Born in Columbus, Ohio, in October 1917, Schlesinger was the son and namesake of Arthur M. Schlesinger, a Progressive Era intellectual and Harvard University history professor who may have been best known for surveying U.S. historians on the significance of past presidencies. After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard himself in 1938, during World War II “Schlesinger drafted some statements for President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt and served as an intelligence analyst for the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA,” according to an Associated Press obituary. His emergence from his famous father’s shadow was most clearly realized in 1945, when he published The Age of Jackson, a historical text that “offered a new, class-based interpretation of the [Andrew] Jackson administration, destroying the old myth that the country was once an egalitarian paradise. The book remained influential despite eventual criticism--even by Schlesinger--for overlooking Jackson’s appeasement of slavery and his harsh treatment of Indians.”
In the mid-’40s, Schlesinger helped found (with Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, and others) Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal organization that, while it espoused anti-communism, also opposed the dogmatic Communist witch-hunting practiced during the 1950s by Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) and the nearly as “obsessive” anti-communism promoted by the Left. In 1949, he saw published The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, in which he advocated liberal democratic ideals but adamantly rejected totalitarianism (“Neither fascism nor communism can win so long as there remains a democratic middle way,” he wrote in The New York Times in 1948). Schlesinger’s staunch liberalism led him to pen speeches for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, and then to do the same for John F. Kennedy in 1960. (Schlesinger conceded that switching his loyalty from Stevenson to the junior U.S. senator from Massachusetts was difficult; he called Stevenson, the former governor of Illinois, a “much richer, more thoughtful, more creative person,” but was drawn to Kennedy’s “cool, measured, intelligent concern.”)
After Kennedy’s thin conquest over GOP candidate Richard M. Nixon, Schlesinger served in the White House as a speech writer and presidential special assistant for Latin American affairs. At the time of Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Schlesinger was left with voluminous notes he’d taken for the president, which Kennedy planned to use in writing his autobiography. Instead, Schlesinger used them to craft his own book, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, which won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award in 1966. He returned to the Kennedy family more than a decade later with Robert Kennedy and His Times.
Although his job and inclination was to view politics through the lens of what had gone (and failed) before, he could also be a fierce Democratic partisan. And that had the unfortunate result of coloring his perceptions of what was possible. During the 1972 U.S. presidential election, for instance, Schlesinger forecast a decisive win for South Dakota Senator George McGovern “because he was ‘leading a constituency as broad as Roosevelt’s coalition in 1932,’” recalls Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Nixon, though, won re-election in a landslide. Schlesinger bet the wrong horse again in 1980, when he laid wagers on Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy stealing the Democratic nomination away from incumbent President Jimmy Carter. “Anyone observing that campaign,” opines The Guardian’s Harold Jackson, “could foresee the outcome almost from the start. Clearly Schlesinger was talking from his heart not his head and, as the years went by, it became increasingly important to determine which organ prevailed.”
Despite such disappointments, however, Schlesinger remained what he called, upon turning 80 in 1997, “an unrepentant and unreconstructed liberal and New Dealer. ... That means I favor the use of government to improve opportunities and to enlarge freedoms for ordinary people.” But he vociferously opposed the misapplication of political authority to advance extremist causes. In 1998, he joined more than 400 historians to denounce the poisonously partisan impeachment of President Bill Clinton, and he blasted George W. Bush’s decision to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, calling Bush’s supposed “preventive war” strategy “a fatal turn in U.S. foreign policy.” His 2004 book, War and the American Presidency, spoke disparagingly of Bush’s expansion of presidential power and the dangers of an “imperial presidency,” a term Schlesinger popularized (if not coined) during the Nixon administration. During an interview he did with Salon in 2004, the then 87-year-old historian predicted that Americans would come to “hate” themselves for sanctioning Bush’s abuses of power:
But it wasn’t as a result of his political confrontations that Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. became most important to those of us who thrill at the thoughtful examination of American historical developments and presidencies. It was his books that made his name known to us, whether we’re talking about The Age of Jackson or Robert Kennedy and His Times (both of which I have displayed on a high shelf beside my desk), or his three-volume history of the New Deal, The Age of Roosevelt, and what was to have been the first part of his memoirs, A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950.
Well, there’s a lengthy history of us doing just that. The Red Scare from the First World War, for example. The Wilson administration arrested a lot of people, sent them to prison, including Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate, and deported some others of foreign birth. After the war, people began to wonder what the actual threat had been and we hated ourselves in the morning. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union was founded and [Oliver Wendell] Holmes [Jr.] and [Louis] Brandeis led the judicial reaction.
After the Second World War, we finally paid reparations to the Japanese who had been interned. After the Civil War, the Supreme Court regarded Mulligan [a case in which a Confederate sympathizer from Indiana was imprisoned without charges] as a miscarriage of justice.
I think the best current example might be the Patriot Act--its excesses are a lot like those of the Alien and Sedition Acts. In fact, the spinmeisters of 1798 should have called the Alien and Sedition Acts “the Patriot Act.” America was engaged in undeclared naval warfare against France at the time, but afterward, the Alien and Sedition Acts were quickly repented as an overreaction to criticism of government.
We overreact and then we’re sorry. Panic is not a wise basis for judgment. I think it will happen like that again. The rather conservative Supreme Court has already rebuked the imperial president by ruling that the Guantánamo prison detainees are subject to due process.
However, as we’ve seen, the great virtue of democracy is its capacity for self-correction.
Lately I’ve been working my way through a still-growing series of U.S. presidential biographies, edited by Schlesinger for Times Books, and have been reminded not only of this bowtie-wearing historian’s knowledge of America’s past, but his curiosity about it, as well. Contrary to what many history teachers seem to believe, the past isn’t merely a collection of occurrences with dates and players attached. It is a vital, ever-revealing stew of truths, tragedies, and triumphs that can only be fully understood by those who are made curious about its twists, not made resentful of having to learn it by rote. Schlesinger, understandably inspired to his future by his father, showed an obvious curiosity about what had been and what was to come, together with a faith that history is more tutor than tyrant--indicating but not demanding repetition. We owe him greatly for what he left behind, now that he himself is history.
READ MORE: “Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Dies at 89,” by Debbi Wilgoren (The Washington Post); “Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: 1917-2007,” by Christy Hardin Smith (Firedoglake); “Not Just Camelot’s Historian,” by Daniel Greenberg (Slate); “A Historian’s Valedictory,” by Robert B. Semple Jr. (The New York Times); “History, Written in the Present Tense,” by Sam Tanenhaus (The New York Times).