James MacGregor Burns, Max Lerner

America’s Past and Future Greatness, Part II

VTR Date: March 2, 1985

Guests: Burns, James MacGregor; Lerner, Max


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Max Lerner and Jim Burns
Title: “America’s Past and Future Greatness”
VTR: 3/2/85 Part II

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Today’s program, as did our first program last week, represents a particularly touching coming together for me, for one of my first television guests back during the second Eisenhower presidential campaign of 1956, was political scientist/historian James MacGregor Burns of Williams College. And one of my most frequent Open Mind guests, at least in our early years, has been Max Lerner, whose brilliant writings on American themes have now enlightened generations concerned with where as a nation, as a civilization we’ve been, and where we’re going.

So, gentlemen, welcome back again. I’m glad you sat at the table so that we could have the second go-round.

We were talking at the end, and you gentlemen were not in full agreement about the nature of political leadership. And both of you are involved now, as you have been for so long, in our presidents. Both of you are writing about them. And, Jim, I wondered whether you’re working on the presidents once again, and you’ve done books on Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy, whether you find yourself more involved in their greatness or more involved in the criticisms that you have of them?

Burns: Well, of course it depends on the president. And the president I’ve gone back to particularly because of the anniversary of FDR, is FDR. That is, the New Deal period of the 30s and early 40s. I wrote a rather critical book on FDR. Some of the great FDR enthusiasts were pretty unhappy with my book “Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox”, because I felt that really the New Deal had been fully dealt, and it might have been more fully dealt. Since then, Dick, as I’ve seen other presidents come and go, I rate FDR much higher, and feel maybe I was a bit too demanding. But looking back on FDR, I do feel that partly for intellectual failures even in his administration, that the New Deal could have been a more successful and enduring program. And that one reason we’ve had this tremendous reaction against the New Deal could have been a more successful and enduring program. And that one reason we’ve had this tremendous reaction against the New Deal and the Fair Deal today is that some of the weaknesses left in that period have been easy for opponents of liberalism to, to exploit. One example. The, the great discovery of FDR was Keynesian economics. That was a classic situation where Keynesian economics was called for. We had idle me and women, we had idle factories, we had idle land, and we had idle money. And belatedly Roosevelt caught on to this, not so much through Keynes as through Marion Ecles and domestic leaders like that. He never quite had the courage of his convictions. He had a very successful year in ’35 and ’36, got magnificently reelected in ’36, and then he began to go back to the old budget balancing business which was not needed. We had the Roosevelt recession, and then the war came and we had a whole new situation. So, I could give other examples, but I feel that even in that time there were intellectual failures, and I think, to take one more president back in those days, Harry Truman, who, to his credit, carried on many of the best parts of the Fair Deal and was a wonderful fighter for them, but I feel that the failed the Roosevelt heritage, and I’ll say this to get a reaction from Max Lerner if I might on this. I feel that Roosevelt was something that Max Lerner likes to paint himself being a possibilist, and I say this particularly in relation to something we’re thinking about today on the anniversary of Yalta: that Roosevelt, what he faced in 1945, the climactic question of how do we go it with the Russians after the war, is neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I think he is a possibilist, who felt that if he made certain concessions at Yalta and got the Russians to join the United Nations, got them to intervene in the Pacific with the second front there, that we might at that great moment of partnership carry on that partnership into the years after the war. And i feel it was not Roosevelt failure there, it was a failure of the presidents who came after him that ended up, along with a lot of help from ugly actions by the Soviets, have ended up leaving us in the incredibly dangerous era that we live in today.

