Jr. Schlesinger, Arthur M.
The Historian as Activist
VTR Date: November 8, 1986
Guest: Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr.
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THE OPEN MIND
TITLE: HISTORIAN AS ACTIVIST
HOST: RICHARD HEFFNER
GUEST: ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER
HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. As a young history teacher and graduate student, I first saw today’s guest forty years and his two Pulitzer Prizes ago; many other awards and distinctions ago, too; an exciting and achieving lifetime at America’s vital center ago…when Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. was just beginning his extraordinary career as chronicler of America, as journalist, as presidential advisor, as political activist.
Well, that was at a 1940s historian’s gathering. And I still remember the older professionals trying rather unsuccessfully to rattle the somewhat brash Ph.D.-less young whipper-snapper, taking him over the historical coals for his first Pulitzer Prize winner, the brilliant and provocative Age of Jackson, I thought because this young fellow had had the temerity to challenge their older viewpoints, which was appropriate, of course, because his distinguished historian father had written a volume I still cherish: New Viewpoints in American History.
Now, a lifetime of prodigious achievement later, young Schlesinger’s new Haughton-Mifflin volume: The Cycles of American History garners for him deserved plaudits everywhere…such as Henry Steele Commager’s comment on his broad interpretations of America, past and present: “All are distinguished by erudition, critical acumen, magisterial judgments and a felicitous and ever lively style”.
Now, of course, there have been very few guests here on THE OPEN M IND who forty years ago earlier had given me so presciently my opening cue. In The New York Times Sunday book review on March 10, 1946, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. told his interviewer Robert Van Gelder: “What primarily interests me is the relationship in the sphere of politics between thought and action. The cost that ideas take as they travel from the mind of a writer, a journalist, and make their way into the mind of the politician or the man of action and become powers of modifying social conditions, laws on the statute books, accepted axioms for conduct and judgment”.
So as I welcome you, Arthur, here today, I want to ask you, when, in a lifetime of very close relations with political persons, you have been most satisfied with the way in which your thoughts have been translated into political action.
SCHLESINGER: Well, I would now modify that original statement because that suggests that the politicians are sort of passive recipients and that the ideas are all worked out somewhere else. I think that there is more of an interaction between the politicians and the intellectuals, if you like, that that rather rash statement suggests.
HEFFNER: You mean, that politician as creator?
SCHLESINGER: The politician as a poser of problems. First it’s the intellectual think-anew. The art of politics basically, and I’ve used the…is art of solving problems – finding remedies. And I think that the politician’s definition of the problems is often both more to the point and more…brings more pressure on the intellectual to think than the intellectual often by himself can do. And I’m struck by the way that people whom I’ve worked closely, like Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, had the capacity to force the people around them to look at problems in a slightly different way and therefore exercise a kind of stimulating effect on them. So I think it’s a kind of partnership between the politician and the intellectual, whereas in 1946, I felt the intellectual had all the ideas and it was just a matter of planting them in the minds of the politicians.
HEFFNER: Well, let’s say…to the extent that the intellectual does participate and does play a 50% role in this, I’m sure you have identified in your…in your books on Kennedy, and Roosevelt, and on Jackson, the role that those around them have played in fostering ideas. I’d return to the question of, what most satisfactorily to you has been your contribution?
SCHLESINGER: You mean my personal contribution?
HEFFNER: Your personal…what have you seen, acted out, as you described it then, with your modifications now, that’s brought you the most satisfaction? In terms of your own participation, your contribution.
SCHLESINGER: My contrib….my role, I suppose, was always marginal. I mean, there were a few things I was involved in in the Kennedy years, like Latin American policy or Italian policy, where I had views which…which may have helped shape policy. Perhaps in a larger sense, what is most satisfactory is this whole conception of cycles in American history which I inherited from a better and wiser historian – my father – in which…I used to talk about in 1958, 1959, to the then Senator of Massachusetts, John Kennedy, and he was much interested by it and shared the belief that the Eisenhower period, the conservative period — the 1950s – which was running its course. And I do think that one thing which…which lead him to run for the Presidency in 1960 was the cyclical interpretation of American politics. And I think the cyclical interpretation is validated by what happened in 1960. And today, we’re in a somewhat similar situation. Certainly since the 1980s, with their belief that private interest is the best way of dealing with our problems, a replay of the 50s, which in their turn were a replay of the 1920s, and these were all eras of conservativism, eras where private interest was the dominant national move. And similarly, every thirty years, a length of a generation, you have times of action, passion, idealism, and reform…Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, F.D.R. in ’33, John Kennedy in ’61. So if this rhythm holds, and there is no certainly about anything in life, anyone would guess that somewhere around 1990 there will be a marked change in the direction of American life and a new release of energy and innovation, comparable to that each thirty years preceding.
