A life in the 20th Century

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Title: “A Life In The 20th Century”
VTR: 12/8/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is surely America’s most noted historian, one to whom I first listened with rapt attention in the mid-1940s, when as a fledgling history teacher and graduate student I attended meetings of the American Historical Association, where a brash young, Ph.D.-less Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., was mischievously thumbing his nose at those older professionals who would take him over the historical coals, I thought, because this whippersnapper had just outstripped them all, winning his first Pulitzer Prize for his brilliant and provocative and best-selling “The Age of Jackson”.

Nor did he stop there, or anywhere. And in the long years since, alternatively shifting his sights strictly from the Muse Clio to the political persons whose contributions he would chronicle and/or serve … Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy … in all this time my guest has played a consistently key role at the Vital Center of American life which he, himself, helped identify and now relates so tellingly in the wonderfully evocative first volume of his long awaited memoir, “A Life In The 20th Century” published by Houghton Miflin.

One thing puzzles me, however, and I would begin to day by asking my guest just why, when he sums up his great liberal credo of 1948-49, he writes, “It is, I suppose, evidence of lack of imagination or of some other infirmity of character, but I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that I have not radically altered my general outlook in the more than half-century since the “Vital Center’s” publication. “ Perhaps I should apologize,” he continues, “for not being able to claim disillusions, revelations, conversions. But in fact I have not been ‘born-again’, and there it is”. Why did you write that, Arthur?

SCHLESINGER: Well … because so many people have changed their views an so on. And, of course, it was ironic … the policies because I am totally unapologetic about the fact that I was formed under the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, and during the Second World War, the War for the Four Freedoms. And that still seems to me the, the general outlook, which is most profitable for democracy.

HEFFNER: I, I had the feeing as I read “A Life In The 20th Century” that our generation is very fortunate … not really to have had to have shifted and changed …

HEFFNER: We can maintain that consistency.

SCHLESINGER: Well I think we … were very fortunate. I’m not sure that we deserve Tom Brokaw’s generous definition of “The Greatest Generation”. I would reserve that for the generations that won The War for Independence and wrote the Constitution. But we have been lucky, we’ve survived desperate times … the worst depression in American history, the greatest war in American history. We survived it partly because of a … potentialities of democratic leadership as embodied in Franklin Roosevelt. And that gave us a sense of being a participant in historic times, under historic leadership. I often wonder about the Americans … the contrast between those Americans who … conception of democratic leadership was formed by Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, with the … for those who’s idea of Presidential leadership was formed by Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, the Bush … Clinton, I think … we had a much more exalted view of possibilities of democracy.

HEFFNER: Do you think that the trauma, the difficulties, the war, the depression … those things were, in a sense, our good fortune.

SCHLESINGER: Well, they were, in a sense, our good fortune. Those who were not killed or maimed in the war, for them it was the most exhilarating experience they ever had. And changed the whole directory of many people’s lives. And, but it was a tragic … these are tragic times. I don’t think it’s necessary for Presidents to achieve who achieve greatness or semi-greatness. I don’t think a crisis is essential for that. There have been President’s who’ve imposed their own sense of priorities on the … or persuaded the American people that the direction they wanted to take the country was the right direction to go, without a major crisis. Andrew Jackson was one, Theodore Roosevelt was another, Ronald Reagan was another. These were Presidents who pointed the country in one or another direction without benefit of crisis.

HEFFNER: What do you think it takes though?

SCHLESINGER: Well, Henry Adams, our most brilliant historian, said the President of the United States resembles the commander of a ship at sea. He must have a helm to grasp, a course to steer and a port to seek. Now I think the Presidents who made a difference have been mostly the Presidents with a course to steer and a port to seek, even if … in Ronald Reagan’s case that port seemed to be back in the late 19th century.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, there’s always that practice … you find it in the Sunday New York Times so frequently, or elsewhere, where historians such as yourself sum up and list your most distinguished Presidents, the greatest Presidents. Have you changed your mind about those who were and those who weren’t?