Heffner: Well, I thought you were going to, the way you started, that you were going to be really revisionist. You were going to revise the lion and the fox and be so much more positive about FDR, and then I found you, and maybe max did, found you slipping back into that very critical analysis of FDR, at least on the domestic scene. In foreign policy you seem to give him more points, but Max, did you respond at all that way to…

Lerner: No, I have a rather different perception now of Roosevelt and that is that his domestic policy was, was interesting, and at times brilliant. He knew how to deal with his coalition, and he knew how to deal with pressure groups. He was terribly good at this. And he was a great man and a great president. But I think where his failures came was toward the end in his foreign policy and his war policy. And I do regard Yalta as a disaster. It was, he simply didn’t understand either the nature of Stalin nor of Stalinism, of communism in Russia. He was, was just that incapacity to understand what he saw in Stalin was something like Boss Hague who he would be able to deal with and bluff away a bit and adapt himself to and so on. And any reading of modern scholarship on the nature of Stalin and of Stalinism, any reading, will show how off he was. Now, I think what happened was that he simply did not apply his tough-mindedness there, as he had applied it to Hitler. He did not apply it there. He was not, you know, he said to Admiral Lehey at Yalta, “What can I do”? When Lehey said, “You’re giving too much away”. And, “What can I do, the Russians are on the ground. They have the ground. Their armies are there”. This is a geopolitical fact, of course, and he was not geopolitical in approaching them. And their armies were there and our armies were not, and he did hope that Stalin would ultimately live up to his agreements, although you will recall – I got it from your book, Jim – just before he died he warned that he had changed his mind, and he wanted to keep Stalin to, up to his agreements, but it was wishfulness.

Now, I have a different perception of Roosevelt. And may I say, since Jim talked about both him and Truman, I have a different perception of Truman, and that is that Truman was tough-minded. And he did govern in that sense in relation to the Soviet Union and the weakness of the European countries after the war. And the Marshall Plan was a great measure. One of the greatest we’ve had. And NATO was a great measure, and keeping out troops ultimately, residue of them in Europe was important, and the whole succession of things was important. And i agree with Dan, Dean Atchison when he wrote his memoir of his work with Truman when he called it “present at the creation”. “Present at the creation”. We had created a workable world, given what Roosevelt had given us as our heritage.

Burns: I would, really, I think on this anniversary of Yalta, I would like to respond to that. I feel very strongly about it. I think there’s a great amount of misconception about Yalta in the public mind. First of all, at Yalta Roosevelt was in a poker game where he had a very low hand, and Max has pointed to one very important aspect of this. People talk about Roosevelt giving away Eastern Europe to the Russians. He couldn’t give it away, they had it. They had it at the price of millions and millions of Russian soldiers. And one reason that price was so high was that we had postponed the second front. A very, very important decision in history. And let the Russians take that bloodbath. That was one point.

Secondly, Roosevelt wanted something3 from the Russians at Yalta that only they could give. He wanted an early intervention by the Russians in another second-front situation, that is in the Pacific. He wanted the Russians to come in early and heavily on the Asian continent so that we would not have a bloodbath in Japan. I’m biased here. I was on Okinawa and I was one of the troops that would have gone into Japan. We were told that there would be a million American military dead in a, and we knew this because of the ferocious battles in the pacific. So that was the second thing.

And the third thing – and this is where we do get perhaps a little Utopian – he wanted the soviet participation in the United Nations, whole-hearted. That may have been a bit quixotic knowing what we do about the Russians. But if you look at Roosevelt’s situation at Yalta, I would say it was a masterpiece of diplomatic achievement. That it was the not living up to Yalta, not Yalta itself, that was so crucial.

Heffner: There will be many people that say, “Heffner, why are you taking them away from this”, because it is such a fascinating discussion, and it is the fortieth year, but I have another question that I would ask. How do you account for two men, teacher and student, political scientists, historians, obviously comrades in arms intellectually in the 1930s, how do you account for your moving apart intellectually as you have?

Burns: Well, even though we have found some points of difference here, I think that intellectually in so many ways we are in agreement in ways we could develop if we had time. So I would not exaggerate the separation.

Heffner: I don’t exaggerate it, just deal with this minimally.

