Arthur Schlesinger
Arthur Schlesinger; drawing by David Levine

The author of this book requires no introduction to the readers of The New York Review. The name of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., historian, essayist, lifelong student of American political institutions, has appeared too often in this journal, as that of either reviewer or reviewed, to need further identification here.

The book at hand is a series of fifteen essays drawn mainly from articles published by the same author at various times in recent years, but revised or reedited or in various other ways reinforced by the author’s present views. What emerges is a series of mature reflections on a number of serious questions to which the author has, over the course of the years, given much study and thought. These questions are viewed historically, as they all deserve to be; and the author’s treatment of them is enriched not only by his superb knowledge of American political history but also by a fine literary style which adds to both the readability and the force of the thoughts brought forward.

It is never easy to review a work composed of a number of different articles, bearing on different subjects. Particularly is this true when certain of the articles, as is the case here, are of such weight and quality as to merit full-length reviews in their own right. The diversity is further heightened, in this instance, by the fact that the essays are almost evenly divided between those that deal with America’s domestic-political institutions and customs and those that relate, at least by implication, to the position of this country as a member of the world community.

Let us begin with the second of these two categories.

Schlesinger sees two profoundly rooted but conflicting strains in the way Americans view themselves—in the role, that is, in which they cast themselves—as a nation among other nations. Sometimes these two strains do battle with each other in the same American breast; more often large segments of opinion lean decisively one way or another, with the result that each of the strains has had its period, or periods, of ascendancy in American public life.

One of these views, strong initially among the Founding Fathers themselves, saw Americans as essentially no different from the general run of human beings: subject to the same limitations; affected by the same restrictions of vision; tainted by the same original sin or, in a more secular view, by the same inner conflicts between flesh and spirit, between self-love and charity. This view, in its original eighteenth-century form, was also informed by the recognition that history had had, to that time, few examples to show of a solid and enduring republic, whereas one could point to a number of examples of empires and monarchies that answered reasonably well to this description. Against this background of perception, the Founding Fathers tended, for the most part, to see the establishment of the national independence and unity of the United States as an experiment—not an easy one, not one whose success was automatically assured—rather, as Schlesinger describes it, one “undertaken in defiance of history, fraught with risk, problematic in outcome.” With this question mark lying across its future, the fledgling republic could obviously not appear as a guide or teacher to the rest of humanity. Its first duty was to itself. The best it could ask of its international environment was to be left alone to develop its institutions in its own way and to prove, if it could, that a nation thus conceived and thus dedicated could, as Lincoln put it, “long endure.”

In the opposite strain of perception Americans were seen not as conducting and enacting a great experiment but as fulfilling a predetermined destiny. This view had its origins in the religious convictions of many of the early New England colonists. They saw in the very fact of their removal to this continent the influence of “a wonder-working Providence”—a “journey of the elect,” as Schlesinger describes it, “to salvation beyond history.” From this it was only a step to the belief that Americans had taken over from the old-testamentary model the quality of the chosen race. Schlesinger cites several striking examples of the intensity of this feeling among prominent figures of the early decades of the republic.

With time, of course, this view became secularized. Nationalistic fervor, that contagious hysteria of all nineteenth-century Western society, gave it a far wider currency than it had ever before enjoyed. Strength was lent to it by the nation’s survival of the Civil War, which to many appeared as evidence that the “experiment” of American nationhood had been successfully completed. What remained then was a widespread impression, supported by patriotic emotion, that the Almighty, in Schlesinger’s words, “had contrived a nation unique in its virtue and magnanimity, exempt from the motives that governed all other states.”


Of central importance, in this dichotomy of view, was the relationship to a sense of history. The old concept of America as experiment had been embedded in profound historical consciousness. It was as part of an unbroken historical continuity, partially inscrutable but still man’s greatest aid to self-understanding, that the “experiment” was seen to have its existence.

Not so for those who saw America as destiny. Essential to their outlook was “a narcissistic withdrawal from history”—a phenomenon which, as Schlesinger correctly observes, reached its apotheosis in the recent postwar decades. “For all the preservation of landmarks and the show biz of bicentennials,” he writes,

we have become, so far as interest and knowledge are concerned, an essentially historyless people. The young no longer study history. Academics turn their back on history in the enthusiasm for the historical behavioral “sciences.” As American historical consciousness has thinned out, the messianic hope has flowed into the vacuum.

At this point, Schlesinger leans heavily on the brilliant insights of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History to challenge directly the validity of the messianic approach. He describes this as an illusion.

