The Cycles of American History

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

An interpretive and synthesizing journey through American history and politics is an ambitious enterprise that only a distinguished senior historian could undertake with confidence, and perhaps only Arthur Schlesinger could manage it with such energy and style. Most of the fourteen essays in The Cycles of American History are adapted and reworked pieces from the voluminous body of articles that Schlesinger has published since the 1950’s. They represent an informed but hardly dispassionate attempt to isolate and explain patterns and trends in domestic and foreign policy. Schlesinger’s liberal biases are readily apparent and as readily admitted: He admires presidents of broad vision, such as the Roosevelts and John F. Kennedy, while conservatives such as Jimmy Carter (whom he likens to Grover Cleveland) and Ronald Reagan stand very low in his estimation. His purpose in this collection is to explain how and why such variations in leadership recur in American history.

The essays are grouped into two main categories, foreign policy and domestic affairs, each discussing half a dozen topics. Two long thematic pieces set forth the themes that inform the rest of the book. In “The Theory of America: Experiment or Destiny?” Schlesinger identifies two central traditions on which the self-image of the early American republic was grounded. One viewed the young nation as a bold but risky experiment in democratic government, undertaken in the face of historical evidence that republics tended to be short-lived and self-destructive. The Founding Fathers considered their enterprise an uncertain one for which a successful outcome could by no means be predicted. A coexisting countertradition, rooted in the Calvinist ethos and growing stronger over time, proclaimed America as a country with a special destiny, or, in John Winthrop’s words, a “redeemer nation” that would serve as an example and guide for the old, unsanctified world.

The centerpiece essay of the book, “The Cycles of American Politics,” follows up on this dialectic between pragmatics and ideology, experiment and destiny, by dividing United States history into alternating cycles, roughly thirty years long, dominated either by private interest or public purpose. A private-interest phase is inward-looking and dominated by capitalist values: making money, expanding markets, and keeping government under a tight rein lest it become a burdensome interference. A public-interest phase, by contrast, is outward-looking and idealistic, characterized by a preoccupation with debating issues, solving problems, redressing injustices. In public-interest eras, the function of government changes from static to dynamic; it becomes an agent and instrument of change. Both phases are naturally self-limiting. After a prolonged period of public-interest activism, idealism wears thin and crusading impulses spend themselves; people are worn out with causes and turn with relief to the quieter, self-interested pastimes of getting and spending until the cycle swings back again. Applying the model to the twentieth century, for example, Schlesinger identifies the first two decades, the era of Progressive reform at home and war for democracy abroad, as a public-interest phase. Disenchanted and tired, the nation then gladly returned to “normalcy” and private interest until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, World War II, and Harry S Truman’s Fair Deal ushered in another period of intense public activism. The Eisenhower years brought another period of respite before the plunge into Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. The trauma of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s then swung the cycle back toward private interest. Thus Schlesinger sees the “Reagan revolution” as merely the culmination of a predictable phase that should at some point in the decade of the 1990’s give way to another period of public activism.

In Schlesinger’s words, “the public-private equation and the experiment-destiny equation overlap rather than coincide.” Thus, “experimentalists” such as Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and “predestinarians” such as Woodrow Wilson devoted themselves equally to the public purpose, while a pragmatic Dwight D. Eisenhower and an ideological Reagan have shared a common devotion to the private interest. The public-private cycle corresponds to liberal and conservative political philosophies but is not circumscribed by party labels; Republican or Democratic dominance does not guarantee the emergence of one or the other. A Republican can be an activist—Theodore Roosevelt is a prime example—and a Democrat such as Cleveland can preside over a private-interest period. The cyclical pattern is entirely self-generating and independent of external events such as the business cycle. The New Deal was inspired by the Depression, but Progressivism sprang up during a period of prosperity, and the two serious depressions of the last thirty years of the nineteenth century had no effect on the conservative temper of the period.

Using the experiment-destiny and the public-private interest dichotomies as explanatory models, Schlesinger then turns his attention to foreign affairs. He finds no correlation between the public-private cycle and Frank L. Klingberg’s foreign-policy cycle, which proposes...

(The entire section is 2172 words.)