Richard Aldous, Schlesinger:
The Imperial Historian (W Norton & Co.)
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007) is best known today for serving as a presidential advisor to President John F. Kennedy and, after Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, writing what amounted to a quasi-official history of the short Kennedy presidency, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Schlesinger entered the White House in 1961 as one of America’s most accomplished 20th century historians, with highly regarded works on the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt already to his credit; and as a political activist who had helped define post-World War II anti-communist liberalism and advised the unsuccessful 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns of Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson. Schlesinger thus personified what we might today term a “public intellectual,” a top-notch historian who also engaged in politics throughout his adult life.
Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days received favorable reviews, became an immediate best seller, and won the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for biography. But the book has not aged well, and today is often dismissed as hagiography. It helped cement Schlesinger’s reputation, deservedly or not, as an acolyte of the Kennedys, their pit bull defender in the court of public opinion. A Thousand Days and Schlesinger’s post-White House years raise the question whether historians can enter the public arena as political actors, yet remain true to their calling when they seek to write about their real-world experiences. Richard Aldous, author of an incisive analysis of the relationship between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, reviewed here in June 2013, wrestles with this intriguing question in his biography, Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian.
Aldous suggests that Schlesinger might fairly be considered the last of the “progressive” historians, a group that included Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard and his father, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., himself an eminent professor of American history at Harvard University. The younger Schlesinger “believed in the uses of history and in useful history” (p.191), Aldous writes. But was he a “great and important historian, a model of how academics and public service can mix?” he asks. Or “was he a popularizer and court historian held captive to the Establishment that nurtured his career?” (p.2-3). No clear-cut answer to this question emerges from Aldous’ study, but he explores its implications adeptly in this crisply written and thoroughly researched biography, arranged chronologically (assiduous readers of this blog will recall Schlesinger’s collection of letters, reviewed here in December 2015).
Along the way, Aldous traces the several paths that Schlesinger traveled to become one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals of the post-World War II era. He provides good if not necessarily fresh insights into the personalities of Stevenson and Kennedy, the two stars to whom Schlesinger hitched his political wagon, coupled with one more tour of the Kennedy White House (another such tour is Robert Dallek’s Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House, also reviewed here in December 2015). The post-White House years in Aldous’ account were less kind to Schlesinger, who found his unabashed liberalism yielding to other approaches to politics and the writing of history.
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Readers may be surprised to learn that Schlesinger was not born a “junior.” As a teenager, he determined to change his name from Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger to Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr. It was an odd change, since Bancroft was not merely his mother’s maiden name. She was descended from one of America’s greatest 19th century historians, George Bancroft, a man whom Schlesinger later came to revere as a prime example of an “historian-participant.” But the name change symbolized the extent to which Schlesinger was beholden to his father, who never lost his grip on his son.
Young Arthur was a gifted student who skipped grades and thus was two years younger and significantly smaller than his classmates in secondary school. He performed brilliantly but was socially awkward due to the age difference. When it came time to go to university, there was no real choice. He went to Harvard, where he took many of his father’s courses and was, as Aldous puts it, a “homing bird, happy living in his father’s intellectual coop,” (p.28). Schlesinger and John Kennedy, born the same year, were contemporaries at Harvard but had little interaction. Schlesinger was a serious student, Kennedy significantly less so.
Schlesinger graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1938, and even then had been spotted as an upcoming historian slated for distinction in the field. His father had steered him to a senior thesis on an obscure 19th intellectual, Orestes Brownson, which led to a book on Brownson published in 1939, the first of many for the budding scholar. His father pulled the appropriate strings for its publication (which Aldous’ compares to Joseph Kennedy’s efforts on behalf of his son John’s senior thesis on the 1938 Munich crisis, published as Why England Slept). In his work on Brownson, Schlesinger sought to demonstrate how venal and anti-democratic business interests worked against the interests of common people, a youthful perspective that would be reflected in his subsequent studies of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt.
