization, inflammable sensitivity, alibi-seeking, and self-pity. Hispanic Americans, increasingly at odds with black Americans, reject "black English" but promote bilingualism, another source of fragmentation and ethnic separatism. Minorities do not congregate, they self-segregate. Sometimes they are assisted in this on university campuses by administrations that furnish separate dormitory, dining, study, and social facilities. Stanford boasts "ethnic theme houses." Where Chief Justice Earl Warren held in 1954 that segregation "generates a feeling of inferiority," ethnics now hold that integration generates such a feeling and segregation is the cure.
A more realistic view of ethnic separatism is that it fosters sensitivities, resentments, and suspicions, setting one group against another. With more reasons for suspicion against whites than others, blacks may have acquired the greatest susceptibility to paranoia. Alarming evidence of this is provided by a poll of New Yorkers in 1990 that showed that 60 percent of black respondents thought it "true or possibly true" that the government was making drugs available in black neighborhoods to harm black people, and 29 percent thought it true or possible that the AIDS virus was invented by racist conspirators to kill blacks.
The cult of ethnicity and its zealots have put at stake the American tradition of a shared commitment to common ideals and its reputation for assimilation, for making "a nation of nations." At stake as well are Washington's goal of "one people," Crèvecoeur's "new race," Tocqueville's "civic participation," Bryce's "amazing solvent," and Myrdal's "American Creed." With this attack comes a contemptuous assault on Western culture in general as a curse to mankind. It appears, as Schlesinger suggests, that "white guilt can be pushed too far."
For all that, Schlesinger believes that "the campaign against the idea of common ideals and a single society will fail," and that "the upsurge of ethnicity is a superficial enthusiasm stirred by romantic ideologues and unscrupulous hucksters whose claim to speak for their minorities is thoughtlessly accepted by the media." It is his "historian's guess" and his personal conviction "that the resources of the Creed have not been exhausted. Americanization has not lost its charms." Whether his guess and conviction prove justified or not, we owe Arthur Schlesinger a great debt of gratitude for his reflections on the subject.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1566
SOURCE: "Toward Yugoslavia?" in Commentary, Vol. 93, No. 6, June, 1992, pp. 61-3.
[In the following favorable review of Schlesinger's The Disuniting of America, MacDonald discusses Schlesinger's concern that multicultural emphasis in America is both separatist and segregationist in scope and intention.
Originally published by Whittle Direct Books and now reissued with an expanded foreword, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society is an uncompromising look at the fraud of multiculturalism and Afrocentrism. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s eminence as a historian—he currently holds the Albert Schweitzer chair in the humanities at the City University of New York—has not protected him, or his book, from the usual smears. Ishmael Reed, a novelist who teaches English at Berkeley, has denounced Schlesinger as a "follower of David Duke," and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., professor of English and Afro-American studies at Harvard, has caricatured Schlesinger's arguments as a "demand [for] cultural white-face."
While predictable, the hostile response to The Disuniting of America is nevertheless particularly discouraging, for it is difficult to imagine a book expressing greater compassion for the racial frustrations which Schlesinger sees as fueling Afrocentrism, or greater candor about the past injustices of American society and historiography. If such a book—as frank about America's failings as about those of multiculturalism—is dismissed as neo-Nazi propaganda, then good-faith discussion has been all but foreclosed.
Schlesinger's thesis is that the current cult of ethnicity imperils the very basis of the American experiment. Although multiculturalists may think they own the patent on "diversity," Schlesinger shows that diversity has been America's trademark since inception. Our unique admixture of peoples has prompted both native-born and foreign observers to ask: what can hold so variegated a nation together? From the 18th to the 20th century the answer has remained constant: the "American Creed." As Gunnar Myrdal wrote in 1944, Americans hold in common "the most explicitly expressed system of general ideals" of any country in the West: the ideals of equality and the inalienable rights to freedom, justice, and opportunity. It is adherence to those ideals, not one's race, original nationality, or ethnicity, that makes one an American.
Today, says Schlesinger, the American identity is in jeopardy as multiculturalism and Afrocentrism elevate racial and ethnic over national affiliation. At the end of this road, he warns, lie Yugoslavia and other contemporary battlegrounds of racial and ethnic separatism. While the analogy may seem a touch overwrought, there can be no question that multiculturalists are playing with weapons that can wreak havoc on our already inadequate schools, our social structure, and economy.
Separatist ideas of history are among those weapons. To be sure, today's multiculturalists and Afro-centrists are hardly the first to revise history. During previous waves of American ethnic consciousness, Schlesinger points out, underdog groups similarly fabricated their own "compensatory" versions of history—what the historian John V. Kelleher calls the "there's-always-an-Irishman-at-the-bottom-of-it-doing-the-real-work approach to American history." The crucial difference, however, is that those earlier movements never sought to impose their ethnocentric mythologies on the public-school curriculum.
