“History,” wrote the British historian C.V. Wedgwood, “is lived forwards but it is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only.” Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s engrossing autobiography of his coming of age as a man, as a historian, and as a political activist tells the remarkable story of how, in an age of competing ideologies, he emerged as a paladin of anti-Communist liberalism.
It was a liberalism that was first encouraged by his family—Schlesinger’s father was a distinguished scholar of social and cultural American history; his mother, according to family tradition, was descended from George Bancroft, America’s first major historian. Schlesinger was born in Ohio, on October 15, 1917, while his father was teaching at Ohio State University; he spent his early boyhood in Iowa City, an agreeable midwestern university town, where his father also taught. The family’s roots, however, were in Xenia, Ohio, which was where his grandfather arrived in 1872 from East Prussia. A Jewish merchant, Bernhard Schlesinger fell in love with a Roman Catholic Austrian girl whom he met in Xenia; the young couple resolved the religious problems of their mixed marriage by becoming Protestants and joining the German Reformed Church. Bernhard’s son, Arthur Schlesinger Sr., was born in Xenia, and Schlesinger Jr.’s early memories are more vividly of Xenia than of Iowa City; his description of Xenia is reminiscent of a Booth Tarkington town, where his father “fished and swam on summer days and took bobsleigh rides in winter moonlight.”
After graduating from a good public school and proving himself a voracious reader in Xenia’s 30,000-volume public library, Schlesinger Sr. entered Ohio State as a member of the class of 1910 at the height of the Progressive era, when the 1908 election pitted the populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan against Theodore Roosevelt’s chosen successor, William Howard Taft. Schlesinger Sr. admired Bryan. As his son tells it, Xenia contained not only Anglo-Saxons but also “large and visible contingents of Germans and Irish. So many blacks lived in Xenia’s East End that a local joke described Xenia as the place where the Underground Railroad had broken down. Yet the textbooks my father read in the Xenia schools portrayed Great Britain as the one and only mother country.”
His father, he writes, reacted to the “triple challenge of broadening American history beyond its Anglo-Saxon base, of understanding how multifarious newcomers were transformed into Americans, and of recovering the past in its social and cultural totality.” At this period American history was not only narrowly Anglo-Saxon but also strictly limited to politics, war, and diplomacy. What Schlesinger Sr. wanted was a history that reflected the social and cultural factors so potent in the American story.
The election of 1912 pitted Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism not only against President William Howard Taft’s conservative Republicanism, but also against Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom (as well as the socialism of Eugene Debs, who won almost a million votes). It was also the year when James Harvey Robinson’s The New History was published. As Robinson defined it, history “includes every trace and vestige of everything man has done or thought since he appeared on the earth.” To write the New History, scholars must draw from what he called “the new allies of history”—anthropology, economics, sociology, political science, geography, and psychology. Robinson’s lectures at Columbia University were the most formative intellectual influence during the older Schlesinger’s postgraduate years in New York, before he returned to Ohio State in 1912 as an instructor in history and political science.
The intellectual commitment of the young teacher to the New History, and his allegiance to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, were part of the legacy he passed on to his son. So was opposition to dictatorship in both the Soviet Union and Germany. Following the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939, Schlesinger’s father was one of the signers of the manifesto circulated by John Dewey on behalf of the Committee for Cultural Freedom, which said in part:
Under varying labels and colors, but with an unvarying hatred for the free mind, the totalitarian idea is already enthroned in Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan, and Spain…. Literally thousands of German, Italian,Russian and other victims of cultural dictatorships have been silenced, imprisoned, tortured or hounded into exile.
Similar comparisons of the effects of Soviet communism and fascism recur in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s writings and correspondence during the following years.
