When Historian John Patrick Diggins informed his role model, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, that he was undertaking a book on Ronald Reagan, Schlesinger asked him not to make the President “look good.”
This quote perfectly encapsulates why the Left and the Right have regarded Schlesinger Jr as a knee-jerk liberal (a “Kennedy suck-up”–more on this later–as the late Christopher Hitchens labeled him, based on the historian’s Camelot preaching; while the Right has been slightly more lenient, while at the same time attacking him as a “Castro sympathizer” after his “glowing” reports after a trip to Cuba in the 1970s).
As we edge toward his 100th birthday, and his death almost ten years ago (2007), it is possible to take in his whole life and positions and see him as more of a mixed bag.
His life was devoted to an almost constant salvage effort for the Democrat Party, the purpose of which was to revive the New Deal (Schlesinger was an impressionable 15-years-old when he heard FDR’s inaugural address in 1933). One suspects his celebrated cyclical view of history (liberal experimentation which exhausts itself, allowing a period of conservative dominance and inaction, then followed by a renewed progressivism) was more to keep liberal hopes alive during Republican administrations. As an activist and campaign staffer, he was always trying to make his candidates less conservative, which he tried to by exposing first Adlai Stevenson then JFK with his hagiographical Age of Roosevelt.
This desire to resuscitate liberal glory days provoked tendencies in Schlesinger he would deplore in Republican presidents. He expressed horror at Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan’s reliance on covert action, but, among liberals, he was willing to work in a secretly CIA-funded writers congress and construct plausible deniability scenarios for the Bay of Pigs operation. He helped spin the Kennedy brothers from, in many ways, conservative Democrats (JFK orchestrated the first capital gains tax cut and a coup against South Vietnam president N’go Diehm because of rumors he was close to seeking an accommodation with the Communist North, and waged a secret war against Fidel Castro). He pioneered Oliver Stone by asserting that JFK knew nothing of the CIA-Mafia partnership to take out the Cuban dictator. He peddled the rumor that JFK was seeking a normalization of relations with Castro–but neglected to mention that the President was still green-lighting more assassination efforts. He came to the defense of President Bill Clinton during Lewinskygate, asserting that “gentlemen lie about sex” without taking into account that the Clinton team was trying to trash Lewinsky, and that Clinton refused to define sex as having an oral component.
However, for all of his knee-jerk responses, he would occasionally follow the evidence to a conclusion damaging to his own side. It would have been so easy and strategic, as so many others were at the time, to wrap Alger Hiss in the New Deal flag. Instead, Schlesinger accepted his guilt and concluded that the CPUSA did, to some extent, penetrate the New Deal for espionage purposes. He even accepted that FDR was naive about communism. He led the fight against the 1947 third-party candidacy of Henry Wallace, the once Vice President under FDR because Communists controlled and directed Wallace’s campaign.
Part of Schlesinger’s salvage efforts became surgical, as when he took the then-unpopular stand in the immediate post-war period among liberals of severing Democratic links to the CPUSA. Accepting this continuing partnership would have kept the Hollywood contributions high, and Schlesinger free from accusations of fascism, but such a course would have compromised the New Deal in a way that not even the Wallace candidacy could. As such, he helped found the Americans For Democratic Action, a liberal anticommunist group that housed Eleanor Roosevelt among others.
It’s a pity Schlesinger’s willingness to accept liberal folly didn’t make him equally receptive to the possibility of conservative wisdom. In 1981, Schlesinger discounted Ronald Reagan’s prediction that the Soviet Union was about to be on the ash heap of history by stating that a recent visit the historian made there showed a bustling economy in no danger of collapse. When the Soviet Union did soon implode, Schlesigner avoided accepting that Reagan was a better reader of historical trends than himself by writing of “the cunning twists and turns of history” (an odd comment from a cyclical historian).
But Schlesinger veered into conservative territory in the 1990s with his trenchant attacks on multiculturalism and postmodernism, all emanating out from its East Coast nerve center and the university he taught at, CUNY. It took considerable intellectual courage to attack this anti-empirical trend, especially when this allied him with conservatives. His last years proved the liberals of yesteryear have more in common with the conservatives of today than with their leftist counterparts.