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.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Peter Beinart, The New Republic (13th December, 2004)

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."

(2) Seymour Hersh, The Dark Side of Camelot (1998)

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.

(3) James Hepburn, Farewell America: The Plot to Kill JFK (1968)

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.

(4) Arthur Schlesinger was interviewed by Anthony Summers in 1978 for his book Conspiracy: Who Killed President Kennedy (1980)

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.

(5) Mark Lane, Plausible Denial (1991)

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.

(6) Harold Jackson, The Guardian (2nd March, 2007)

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. 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).

(7) Douglas Martin, New York Times (1st March, 2007)

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. Mr. 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. Mr. 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 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.

(8) Mark Feeney, The Boston Globe (1st March, 2007)

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.