The Cambridge that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. grew up in after his father joined the Harvard faculty in 1923 was divided into three parts. There was East Cambridge, inhabited largely by Irish and Italian immigrants; North Cambridge, where the growing French-Canadian and Irish middle class lived; and Old Cambridge, an extension of Harvard, where the faculty lived, the richest and often the most eminent of them along Brattle Street and its environs.1
The interwar period was a golden age for the Harvard history department: in addition to Arthur Schlesinger Sr., there was the great naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison; Frederick Merk, the successor to Frederick Jackson Turner; the diplomatic historian William Langer; Charles H. Taylor, who taught medieval history; and Crane Brinton, a scholar of European intellectual history and of the French Revolution.
Perhaps the friend of the family who had the most effect on young Schlesinger both before and after he entered Harvard in the mid-1930s was Perry Miller, who was then writing his major work, The New England Mind. Miller, he writes, gave him “insights into the dark power of the Augustinian strain in Christianity, the anguished awareness of human finitude, failure, guilt, corruptibility, the precariousness of existence and the challenge of moral responsibility.” An atheist, Miller admired the Puritans, despite their belief in humankind’s sinfulness, because they also believed that “no force but the will of man could bring order out of the disorder of human weakness and depravity.”
The other scholar who particularly impressed Schlesinger during his undergraduate years was F.O. Matthiessen, who taught American literature and collaborated with Perry Miller in developing an undergraduate course of study in History and Literature. Schlesinger recalls reading The Waste Land and Walt Whitman with Matthiessen and writes admiringly of his masterwork American Renaissance, published in 1941, which, he says, explored “the inner meaning of American life” through the works of Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau.
…Man, in Matthiessen’s view, was “radically imperfect.” Yet, pitiful as man might be in his finite weakness, Matty believed him “still capable of apprehending perfection, and of becoming transfigured by that vision.” The common denominator of his five writers, he said, was “their devotion to the possibilities of democracy.”
Matthiessen committed suicide in 1950. A Christian and a Socialist, he had, Schlesinger writes, been drawn to the Communist Party but could not reconcile joining it with his religious faith and conviction of original sin. His naiveté about Stalin’s Soviet Union has always puzzled Schlesinger, who writes that “the intensity of his need to believe in an egalitarian society—a need perhaps induced by the guilt of inherited wealth—overpowered spiritual and aesthetic misgivings.”
Throughout his undergraduate years, Schlesinger was, he writes, an “ardent New Dealer.” Distrustful of ideologies, he had no doubt “that FDR and the New Dealers could work things out and do so within the system.” But he was not a political activist. In 1935, he wrote in his journal: “Those who want the barricades can have them; but I don’t, and I admit no mystical obli-gations which drive me there.” He remained skeptical about the peace strike of 1935, when 175,000 students on twenty campuses met to affirm their belief in pacifism. When Harvard students organized a chapter of the American Students Union in 1936, he wrote that he saw no point “in messing about with pseudo-political organizations that will never do anything very effective.”
The American Student Union was in essence a byproduct of what the Comintern’s Seventh World Congress in the summer of 1935 had called for as a way of unifying the anti-fascist forces. FDR, hitherto denounced by American Communists as a “social fascist,” was now a leader to be admired. But as far as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was concerned, “the New Deal was the main event, Marxism a sideshow, irrelevant to the American future.” Nor was it difficult for a History and Lit major like Schlesinger to remain aloof from the political turmoil of the Great Depression. Harvard, unlike Columbia University or New York’s City College or, for that matter, England’s Cambridge University, was not caught up in intense debate over Communist ideology or the conflict between Trotskyists and Communists. Nonetheless, Schlesinger writes, the Harvard Student Union by the end of the 1930s had about five hundred members, roughly a quarter of the undergraduate student body; a secret Communist cell within the Student Union attempted as best it could to control policy. The Harvard Teachers Union had the same problem of clandestine Communist manipulation; but this cell, according to Schlesinger, had, out of a faculty of about two thousand, only about fifteen members, nearly all untenured. Schlesinger describes how the Harvard Student Union and the Teachers Union fell apart in 1940, following the Soviet invasion of Finland.