By contrast, Afrocentrists, who place Africa at the source of the world's cultural and scientific achievements, view the teaching of history in the schools as a tool for group empowerment and for the advancement of group self-esteem. Such "therapeutic" uses of history undermine what Schlesinger sees as the true purpose of historical study: "the recognition of complexity and the search for knowledge." Moreover, as Diane Ravitch, now an Assistant Secretary of Education, has warned, "Once ethnic pride and self-esteem become the criterion for teaching history, certain things cannot be taught" in the schools. Proscribed subjects include (in Schlesinger's formulation) "the tyrannous authority [of African emperors], the ferocity of their wars, the tribal massacres, the squalid lot of the common people,… [and] the complicity with the Atlantic slave trade."
As for what is being taught, the twin pillars of Afrocentrism are the claims that the West stole its culture from Egypt, and that Egypt was black. Schlesinger debunks both these fallacies, and disproves as well the relationship between ethnocentric education and self-esteem or academic achievement. Self-esteem, he notes, originates not in racial pride but in personal achievement and family encouragement, while the presence or absence of ethnic role models in the curriculum has no known correlation with academic success.
The connection between Afrocentric education and American black identity is even more tenuous, Schlesinger boldly argues. Since the early 19th century, most black leaders have repudiated the notion that they are Africans first, Americans second. The current cult of "self-Africanization," among a people who no longer have an authentic relation to Africa, Schlesinger dismisses as "play-acting." Most damning of all, he concludes, Afrocentric pedagogy works against the very goals it claims to be pursuing, since nothing could be more cunningly designed to retard the social and economic progress of black children than the new form of segregation represented by black-only public schools, the deemphasis of logic in favor of emotive forms of expression, and the encouragement of "black" English.
In defense of their policies, multiculturalists routinely cite the sins of the European "canon" against which they are rebelling, an allegedly monolithic, exclusive, and intellectually repressive structure which, in the words of a leading Afrocentrist, is "killing [black] children, killing their minds." Western culture as a whole, they add, is the world's leading source of racism, imperialism, sexism, and all-around nastiness. Yet as Schlesinger points out, the Western canon—a fluid, immensely complex cultural inheritance that contains voices of rage and protest as well as voices of celebration and devotion—is precisely what has inspired the great black political theorists and philosophers, not to mention innumerable critics of the West both white and black.
What sets Europe apart from the rest of the world is not oppressiveness—its sins have been more than matched by Asia, the Middle East, and Africa—but rather the fact that Western oppression has "produced [its] own antidote":
Whatever the particular crimes of Europe, that continent is also the source—the unique source—of those liberating ideas of individual liberty, political democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and cultural freedom that constitute our most precious legacy and to which most of the world today aspires. These are European ideas, not Asian, nor African, nor Middle Eastern ideas, except by adoption.
And though Schlesinger can be severe about the West's failure to live up to its ideals, including the treatment of blacks and other minorities, he is scathing on the relative merits of other cultures compared with ours:
There is surely no reason for Western civilization to have guilt trips laid on it by champions of cultures based on despotism, superstition, tribalism, and fanaticism. In this regard the Afrocentrists are especially absurd. The West needs no lectures on the superior virtue of those "sun people" who sustained slavery until Western imperialism abolished it (and, it is reported, sustain it to this day in Mauritania and the Sudan), who still keep women in subjection and cut off their clitorises, who carry out racial persecutions not only against Indians and other Asians but against fellow Africans from the wrong tribes, who show themselves either incapable of operating a democracy or ideologically hostile to the democratic idea, and who in their tyrannies and massacre, their Idi Amins and Boukassas, have stamped with utmost brutality on human rights.
The eloquence and erudition of The Disuniting of America make its hostile reception all the more disturbing. Reading this book, one is torn between admiration for its arguments and the sad conviction that they are utterly futile. To warn against the dissolution of our common national ideals and our common culture holds little threat for people who claim, however speciously, that they never shared those ideals and were never part of that culture.
One of the most pernicious effects of multiculturalism has been to destroy the linguistic ground necessary to debate it. For such a debate would have to invoke terms like "we" and "commonality." Yet multiculturalists, aided by the sophisticated deconstructive efforts of literary theorists like Stanley Fish and Barbara Herrnstein Smith, reject any such appeal to an American "we" as an act of imperialist violence. The only language that remains is that of an increasingly narrow "us" versus an increasingly alien "them." This is the language of civil war.