SCHLESINGER: Well, I think, there’s a general consensus, as you know, Dick, that the three greatest Presidents were Lincoln, Washington and FDR. There is much more discussion as to the near-great Presidents, but on the whole … Jefferson, Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, oddly … James K. Polk and there … mostly others in the list … there’s … then the proponents on the Right of Reagan and on the Left of Kennedy and Johnson. And … have I changed my mind about the order …


SCHLESINGER: Yes. I would rank Eisenhower higher than I did at the time, because …


SCHLESINGER: … because at the time we thought he was an “out-to-lunch” President who played golf and read Westerns and associated with millionaires. The documents now show that he was much more of a “hands-on” President, and that his syntax… his muddled, murky syntax in press conferences was sometimes put on deliberately in order to mask his intentions. I think he was a much more purposeful President … I wouldn’t call him an activist President, but he was more purposeful. And as his Vice President, Richard M. Nixon once said, he was a very devious man, in the best sense of the word. Which is a perfection Nixon qualification [laughter].

HEFFNER: How do you … how did he … how did he manage that “in the best sense of the word” … devious?

SCHLESINGER: Well, he, he … would seem very self-protective as a President. And it was generally supposed, at least on the Left in the 1950s that Dulles was the untrammeled Secretary of State, and that Eisenhower just delegated foreign policy to Dulles. We now know that Eisenhower kept Dulles on a leash and one political scientist, Fred Greenstein of Princeton describes Eisenhower as a “hidden hand” President. Meaning that he put on this act, but behind the scenes was really running everything. I think Fred Greenstein may exaggerate, and the whole concept of a “hidden hand” President abandons the notion of Presidential leadership in a certain sense. I mean politics is at bottom an educational process. It’s a process of persuasion and consent. And Eisenhower wasn’t very good at persuasion and consent. And the whole concept of a “hidden hand” President means the President who does well by stealth. Whereas the really great Presidents have been the people who’ve rather have had the capacity to stir people by their words, point out why the direction they want to take the county is the right direction to go.

HEFFNER: But, Arthur, when you talk about “revisionism”, when you talk about revising your own estimate of Eisenhower, what does that do to your present day judgments about people in high office, when you revise, as a historian, and in this instance you were very active during the Eisenhower years, what does it do to your own sense of wisdom and correctness and rightness, as you make judgments about contemporaries?

SCHLESINGER: Well, I think if, if … when one revises one’s thoughts, it shows …

HEFFNER: Wisdom.

SCHLESINGER: … it shows the openness of mind … I make take …

HEFFNER: You may.

SCHLESINGER: … the name of this program. I think it shows an open mind, so it’s … naturally people feel virtuous when they revise their opinions. As I say, I haven’t revised my general approach. As I write in this book, I’m a New Dealer, unreconstructed and unrepentant. But I … as the new documents become available, as perspectives lengthen … you sometimes alter your judgment of people.

HEFFNER: And your judgment of history …I, I could help but be so enormously impressed with the sections of the book on … that indicate the moral tone that you take in your judgments of history. You write here … when you talk about slavery and you talk about the coming of the Civil War, and the differences among historians in judging the causes of the coming of the war. And you write, “All this raised the question of the place of moral judgment in the work of the historian. There seems certain profound issues that demand a moral recognition by historians if they are to understand the great movements of history. Such issues are relatively few because there aren’t many historical phenomena that we can confidently identify as evil”. And you make the connection here with the trouble you got into when you wrote, so many years ago, “the unhappy fact is that man occasionally works himself into a log jam and that the log jam must be burst by violence. There were fellow historians who took great exception to that notion.” Your feeling about it now is “you were right”.

SCHLESINGER: Yes. I think that the great question, the great argument then was over the causes of the Civil War. And a number of revisionist regarded it as a needless war, reversing W. H. Steward’s conception of the war as “an irrepressible conflict”, the revisionists described it as a “repressible conflict”. And I thought in so doing they totally underestimated the moral urgency which generation by the fact of human slavery … one person holding another as personal property. And I think the, there was a minimization of it … people like … even Charles Beard, for example, did not regard slavery as a major cause of the Civil War, he thought it was a conflict between an agrarian civilization and an industrial civilization. Others felt that the abolitionists were a bunch of gratuitous agitators, raising the level of discourse to such a degree that, that war became … in the succession, war became inevitable. What I tried to do in this essay was to … is to say how else would slavery ever have been abolished. And the revisionist historians must have some … see some alternative to war, as a means of getting rid of slavery. And they’d never worked out in their own minds, as far as I can see, how slavery was going to disappear, when by this time it had been so firmly embedded in the South that people were saying “slavery is a positive good”. And it’s the only basis for a democratic society, following the example of Athens, in the classical days.