While Schlesinger is contemptuous of the Stalinist types “who believed that Marx and Lenin had discovered the iron laws of history,” he admits that he failed to appreciate the generosity of spirit that animated people like Matthiessen. At the same time, he now writes, the Communist Party of the USA did not exert much influence in the 1930s. Although Communists may have had some influence in the publishing industry and in book reviewing, even this was marginal. Thus the philosopher Sidney Hook’s assertion in his memoirs that Communist front organizations “dominated the cultural, literary, and in part the academic landscape” seems to Schlesinger unwarranted.
Schlesinger is convincing when he argues that the labor movement, foreign policy, literature, and the arts “all would have evolved in much the same way had the CPUSA never existed.” The real threat of the Communists in the US was to the growth of an independent American radicalism, and to the liberal tradition with which Schlesinger identified himself.
When the US entered into World War II, Schlesinger wanted to serve in the military, but poor eyesight kept him out. He found a job in Washington in the Office of Facts and Figures, an agency created in October 1941, and headed by the poet Archibald MacLeish, and which later was folded into the Office of War Information. Assigned to the Writers Bureau in September 1942, Schlesinger spent much of his energy trying to fulfill MacLeish’s view of the agency as an educational institution providing, as MacLeish wrote to the President, “a full knowledge of what we are fighting for.” (True believers in the New Deal, Schlesinger and the other writers involved hoped to persuade the public, and especially Middle Westerners, that the war was being fought not simply to take vengeance against the Japanese or to protect US interests in Europe but also to vindicate FDR’s Four Freedoms.) Bureaucratic infighting, however, resulted in a change of command and less emphasis on what Republicans called propaganda for the New Deal; the new mandate was for the Writers Bureau to become primarily an information agency, with an emphasis on public relations.
This led Schlesinger to resign in April 1943, and to join the shadowy Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency. Harvard’s William Langer, the dean of diplomatic historians, was chief of its Research and Analysis section; in view of Schlesinger’s Cambridge record and connections, it was not surprising that Langer would offer him a job as a political analyst. R&A was essentially a service branch, providing data to the cloak-and-dagger branches, and to policymakers throughout the national security community. Schlesinger’s assignment was to edit a weekly journal dealing with psychological warfare.
Eager to get out of Washington and go abroad where the action was, Schlesinger finally wangled an assignment to work for the OSS in London, where the R&A bureau chief was Crane Brinton. But the transfer abroad was suddenly complicated by a security check which revealed that the Army’s Military Intelligence Division had reported that “one Arthur M. Schlesinger was a Communist in New England in 1941.” This report did not keep Schlesinger from his posting abroad, but it did subject him to an interrogation under oath by the Civil Service Commission. Again and again the examiner repeated that information incriminating Schlesinger had reached the Commission—a statement calling for the abolition of Martin Dies’s House Un-American Activities Committee, for example, or the Schlesinger letterhead in defense of Loyalist Spain. It soon became apparent that the younger Schlesinger had been identified with the liberal causes his father had supported. Why, Schlesinger asked, should security people in a liberal administration be so suspicious of these commitments?
The investigation, nonetheless, cleared him for service abroad, though the accusation that he had been a Communist remained in the files. Thus when Schlesinger, at the OSS’s behest, applied for a naval commission, he was denied it, ostensibly on grounds of his “defective vision.” After further questioning by naval officials revealed once again a bias against someone who had publicly been identified with liberal causes, Schlesinger concluded that he was being blackballed. Nonetheless, in May 1944, Schlesinger was given a permit to go to London with the civilian equivalent of the rank of major.
Exhilarated by wartime London, now under attack by V-2s, the first ballistic missiles, Schlesinger soon realized that his work at R&A was of little use to the military. The exception was its analysis of European resistance movements. The Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI) were providing valuable assistance to the Allied invasion, which had begun just before Schlesinger left for London. The question of the future of the anti-Nazi Resistance led to a serious debate within the London-based OSS. The French Communists had been prominent in the Resistance. What would be their role after the liberation? General de Gaulle, as the leader of Free France, was determined to prevent any Communist takeover in a provisional French government. In London, the OSS officials, concerned about postwar relations with Russia, were anxious to preserve the Soviet alliance and reluctant to fully support De Gaulle. Schlesinger, not surprisingly, was less hopeful about postwar cooperation. He believed that OSS “should do nothing that might strengthen the Communist position in Western Europe.”