Burns: Secondly, maybe I haven’t changed enough. Maybe I still do echo to the chords of the max Lerner of “Ideas Are Weapons”, and “It is Later Than You Think”, and “Ideas for the Ice Age”. And I guess I still have somewhere in me this, what I call this passion for justice. I think Max does too, but I guess we simply interpret it differently. Maybe max would do a better job of explaining this than I’ve done.

Lerner: Well, I take equality as important, Jim, but I take freedom as just as important. And if I had to give primacy, id’ give the primacy to freedom and to creativity. We are very unequal. We’re born unequal. I think you and I agree by the way that the one thing we have to have is equality of opportunity. Equal access to equal life chances. I think we agree on that. Not equality of result. Your passion for equality of result. I mean of opportunity tells you that they are not getting equal access actually. And I would tend to agree. But I think we’ve made enormous progress even in that.

Heffner: But you gentlemen even disagree on your interpretation of an event such as Yalta.

Lerner: Yes.

Heffner: And I’m, just in terms of intellectual history, or in terms of your great interest in psychology, and yours too Jim, what, what accounts…for instance, I, I’ve had a number of journalists on the Open Mind recently, and I ask them whether they don’t have the same responsibility that the historian does, and they say, “No, no”. They pass that off immediately, and I think they’re wrong.

Lerner: They’re wrong. And that’s why very often journalists do not see far enough. They’re wrong. They should be rooted, deeply rooted in history and in philosophy and in psychology.

Heffner: Well, they say, “That’s not our business”. They also say, “It’s not our power”. Historians know that they have power. They have power to change perceptions of the world. Journalists say “Nobody in here”…

Lerner: You see, I think journalists come out of universities where the historians and the political theorists and philosophers are teaching, and much of what happens in the political culture is determined on that academic level which still belongs back in the days of Roosevelt, actually. It has not changed very, very much. And the result is that the media elite that comes out of those universities is still very much, very much as a bias, and does not have depth of perception.

Heffner: That sounds like – maybe Jim would say it—it sounds like many of the conservatives who have sat at this table and said, “Those media people”. They say, “Those damned media people”.

Lerner: What I’m saying is that the culture is what counts, and that the culture has not been changed for a long time.

Burns: Dick, could i take a particular issue that stems from what Max has recently said here…

Heffner: Sure.

Burns: …and the question you’re raising, and explore something with him because I think the answer to the question you raised about our divergence may lie in a very simple thing. I still have a certain amount of hope that may approach Utopianism. I think max, at least in the political area as against the life science area, is somewhat disillusioned more than I am by what’s happened in the last two or three decades.

Let me explore something. On equality of opportunity. Yes, we both agree about it, but do you go, max, as far as I would go? I argue that if we really mean equality of opportunity it would call for such massive intervention by parents, schools, churches, labor unions and government to maximize the life opportunities of our people. It does not mean you would expect them all to come to the same thing or the same degree of achievement, but you would expect them all to come to the same thing or the same degree of achievement, but you would say to yourself at the start, in this, let’s say, huge new York City population, do you know today that some life chances are going to be blunted from the very start by parents, by bad speech, by poor health, by housing conditions? We know that. I think we’re agreed on that. We also know that if there were more teachers like Max Lerner dealing with more young people like Jim Burns, and having the capacity of a Lerner to bring out in me, I think, a great, some potential that lay there, if we could do this on a massive level in many areas, we could reach into those closed-off areas of opportunity. We could identify very early musical possibilities, dramatic possibilities, scientific, athletic and the like. Indeed we do it to a great degree in the athletic area. It’s quite interesting. But if we could do this massively for this complex population of ours, we would talk about liberation, talk about freedom, talk about liberty. We would liberate such creative possibilities in this, in this society as to dazzle the world, in my view.