No nation is sacred and unique…. All nations are immediate to God. America, like every country, has interests real and fictitious, concerns generous and selfish, motives honorable and squalid. Providence has not set Americans apart from lesser breeds. We too are part of history’s seamless web.

In the essay on “Foreign Policy and the American Character” Schlesinger traces the effect of this deep dichotomy on the recent and current conduct of American foreign policy. Here, the two poles have acquired, justifiably, a different semantic clothing: realism vs. ideology. Admitting that in the mentality of most political leaders of this century the division between these two outlooks was never a complete one (so powerful were the two strains in mass opinion that the practical politician has had no choice but to try to appeal simultaneously to both), Schlesinger nevertheless sees the Reagan administration as representing “a mighty comeback of messianism in foreign policy.” He draws attention, in particular, to the way this affects outlooks toward the Soviet Union. Realism sees in that political entity

a weary, dreary country filled with cynicism and corruption, beset by insuperable problems at home and abroad, lurching uncertainly from crisis to crisis.

Ideology, on the other hand,

withdraws problems from the turbulent stream of change and treats them in abstraction from the whirl and contingency of life. So ideology portrays the Soviet Union as an unalterable monolith, immune to historical vicissitude and permutation, its behavior determined by immutable logic, the same yesterday, today and tomorrow…. We are forever in 1950, with a dictator in the Kremlin commanding an obedient network of communist parties and agents around the planet. In the light of ideology, the Soviet Union appears as a fanatic state carrying out with implacable zeal and cunning a master plan for world dominion.

These observations provide the point of departure for a vigorous attack on the Reagan foreign policy. Drawing attention to the contradictions even in the handling of the East–West confrontation (“a long twilight struggle between bark and bite”), this polemic runs the gamut from Central America to the arms race. It comes down hard on the irony of the simultaneous and symbiotic prospering of the Pentagon and the Soviet Defense Ministry.

There is no greater racket in the world today than generals claiming the other side is ahead in order to get bigger budgets for themselves. This tacit collusion, based on a common vested interest in crisis, remains a major obstacle in the search for peace.

And the conclusions are uncompromising:

Ideology is the curse of public affairs because it converts politics into a branch of theology and sacrifices human beings on the altar of dogma…. In the end [it] is out of character for Americans…. [They] would do well to sober up from the ideological binge and return to the cold, gray realism of the Founding Fathers, men who lucidly understood the role of interest and force in a dangerous world and thought that saving America was enough without trying to save all humanity as well.

Similarly related to the choice between realism and ideology is the next of the essays, addressed to the respective roles of moral absolutes and national interest in foreign policy. The discussion gains in significance by virtue of the pervasive bewilderment that prevails today in academic, journalistic, and governmental circles over precisely this question. Schlesinger takes as his point of departure the wholly sound observation, already recognized by thinkers as far apart in time as Alexander Hamilton and Niebuhr, that morality is not the same thing for an individual, responsible only to himself, as it is for a government, trustee for the interests of others and bound to represent those interests as it sees them, rather than to obey its own moral impulses. But Schlesinger also recognizes that the concept of national interest, essential as it is as a foundation for national policy, is a poorly defined term, varying greatly with circumstances and vulnerable to serious error and distortion both in understanding and in application. A democracy, he notes, presents particularly ample possibilities for just this sort of confusion and error. As a guide to policy, the concept requires, for this reason, a certain sort of disciplinary restraint; and this he finds in the observance of the values of prudence, of proportionality (that action should bear a reasonable relationship to its presumed consequences), and of international law.


With these modifications, Schlesinger finds national interest “an indispensable magnetic compass for policy,” without which “there would be no order or predictability in international affairs.” And he ends his discussion with a conclusion, firmly rooted in Federalist thinking, which could scarcely have been better expressed. Moral values, he concludes, “do have a fundamental role in the conduct of foreign affairs.” But this role is not to provide abstract and universal principles for foreign policy decisions. “It is rather to illuminate and control conceptions of national interest.” The beginning of a true state morality lies, in his view, in “the assumption that other nations have legitimate traditions, interests, values and rights of their own.” Thus:

National interest, informed by prudence, by law, by scrupulous respect for the equal interests of other nations and above all by rigorous fidelity to one’s own sense of honor and decency, seems more likely than the trumpeting of moral absolutes to bring about restraint, justice and peace among nations.

