Arthur Schlesinger

Arthur Schlesinger

Arthur Schlesinger, the elder of the two sons of Arthur Meier Schlesinger, a professor of American history, and the former Elizabeth Bancroft, was born in Columbus, Ohio, on 15th October 1917. When he was seven his father left the University of Iowa to join Harvard University. The family now moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Schlesinger was educated at the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, before arriving at Harvard, where he obtained his first degree at the age of 20. He then wrote a book on Orestes A. Brownson, a 19th-century journalist, novelist and theologian. It was published as Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress (1938). Henry Steele Commager in The New York Times Book Review, said the book introduced “a new and distinguished talent in the field of historical portraiture.”

Schlesinger spent a year at Peterhouse College of Cambridge University and when he arrived back in the United States in 1939 he controversally wrote an article for The Boston Globe calling for America to abandon its isolationism and to introduce immediate conscription. He also argued that President Franklin D. Roosevelt should join Britain and France in its war against Nazi Germany.

After completing a tudy of the Boston historian Richard Hildreth, the 23 year old Schlesinger was appointed to a three-year fellowship at Harvard University. The citation said he had been chosen for showing "the promise of a notable contribution to knowledge and thought". He also began work on what many consider to be his most important work, The Age of Jackson.

After the United States entered the Second World War Schlesinger served with the Office of War Information (1942-43) and the Office of Strategic Services (1943-45) which took him to London, Paris and occupied Germany. He later recalled: "I gained more insight into history from being in the war than I did from all my academic training."

Schlesinger's The Age of Jackson was published in 1945 and won him the Pulitzer Prize for history. Harold Jackson has pointed out: " Schlesinger's re-examination of the first American president to be elected by popular vote, and his analysis of Andrew Jackson's ruthless expansion of executive power and role in founding the Democratic party had a profound impact on fellow historians and on their subsequent treatment of the period. It also brought Schlesinger... his elevation to a Harvard professorship in 1947."

A strong supporter of the Democratic Party he was the co-founder of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). It was stablished in 1947 as an organization to support the advance of liberal causes. Other members included Eleanor Roosevelt, Walter Reuther, Hubert Humphrey, Asa Philip Randolph, John Kenneth Galbraith,Walter F. White,Louise Bowen, Chester Bowles, Louis Carlo Fraina, Stewart Alsop, Reinhold Niebuhr, George Counts, David Dubinsky and Joseph P. Lash. Schlesinger commented: “Problems will always torment us because all important problems are insoluble: that is why they are important. The good comes from the continuing struggle to try and solve them, not from the vain hope of their solution.”

In 1949 Schlesinger published The Vital Center. The journalist, Mark Feeney, of The Boston Globe, pointed out: "His 1949 essay collection, The Vital Center, did more than any other single book to define the debate over whether post-New Deal liberalism would be aligned with those sympathetic toward Soviet Communism or with its antagonists. He served the Truman administration as a consultant to the Economic Cooperation Administration, which oversaw the Marshall Plan, and to the Mutual Security Administration."

The ADA came into conflict with another left-wing group, the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA). Its members included Henry A. Wallace, Rexford Tugwell, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Arthur Miller, Dashiell Hammett, Hellen Keller, Thomas Mann, Aaron Copland, Claude Pepper, Eugene O'Neill, Glen H. Taylor, John Abt, Edna Ferber, Thornton Wilder, Carl Van Doren, Fredric March and Gene Kelly. ADA's main dispute with the PCA was that they that it allowed members of the American Communist Party to join: "We reject any association with Communism or sympathizers with communism in the United States as completely as we reject any association with Fascists or their sympathizers."

In the 1952 Presidential Election Schlesinger supported the campaign of Adlai Stevenson. He did the same in the 1956 Presidential Election. During this period he wrote a highly sympathetic history of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. The three volume book, The Age of Roosevelt, appeared between 1957 and 1960.

Schlesinger met John F. Kennedy at the home of the journalist Joseph Alsop. His first impression was that “Kennedy seemed very sincere and not unintelligent, but kind of on the conservative side.” However, he did support him in the 1960 Presidential Election. He described Kennedy as "a man of action who could pass easily over to the realm of ideas, and confront intellectuals with perfect confidence in his capacity to hold his own."

Harold Jackson pointed out: "As Kennedy began preparing for the 1960 presidential elections, Schlesinger became closely involved in his campaign. He saw Kennedy as the predicted hero who could pull the nation out of its 16-year torpor. In an effort to convince the still-sceptical Stevenson wing of the party about Kennedy's merits, he rushed out a 50-page eulogy. In party terms it was hugely successful, though Kennedy's hairline victory, by 114,000 of 68m popular votes, suggested that the electorate was still sceptical (and that Schlesinger's wave theory was deeply indebted to Chicago's peculiar vote-counting culture)." Kennedy appointed Schlesinger as his special assistant for Latin American affairs.

Douglas Martin of New York Times has argued: "If the president wanted to meet the intellectual Isaiah Berlin or the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, Mr. Schlesinger arranged it. The president was said to enjoy Mr. Schlesinger’s gossip during weekly lunches, although he rarely attended the brainy seminars Robert Kennedy asked Mr. Schlesinger to organize. Mr. Schlesinger distinguished himself early in the administration by being one of the few in the White House to question the invasion of Cuba planned by the Eisenhower administration. But he then became a loyal soldier, telling reporters a misleading story that the Cuban exiles landing at the Bay of Pigs were no greater than 400 when in fact they numbered 1,400."

Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy he became the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities of the City University of New York, and was appointed chairman of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Foundation. His book on Kennedy's presidency, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House was published in 1965. Gore Vidal argued that Schlesinger had trouble separating history from sentiment and considered the book a "political novel".

Schlesinger continued to be actively involved in politics and supported Robert Kennedy during the 1968 Presidential Election. A strong opponent of President Richard Nixon in 1973, during the Watergate Crisis, he argued fiercely that he must be made to face trial by the senate. In the 1980 election he supported the attempt by Edward Kennedy to be president. He later explained: "I'm an unrepentant and unreconstructed liberal and New Dealer. That means I favour the use of government to improve opportunities and to enlarge freedoms for ordinary people."

Other books by Schlesinger include Robert Kennedy & His Times (1979), Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764-1776 (1980), The Cycles of American History (1986), General MacArthur and President Truman: The Struggle for Control of American Foreign Policy (1992), The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (1993), Almanac of American History (1995), A Life in the 20th Century (2001), Imperial Presidency (2004) and War and the American Presidency (2005).

Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr died in Manhatten after a heart-attack on 28th February, 2007.

During World War II, only one major liberal organization, the Union for Democratic Action (UDA), had banned communists from its ranks. At the Willard, members of the UDA met to expand and rename their organization. The attendees, who included Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Reuther, and Eleanor Roosevelt, issued a press release that enumerated the new organization's principles. Announcing the formation of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the statement declared, "Because the interests of the United States are the interests of free men everywhere," America should support "democratic and freedom-loving peoples the world over." That meant unceasing opposition to communism, an ideology "hostile to the principles of freedom and democracy on which the Republic has grown great."

At the time, the ADA's was still a minority view among American liberals. Two of the most influential journals of liberal opinion, The New Republic and The Nation, both rejected militant anti-communism. Former Vice President Henry Wallace, a hero to many liberals, saw communists as allies in the fight for domestic and international progress. As Steven M. Gillon notes in Politics and Vision, his excellent history of the ADA, it was virtually the only liberal organization to back President Harry S Truman's March 1947 decision to aid Greece and Turkey in their battle against Soviet subversion.

But, over the next two years, in bitter political combat across the institutions of American liberalism, anti-communism gained strength. With the ADA's help, Truman crushed Wallace's third-party challenge en route to reelection. The formerly leftist Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) expelled its communist affiliates and The New Republic broke with Wallace, its former editor. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) denounced communism, as did the NAACP. By 1949, three years after Winston Churchill warned that an "iron curtain" had descended across Europe, Schlesinger could write in The Vital Center: "Mid-twentieth century liberalism, I believe, has thus been fundamentally reshaped... by the exposure of the Soviet Union, and by the deepening of our knowledge of man. The consequence of this historical re-education has been an unconditional rejection of totalitarianism."

Kennedy had many doubts about the feasibility of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Schlesinger noted. But he was also concerned - as was Dulles - about the "disposal problem" if the operation was called off before it began and the Cuban exiles went back, unbloodied, to Florida, where they would surely tell their story of frustration and disappointment to every journalist they could find. Schlesinger quoted Kennedy as saying of the Cuban exile brigade, "If we have to get rid of these... men, it is much better to dump them in Cuba than in the United States, especially if that is where they want to go." It was a rare glimpse into Kennedy's instinct for self-preservation. He understood that the political price of canceling the invasion would be great, far greater than if it were to go forward and collapse in failure. By canceling, he would appear weak and indecisive, and give the Republicans an opportunity to accuse him of being soft on communism. But Schlesinger's account depicted Kennedy's dilemma in far loftier terms. If the president canceled, he "would forever be haunted by the feeling that his scruples had preserved Castro in power." In going forward, the historian added, Kennedy was motivated "by the commitment of the Cuban patriots" and "saw no obligation to protect the Castro regime from democratic Cubans."

Sorensen and Schlesinger apparently did not know the critical truths about Cuba. They did not know that candidate Kennedy had been privately informed by CIA officials and some participants before the election that the island would soon be invaded by the secret exile army -information he used to great effect against Richard Nixon. And they were not privy to one of the major reasons for President Kennedy's last-minute ambivalence about the Bay of Pigs operation: Sam Giancana's henchmen inside Cuba had been unable to murder Castro in the days immediately before the invasion.

One of his closest advisers, historian Arthur Schlesinger, wrote: "All across Latin America the ancient oligarchies - landholders, Church and Army - are losing their grip. There is a groundswell of inarticulate mass dissatisfaction on the part of peons, Indians, miners, plantation workers, factory hands, classes held down past all endurance and now approaching a state of revolt."

Near Recife, Schlesinger had seen poverty-stricken villages full of starving children covered with scabs. He recalled that before Castro came to power Havana had been nothing but a giant casino and brothel for American businessmen over for a big weekend. "My fellow countrymen reeled through the streets, picking up fourteen-year-old Cuban girls and tossing coins to make men scramble in the gutter", he wrote.

The policies of the President and his advisers were certain to have economic repercussions. In April, 1962, a year after the inauguration of the Alliance for Progress, Latin America, in the eyes of the conservatives, appeared headed for chaos. In Argentina, President Frondizi had just been overthrown by a military coup, and rioting had broken out in Guatemala and Ecuador. There was no country to the South that could be considered politically and economically stable. Capital flowed back into the United States, frightened by the spectre of Castroist revolution.

But the effect on the American economy threatened to be even worse. The businessmen could not accept concepts like those of Schlesinger, who declared that the essential thing was not, as Nixon had suggested, to stimulate the cosmetics industry, but to build hospitals and to invest in sectors that affected the strength of the nation and the welfare of the people.

The CIA was reviving the assassination plots at the very time President Kennedy was considering the possibility of normalization of relations with Cuba - an extraordinary action. If it was not total incompetence - which in the case of the CIA cannot be excluded - it was a studied attempt to subvert national policy.... I think the CIA must have known about this initiative. They must certainly have realized that Bill Attwood and the Cuban representative to the U.N. were doing more than exchanging daiquiri recipes…They had all the wires tapped at the Cuban delegation to the United Nations….Undoubtedly if word leaked of President Kennedy's efforts, that might have been exactly the kind of thing to trigger some explosion of fanatical violence. It seems to me a possibility not to be excluded.

Kennedy insisted during October 1963 that one thousand U.S. troops in Vietnam, euphemistically referred to as advisers, be recalled at that time. Kenneth O'Donnell has stated that Kennedy planned to withdraw all Americans from Vietnam after the 1964 elections (O'Donnell and Powers, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye). Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has also stated that Kennedy was to end the United States adventure in Vietnam: "He was a prudent executive, not inclined to heavy investments in lost causes. His whole presidency was marked precisely by his capacity to refuse escalation-as in Laos, the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall, the missile crisis."

Although Schlesinger has a reputation as a respected historian and O'Donnell as a reliable political figure, both men were advisers to Kennedy. Consequently, their retrospective analysis of how the president they admired might have acted, in view of the more recent conventional wisdom that establishes the adventure in Vietnam as a major disaster, should be examined closely and accepted with a degree of caution The evidence, I believe, supports their evaluation. Colonel Prouty reported that Kennedy had decided to withdraw all personnel from Vietnam. "IFK was going to make the question of peace a major campaign issue in the 1964 elections," he told me. According to Prouty, Kennedy told Major General Victor H. Krulak to go to Vietnam, "get up to date," and determine "who we turn it over to when we leave." Krulak's response, following his investigation, was that General Duong Van Minh, known popularly as Big Minh, was the answer.