HEFFNER: Well, the log jam that you saw in the conflict between the ideals of abolitionism and slavery resulted in this great, bloody conflict.


HEFFNER: And later on in our War, the Second World War, you saw the same kind of log jam that …


HEFFNER: … required …

SCHLESINGER: I think historians, like everyone else, are prisoners of their own experience. The revisionist historians were of an older generation and I think they were … saw … they were part of the disillusionment following American participation in the First World War. They thought we’d been conned into that war and they were skeptical of wars in general … as providing solutions for anything. So they, they … the disillusionment of … following the First World War … is reflected in the disillusionment about the necessity of the Civil War. Whereas those of us who were in the Second … the generation that fought the Second World War … felt it was a necessary war. Not a good war because no wars are any good. But it was a necessary war and we had the same sense … one felt that the Civil War was a necessary war, not a needless war.

HEFFNER: Arthur, what will that do for future young historians, who look back and read Schlesinger and say, “well he was a product, not of World War I … they were … he was a product of World War II and now we move on in our interpretation”. What does that do to the validity, to the way we can hold on to your interpretations and the interpretations of your generation.

SCHLESINGER: Well, again, as I say, historians are prisoners of their own experience. The generation that was screwed up during the Vietnam War was very cynical about the Cold War and even perhaps about the Second World War. William Appleman Williams for example, who had a moment of influence as a revisionist historian, said we got into the Second World War because we were afraid of German economic commercial successes in South America, which seemed to be a really looney theory of why we got into the Second World War. But, you see historians aren’t exempt from the tides of change. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “The one duty we owe to history is to revise it”.

HEFFNER: Well, it was your … man who you admired greatly, Charles A. Beard, who wrote that all recorded history is an act of faith. Is that essentially what you’re saying and the faith is that … is the product of your own times?

SCHLESINGER: Well, Beard felt that as written history is an act of faith … about the … the act of faith meant some decision about the future. And his act of faith was a belief that the world was moving toward democratic collectivism. And I don’t think historians are required, as Beard was arguing then, to make up their minds as to the direction in which humanity is moving. But I think they are … must become aware of the extent to which they are affected by the pre-occupations of their own day. As you and I know American history has been revolutionized in the, in the last couple of generations by the Women’s Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. So that American historians today pay much more attention to the role of women and to the role of minorities. The women and minorities were always there, but we were … historians had their intentions directed in other directions. Now they’re … it’s almost over done. It’s impossible … or very difficult to get … of course, there’s political history and diplomatic history because there’s so many courses on the history of woman or the history of minorities. But, you know, as the great Dutch historian Peter Geyl once said, “history is an argument without end”.

HEFFNER: What does it mean to you …

SCHLESINGER: And that’s why … that’s why it’s such fun.

HEFFNER: What does it mean to you as “an argument without end?”

SCHLESINGER: Because the, the facts, you don’t argue necessarily about facts. I mean the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776 and so on. But you argue about the significance and the interpretations. And of course the very selection of facts implies an interpretative scheme of some sort. And some of the arguments seem to be settled. For example, we were talking about the argument about the causes of the Civil War. I think practically all the historians today accept the fact that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. But thirty or forty years ago this was a heated … a question for heated debate.

HEFFNER: I remember in the summer of 1951 I was driving across the country and I had just submitted the manuscript for my Documentary History of the United States and I got a telegram in South Dakota from my editor, the great editor, Mark Jaffe saying “we’ve had to hold the presses because your chapter … your introduction to the chapter on the coming of the war … the Civil War … has been severely criticized. And I said, “Mark, I can’t ask you the name of your reader, but is he a Southerner …


HEFFNER: And Mark said, “yes”, and I said, “Well, let me tell you something … And they went ahead and printed the chapter and the book. But you feel that wouldn’t happen any longer.