These considerations lead into the next of the essays, “Human Rights and the American Tradition.” Here, perhaps inevitably, the sharpness of vision is somewhat dimmed—inevitably, for the problem at hand is one of great and baffling complexity. Schlesinger gives us as balanced an appraisal of this problem as any this reviewer has seen. He does full justice to the many sober voices out of the American past warning us that political practices in other countries are best influenced by the power of example rather than by preaching and exhortation. He recognizes the disadvantages that rest on direct efforts by our government to bring pressure on other governments for the correction of human rights abuses. He feels that the greater part of this burden should be assumed by nongovernmental associations and, to the extent we can persuade them to do it, by the United Nations and other international agencies. But he also recognizes, and approves, what he calls “the profound and admirably uncontrollable American impulse to exhibit sympathy for victims of despotism in other lands.” He notes (and one supposes with agreement) that Franklin Roosevelt, although never doubting that foreign policy must be founded on national interest, considered ideals “an indispensable constituent of American power.” He admits that the American pressures for the observance of human rights elsewhere will never make such rights forever secure; but it will, he thinks, “make tyranny insecure for a while to come.”

Perhaps, perhaps. But even the most sober discussion of the human rights problem in this country fails, in the judgment of this reviewer, to probe the depths of this complex subject. There is the general failure to distinguish between personal rights (protection against the abuse of person and the invasion of property) on the one hand, and civil, largely electoral, rights on the other. The one can exist without the other, and has done so many times. But to demand the first, and less intrusive, of the two without demanding the other (as seems to be the case when we approach the Soviet Union) raises the unanswered question whether we are saying that we would be satified with a species of benevolent despotism. Beyond this, there is the common failure to take into consideration the possible or probable consequences of what we are demanding—a particularly weighty omission, since it is others, not we, who will have to live with those consequences. Nothing in the vast historical record justifies the common American assumption that anyone who opposes oppression would, if he were to succeed in overthrowing it, invariably govern more humanely himself. Too many past efforts to overthrow a given tyranny have been motivated not by a desire to do away with tyranny altogether but by a desperate determination to replace one tyranny by another of one’s own making.

What we are faced with here is, in many instances, not just the need for persuading a given ruling group to behave more humanely but rather the problem of changing an entire political culture; and this is not accomplished simply by urging a given ruling group to behave more humanely. Demands that this or that regime should concede more in the way of “human rights” to its citizens raise, in other words, questions both of national custom and of political philosophy which we ourselves, at least in our collective capacity, are unlikely to have thought through; and without the answers to them our efforts are only too likely to be fumbling and confusing. This reviewer remains of the opinion that the best way we—and particularly our government—can influence the political practices of other governments is to apply our ax vigorously to some of the failures and evils of our own society, letting the chips fall where they may. This fallout, we may be sure, will not be ignored.

These observations will have sufficed only to give some idea of the general direction of those of Schlesinger’s essays that touch on foreign policy. The ones that deal with purely national affairs strike a different note. There are six of them, all richly informed by Schlesinger’s familiarity with American political history, all interesting and deserving of the sort of detailed critical comment that cannot be given within this space. But three of them—one on the questionable fate of American political parties, another on the past, present, and future of the presidency (and who could be better qualified to write on this subject than the author of major works on the age of Andrew Jackson and on the life of Franklin Roosevelt?), and a third on the vice-presidential office—go to the heart of some of the country’s greatest present concerns.

By virtue of party and organizational connections and his views on specific national questions, Arthur Schlesinger rates as a liberal. But what emerges from these highly interesting papers is a very conservative outlook. Despite all its faults and its declining fortunes, Schlesinger wants to see the party system preserved. This, despite what he terms “the devastating and conceivably fatal impact” of television and the computerized public opinion polls on that system. “Without the stabilizing influence of parties,” he says, “American politics would grow angrier, wilder and more irresponsible.”

He rejects, similarly, the various suggestions for the reform of the presidential office. He recognizes the multitudinous deficiencies of the existing system, but fears that to change it could produce even greater ones. He rejects the proposals for a single six-year presidential term. He disagrees with those who would introduce into our system the essential features of the British and Canadian parliamentary ones, centering on the establishment of a relationship of mutual responsibility between executive and legislative organs. He rejects, on balance, the proposals for abolishing the electoral college in favor of direct presidential elections; though he favors the so-called National Bonus Plan, under which a pool of 102 electoral votes would be conceded, within the College, to the winner of the popular vote. He favors a further shortening of the interregnum between successive presidential administrations. But in general he is against structural surgery. “If the political will exists in Congress and the citizenry,” he thinks, such surgery “will not be necessary. If the will does not exist, it will make little difference.”