HEFFNER: Of course, I want to pick that up in terms of the end of this decade, but I wondered, as I read the cycles of American history, and as I read that you had said…what you wrote about your father’s feeling about the length of the cycles…I wondered what made this such a satisfying formulation. And it did, there seemed to be so much pleasure in the notion, in this determinous notion, almost, that there is a certain period, a periodicity about American history. Why latch on to that, why did your father, why do you?
SCHLESINGER: Well, because it does seem to be a pattern which the evidence forces on one. And it’s…and you’re right to say nearly deterministic, but not completely deterministic. I think there is a fluctuation in mood. I think we go through times where, at the present, where private industry is the dominating thing. Then after a while people begin to see it isn’t working, that it doesn’t solve a lot of problems, they feel that greed or materialism is the be all and end all of existences and satisfying. They want some larger meaning in their life. They begin to wonder not what the country can do for them or what they can do for their country. So we enter a period where it shifts from materialism to idealism, from public…from private interest to public purpose. And then those periods go on for a while, and then after a time people become exhausted by the demands that the public purpose period makes on…makes on them. They’re worn out by the process. Some are disenchanted by the results and they want restoration of privacy…the privacies of life. So the public purpose period runs its course and we got to the other side. I think there is this fluctuation. But all fluctuation does is to create opportunities for leadership; it doesn’t determine leadership. So there is nothing…the cycle isn’t self-executing, in other words. Cycles work only as individuals seize opportunities to make it work – as Roosevelt seized an opportunity in one period of the cycle, as Reagan has seized opportunity in another period of the cycle. Reagan has been more effective in exploiting the possibilities of the conservative phase of the 1980s than Eisenhower was in the 1950s, because Reagan is more of an ideologue and he has great interests in domestic affairs and Reagan is able to discover what neither Eisenhower nor Nixon nor Ford was able to discover, and that is a way of stopping the enlargement of social programs. And the way he found to do that, of course, was to contrive a deficit so great as to provide an excuse for denying further programs and cutting back on those that exist. So within the cycle, the president can push it far or not do much about it. But I do think the opportunities which are created for individual leadership are recurrent.
HEFFNER: But there does seem to be, as I read the cycles of American history…there does seem to be, for you, something personally very satisfying about this notion.
SCHLESINGER: Well, I think that there is a way in which this ultimation, on the whole, works out well for the Republic.
HEFFNER: Why? How?
SCHLESINGER: Because I think the excesses of each swing of the cycle are somewhat corrected by the next and nonetheless the valuable things in the cycle are preserved by the next in a certain sense of…the Eisenhower period marked the acceptance by the Conservatives and the ligitimation, so to speak, of the New Deal. Similarly, the Reagan period, for all its attacks in government, is leaving the main structure of government. Even as…carried further by Kennedy and Johnson are relatively intact. So it is not so much a pendular swing, as Henry Adams suggested, one of the old versions…it’s like a pendulum that returns to the same point from which it began. It’s rather a spiral motion which leaves…upward spiral of downward spiral, depending on your values, which leaves each new phase…involves the digestion, so to speak, of the social changes wrought in the previous public purpose phase. And even the Reagan administration is the same, with all its desire to dismantle everything that’s been done since 1933, has not been able to do very much, and the next administration will build on a structure that has survived the Reagan years.
HEFFNER: That’s a very comfortable notion. Hs there ever been a period in our history when you reject totally the notion of a pendulum? I mean, you don’t reject it totally, you said that it’s not adequate. Has there been a period in our history when there seemed to have been more of a swing in one direction or another?
SCHLESINGER: There was such a period, and that was, I suppose, in the years from 1861 to 1900 – that period of forty years – where it looks as if the traumatic events of the 1860s…the Civil War was tearing the nation apart…a weak process of reconstruction which involved the most fundamental reforms ever brought about in American life, plus the assassination of one president and the impeachment of another. And that must have been such a traumatic experience for the country that it took a long time to recover. So in that period, instead of having sort of fifteen years to shift from one to the other and the thirty years to complete the cycle, you had, in effect, eight years of reform government in the 1860s, followed by over thirty years of conservative and consolidationist government. Now, it can be argued that in certain respects the 1860s…the 1960s are like the 1860s, with deep internal reforms. I mean, the civil Rights struggle wasn’t nearly as murderous as the Civil War, but nonetheless it was a great wrench for the nation. We had the assassination of one president, and the impeachment, or the near impeachment, of another. And it is conceivable that this may, too…plus the whole sets of upheavals of the…in the sixties – the riots in the ghettos, the turmoil on the campuses and so on. It’s conceivable that that could have an exhausting and traumatic effect on the nation as the events of the 1860s. But I think that that probably wasn’t as traumatic an experience in judging, for example, by the senatorial election results in 1986 and by other things. I think the evidence suggests that this present conservative cycle is running out of steam.