SCHLESINGER: I don’t think … I think even in the South. There are still I suppose a few sturdy Confederates who think the war was settling a debate over the Constitution to State rights versus an overweening national government.

HEFFNER: Or in Bear’s instance, not so much that, as an economic conflict …


HEFFNER: … plain and simple.


HEFFNER: What was your impression of Beard? I … you make reference to him and I, I … Beard has been such a strong figure in my mind, my thinking.

SCHLESINGER: Well, Beard was of course … Beard and Parrington, when you and I were young … were embryonic historians … dominated the field of American history. I don’t suppose anyone reads them today. Beard was a great teacher, my father was a student of Beards, they were very good friends. And Beard was a very kind man to young historians. I don’t think I ever met Charles Beard, but I had very nice letters from him, which I ungratefully repaid by sharply attacking his books about the Second World War.

HEFFNER: Deservedly so.

SCHLESINGER: Well, I think deservedly so. But I regret the tone in which I dismissed them …

HEFFNER: What could …

SCHLESINGER: … because Beard, Beard was an isolationist and … of a very passionate sort and he wrote a couple books blaming our participation in the Second World War on FDR. And they were strong, stirring accusations of Constitution perfidy or one sort or another.

HEFFNER: Lining the plane us, asking the Japanese to attack us.

SCHLESINGER: Yeah, more or less. And I got … the indignation and disrespect of a cocky young man … I attacked them after Beard has been very kind to me.

HEFFNER: And Parrington, you say no longer read.

SCHLESINGER: Parrington is no longer read. In 1950 he was … Parrington’s “Main Currents” were voted the most influential book in American history. But Lionel Trilling soon thereafter wrote an assessment of Parrington, and Parrington, though he was … his great work concentrated on American literature … had no particular appreciation of literature. I mean the dismissal of Henry James, for example, and indeed of Hawthorne, he thought that the great theme of American literature should be the struggle for democracy. And that was a very sympathetic idea in the 1930’s, but today … I don’t think anyone reads Parrington, though he’s a very lively and flashy …

HEFFNER: Wonderful writer.

SCHLESINGER: Wonderful writer.

HEFFNER: Because I do remember, if was Beard’s volumes and it was Parrington, and you’re right that’s what I felt sustained by. Arthur, we just have a few minutes left, and I can hardly belief that. But I want to go back to the question of … you haven’t changed your mind, you haven’t had revelations, and so the “Vital Center” is very much where you are. How do you define it today?

SCHLESINGER: “The Vital Center”, was a book written … came out in 1949 and “The Vital Center” as I used the term was the liberal democracy as against fascism on the Right and Communism on the Left. It was a whole conception of a global context of the fate of democracy. We now think that democracy is triumphant, but in fact, for the first half of the century democracy had it’s back to the wall, fighting for its life, mortally wounded … severely wounded in the First World War, which resulted in the two great anti-democratic movements Bolshevism, Communism and Fascism. Then appeared to be morally wounded by the Great Depression, which showed the incompetence of democracy to provide full employment. And then the Second World War came and, Anne Morrow Lindbergh you remember wrote a book called “The Wave of the Future”, in which he said, “democracy is doomed. And totalitarianism is the wave of the future and you can’t resist it”. Best selling book in America in 1940. But by 1941 there were about a dozen democracies left in the world. So that democracy seemed a much more precarious thing then … 1949 … than it seems today where all countries aspire … or are supposed to aspire to democracy. But …

HEFFNER: You remain at the “Vital Center”.

SCHLESINGER: I remain at … but the “Vital Center” is not the middle of the road. That seems to me the dead center … the Vital Center is a continuing struggle for … spread as widely as possible the benefits of liberal democracy.

HEFFNER: Arthur Schlesinger, I’m so grateful to you for joining me again on The Open Mind and “A Life In The 20th Century” is where everyone ought to begin … you subtitle it “Innocent Beginnings 1917-1950″. I hope we’ll read the second volume of your memoirs shortly.


HEFFNER: Thanks, Arthur. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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