By October 1944, Schlesinger was in the OSS offices in Paris under the command of William J. Casey, the former New York lawyer and naval officer who was later to head the CIA during the Reagan administration. Schlesinger was assigned to go with Major Charles Wintour, of Special Operations Executive (SOE), the British counterpart to OSS, to contact the SOE-OSS teams working with the French Resistance units in the region just north of Bordeaux, which was still in German hands. This adventure, as Schlesinger describes it, sounds like a wartime Hollywood movie, with Claude Rains and Louis Jouvet playing French officers; the Americans were out of a movie, too, most notably Lucien Co-nein, who was accompanied by a blond mistress in FFI uniform. The Wintour-Schlesinger mission was arranged to get the SOE-OSS agents out of the Bordeaux region, since De Gaulle had no intention of letting British and American agents insert themselves between the FFI and himself. By the time he returned to Paris, Schlesinger was convinced by the ruthlessness of Communist strategy that it was “absolutely essential to give the Commies no quarter,” as he wrote his parents, “and the liberal movement in the USA will be injured by every form of collaboration with Communists. I cannot say too strongly how I feel about this.”
Immediately after the war, Schlesinger’s liberalism was introduced to a larger public with his book The Age of Jackson, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Schlesinger’s interpretation of Jacksonian democracy was in no small part a response to an earlier generation of American historians, led by Frederick Jackson Turner, who had argued that “American democracy is fundamentally the outcome of the experiences of the American people in dealing with the West.” Jackson was seen by Turner, wrongly in Schlesinger’s view, primarily as a rude Westerner who virtually invented the spoils system and “brought the unwashed mob into the White House and speeded the degradation of the democratic dogma.” To Schlesinger, Jacksonian democracy was shaped by the East at least as much as by the West, by the city as much as by the frontier. Class conflict, a central Jacksonian theme, was hardly a feature of the relatively classless frontier. “Where frontiers breed equality and individualism,” Schlesinger wrote, “it was the city, not the forest, that had the bitter experience of shrinking opportunity, growing inequality and hardening class lines.”
Conditioned by the arguments and passions of the New Deal, Schlesinger was also writing his book as a histo-rian of his own time. He saw Franklin Roosevelt as acting in a Jacksonian spirit, despite his patrician manner and background. As with FDR, so, too, with Jackson. Like FDR, Jackson “had much the same cast of supporters—farmers, workingmen, intellectuals and the poor—and much the same cast of adversaries—bankers, merchants, manufacturers and the rich.” Schlesinger in his study of the Jacksonian era admitted he was seeking to legitimize the New Deal by finding precursors in the past.
In his memoir, however, Schlesinger acknowledges that “in principle” Jackson espoused Jeffersonian anti-statist views, while nonetheless using Hamiltonian means, including central financial controls, to achieve what he believed were Jeffersonian ends. In this respect, Schlesinger admits that his critics had a point when they declared that the Whigs, not the Jacksonians, were the true forerunners of the New Deal. The tradition of “affirmative government” was very much in the tradition of Hamilton, not of Jefferson. Schlesinger rightly points out that “Hamilton’s enthusiasm over the dynamics of individual acquisition was always tempered by a belief in government regulation and control.” In this respect, the Hamiltonian Federalists had “a sounder conception of the role of government and a more constructive policy of economic development than the antistatist Jacksonians.” Jackson, for all his professed nostalgia for Jefferson, asserted the authority of the state over monopolistic capital with the creation of the Second Bank of the United States, which left the national government, according to Schlesinger, stronger than ever before.