HEFFNER: Well, of course…we’re taping this program shortly after the 1986 elections and I couldn’t help but think back to the piece that you wrote, that Meg Hanlon had dug up in her researches, concerning those who make good candidates, and you seem to be saying…you seem to be warning us against the notion that any strong administrator – in business, maybe even in the…a person in the judiciary, could automatically fit in to the qualities needed by a president of the United States. You seem to be saying that electoral politics is a school all of its own, that governors and senators yes, but turning outside the political realm for our presidential candidates might take us down the garden path. Do you still feel that way?
SCHLESINGER: I still do feel that. I think in a democracy the best preparation for the presidency is the political process. And I think that’s so because politics is ultimately an educational process in a democracy. It’s a problem of persuasion and of consent. And to understand that and understand how you have to persuade the electorate and persuade the congress, that the course you want to take the country on is the right course, I think that the best experience for that is within the political process. And that general assumption, I think, is verified by the fact that our experience with people who have not come to the presidency through the political process, on the whole, has not been good.
HEFFNER: Academics, military men, engineers…
SCHLESINGER: …Academics…I mean, Woodrow Wilson was an academic but he had experience as a State Governor before he became President. We’ve had Generals – Taylor, Grant, Eisenhower…and though, in a certain sense, the Army in its way is a very intense political experience, Eisenhower was a very effective political general…on the whole, it’s not, it seems to me, the best preparation for the presidency.
HEFFNER: You’ve quoted Truman as saying that Eisenhower was going to say, “Do this, do that, do the other thing”. And they weren’t going to do it.
SCHLESINGER: Yeah, and nothing will ever happen…We’ve had someone…in someone like Herbert Hoover you had a man who was an engineer, a successful businessman and a successful administrator, but turned out to be incapable of the job of political education and persuasion which are the essence of the presidency.
HEFFNER: You know, in these interpretations I do have to ask you…having studied new viewpoints in American history when I was a young man…where Junior differs from Senior…where Schlesinger, Jr. differs in terms of historical interpretation from Schlesinger, Sr.
SCHLESINGER: Well, I think our interests are somewhat divergent. My father’s great interest, as you well know, is in social history and he felt very much concerned with trying to reconstruct the lives or ordinary individuals and he wanted to extend that…New View Points was written in 19…published in 1922. And there is an essay there on the importance of women’s history. It took about half a century before the historical profession began to catch up with that. But my father felt that women were half the population and yet their lives and their aspirations and their frustrations had hardly been recorded. And it was that interest that led to the establishment of what’s now called the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library of the History of Women in America at Radcliffe. And similarly, he was…that was his interest. My interest has been more in the kind of intersection of political and intellectual history – the role of ideas in history. He also was interested in that and indeed my…as I inherited my interest in history and the theory of cycles, I also inherited a general political outlook.
HEFFNER: Which you would characterize which way?
SCHLESINGER: I would characterize it as…F.D.F. was once asked how he wanted to steer the country and he said, “A little left of center”. And it seems to me “a little left of center” is the course we ought to continue on.
HEFFNER: You know, you…you comment as you did to my question about the differences between Jr. and Sr….what about…what changes have taken place…sea changes have taken place in your own interpretation of the American past? When Ken Stamp sat at this table, I referred back to his essay on My Life with Lincoln and…in which he had indicated how he had changed his point of view about Lincoln. And I knew that he had changed his point of view about F.D.R. because I had been his teaching assistant and was furious with him in the way he had dismissed F.D.R. What ways have you, over the years, in what ways have new views become true views for you?
SCHLESINGER: Well, I suppose…one of my early books is called The Age of Jackson and it was an interpretation of or a reinterpretation of the meaning of Jacksonian democracy. At that time I knew nothing about economics. I don’t know all that much today, but I know a little more than I knew then. And there is an implied in it…a defense of the hard money policy in the Jackson administration, which was a policy of trying to restrict the issuance of paper money and to tie it as much as possible to specie. Subsequently, when I learned a little more economics than I knew, it became evident to me that the hard money policy really was mistaken policy and that in a certain sense the people who had the best monetary policy, from the viewpoint of economic growth, were the wildcat bankers of the time – the people who were issuing local paper currency. And the fact that this was not inflationary is shown by the fact that the price level remained relatively stable and therefore this issuance of paper money was…the slack was taken up by real economic growth. I think that if I were writing that book today I would have to say that there is more wisdom than I understood or than indeed the orthodox thinkers of the Jacksonian period understood, and certainly the exponents of the hard money policy understood. There was more wisdom in this expansion of the circulating income.
HEFFNER: Of course, in the cycles of American history, you address yourself to many of the essays you have written in the past and you rework them so frequently, as you indicate to us. In the process – did you find any sea changes? Aside from what you’ve just said about the Age of Jackson?