Arthur M Schlesinger Jr, one of America's most eminent and controversial historians, has died after a heart attack aged 89. As a close adviser to President Kennedy and a member of his administration, Schlesinger largely created the "Camelot" myth of the Kennedy years. Subsequent revelations of the president's shady political and personal record did not shift Schlesinger's robustly partisan view.

In later life he grew increasingly disenchanted with his country's social direction. In 1991 his book The Disuniting of America expressed concern about the rise of ethnic consciousness and the conflict it had produced. Observing that "historians must always strive toward the unattainable ideal of objectivity", he acknowledged that "as we respond to contemporary urgencies we sometimes exploit the past for non-historical purposes, taking from the past or projecting upon it what suits our own society or ideology".

Though it was intended as an attack on the cherrypicking tendency of ethnic history, this passage also offered a species of coded apologia. Schlesinger had started as a remarkable young scholar who reaped considerable academic honours for his ground-breaking studies of American political development. From there he had become far less detached and more and more immersed in the transient political battles of his day...

As Kennedy began preparing for the 1960 presidential elections, Schlesinger became closely involved in his campaign. In party terms it was hugely successful, though Kennedy's hairline victory, by 114,000 of 68m popular votes, suggested that the electorate was still sceptical (and that Schlesinger's wave theory was deeply indebted to Chicago's peculiar vote-counting culture).

On Jan. 9, 1961, a gray, chilly, afternoon, President-elect Kennedy dropped by Mr. Schlesinger’s house on Irving Street in Cambridge. He asked the professor to be a special assistant in the White House. Schlesinger answered, “If you think I can help, I would like to come.”

In Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye (1972) Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers suggest that the new president saw some political risk in hiring such an unabashed liberal. He decided to keep the appointment quiet until another liberal, Chester Bowles, was confirmed as under secretary of state.

The authors, both Kennedy aides, said they asked Mr. Kennedy if he took Mr. Schlesinger on to write the official history of the administration. Kennedy said he would write it himself.

“But Arthur will probably write his own,” the president said, “and it will be better for us if he’s in the White House, seeing what goes on, instead of reading about it in The New York Times and Time magazine.

Time later described Mr. Schlesinger’s role in the Kennedy administration as a bridge to the intelligentsia as well as to the Adlai Stevenson-Eleanor Roosevelt wing of the Democratic Party. If the president wanted to meet the intellectual Isaiah Berlin or the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, Mr. Schlesinger to organize.

Mr. But he then became a loyal soldier, telling reporters a misleading story that the Cuban exiles landing at the Bay of Pigs were no greater than 400 when in fact they numbered 1,400.

In 1947, Dr. Schlesinger helped found Americans for Democratic Action, which would long remain the preeminent liberal political organization. His 1949 essay collection, The Vital Center, did more than any other single book to define the debate over whether post-New Deal liberalism would be aligned with those sympathetic toward Soviet Communism or with its antagonists. He served the Truman administration as a consultant to the Economic Cooperation Administration, which oversaw the Marshall Plan, and to the Mutual Security Administration.

Dr. Schlesinger wrote speeches for the Democratic presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson, in 1952 and 1956 . Like many liberal Democrats, he had divided loyalties at the beginning of 1960: "nostalgically for Stevenson, ideologically for [Hubert H.] Humphrey, and realistically for Kennedy." Realism won out, and Dr. Schlesinger became a key Kennedy backer.

His efforts were rewarded with a position on the White House staff as presidential special assistant. "It was an invitation no historian could resist," Dr. Schlesinger explained in 1997, "to see how decisions were made."

His duties were vaguely defined and various. He served as the White House's emissary to intellectuals and liberal groups and as a liaison with Stevenson, Kennedy's ambassador to the United Nations. He also provided expertise on cultural matters and, as an adviser on Latin America, was one of the few to oppose the Bay of Pigs invasion. He was also, in the grateful description of White House special counsel Theodore Sorensen, "a lightning rod to attract Republican attacks away from the rest of us."

"Working for him was the most exhilarating experience," Dr. Schlesinger said in 1997 of serving Kennedy. That exhilaration took many forms. As the columnist Mary McGrory wrote in 1964, "He partook with great relish in the life of the New Frontier." With his rakish smile and trademark bow tie, Dr. Schlesinger was something of a professorial bon vivant: reviewing movies for Show magazine (and, later, Vogue, Saturday Review, and American Heritage), famously going fully clothed into the swimming pool at Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's Hickory Hill estate, even engaging in a self-described "mock competition" with him for the attention of Marilyn Monroe at a birthday celebration for the president.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: FDR at Yalta

[T his is an edited version of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr&rsquos foreword to My Dear Mr Stalin: The complete correspondence of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph V. Stalin, edited by Susan Butler, to be published by Yale University Press in December.]

Roosevelt and Stalin met only twice &ndash in Tehran in November 1943 and in Yalta in February 1945. They met each time with the third of the Big Three, Winston Churchill. By the time they met at Yalta, all three were old and tired. Churchill, who had spent the 1930s in constant frustration, was seventy-one. Stalin at sixty-six had governed his country for seventeen draining years. Roosevelt, who had turned sixty-three the week before the Yalta meeting, had led his country through the worst economic depression and the worst foreign war in its history. Now they were together to lay the foundation for the peace to come. Roosevelt and Stalin had been corresponding since Hitler&rsquos surprise attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, an exchange that ran to more than 300 letters. It is a curiosity of scholarship that the full correspondence was never published during the Cold War.

Was FDR too sick at Yalta to put up a strong case for the United States? His health was poor and his energy level was low but I do not gather from conversations with persons who were with him at Yalta that his defences were down. Charles E. Bohlen, a State Department Soviet expert who served as Roosevelt&rsquos interpreter with Stalin, summed up the general testimony: &ldquoWhile his physical state was certainly not up to normal, his mental and psychological state was certainly not affected. He was lethargic but when important moments arose, he was mentally sharp. Our leader was ill at Yalta . . . but he was effective&rdquo. I interviewed Sir Frank Roberts, later British Ambassador to Moscow. &ldquoThe hand of death was on him,&rdquo Roberts said, &ldquobut it didn&rsquot impede his role at Yalta. He was in charge and achieved everything he had come to do. No problem at Yalta derived from Roosevelt&rsquos illness.&rdquo As for the Soviet side, I asked Valentin Berezhkov, Stalin&rsquos interpreter, who replied in a letter to me that Roosevelt&rsquos health &ldquowas certainly worse than in Tehran, but everybody who watched him said that in spite of his frail appearance his mental potential was high. Before he got tired, he was alert, with quick reactions and forceful arguments&rdquo.