Now, I realize how difficult, incredibly difficult that is. I’m a teacher. I know how hard it is to bring people along. But I don’t think we put the resources, the creativity, the talent, the money, and all the rest into that great potential. And I think if Max Lerner today and I sat down, both believing in equality of opportunity, I would say, “Max, we could never get a hundred percent, probably not 75 percent of the potential being realized”. I think we can get 60 percent, whereas today we get 25 percent. And I’ve a feeling and Max can answer this, that he would say, “Well, I don’t’ think you ever get more than 25 or 30. You’d be spending an enormous amount of money that ought to go more, perhaps for defending the country”.

Lerner: No, that’s not my answer. My answer is that I go along with you when you speak of families and schools and whatever else, but I, as soon as you really get to doing this through the government, at that point I remember the social engineering of the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s in Europe. And that is one of the things that has brought about a change of mind and of heart on the part of many people all over the world, not just in America, but all over the world. And at that point it isn’t so much the Utopia that troubles me, it’s that Utopias lead to dystopias. And the Soviet Union has become a dystopia, and Hitler’s Germany became a dystopia. And the history of Utopias is that they do become dystopias. And I think the passion and the hope and all the rest which are so generous and flowing in your, through your words, in the hand so the wrong people become dystopias.

Now, this is one of the things that troubles me, of course, very very deeply. Now, I happen to believe, Jim, I think one of our differences is that I think we have an immensely creative civilization today, and I see creativity flowing, going in every direction. I look at, all you have to look at the television screens to see the colors of the faces of the youngsters that are there and what they’re doing. It’s not only in athletics, you know. It’ sin every area, in music and dancing and song and everything. There is creativity welling up. Somehow they have broken through the difficulties of life. And somehow they’ve coped with life. And somehow they’ve received some kind of acceptance. Now this is not true in the majority of them, but when was there ever a creative elite that was a majority?

Burns: But we could get more of them…

Lerner: Let’s get more of these, by all means.

Burns: All right, many more.

Lerner: But let us not do it by attempting once more the social engineering that has been a dismal failure in the past.

Burns: What social engineering.

Lerner: I gave you two examples. The Soviet Union and Germany.

Burns: You talk about…

Lerner: Both of them were the great social engineering experiments. If I could suggest one book on these two it would be Paul Jonson’s “Modern Times”, with several chapters on each of them. In a scholarly detail with a richness of detail that we haven’t yet been given in any general modern history. And when you read that, you begin really wondering about what social utopias are like.

Burns: You and I never had any illusions about either soviet or German social engineering.

Lerner: No…

Burns: why do you raise it at this late date?

Lerner: We had a…I don’t speak for you. I had it about the Soviet Union for some years, not too many. Not too many, but I had it. And may I say that the whole of the New Deal political/cultural climate was infused with the sense of impossibility that came from what there, what was happening in the Soviet Union. And I’m again saying that much of what happened at Yalta in terms of Roosevelt’s lack of perception of the nature of Stalin and of Stalinism came out of that political culture of which I was part. And he never rose above that political culture. I think your analysis of Yalta was very good, Jim, in many, many ways. But this was part of the culture. He did not understand that he could not trust Stalin for the post-war period. And if Japan, Stalin had gone into Japan he would undoubtedly have done what he did in Germany, namely taken a chunk of the territory as in Japan. And I agree with you that Truman was probably right in dropping the bomb eventually so that after Okinawa you and others didn’t have to go on fighting in Japan. But he still was limited in his vision by the culture that he was part of, and he never transcended it.

Heffner: Do you think, Jim, that perhaps here is a Max Lerner you never really knew at Williams? That you endowed Max with thoughts and perceptions that he didn’t share then and certainly doesn’t share now, in the view of his student?

Burns: The Max, the Max Lerner I knew would say things like, “Think as men of action, act as men of thought”. He would combine passion with intellect. I never had any feeling that he was very impressed by these other cultures or experiments. To me, from the start he was a very tough-minded guy, and that was the great attraction of him as a teacher, that somehow…

Lerner: I think differences, by the way, that I’m talking of in the 1930s and with Jim, I knew Jim in the 1940s, late 30s and early 40s and things had already begun happening to me.

