Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power
Last March I was a guest at a dinner meeting in Washington of American historians. They met in the new Smithsonian building devoted to the history of science and invention in America, a setting formidably elegant in its stripped force, to discuss History as Literature. A great pendulum, gently swaying to the rotation of the earth, hung down the length of the building from ceiling to floor, reminding me of the “Godless Museum” in Moscow where the League for the Promotion of Atheism had once hung a similar pendulum in a church to show the young that Fact, not God, moved the world. Behind the dais at the Washington dinner hung the tattered American ensign which after that bombardment in 1814 was still there.
There was so much national brag, ingenuity, money, and social brilliance represented in that extraordinary dining space dominated by the pendulum swaying down the center of the building, the flag technicoloring the wall just behind the podium, that I was somewhat surprised by the uniformity with which all the speakers that night—the main feature was Dean Acheson—invoked and celebrated History as Literature. Even the professional scholars on the dais seemed to be hinting that their merits as writers were unappreciated. Most of the leading American historians write so easily and so well, and many of them sell so well, that I cannot understand why any of them should need still to plead for History as an art. The English historian J. H. Plumb has suggested that American historians are all too literary and have been unwilling to ask the right questions about social change in this country. “For too long American historians have been concerned with narrative, with biography, or with cultural and institutional history that evades economic and social roots…in general the work of American historians has seemed curiously unsophisticated and old-fashioned.” Instant history is now so popular in this country, so clearly exploits the obsession with “news” and the sense of emergency already inflated by the mass media, that I would have expected the gifted professionals on the dais to worry not about being mistaken for their monograph-writing colleagues but about the need to come to grips with the unprecedented and dominating power now represented on the world scene by the United States.
DEAN ACHESON was Undersecretary of the Treasury under Roosevelt, Secretary of State under Truman. He played a great role in formulating the Marshall Plan, he was a major architect of the Truman Doctrine, he has been one of the great strengths behind Johnson’s foreign policy; he is a famously able lawyer, a man imposing, intelligent, charming, and notoriously firm when he needs to be. He is in his seventy-fourth year. With all this wealth of experience, with all this courage, intelligence, and charm, with a monumental bearing in his gentleman-lawyer’s style that should subdue even DeGaulle, Mr. Acheson that night also came out for literature and had nothing to offer that one could not have learned …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.