&ldquoStalin treated Roosevelt with great esteem,&rdquo Berezhkov added, &ldquoand as far as I know did not make any comment on FDR&rsquos condition. He certainly could have, in private with his closest colleagues, but none of them ever mentioned it.&rdquo Roberts thought that &ldquoRoosevelt and Churchill were susceptible to Stalin because he did not fit the dictator stereotype of the time. He was not a demagogue he did not strut in flamboyant uniforms. He was soft-spoken, well organized, not without humour, knew his brief &ndash an agreeable façade concealing unknown horrors&rdquo.

Roosevelt had no illusions about Stalin&rsquos Russia. &ldquoThe Soviet Union, as everybody who has the courage to face the fact knows,&rdquo he told the American Youth Congress in February 1940, &ldquois run by a dictatorship as absolute as any other dictatorship in the world.&rdquo But FDR, and Churchill too, knew how much the democracies owed the Red Army for the prospective defeat of Adolf Hitler. D-Day would never have succeeded if Stalin had not detained most of the Nazi Army on Germany&rsquos Eastern Front. By the time the Big Three gathered at Yalta, the Red Army was forty-four miles from Berlin.

Much has been made of Roosevelt&rsquos alleged naivety about the Soviet Union and his alleged conviction that he could charm Stalin into postwar harmony. Certainly FDR had no expert understanding of Leninist ideology or of the terrible internal nature of Stalinist society. He responded to what he saw of Soviet behaviour in the world, and he never saw very far into the Soviet Union. Always an optimist, he hoped that the wartime alliance would bridge the ideological chasm and create a new reality for the peace. Even with the benefit of hindsight, this still seems a hope worth testing. It had to be tested in any case before the peoples of the democracies could be persuaded that their vital allies were in fact mortal foes.

Did Roosevelt really believe that he could charm Stalin out of the tree? As Walter Lippmann suggested, he was too cynical for that: &ldquoHe distrusted everybody. What he thought he could do was outwit Stalin, which is quite a different thing&rdquo. Perhaps the American President was not so hopelessly naive after all. For Stalin was not the helpless prisoner of Leninist ideology. The Soviet dictator saw himself less the disciple of Marx and Lenin than their fellow prophet. Roosevelt was surely right in regarding Stalin as the only lever available to the democracies against the rigidities of Leninism. Only Stalin had the power to rewrite Communist doctrine, as he had already re-written Russian history and Russian science. Roosevelt&rsquos determination to court Stalin,
to work on and through Stalin, was, I believe, based on the astute reflexes of a master politician. Changing Stalin&rsquos mind was the only chance the West had to keep the peace. .

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

History, it seems, is not only in the facts, but also in the genes. Or so Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., laughingly conceded recently. “I grew up in a household that was saturated with history. Not only my father, but also my mother was a historian. Her maiden name was Bancroft and she was related to George Bancroft, a great American historian of the nineteenth century.” Schlesinger carried on the family tradition, becoming a published historian at the tender age of twenty-two. That’s when his Harvard senior thesis became his first book, Orestes Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress. He has been carrying on the family tradition ever since.

Schlesinger is the author of sixteen books published over the six decades since Orestes Brownson appeared in 1939. That book was followed by The Age of Jackson in 1945, a celebrated history that challenged the way the Jacksonian era was previously interpreted by historians. Schlesinger argued that Jacksonian democracy was a dramatic change for the better because it introduced the idea that individuals should be protected from business interests by a strong central government. The Age of Jackson was a best-seller and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, landing Schlesinger an appointment as an associate professor at Harvard despite the fact that he had never earned a Ph.D.

While teaching at Harvard during the forties and fifties, Schlesinger continued to produce important works of history, including three volumes in a series on the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. He was also active in national Democratic Party politics during those years, taking leaves from Harvard to advise Democratic presidential candidates in 1952, 1956, and 1960. This political participation earned him in an appointment as a special advisor to President John F. Kennedy, an opportunity for which Schlesinger resigned his Harvard professorship. His account of his years in the White House resulted in perhaps his best-known book, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, which again brought Schlesinger a Pulitzer Prize.

Throughout his career as a historian, Schlesinger has been committed to the idea that Americans need to understand their history in order to ensure the continued success of the American experiment. “History is to the nation much as memory is to the individual,” Schlesinger says. “The individual who loses his memory doesn’t know where he came from or where he’s going and he becomes dislocated and disoriented. Similarly, a nation that forgets its history is disabled in dealing with the present and the future.” In his most recent book, The Disuniting of America, Schlesinger argues that Americans must focus on what brings them together. He warns against the “cult of ethnicity,” which has the potential to tear the nation apart, much as it has in other troubled regions of the world. “What holds us together is a common commitment to the processes laid down in the Constitution,” he says. “Part of the wisdom of the Constitution is its promise of equal rights for everybody so even those people who are denied their full constitutional rights are provided with the means by which they can claim those rights.”

After his years in the Kennedy White House, Schlesinger became the Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at the City University of New York. He taught in New York for the next three decades, retiring two years ago. He hopes to return to his series of books on FDR, picking up where he left off when the third volume appeared in 1960. “I only got up through 1936, the end of FDR’s first term,” Schlesinger points out. “I’ve got a good ways to go.”

Writing about Roosevelt’s additional three terms should manage to keep Schlesinger busy. Hopefully, it will also make him feel content with his contribution to our understanding of twentieth-century American political history. “I feel that I should have accomplished much more in these eighty years than I’ve done, there are more books I should have written,” Schlesinger notes ruefully. “The working title of my memoirs is Unfinished Business,” Schlesinger continues, with a laugh. At the age of eighty-one, Schlesinger has finally been persuaded to write his memoirs, a process he considers “a lot of fun.” “I only hope it’s as fascinating to other people as it is to me,” he says.

Though Schlesinger is characteristically self-deprecating about his career, historian Alan Brinkley wrote that Arthur Schlesinger is one of the most important voices in the historical profession, “not simply because he possesses a literary grace that few American scholars can match,” but also 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.”

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.

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Photo, Print, Drawing Arthur Schlesinger, historian-biographer [in his office, NYC]

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Arthur Schlesinger - History

The Great Depression experience of the American people from 1929 through 1941 is, in my opinion, one of the most important periods in the long saga of this country. The economic disaster and the efforts of the nation to deal with the despair and suffering it produced shaped and molded the attitudes of an entire generation of American citizens. Just as importantly, it produced governmental changes which continue to effect each and every one of us three-quarters of a century later. The Depression, however, cannot be adequately understood without reference to the broader sweep of American history with all its currents and eddies. Therefore, a brief overview is necessary.