SCHLESINGER: Another thing, which was not so much a change…well, certainly a marked change in my view point…was on the question on the President’s war making power. In 1950, at the time of the Korean War, President Truman ordered American troops into combat, and he did so on the belief that…on the inherent powers of the presidency to do that. And I strongly defended that action at the time, as did Henry Steele Commager and other historians. Senator Taft had proposed to Truman that Truman ask for a joint resolution from Congress to authorize the commitment of troops. Truman was persuaded by his Secretary of State and eminent lawyer, Dean Acheson, former law clerk for Justice Brandeis, that such resolution was unnecessary and that the inherent powers of the president were sufficient. As I say, I defended that view then and…that attacked Senator Taft as not understanding the constitution. Edward S. Corin, who you remember as professor of Constitution Law at Princeton and a great expert on the Constitution…I remember I read a letter to The New York Times, denouncing me and others…Henry Commager and others who had taken that position as sort of hi-fi-ing champions of the presidential prerogative. But looking back, it seems evident to me now that Taft and Corin were right and that I was wrong and other people who defended…that exaggerated…the allegation to the President were that kind of war making power that we were on.
HEFFNER: Sure! We did…we sat at this table and did a program on the imperial presidency some years back. Have, in more recent years, have you modified that position, that position that you took then?
SCHLESINGER: I don’t think so. I think, on the whole, I’ve…the imperial presidency was based on the notion that the Constitution’s founding fathers wanted to have a strong presidency within a strong system of accountability and when the balance between presidential power and presidential accountability was upset, in favor of presidential power, that created, what I call, the imperial presidency. And I still think…I don’t think I’ve changed my belief in that.
HEFFNER: Getting back to the matter of cycles, going back to what happens at the end of the 80’s – let’s say not 1990 but 1988 – is there a Schlesinger candidate?
SCHLESINGER: Well, I don’t have any. This is still ’86, a couple of years to go. As Harold Wilson used to say, “In politics a week is a very long time”. Two years before 1980, who would have predicted Ronald Reagan as the Republican candidate?
HEFFNER: Ronald Reagan, probably.
SCHLESINGER: Two years before 1976, who would have predicted Jimmy Carter as the Democratic candidate? Two years before ’72, who would have predicted George McGovern? Two years before ’68, who would have predicted Richard Nixon as the candidate of their parties? So I think it’s a little early.
HEFFNER: I withdraw the question about prediction. I’ll ask a question, though, about preference.
SCHLESINGER: Well, I think there are a number of capable people in the Democratic Party. Ted Kennedy has taken himself out, at least as far as ’88 is concerned. But there is Mario Cuomo, the Governor of New York; Mike Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts; Dale Bumpers, the Senator from Arkansas; Gary Hart, who just retired from the Senate. So I think there are, I would say, able people.
HEFFNER: Can’t get you to express a preference?
SCHLESINGER: Well, I’m from New York, so I suppose I have a natural leaning towards our Governor.
HEFFNER: That’s fair enough to say. You know, let me just ask you…we have about two minutes left. Something like that. I wanted to ask you about Tommy Corcoran’s statement that every administration has its human sacrifice. This is something in an article in ’62 in the New York Times by Robert Bandina. He’s talking about Schlesinger being the sacrificial lamb – that you were the one who took it for the administration…the Kennedy Administration. Did you feel that way at the time?
SCHLESINGER: Well, I was in President Kennedy’s White House.
HEFFNER: The house intellectual.
SCHLESINGER: And I was sort of a natural target for people on the right. And it is quite true that Tom Corcoran…Tom Corcoran had been brain truster for F.D.R. and he was reading newspaper attacks on me and he called up one day to kind of console me and he said, “Every administration has to have its human sacrifice”. He said, “I was that in the Roosevelt Administration. Looks like you’re the fellow in the Kennedy Administration”. So that…I mean, it wasn’t all together comfortable. On the other hand, President Kennedy understood this, and indeed my friend Ted Sorenson. In his book about Kennedy, he explains what relief other members of the White House staff…saw that I had become the lightning rod for attacks, because had I not been there, it might have been Sorenson who would have been the object of attacks.
HEFFNER: In the half minute we have remaining, would you do it again?
SCHLESINGER: I think it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life and as a historian, of course, it was absolutely wonderful to be able to see unfolding of policy a that close range. Would I do it again?
HEFFNER: That’s the question.
SCHLESINGER: Well, I’m getting on towards seventy and there are some books I want to write before I move on to the great library in the sky.
HEFFNER: Can’t get an answer on that. Thank you so much for joining me again today, Professor Schlesinger.
SCHLESINGER: Thank you, Dick. It’s always a great pleasure to be on THE OPEN MIND.
HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
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