Heffner: You had seen the light?

Lerner: No, it’s not the light, really not. I don’t see it in terms of darkness and light, Richard, I see it in terms of the development of our, of a mind, and of a spirit and so on. And I had been developing, and I hope I still am, and I know that Jim is still developing too.

Heffner: Where does this all bring you today in very practical terms? Where does it bring you politically?

Burns: It brings me on the left of the Democratic Party. It brings me to what I call the “liberal labor left” of the Democratic Party, and hoping that the Democratic Party will move left and mobilize tens of millions of Americans who are not now voting.

Heffner: And what candidates do you identify with over there on the left, Cornwall? Or Kennedy?

Max, where does it leave you politically today?

Lerner: Well, politically I, I still try to hold on to my Democratic membership of the past. I never…

Heffner: You say you try to.

Lerner: I never voted for anyone except the Democrat until this last election when I voted for Reagan. The first time I had ever voted for anyone except a Democrat in my entire life. But I think Carter was a little too much even for me. But i do not think in party terms. This is one of the differences. Jim thinks in party terms; I don’t. I don’t’ really care about Democrats and Republicans, just as I don’t’ really care about liberals and conservatives.

Heffner: But you care about leaders?

Lerner: Oh very, very much, yes.

Heffner: Who is it you identify now?

Lerner: Of the group at the present time I think the only person around the country that I see that i give some kind of allegiance to is Jean Kirkpatrick. She seems to me to carry on the tradition of the combination of the intellectual passion along with a real sophistication, particularly in foreign policy. And we don’t have enough of that. Pat Moynihan for a time seemed to me to embody that same thing. But you see, I still feel that leadership involves this combination. Now, every now and then you get something strange. You get a Harry Truman and you get a Ronald Reagan, and neither of them really add much of a, of a, what, a thinking mind, reflective mind. Neither of them was analytical. Truman never went beyond high school. Reagan went to a tiny college that didn’t amount to very much. And yet in the case of each man what you got – and this is a true Jacksonian feeling that I get, that out of the life of the people, out of the life of the culture itself, at the very base of the culture something was happening. In the case of both men. Truman was a farmer and a haberdasher. Reagan was an actor and a radio announcer. You wouldn’t think, would you, that something could come out of these? And yet, in both cases something came out of it. It’s a Jeffersonian idea of an aristocracy not of breeding and of wealth, but of virtue and talent. A real capacity and a real integrity. And that’s where it leads me on leadership yeah.

Heffner: Jim, sorry I asked?

Burns: A little. But I share Max’s views about the importance of leadership, first of all. I think he and I, and I think I learned this from him too, have never taken the view that history is some great automatic force that’s operating. I think we both feel that leaders do make a difference. And I simply want the leadership on the Democratic side to be as effective as the leadership we’ve seen among conservatives in the last ten to 20 years.

Heffner: Do you think your respective roles as political scientists, journalists, commentators, et cetera lead you to these different approaches. Your, as you said, Max, Jim is very much interested in party structure and party leadership therefore, and you have a difference approach.

Burns: Yes. Let me pick that point up. I think it’s true I live in the world of the Democratic Party, which is a very strong party now in Massachusetts. And a very liberal internationalistic party. I think this does. I think Max is quite right. It probably answers a question you raised. I think great leadership needs a strong party to support it, and that’s one reason we had great leaders in the past and one reason Reagan is a strong leader is that he helped make the Republican Party into an effective vehicle, and I say again that is a message to us liberal Democrats to do the same with our party.

Lerner: Gee, I would, I would agree with that, but i would add that Reagan isn’t going to amount to very much unless the conservatives, Republicans, the conservatives can build a new political culture the way Roosevelt built a political culture out of which the New Deal came. And the Republicans and, and the conservatives have not yet managed to do it.

Heffner: Gentlemen, that brings us to the end of the program. Thank you so much for joining me today Max Lerner, James MacGregor Burns. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again here again next time on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”