Henry Adams' Pendulum Model

Historians have long talked about a seemingly cyclical nature to our countrys history - that trends, attitudes, and events tend to repeat themselves with marked regularity and that Americans tend to move back and forth between two different and competing impulses or motivations. One of the first to note this phenomenon was the nineteenth century historian Henry Adams. Writing shortly after the nation's inception, Adams postulated that the country seemed to swing back and forth like a pendulum between periods of centralization and diffusion of national energy every twelve years or so. According to Adams, Americans are motivated primarily by their fear of centralized power in periods of diffusion. At times such as these, they attempt to limit the national government in a variety of ways and tend to focus their attention on their individual area or state's needs. At other times, citizens recognize the need to have centralized direction of the nation that there are needs which transcend state boundaries that only the national government can address. Americans tend to go in one direction for a period of years before becoming convinced they have gone too far and begin to swing back in the other direction.

Adams contends that there was a diffusion of national energy and power between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the creation of a stronger federal government under the Constitution in 1788. We rebelled against Great Britain in large part because we felt that government under King George III and the British Parliament was too powerful, too arbitrary, and too far away. Once the decision to wage a war of national liberation was taken, Americans created an extremely weak government under the Articles of Confederation. The national government existed in name only power was overwhelmingly reserved to the individual states which behaved almost as if they were independent nations. This produced near disaster. Americans began to understand that without a stronger national government looking out for the needs of all Americans, the new country might lose the independence it had just won on the battlefield. They, therefore, began moving in the opposite direction.

Between 1788 and the end of the century, power and swung to the national government under Presidents George Washington and John Adams. Their administrations launched a national currency and a national banking system. Steps were taken to guarantee the supremacy of federal law. The central government removed trade barriers between the various states and directed the nation's trading relationship with the rest of the world. However, Americans began to fear that they had gone too far in this direction as the century drew to a close.

Diffusion once again became the predominant mood between 1800 and 1812. Thomas Jefferson was elected president because the majority of Americans agreed with the Virginian that federal power had gotten out of hand and must be curtailed. The rights of individual states had to be protected and power returned to the local level. Adams argued that this trend continued through 1812.

Declaration of Independence to the Ratification of the Constitution

Launching the New Federal Government to Jefferson's Election

Jeffersonian Republicanism to the War of 1812

Arthur Schlesinger, Sr.'s Spiral Model

Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., a prominent twentieth century American historian, presented a rather different model of cyclicality in the late 1940s work entitled Paths to the Present. According to Schlesinger, Sr., the United States cycles back and forth between periods of liberalism and periods of conservatism with an average cycle length of sixteen and one-half years.

In this model a "liberal" period is one in which the national objective is to "increase democracy" while in a "conservative" period the objective is to "contain democracy." Schlesinger, Sr.'s use of the term "democracy" should be understood as being social and economic as well as political. A review of the periods he identifies as "liberal" shows them to be eras in which the nation moved to improve the status quo politically, socially, and economically. The effort is undertaken to include ever greater numbers of citizens in the mainstream of American life. "Conservative" periods, according to this model, are characterized by a defense and maintenance of the status quo in all three areas.

Schlesinger, Sr. also rejected the visual image of a pendulum "because it implied oscillation between two fixed points." The cycle, he pointed out, did not return the nation to the status quo ante. While retrenchments occurred in conservative periods, most of the reforms of the preceding liberal period survived. Therefore, the pendulum didn't swing back to the same fixed point. A more appropriate image, he maintained, was "the spiral, in which the alternation preceded at successfully higher levels and allowed the cumulation of change."

Notice in the graphic which follows the variable number of years in each cycle sixteen and one-half years is only the average. The most glaring deviation from the sixteen and one-half year average is between 1861 and 1901. The liberal period which began with the onset of the Civil War lasted for only eight years until 1869. The conservative reaction which began in 1869, according to Schlesinger, Sr., lasted for thirty-two years until 1900, twice the sixteen year average. Why such a pronounced deviation from the normal cycle length?

The author's explanation was that the depth of change in the Civil War and early years of Reconstruction was so great that it couldn't last for the normal sixteen and one-half years. Further, the degree of democratization was so great in this brief period that the next conservative cycle would last much longer than normal. ". the prolongation of the counter movement in the next period was a form of compensation to restore the rhythm."

No, argues historian Schlesinger. It is like the human appendix, a vestigial organ on the body politic. John Nance Garner called the office a lot of things, some of them not as polite as "a spare tire on the automobile of government."

As a steady stream of disturbing revelations surfaced in the Watergate investigation, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.—a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a former adviser to President Kennedy—argued that under Richard Nixon's insidious influence, the power of the presidency had spiraled out of control.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1917-2007)

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., one of the most renowned and influential historians and intellectuals of the 20th century, died February 28, 2007, after a heart attack suffered in a Manhattan restaurant where he was dining with members of his family.

He was born October 15, 1917, in Columbus, Ohio. His father, Arthur M. Schlesinger, was himself a distinguished historian who inspired his admiring young son, originally named Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger, to change his name to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. The senior Schlesinger, having taught at Ohio State University and the University of Iowa, accepted a position at Harvard University in 1924, and Arthur Jr. spent much of the next 37 years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, eventually attending Harvard College. His undergraduate thesis became his first published book, Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim's Progress. In the fall of 1939, after a year studying at the University of Cambridge, he joined Harvard's Society of Fellows, where he wrote one of his most influential books, The Age of Jackson, published in 1944 and the winner of the first of Schlesinger's two Pulitzer Prizes. The Age of Jackson, which challenged the tradition of interpreting the era through the prism of Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier thesis" and identified the origins of popular democracy as a product of northeastern cities and workers, established him as one of the leading historians of his time.

Schlesinger spent most of World War II in London working for the Office of Strategic Services and then spent several years in Washington, where he began what would become a lifelong role as a prolific writer of essays and articles for newspapers and magazines and as a constant friend and colleague of influential people in many walks of life and many areas of the world. In the fall of 1947, he moved back to Cambridge to accept a position on the Harvard faculty, where he remained for 14 years&mdashnow married to Marian Cannon Schlesinger, with whom he had four children. He soon moved out of the shadow of his well-known father and became an important and highly visible person himself&mdashknown for his trademark bow ties, his warm and generous personality, his brilliant conversation, and his extraordinary energy. He was a successful and popular teacher at Harvard and an influential figure within the faculty. John Kenneth Galbraith, whom he had met in Washington, also joined the Harvard faculty shortly after the war, became Schlesinger's neighbor in Cambridge, and remained his lifelong friend&mdashand his companion in combining an academic career with an active and unceasing engagement with politics (something Schlesinger shared with his own father as well).

