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.