Democracy, in Schlesinger’s view, involved a struggle among competing interests for the control of the state. Liberal democracy rejects both conservative rule by the business community and socialist rule by bureaucratic planners. He asserts that a world without conflict is
the world of fantasy; and practical attempts to realize society without conflict by confiding power to a single authority have generally resulted…in producing a society where the means of suppressing conflict are rapid and efficient.
It was precisely Schlesinger’s distrust of utopian ends that has informed his liberalism, and provided the underpinnings to his opposition to Stalinism.
In the spring of 1946, Schlesinger and his researcher, Barbara Kerr, began an investigation of the American Communist Party for an article in Life magazine.2 They talked to former Party chief Earl Browder, Communist sympathizers, and anti-Stalinist liberals like Jim Loeb of the Union for Democratic Action and James Wechsler of the New York Post, as well as to Whittaker Chambers, who was then working for Time. In the article “The US Communist Party,” Schlesinger warned left-leaning American liberals to beware of Communists who were working “overtime” to expand their influence in the labor movement, among black Americans, among veterans, and among unorganized liberals. Although the party might have numbered only 65,000, Schlesinger was wary of their clandestine methods of infiltration, beginning with local clubs and extending through county, state, and district committees to the CP National Committee, and “finally to Moscow.”
Communism, he warned, “has made particular headway among the intellectuals of Hollywood, who find in the new faith a means of resolving their own frustration and guilt. The result is to create a situation where a writer, a speaker, an actor, if he says the correct things, can rely on a united and hysterical response.” Schlesinger rejected the idea that Communist infiltration was a direct danger to the republic and that espionage could be solved by “witch hunts or by un-American committees.” But he argued that “until the left can make the Communists and fellow travelers stand and be counted, its energies will be expanded in an exhausting warfare in the dark.” In his memoir, Schlesinger admits that “my temper was not under reliable control,” and his sometimes strident tone in this and other articles reflected both the intensity of his opposition to the Communists, in the Soviet Union and the US, and his zeal in taking the offensive.
New generations, Schlesinger recognizes, may well wonder why the anti-Communist liberals were so concerned by the Communist threat. The inestimable value of his memoir is to show how very different things looked in the 1940s before anyone knew the end of the story. In essence the cold war was fed by the fact that each side “ascribed to the other a consistency, foresight and coherence that it should have seen from its own experience was impossible…. Each succumbed to the propensity to perceive local conflicts in global terms, political conflicts in moral terms and relative differences in absolute terms.”
The threat to liberalism, not the internal threat to the US government, was what liberal anti-Stalinists like Schlesinger feared. And the organization that took the lead in this struggle was the Union for Democratic Action, founded in May 1941 as a progressive interventionist group, and chaired by Reinhold Niebuhr, with James Loeb, an ex-socialist, as executive secretary. By 1945, Loeb came to believe that it was necessary to liberate the democratic left from Communist manipulation, as well as to infuse the Truman administration with the spirit of the New Deal. In response to the emergence of the Progressive Citizens of America, later to become the Progressive Party under the leadership of Henry Wallace, Loeb decided, in early 1947, to form a new organization, the Americans for Democratic Action. Other leading public figures who lent their support to ADA included Niebuhr, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mayor Hubert Humphrey of Minneapolis, John Kenneth Galbraith, James Wechsler, and Joseph Rauh, a New Deal lawyer, who had clerked for Justices Frankfurter and Cardozo and became counsel for the United Auto Workers, whose new president Walter Reuther was also a member.
In strongly supporting the ADA Schlesinger was particularly impressed by Reinhold Niebuhr, a kindred spirit who had long been a major influence on his thinking. In the winter of 1940-1941, he had first encountered Niebuhr, a professor at the Union Theological Seminary, when he was preaching a Sunday sermon at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. As Schlesinger described it, “the argument was cool, rigorous, and powerful. Man was flawed and sinful…. Yet even sinful man had the duty of acting against evil in the world. Our sins, real as they were, could not justify our standing apart from the European struggle.”