Deeply committed to the future of liberalism, he (along with his father) became one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action. He was a political ally of Adlai Stevenson and worked on both of his presidential campaigns. He struggled throughout the postwar years to define a path for American liberalism between what he considered the "doughface" progressivism of the socialist left and the reactionary alternatives of the right. His 1949 book, The Vital Center, written in the early stages of what later became known as "McCarthyism," offered a prescription for a dynamic liberalism&mdasha liberalism worth fighting for, he argued&mdashthat would move between what he considered these two bankrupt ideologies and would retain ties to liberalism's pragmatic, non-ideological heritage.

During these same years, Schlesinger&mdasha disciplined and indefatigable researcher and writer&mdashworked on what became his enormously influential three-volume study, The Age of Roosevelt. He did not attempt to hide his great admiration for Roosevelt and his belief in his relevance to the politics of the postwar era. At the same time, he offered one of the earliest serious interpretations of the New Deal, identifying it simultaneously as a product of the progressive tradition and as a significant break with the past. He was among the first scholars to argue that there was both a "first" and a "second" New Deal, and he offered a panoramic vision of the turbulent political world of the 1930s and its impact on Roosevelt's political decisions. The first volume of the series, The Crisis of the Old Order, was awarded the Bancroft Prize.

The presidential election of 1960 was a major turning point in Schlesinger's life. He became an early supporter of John F. Kennedy (his Harvard contemporary), worked actively on his campaign, and after the election accepted Kennedy's invitation to serve as a special assistant in the White House, where&mdashalong with Theodore Sorensen, John Kenneth Galbraith, Richard Goodwin, and others&mdashhe became part of an influential group of liberals within the administration who attempted to steer Kennedy away from the more conservative views of the many committed Cold Warriors in the government of the early 1960s. After the president's death in 1963, Schlesinger served briefly under Lyndon Johnson and then left the government to write an extraordinarily successful account of the Kennedy Years, A Thousand Days, for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. A Thousand Days was a frankly personal work&mdashpartly a memoir, partly a history, partly an effort to establish Kennedy's legacy as an agent of progressive change both at home and in the world. In these same years, he divorced his first wife, married Alexandra Emmet (with whom he had another son and gained a stepson), moved to New York, and joined the faculty of the City University of New York Graduate School.

Schlesinger continued to play an active role in liberal politics and became a close ally of Robert F. Kennedy, in whose presidential campaign he worked in 1968. After Kennedy's assassination that June, Schlesinger was for a time uncharacteristically discouraged and even bitter. But eventually, he found himself drawn again to writing about a fallen leader whom he had known and admired. Robert F. Kennedy and His Times, published in 1978 and the winner of the National Book Award, was a more conventional biography than A Thousand Days, based on extensive research, and it examined the entirety of Robert Kennedy's life. Although not wholly uncritical, it reflected Schlesinger's view of Kennedy as someone who had developed the potential to become a great leader and who, like his brother, had died before he could fulfill his destiny. While Schlesinger never again served in government or allied himself with an administration or campaign, he remained in almost constant communication with other people of power and influence in many parts of the world, and he appeared frequently in both print and broadcast media as a commentator on public issues. He led an active academic and social life as well.

At the same time, he continued writing and publishing prolifically. "Having perhaps the soul of a hack," he once wrote, "I have never been bothered with writer's block, nor am I unduly distracted by noise. . . . I did not mind the clamor of children and never closed my study door to the life of the household." A bitter opponent of the Vietnam War and of Richard Nixon, he wrote strenuously about both&mdashincluding a harsh appraisal of the Vietnam War (The Bitter Heritage, 1967) and a strong repudiation of what he considered the dangerous overreaching of the Nixon White House (The Imperial Presidency, 1973). A 1991 essay, published as The Disuniting of America, was a controversial lament about the dangers of "multiculturalism." His last book, War and the American Presidency, published in 2005, was a harsh attack on the Iraq War that continued his long argument against unnecessary and excessive use of American military force.

Schlesinger was a lifelong diarist, and his journals helped him compose a memoir, A Life in the Twentieth Century (2000), the first of a planned but uncompleted two volumes. (An edited version of his diaries is scheduled for publication in fall 2007.) Although the memoir covered only the years to 1950, it conveyed clearly and eloquently the multiple commitments that shaped almost the entirety of his life&mdasha belief in the value of history, a belief in its power to shape ideas and events, and a belief in his obligation to use his knowledge of the past to affect the present. In his last years, he confirmed his continued allegiance to the ideas he had embraced more than a half century earlier and to the value of fighting for them. "So long as society stays free," he wrote in his memoir, "so long will it continue in a state of tension, breeding contradiction, breeding strife. But conflict is also the guarantee of freedom it is the instrument of change. . . . I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that I have not radically altered my general outlook in the more than half century since the The Vital Center's publication. . . . I have not been born again, and there it is."

Arthur Schlesinger’s Missing Vital Center

Ms. Spark, an independent scholar, is the author of Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival.

In his Commentary essay, reprinted in HNN, Norman Podhoretz regrets that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. had, in his unrelenting negative depiction of the Republican party, abandoned the liberalism he espoused in his famous book The Vital Center. The obituary in the Guardian also references the “vital centre,” defining this conception as “a vital centre of accepted societal values” that, combined with “a periodic need for heroic leadership” was linked to Schlesinger Senior’s theory that U.S. history followed “a wave pattern of 11 alternating periods of liberal and conservative dominance.” The question should follow: what did Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. mean by “the vital center?” I have evidence that the late historian vacillated between two incompatible definitions of that term, but that his thought, taken as a whole, is pessimistic, aristocratic, subjectivist, and hence finally antidemocratic, notwithstanding his apparent concern for urban workers and their contribution to American democratic institutions. In this article, I tackle “the vital centre” along with another theme that permeates many of the Schlesinger obituaries: that historians cannot ever attain objectivity, a claim frequently advanced by postmodernists and other radical historicists/radical subjectivists.