As war loomed in Europe, Schlesinger spent the academic year 1938-39 on a fellowship at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, after graduation from Harvard. He returned to Harvard for graduate studies, where his seminal work on Jackson began to take form. American entry into World War II in 1941 precluded him from putting the final touches to his work, and bad eyesight prevented him from enlisting in the armed forces until nearly the end of the war. But Schlesinger had a series of desk jobs during the war years, in Washington, D.C., and London.
Among them was a stint at the Research and Analysis section of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the CIA. There, he analyzed Nazi propaganda, which he considered a waste of time. Aldous recounts how a disagreement with Maurice Halperin, head of the OSS Latin America desk, over how to characterize a change of governments in Bolivia resulted in an altercation between the two that may have involved physical blows and led to a less-than-favorable performance evaluation for Schlesinger, who was chided for his lack of “cooperativeness” (p.82). Halperin was subsequently exposed as a Soviet spy, reinforcing Schlesinger’s conviction that there could be no accommodation between American liberalism and Communism.
After the war, Schlesinger returned to Harvard, where he finished The Age of Jackson. The work challenged the then widely held notion of Jacksonian democracy as a regional phenomenon confined primarily to the western frontier. For Schlesinger, Jacksonian democracy was national in scope, characterized by a vigorous federal government countering entrenched business interests on behalf of urban workers and small farmers across the country, including in the Northeast. Schlesinger won a Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Jackson at the impossibly young age of 29, aided in part by his father’s lobbying on his behalf. While not determinative, the senior Schlesinger’s efforts marked another instance, Aldous writes, of Arthur Jr. “living on the inside track, a placement that had served him well throughput his rise to national prominence, so often giving him a head start in an always-competitive race” (p.102). The Age of Jackson was criticized in subsequent years for ignoring issues of Indian removal, race and gender, criticism that its author admitted was valid. But Schlesinger’s study remains, Aldous indicates, the point of reference against which other studies of the Jacksonian era continue to be measured.
Schlesinger’s first volume of The Age of Roosevelt, The Crisis of the Old Order, appeared in 1957, with The Coming of the New Deal appearing in 1959 and The Politics of Upheaval in 1960. Schlesinger never completed the last two volumes in what he had envisioned as a five-volume series.
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No ivory tower recluse, Schlesinger in 1948 joined famed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and a group of other prominent Americans, including John Kenneth Galbraith, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Reuther, to form the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a group that sought to mobilize support for what became mainstream American liberalism of the 1950s. The ADA championed a strong federal government to regulate capitalism, assist those working within the capitalist economy, promote civil rights, and advance the national interest, while respecting civil liberties yet taking a vigorous stand against Communism at home and abroad.
The following year saw the appearance of Schlesinger’s The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, his first overtly political tract, in which he made the argument for liberal democracy as the only viable option for the post World War II era between the totalitarian temptations of Communism on the left and Fascism on the right. The Vital Center turned out to be among Schlesinger’s “most enduring works” (p.139). It was also a product of Schlesinger’s friendship with Niebuhr, another well-placed mentor for the rising academic star as he sought to influence the contemporary political debate. Niebuhr gave Schlesinger “both the confidence and the intellectual underpinning” for The Vital Center, “which in turn would do more than perhaps any other book to popularize the theologian’s ideas” (p.137).
Schlesinger moved even more directly into the political arena during the presidential campaigns of 1952 and 1956, supporting the candidacy of Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson ran twice for president against American war hero Dwight Eisenhower, and lost by substantial margins each time. Schlesinger thought Stevenson had a chance to win the 1956 election because of Eisenhower’s heart attack the previous year, with lingering questions about his health and physical stamina giving the Democratic nominee a glimmer of hope. Schlesinger entered into the Kennedy world during the 1960 presidential primary campaign as an intermediary between Stevenson, again a candidate, and Kennedy.
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Although Kennedy and Schlesinger hit it off well almost from the beginning, many within the Kennedy clan looked at him suspiciously, as a Stevenson infiltrator within their camp. Schlesinger’s primary contribution to the 1960 general election between Kennedy and then Vice-President Richard Nixon was a book, Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make any Difference, cobbled together quickly to dispel the notion that there was no substantive difference between the two candidates. Schlesinger’s work, effusive in its praise for Kennedy, ’showed him “writing at his most brilliant and polemical best” (p.214), Aldous observes.