Niebuhr had once been a Socialist, but he had come to accept the reformist policies of the New Deal, and by 1941 he saw in Roosevelt an indispensable war leader. As a parish minister in Detroit between 1915 and 1928, he had become increasingly skeptical of liberal Christianity with its sentimental and optimistic view of human nature, seeing this as irrelevant to the oppressions of industrial capitalism. Writing of Augustine and Calvin on the deep conflicts in the human condition, Niebuhr found a Christian perspective that he could apply to the brutal realities of political life.
In Niebuhr’s thinking, which Schlesinger discusses in some detail, the liberal Christian optimists had deluded themselves about the essential nature of power. Augustine’s criticism of the rationalism of the classical philosophers was mirrored in Niebuhr’s own opposition both to the dialectical reasoning of Marx and to John Dewey’s humanistic belief that social progress could be achieved by the experimental methods of the natural sciences. Niebuhr distrusted all absolutes, except when it came to one’s final faith in God. In his account, “Christian realists”—the “children of darkness”—lived in a world of competing moral claims. While political action always involved evil consequences, to act morally one had to try to choose between greater and lesser evils. In the postwar world it was the “children of light” who should be feared: those who thought they had the unambiguous truth. On the left, these people included pacifists, scientific rationalists, and “One Worlders”; on the right, McCarthyites, isolationists, supernationalists, and Communists. While Niebuhr’s realists criticized the mission-ary impulses of American policymakers, they also realized that America’s opponents—the Soviet Union and its allies—were guided by a different set of rules. Americans, Niebuhr felt, needed a better understanding of power politics.3
Niebuhr’s famous aphorism—“man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes it necessary”—is a statement of unvarnished realism. In Niebuhr’s vocabulary, Christian realism in foreign policy, as in all political action, meant, as his daughter Elisabeth Sifton has observed, “awareness of inevitable human failing. Nations, like all communities, cannot presume an absolute claim on truth, rectitude, virtue, force, or power. Democratic debate…is an essential component, then, in the formulation of policy, which should take account of the contingent human errors that will inevitably color it.” 4
Niebuhr became a leading figure in the ADA. Schlesinger saw him as an ally in his own struggle to invigorate the legacy of the New Deal and to make both its reforms and post-Roosevelt cold war foreign policy more attractive to the left. In a tribute to Niebuhr, written in 1956, he praises him for his liberal pragmatism, his realization “that men and women could act more effectively for decency and justice under the banner of a genuine humility than they had under the banner of an illusory perfectibility.”5
The key difference between the ADA and the Progressive Citizens of America lay in their qualifications for membership. The ADA rejected “any association with Communism or sympathizers with communism as completely as we rejected any association with fascists or their sympathizers.” The Progressives welcomed “all progressive men and women in our nation, regardless of…political affiliation.” As for the Communists who joined the Progressives, Henry Wallace dismissed their participation by saying, “They get out the crowds.”6 Yet the Communists soon became the dominating influence in the Progressive Party. As the radical journalist I.F. Stone concluded in 1950, “If it had not been for the Communists, there would have been no Progressive Party.”
Wallace, the Progressives’ candidate for president in 1948, like most everyone else believed Truman would be defeated by the Republicans. But Truman surprised him by appealing to the Progressives with a liberal platform that closely matched ADA’s: it called for a higher minimum wage and lower inflation, and for public housing and universal health care. The rout of the Progressives was total: not only did Truman win impressively but Wallace received not a single electoral vote.
That year the Marshall Plan began, and Schlesinger took a leave of absence from Harvard to go to Paris as special assistant to Averell Harriman, named by Truman to head the Marshall Plan in Europe. Once again, Schlesinger had a problem with clearance. Somewhere in the files of the FBI rested the statement by the Army’s Military Intelligence Division that one Arthur Schlesinger had been a Communist in New England in 1941. The report claimed that the unidentified source was reliable.