While researching the papers of prominent academic intellectuals during the period of the twentieth-century Melville revival, and its promotion of Moby-Dick, I came across a letter from Schlesinger to Columbia English professor and New Critic Richard Chase, January 24, 1949, written while The Vital Center was in composition, and excerpted in my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. Schlesinger wrote: “I was reading with my usual interest your article on THE CONFIDENCE MAN in the current issue of KENYON REVIEW when I came upon your pleasant reference to me. I was particularly interested by the article because I have just been putting together my thoughts on modern liberalism in a volume which Houghton Mifflin will bring out in the next few months and in the course of argument I am urging a return to those earlier and profounder representatives of our democratic tradition, such as Hawthorne and Melville…[who] certainly stand up superbly when read in the interesting light of the 20th century.”

Given the favorable reference to Hawthorne and Melville as exemplary democrats, I gathered that “the vital center” was taken from Ishmael’s Epilogue, with that poetic image meant to symbolize Ishmael’s survival of the wreck of the Pequod, primarily because moderate Ishmael had distanced himself from the fanatical Captain Ahab (fanatical as perceived by the character Ishmael in the chapter “The Try-Works”). I received a surprising response from Schlesinger in his letter to me of March 4, 2000, giving me permission to quote him: “I had totally forgotten that Melville wrote about ‘that vital centre’ in the Epilogue! Maybe it lodged in my unconscious, but I think I had Yeats more in mind (‘the centre cannot hold’).” Consider now the remarkable implications of this statement. Yeats’s oft-quoted mystical poem of 1921, “The Second Coming,” warning of the new anarchy brought about by the disintegrating “center,” contains these lines: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ are full of passionate intensity.”

It is hard to imagine a “pragmatic” new model liberal as possessed of any fixed moral conviction, for indeed it was these same “progressives” who had embraced the cultural and moral relativism necessary to their ideology of cultural or ethnopluralism, a policy that can be traced back to the thought of the German theologian Herder in the late eighteenth century, and then revived by such progressives as Randolph Bourne and Horace Kallen in the early twentieth century as an offensive against the rival conception of proletarian internationalism and its allied beliefs in ethical universalism and species-unity--conceptions promoted by Herman Melville throughout his more radical oeuvre. Of course, the assumption of the ethnopluralists was that social cohesion, not militant cultural nationalism, would be advanced by their upper-class directed policy of mutual appreciation and toleration, and when “multiculturalism” got out of hand (as it did in the rise of the Black Power movement and Afrocentrism), Schlesinger rang the tocsin in his The Disuniting of America, but without examining his own first principles, which were arguably counter-Enlightenment in their utter rejection of objectivity as an achievable goal.

Other ironies should be noted here. It is a stretch to imagine Nathaniel Hawthorne as an inspiring democrat, to be emulated by the new liberals indeed he mocked Melville’s democratic tendencies in The Blithedale Romance. Moreover, Melville vacillated between aristocratic and democratic impulses, often within the same paragraph.

Heed it well, ye social democrats. Is it not more historically accurate to trace the genealogy of the New Deal to Herder, Burke, Bismarck, and to other conservative reformers, looking to heroic leaders to rescue the masses from themselves?

Melville, who taunted “the moderate men” whenever his radical mood took over, was probably not referring to politics when he described the “vital centre” in connection with Ishmael’s survival. “Vital” is a recurring word in Melville’s writing, and it most likely refers to the Promethean element of his psyche that (following Goethe and Schiller) could bring to life believable representations of humans and the full range of their earthly activities and emotions: such Prometheanism could scare him into organic conservatism of the kind later espoused by the reactionary and protofascist William Butler Yeats. Similarly, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was a vocal representative of the pseudo-liberal generation that had co-opted science and enlightenment, demonizing Prometheus and Faustian “individualism,” hence subtly circumscribing the range of human possibility and amelioration, never more overtly than in the mechanical notion of cycles between liberalism and conservatism, presumably stabilized by common values that are not defined. Such vagueness cannot be found in the democratic tradition as it evolved since the sixteenth century, flowering most notably in the eighteenth-century scientific thought of those liberals who founded the American republic, but the very abstractness of terms such as “progressivism,” “liberalism,” “moderation,” “centrism” and other cant words useful to demagogues renders these emotion-laden categories susceptible to whatever desirable meaning otherwise incompatible social actors wish to project. Indeed, the center cannot hold when constituencies remain divided and at odds, and where intellectuals have failed to specify the irrefragable sources of individual and social conflict.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

Schlesinger was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1917. His birth name was Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger, but he later took his father's full name. Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Sr., was a prominent historian of the United States. His son also became an American historian. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. graduated from Harvard University in 1938.

Schlesinger published his first book, his Harvard University honors thesis, in 1939. During World War II he serving in the Office of War Information from 1942 to 1943 and in the Office of Strategic Services from 1943 to 1945. He continued to research and write while serving his country. In 1945, he published The Age of Jackson. The book won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1946, Schlesinger became a professor at Harvard University. He held the position until 1961.

Schlesinger's liberal political and social views heavily influenced his books and articles. He emerged as one of the most respected and influential historians of the twentieth century. He also played an active role in politics. During the administration of President John F. Kennedy he served as a campaign advisor and later became Kennedy's Special Assistant for Latin American Affairs.

With President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, Schlesinger returned to academic life.. He wrote a study of Kennedy's administration called A Thousand Days. It won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1965. Schlesinger became a professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center in 1966. He concluded his teaching career in 1994. After retiring, Schlesinger continued to write books..

The Disuniting of America

The Disuniting of America, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., W. W. Norton & Co, 160 pp.

Arthur Schlesinger is a distinguished historian best known for A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. He is an unabashed liberal, and has seen much of what he hoped for come to pass: civil rights laws, affirmative action, non-white immigration, and “inclusion” of all kinds. But Professor Schlesinger is a thoughtful liberal, and he is genuinely worried. He sees that non-whites are repudiating the majority culture as never before, and he fears that if the current ethnic upsurge continues it could tear the nation apart.

The Disuniting of America may be a more important book than Prof. Schlesinger realizes, for it can be read as the first line of an epitaph — an epitaph to the disastrous policies that destroyed the United States of 40 years ago and that threaten the nation’s European character. Prof. Schlesinger still claims to believe in the magical capacity of the United States to transform Guatemalan refugees and Haitian boat people into admirers of Thomas Jefferson, but the scales are beginning to fall from his eyes. “[T]he mixing of peoples [will be] a major problem for the century that lies darkly ahead,” he warns. Even liberals are beginning to notice that something has gone seriously wrong with the great American experiment in multi-racialism.

Because Prof. Schlesinger is a historian, it is natural that his book should be about the ways in which non-whites, especially blacks, are using invented histories as a way to carve out separatist identities. He fully recognizes the extent to which history is the basis of a nation’s understanding of itself, and quotes the Marxist historian Eric Foner: “A new future requires a new past.” Every non-white group in the country is peddling its own version of American history and hopes to use it as a weapon against the white man.

