The death of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. on February 28 at the age of 89 elicited a slew of retrospectives and personal anecdotes. Perhaps inevitably, they tend to summarize his six-decade career by focusing primarily on his most famous works—The Age of Jackson (1945), The Vital Center (1949), and A Thousand Days (1966). Although each of these books is essential to assessing his legacy, a look at Schlesinger’s many contributions to The Atlantic provides fresh insight into one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and influential minds.
Schlesinger’s relationship with The Atlantic spanned the duration of his career, and his writing in its pages reflected his many interests. Over the years he contributed more than 20 pieces. Not all of the predictions he ventured in the magazine’s pages have been borne out – his contention, for example, in “Is the Vice Presidency Necessary?”, that the office of the vice president is becoming ever less powerful has certainly been belied by the dynamic of the present administration. But much of his commentary remains eerily relevant.
In "The New Isolationism" (1952), Schlesinger bemoaned what he saw as a resurgence of pre-World War II isolationism within the American government. Using the campaign speeches of Senator Robert A. Taft as a lens through which to study isolationism’s stubborn hold on the American psyche, Schlesinger concluded that America’s traditional tendency to avoid engagement with the wider world was fundamentally incompatible with postwar realities and that it was preventing the U.S. from taking an aggressive stand against Soviet communism:
The belief in an American purity [and] the agoraphobic fear of a larger world … have continued to exercise a paralyzing effect on policy. More than anything else, perhaps, they have kept America a slumbering giant, unable to export its democratic faith to the peoples of other nations, unable to play a full and affirmative role in the world...
How are the New Isolationists to get around the fact that their proposals are greeted with loud cheers in the Kremlin? ...
The triumph of [isolationism] could lead abroad only to an overflow of Soviet power into the regions from which we retreat—until we are forced back into the Western Hemispheres.
Since then, U.S. involvement in numerous foreign engagements suggests that America has largely shaken off its isolationist heritage. Yet Schlesinger’s condemnation of Senator Taft’s “all-out, half-way” approach aptly captures contemporary America’s conflicting desires both to direct events in much of the world and keep our soldiers and resources out of other nations’ struggles.
With “Mark Twain, or the Ambiguities” (August 1966), Schlesinger took on what for him was a somewhat atypical theme: literature. In reviewing Justin Kaplan’s biography of Mark Twain (née Samuel Langhorne Clemens), Schlesinger focused in on a fundamental duality within Mr. Twain that both fueled his genius and tormented him. Twain was, Schlesinger noted, tormented by “inner demons”; he was a playful humorist beset by reservoirs of bitterness and malice. Schlesinger quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous assertion that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Though Twain was a first-rate intelligence, he was also, Schlesinger contended, “a flawed man who never composed his inner schisms.” Schlesinger commented on the overall effect of this perpetual schism:
The interior tension was enormously exhilarating and productive and helps explain the unimaginable discharge of literary energy over half a century. The double perspective informed his humor, made irony his inevitable mode, and strengthened his capacity at one and the same time to stand aside and take part, to be the bemused bystander and the agent or victim. But it also created problems. It accounted for those dismaying shifts in tone which so often spoiled his effects and to which he seemed so oddly impervious. It made sustained composition difficult: probably no other great writer started and stopped so often… And so deeply rooted were the dualities in the mysteries of Clemens’ unconscious that they were always a lurking threat to his poise, even at times to his sanity.
Less than a year later, in March 1967, Schlesinger addressed the tension between politics and the telling of history. In “On the Writing of Contemporary History,” he challenged the notion that one cannot write about the events of one’s own time for fear of contaminating one’s objectivity:
Wherever vital issues or strong emotions are involved, whether events are as remote from us as the fall of the Roman Empire, the life of Christ, or the rise of Pericles, distance does not create consensus or guarantee certitude. One comes to feel increasingly that historians agree only when the issues as well as the people are dead—and that the assurance with which historians are accustomed to pin down the past sometimes results from the happy fact that there are no survivors to challenge their reconstruction.
Schlesinger went on to argue that, in fact, by writing about the events of his own day, a historian can portray the events he is describing as they were actually felt and experienced, complete with the partisan undertones that existed at the time.
In November 1973, the Atlantic published an excerpt from Schlesinger’s book The Imperial Presidency. The essay was a brutal condemnation of the Nixon administration’s corruption of the presidency. Schlesinger predicted that unless Congress and the American people reclaimed their roles in national governance, the character of American democracy would become even further corroded. After all, ultimately, he contended, it is the American people—through Congress, the Cabinet, or the electoral college—who hold responsibility for setting the tone by which any U.S. president will rule. “The effective means of controlling the presidency lie not in law,” he wrote, “but in politics. For the American President rules by influence; and the withdrawal of consent, by Congress, by the press, by public opinion, can bring any President down.”
In October 1984, Schlesinger reviewed The Supreme Partnership, a collection of correspondence between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt edited by historian Warren F. Kimball. Here, he set forth an example of how analysis of historical events, in light of the outcomes that followed, can never be truly objective. “Victory looks inevitable enough from the safe haven of 1984,” he explained. “It looked far less inevitable in 1942 and 1943.” In analyzing the notes and letters exchanged between the two giants (both of whom had survived near-death experiences), Schlesinger also took the opportunity to expound on the role of the individual in shaping history:
One might invite those who believe that individuals make no difference to history to tell us what would have happened to the world a decade later had the automobile killed Winston Churchill on Fifth Avenue and the bullet killed Franklin Roosevelt in Miami. Fortunately, the two men survived to find each other and to save us all.
Whether writing for The Atlantic, composing biographies of the great Americans, or writing speeches for John F. Kennedy., Schlesinger never shied away from expressing his opinion as he analyzed the events of his time. Perhaps he summed up his own approach best in 1991, during an interview with The Washington Post. “What the hell,” he shrugged in reply to an accusation of some political blunder. “You have to call them as you see them. This too shall pass.”
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