Schlesinger still believed that the FBI was a professional agency that sometimes went astray, as in his own case, but was “much to be preferred to the demagogic red-hunting lynch mobs of press and politics.” Later, he changed his views; in 1999, asked to nominate the best and worst Americans in the twentieth century, he named J. Edgar Hoover as the worst, “by legitimating and encouraging the more despicable aspects of our national behavior.” (Not surprisingly, he named FDR as the best.) Through the intervention of Philip Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, Hoover was persuaded to investigate the allegations against Schlesinger, and he was finally cleared for service in Paris. But other innocent people, falsely accused, did not have the good luck to have a powerful newspaper publisher as a friend. The leaders of ADA, who courageously opposed the House Un-American Activities Committee, were much concerned to distinguish their own anticommunism from that of the extrem-ists on the right. In retrospect, it seems clear that the most honorable and politically perceptive campaigns of the mid-1940s were those of the non-Communist liberals against the precursors of McCarthy.
Schlesinger’s most elaborate definition of his beliefs appeared in his book The Vital Center, published in 1949. To Schlesinger, this center was “liberal democracy standing on the stage against the totalitarian twins, communism and fascism.” The Augustinian tradition, as he had absorbed it from Perry Miller and later from his reading of Reinhold Niebuhr, “was far more successful in accounting for the horrors of the twentieth century and therefore offered liberalism…a much more solid foundation.” Schlesinger was in effect arguing for a secularized version of a religious doctrine. He saw original sin not as a divinely imposed burden but as a powerful metaphor that “undermined absolutist pretensions and set sharp limits on human wisdom and aspiration.” But man, at once free and unfree, “has the obligation to act or suffer the consequences of inaction. His knowledge is fragmentary, his righteousness is illusory, his motives are tainted, but, aware of the precariousness of human striving, he must strive nevertheless.”
The Vital Center’s recommendations for political action derived from the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Schlesinger approvingly cites TR’s view that “the more we condemn unadulterated Marxian Socialism, the stouter should be our insistence on thoroughgoing social reforms.” To carry out this program, however, liberal “advocates of the affirmative state had to fight conservatism at every step along the way.” In the end, he argues, capitalism triumphed over Marxist prophecy because of “the long campaign mounted by liberals to reduce the suffering, and thereby the rebel passions, of those to whom accidents of birth denied an equal chance in life.” As a historian, Schlesinger concludes that “the inscrutability of history refutes theories of determinism and leaves a margin in which people are free to make their own future. Or so I believed then, and still believe now.”
With these words, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. ends the first volume of his story at mid-century. His book evokes the confident Cambridge world that formed him and is now long gone, and it is rich in anecdotes, more than a few of them at the author’s own expense. But it is also infused with deep conviction as he argues the case for liberal opposition to the absolutisms of the right and the left. Schlesinger has given us a memoir that, for all their deep differences in temperament and perception of history, bears comparison with The Education of Henry Adams, the classic American autobiography of an earlier era.
December 21, 2000
The division of Cambridge into three parts is suggested by Marian Cannon Schlesinger in her book Snatched from Oblivion: A Cambridge Memoir (Little, Brown, 1979). Mrs. Schlesinger, the daughter of a prominent professor of physiology at the Harvard Medical School and the first wife of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., also noted that North and East Cambridge were as remote from the world of Harvard University “as Timbuctoo.” This was still true in 1949 when I entered Harvard College; today, much of both North and East Cambridge have become expensive real estate, as Cambridge has attracted many professional men and women who have little or no connection with Harvard, or with MIT, the other great bastion of learning, in East-Central Cambridge. ↩
All citations are from “The US Communist Party,” Life magazine, July 29, 1946. ↩
The views of Niebuhr and other political realists, such as George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Walter Lippmann, and Hans Morgenthau, are compared in Joel H. Rosenthal’s Righteous Realists: Political Realism, Responsible Power, and American Culture in the Nuclear Age (Louisiana State University Press, 1991). ↩
Elisabeth Sifton, “Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr,” World Policy Journal, Spring 1993, pp. 888, 890. ↩
Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Politics of Hope (Houghton Mifflin, 1952), p. 124. ↩
Cited in John C. Culver and John Hyde, American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace (Norton, 2000), p. 447. ↩