Blacks have taken the lead in this game, and Prof. Schlesinger neatly lays bare the lunacies and contradictions in what they say. The ostensible reason for Afrocentric history is that “Eurocentric” history is a pack of lies that insults and demeans blacks. Sermons about a glorious African past will transform ghetto punks into noble black men. Prof. Schlesinger despises this attempt to turn history into therapy.

In any case, there is no evidence that America’s admiration for ancient Greece ever gave Greek immigrants any intellectual or moral advantages. Jews and Asians have done very well in America without public schools to tell them how wonderful their ancestors were. Nor is there any evidence that “Eurocentric” education did any damage to W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, or Martin King. Prof. Schlesinger suspects that Afrocentrists are driven as much by hatred of Western Civilization as by any real hope that new history books will keep young blacks from drugging themselves and shooting each other.

And yet, much as they claim to despise European culture, one of the Afrocentrists’ main aims is to prove that their ancestors created it. Black Egyptians are supposed to have invented everything from geometry to airplanes, only to have this wonderful knowledge stolen form them by Greeks. As Prof. Schlesinger points out, knowledge cannot be completely removed from its owner the way an object can yet the Afrocentrist view requires us to believe that whatever the Greeks learned, the Egyptians thereupon ceased to know.

Ultimately, however, as even many blacks realize, it is folly to think that a knowledge of hieroglyphics or Egyptian cleansing rituals will do an American child the slightest good if he can’t read English. This doesn’t worry the Afrocentrists they are educating Africans-in-exile, not Americans.

Another trend that Prof. Schlesinger laments is bilingual education. As he correctly points out, its effect — and perhaps its purpose — is not to teach immigrant children English but to keep them immersed in their mother tongues for as long as possible. The new waves of Hispanics are no more enchanted with the idea of adopting Anglo culture than are blacks. Prof. Schlesinger quotes one Hispanic who puts it this way: “The era that began with the dream of integration ended up with scorn for assimilation.”

What Will Hold the Center?

Prof. Schlesinger seems genuinely wounded that non-whites are turning up their noses at his culture just when he has been at such pains to make it “inclusive.” He also sees it as a betrayal of one of America’s most central doctrines: “the unifying vision of individuals from all nations melted into a new race.” He concludes with the uncertain hope that by reasserting Western values, an increasingly disparate America can be forged, once more, into a new unity.

Prof. Schlesinger’s disappointment and confusion stem from his own version of an invented American past, in which multi-racialism was, somehow, always the ultimate goal. Although it is perfectly clear that the Constitution was written for whites and not for blacks or Indians or anyone else, Prof. Schlesinger shares the near-universal view that multi-racialism was a predestined consequence of American democracy. To point out that this was nothing of the sort is to point out the obvious racial equality, integration, and non-white immigration were radical departures from everything that Washington, Lincoln and even Wilson believed in. The “tolerance” and “inclusion” that are supposed always to have characterized America are entirely new doctrines.

Prof. Schlesinger sees the present as no different from the past just as European ethnics blended together to become a new people, so will the new non-white immigrants. He concedes that race is a greater barrier to blending than was European nationality, but says he believes that “the historic forces driving toward ‘one people’ have not lost their power.” Of course, there have never been any historic forces driving blacks, whites, Indians, and Hispanics toward “one people.” They may have lived within the same national boundaries, but they have always remained distinct.

An obvious first step to counter the ethnic divisiveness that Prof. Schlesinger fears, would be to stop immigration, or to limit it to the European stocks that did become “one people.” This idea must be rejected, we are told, because it “offends something in the American soul.” Even if this were true — repeated polls show that Americans think the country has enough immigrants — Prof. Schlesinger surely understands that the forces of divisiveness could extinguish America’s soul.

Prof. Schlesinger is still a prisoner of the view that America is uniquely exempted from the lessons of history. Although he writes fearfully of renewed ethnic conflicts abroad, he believes that America can dispense with the ancient ingredients of nationhood: common religion, common tongue, common heritage, common ancestry. What, then, makes Americans American?

Democracy to the Rescue

Prof. Schlesinger, like so many others, falls back upon a national identity so threadbare, so improbable, that only the most credulous could believe in it. The “American democratic faith,” he says, is “what binds all Americans together.” Ours is a democracy in which most citizens cannot name their congressmen, in which not one in 500 can name his state legislator, in which Presidents are elected with the votes of less than a quarter of the electorate. Ours is a democracy in which voters despise politicians one in which men of wisdom and integrity do not even enter, much less win, elections. Democracy will bind us together?

There are European countries in which democracy actually presents voters with real choices, where a far higher number of citizens vote, where men of some stature are voted into office. But no, democracy is America’s unique gift and treasure.

And are we to assume that Mexican peasant-women have their babies in American hospitals so that their children will benefit from the Bill of Rights and the separation of powers? Will democracy bind Cambodian tribesmen to the bosom of America any more successfully than it has Hopis and Navajos? Non-whites come to this country because they want jobs, money, and welfare, not because they want to join the PTA and become registered Democrats.

Not even the people who invented American democracy feel about it as Prof. Schlesinger thinks complete strangers will. It was not an appeal to representational government that sent Pickett’s men up the rise at Gettysburg, but the cry, “For Virginia for your wives and sweethearts!” The marines didn’t land on the beaches of Guadalcanal, full of devotion to the Constitution, but of hatred for the people who bombed Pearl Harbor.

The unifying power of democracy is nothing compared to that of blood and soil. Non-whites will not give up their racial birthright in exchange for the ballot. For blacks and Hispanics, democracy is a racial head-count, a chance to push out the white man and replace him with one of their own. Increasingly, in America, the very democracy that Prof. Schlesinger thinks will bind us is numerical proof of how divided we are.

On the last page of his book, Prof. Schlesinger writes: “Our task is to combine due appreciation of the splendid diversity of the nation with due emphasis on the great unifying Western ideas of individual freedom, political democracy, and human rights.” What does this fine-sounding sentence even mean? It is precisely in the name of freedom and human rights that non-whites insist on going their own ways.

Nor will history save Prof. Schlesinger’s “splendidly diverse” America. As he writes on the next-to-last page, “People with a different history will have differing values. But we believe that our own are better for us. They work for us and for that reason, we live and die by them.” This is the very thing an Afrocentrist might say! These are the very words on which Prof. Schlesinger’s unity in diversity will founder.

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