After Kennedy defeated Nixon by a narrow margin in the 1960 presidential election, Schlesinger eagerly accepted an offer to work at the White House. Kennedy and Schlesinger reached what Aldous suggests was an implicit understanding that Schlesinger would at some point use his White House experience to write The Age of Kennedy, preserving – and perhaps defining – Kennedy’s legacy. His official title at the White House was “Special Advisor to the President,” but it was a position that lacked both clearly defined duties and a place in the White House hierarchy, a formula that guaranteed confusion and friction with other White House officials. Schlesinger and Theodore Sorenson, Kennedy’s long-term assistant, bumped heads frequently over speechwriting responsibilities as they both sought the president’s attention and favor. Unlike Sorenson and most of the other officials with whom he was competing for presidential attention, Schlesinger had no staff at the White House. It was therefore more difficult for him to stay in the loop on the key issues that were reverberating through the administration.
Schlesinger often worried that Kennedy was “no liberal” (p.224) and, throughout his White House years, came to feel that he was an “embattled liberal minority in the White House, constantly forced to fight [for] his corner as the administration settled into an essentially conservative character” (p.266). Still, Schlesinger wrote memos to the President – lots of them, long ones, and on a wide range of subjects. Even Kennedy, who appreciated Schlesinger’s sharp intellect in a way that many of his subordinates did not, “seemed to tire of Schlesinger’s barrage of ideas and proposals” (p.302). In the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, however, in the early months of the Kennedy presidency, Schlesinger wrote what in retrospect appears as a remarkably prescient memorandum.
Schlesinger’s memorandum tried to convince the president not to go forward with the operation, arguing that insufficient attention had been afforded to the operation’s long-term political implications. At one point, he thought he had convinced the president, only to be told subsequently by brother Robert Kennedy that he should keep his doubts to himself. The operation turned into a spectacular failure, a serious blot on the young presidency, and Schlesinger came to regret that he had too dutifully followed Robert’s directive to fall into line.
Schlesinger had no role during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. He attended none of the major meetings, which were so secret he “did not even know that they were taking place” (p.289). Moreover, he showed little interest in Vietnam during his time in the White House, although he became a passionate opponent of the war during the Johnson years. The major substantive area where he arguably had the greatest impact was on Berlin. After Kennedy’s disastrous confrontation with Soviet Party Secretary and Premier Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961, Schlesinger pleaded with the President to reject the views of several hawks in the administration pushing for military solutions to the Berlin crisis (Kennedy’s meeting with Khrushchev is the subject of Frederick Kempe’s Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, reviewed here in February 2013). When the Soviets erected the infamous Berlin Wall in August of that year, Kennedy’s restrained response reflected the views Schlesinger had expressed a few weeks earlier.
Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 provided urgency to Schlesinger’s long-planned project to write The Age of Kennedy as a complement to his works on Jackson and Roosevelt. Schlesinger’s “entire life had prepared him for this moment” (p.2), Aldous writes. If he had been somewhat of an outlier in the Kennedy White House, he moved front and center in the Kennedy circle in the aftermath of the assassination. The “legacy project mattered for everyone: for [Kennedy’s wife] Jackie in reinforcing the Camelot myth; and for [brother Robert], who had to position himself in relation to the dead president, not just the living one. At stake was the political agenda for the ‘60s” (p.317). Although Schlesinger stayed briefly into the Johnson administration, he left in the winter of 1964 to concentrate on the book.
A Thousand Days, appearing in 1965, became the vehicle by which Schlesinger worked through his shock, depression and grief in the aftermath of the assassination. Schlesinger termed his work a memoir rather than comprehensive history, “only a partial view” (p.319) which emphasized what he had seen first hand. The book placed Kennedy squarely within the progressive tradition of Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt, rendering him arguably more liberal than he actually was. Like Jackson and Roosevelt, the Kennedy in A Thousand Days, was “tough-minded” and “pragmatic” (p.326), ready to take on the moneyed elite for the benefit of the many.