With respect to the vice-presidency, Schlesinger’s view is less conservative. He joins many others in the conclusion that the vice-presidential office, as we now have it, is an anomaly and sometimes even an absurd one. He deplores the Twenty-fifth Amendment, giving to a one-time vice-president who has succeeded to the presidency the power to appoint his successor with the confirmation of both houses of Congress. He would prefer to see the vice-presidency, as such, abolished, and replaced by an arrangement under which the decision on succession to the presidency, in case of the death or disability of an incumbent, would be at once submitted to the will of the voters in a special election—an arrangement that would meet the principle that no one should come to occupy the highest office in the land other than by decision of the voters themselves.

These views, argued in the book with a comprehensiveness and historical authority to which this summary can do no justice, come before the public at a peculiarly appropriate moment. In less than a year the two-hundredth anniversary of the Constitution will be upon us. One can well agree with Schlesinger that one should approach only with the greatest skepticism and caution suggestions for the amendment of a document that for over two centuries has served its purpose as well as has the American Constitution. The fact remains that our present federal system is simply not working well—not well enough, in any case, to meet obvious national needs—in a number of areas of decision where the entire future of the country may be at stake. These concern, in the main, matters that require the long view: environmental protection, immigration, drug control, public finance, and, above all, nuclear arms control. In all of these matters the failures are evident; in some of them the Congress even confesses its helplessness. It is idle to shrug these failures off with the comforting reflection that our institutions have worked well enough in the past. So great have been the changes in the physical and technological environment of our lives in this present century that there can be no assurance that what was adequate to the past will continue to be adequate to the future.

There are two thoughts to which, in the mind of this reviewer, these gloomy perceptions conduce. The first is the question whether, if the traditional political institutions of the country cannot be usefully altered by constitutional amendment, they might not be usefully supplemented with something that does not now exist: namely, some sort of an advisory body, advisory both to president and to Congress, but standing outside them, and made up of persons remote from participation in partisan political activity but qualified by training, experience, and temperament to look deeply into present trends and possible remedies and to tell both the legislative and executive branches of the government of the things they must do, whether they like it or not, to head off some of the worst eventualities that seem now to be, almost unhindered, in the making. The constitutionally created institutions of government would of course have to remain the seats of final decision; but the existence of a sober and deliberate outside voice of this nature might conceivably serve to remove from the bull-pit of partisan contention questions to which, while the imperative need for solutions is everywhere evident, partisan politics can find no answers.

In a body of this nature scientific authority would be prominently represented, as would distinguished previous experience in public affairs; but the accent, in the determination of its composition, would have to be on character rather than on smartness, and on wisdom rather than on narrow expertise, on knowledge of the past as well as a sense of the future. Such a body might provide much of the answer to a demand that has recently been raised with growing insistence: the demand for a better use of our great fund of acquired experience in public life—for a better use, that is, of the “elder statesmen” who are to be found in such abundance in our society but whose experience, as things now stand, goes largely wasted.

This leads to the second thought. If no more imaginative effort is undertaken, is there not a danger that the celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the Constitution may exhaust itself in what Schlesinger calls “show biz”—the sort of parades, costumes, outward replicas, and reenactments that characterized the anniversaries of the Declaration of Independence and of the Statue of Liberty? A story in The New York Times (September 17) about plans for the occasion gives no grounds for the assumption that anything much more than this now is contemplated.

Should not the President and former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger (the latter as chairman of the National Committee on the Bicentennial) put their heads together and arrange for the convocation, by official invitation, of a small gathering of historians, authorities on constitutional law, and other qualified persons (no more in number than those who deliberated on the Constitution two hundred years ago) to examine the adequacy of that document at the distance of two hundred years (as the authors of the document hoped and expected would occasionally be done)? Such a group could not only confront collectively the questions Arthur Schlesinger has raised in this book, but also assess the soundness and suitability of the habits and traditions that have grown up in these two past centuries around the institutional framework the Constitution has provided. Again, the findings of such a body could of course be no more than advisory; but they might serve an educational purpose for the public at large; and they might point the way, as nothing else could, to the improvement of an institutional and traditional framework whose evident inadequacy to the challenges now before us threatens in many ways the continuity and intactness of our national life.

This Issue

November 6, 1986