Eminent historian James MacGregor Burns, writing in the New York Times Book Review a month after delivering a withering review of a similar work by Theodore Sorenson, found that A Thousand Days had captured the “sweep and the ferment of the thousand days,” placing the Kennedy presidency in the “widest historical and intellectual frame.” A “great president,” Burns concluded, had “found – perhaps he deliberately chose – a great historian” (p.331). But by the end of the 20th century, views on A Thousand Days had changed. Typical were the 1998 observations of acerbic critic Christopher Hitchens, who termed the book a “court history” which served as the “founding breviary of the cult of JFK” (p.320). Yet, to Aldous A Thousand Days still constitutes a “foundational text on the Kennedy administration. Not only did Schlesinger establish the ‘first draft’ of history on the Kennedy years, but he offered an invaluable personal account of life on the inside. . . [T]he book remains a must for any historian working on Kennedy” (p.387).
Much to his father’s dismay, Schlesinger had resigned from the Harvard faculty in 1962 to stay at the White House after taking the maximum allotted leaves of absence from the university. He thus had no home to return to in 1965 when he finished A Thousand Days. Just weeks prior to the book’s publication, moreover, the senior Schlesinger died suddenly of a heart attack, a devastating loss for Arthur Jr. Later in 1965, the younger Schlesinger moved to New York to take a teaching position at City University of New York (CUNY). In the same period, Schlesinger’s marriage of 25 years to wife Marian came unraveled. Aldous does not dwell on Schlesinger’s personal life, but makes clear that his marriage was at times turbulent, enjoying more downs than ups.
Schlesinger had by this time become a vehement critic of Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War. In 1967, he published a critique of the war, The Bitter Heritage, an “undisguised attack on the Johnson administration” and its “heedless military escalation” in Vietnam (p.342). He supported Robert Kennedy’s short-lived presidential campaign in 1968, and was again gripped by depression and grief when he too was assassinated in June of that year. The death of the second Kennedy, along with that two months earlier of Martin Luther King, Jr., represented the “destruction of a broader idea,” bringing to an “ugly, violent end the optimism that framed much of Schlesinger’s life” (p.349). For Schlesinger, the 1960s had become the “decade of the murder of hope” (p.351).
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Schlesinger continued to write while teaching at CUNY, but never finished The Age of Roosevelt, and never published anything approaching The Age of Jackson in stature. In 1973, in the midst of the Watergate crisis, he produced The Imperial Presidency, a work that upbraided Johnson and Nixon’s presidential usurpations, while largely absolving Kennedy of any such transgressions (the book’s title appears to have yielded Aldous’ strained subtitle, which seems off point as applied to Schlesinger the historian). In 1978, Robert Kennedy and His Times appeared, a biography Schlesinger had reluctantly agreed to write in the aftermath of the younger Kennedy’s assassination a decade earlier. The work was greeted with mostly lukewarm reviews.
Schlesinger supported George McGovern’s 1972 bid for the presidency, which he lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon. He had to strain to generate enthusiasm for the last two Democratic presidents of his lifetime, Southerners Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton (Clinton, Aldous reports, searched in vain for his own Schlesinger to “take care of the history,” p.387). Neither espoused the pragmatic federal activism that Schlesinger had championed since the late 1940s. Schlesinger further worried that the Democratic Party’s emphasis upon what we would today call “identity politics” – highlighting the interests of minorities, women, gays – risked undermining its capacity to unite working and middle class voters across racial and ethnic lines. And he similarly worried that the emphasis on race, gender and sexual orientation in the writing of history had superseded his more traditional approach.
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Schlesinger died in 2007, just short of his 90th birthday. Although “perhaps the most famous historian of his time,” unlike most of his fellow historians, Schlesinger was, Aldous writes, “never quite sure whether his loyalties lay mostly with his profession or with the people whose lives he chronicled” (p.2-3).
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
June 10, 2019