A Lost World--the Journals of Arthur Schlesinger
Arthur Schlesinger's abbreviated journals provide a window on the second half of the twentieth century and a clue to what happened to liberalism.
This may sound rather odd, but my principal complaint about Schlesinger's Journals, 1952-2000 is that they are much too short at 858 pages. His editors--two of his sons--explain that they culled them from about 6000 pages, and I suspect I would have been delighted to read every one of them. Bowing presumably to the brass at Penguin, they have also slanted the editing heavily to appeal to younger readers. There are only 60 pages on the 1950s, 260 on the 1960s, and 160 on the 1970s, while the 1980s and 1990s get 265 and 180. Forty years ago such a book (like the British Harold Nicolson's diaries, which have some important similarities to these ) would have come out in several volumes. Given that the author was a historian who frequently discusses the need to preserve sources (he was appalled to learn that a member of the Truman family had managed to destroy Harry's weekly epistles to his mother and sister), I am confident that his heirs have made arrangements to deposit the full text in an appropriate archive--perhaps the JFK library--where they will be opened at a suitable moment. [HNN Editor Update: Reuters reported on Nov. 26, 2007 that the New York Public Library has acquired the rights to Schlesinger's papers.]
Schlesinger was born in 1917, making him an exact contemporary of John F. Kennedy, although he was Harvard '38 and JFK was Harvard '40. He made an early splash as an American historian with The Age of Jackson and in the 1950s became one of two Harvard historians to begin grand-scale biographies of Franklin Roosevelt (Frank Friedel was the other.) Neither of them ever got close to a conclusion, but Schlesinger's three volumes (The Crisis of the Old Order, The Coming of the New Deal, and The Politics of Upheaval), appearing in the late fifties, became Book-of-the-Month Club selections and best sellers and inspired the new generation of Democrats of which he was a part. His real love, however, as he freely admits, was politics. He regarded teaching as a painful necessity (I suspect, actually, that he was somewhat better at it than he lets on), wrote prolifically (but more effectively, in my opinion, about the present than about the more distant past), and hated academic environments per se. Like Henry Adams--with whom I feel even more in common--he inevitably gravitated to Washington under Kennedy, and thence to New York, where he lived out his last forty years in the midst of literati, glitterati, and politerati. It seems rather fitting, as well as enviable, that he died of a heart attack at a New York restaurant last fall just before reaching the age of 90. (The last entry published is from 2000, and I was very sad not to see any post-9/11 comments on the Bush Administration--it is not clear whether any were written or not.)
Interesting from many points of view, the journals struck me above all as a generational portrait, chronicling the progress of the moderate left wing of the GI generation. The 1950s section poses a mystery that I have often pondered--the extraordinary adulation that a whole generation of liberals bestowed upon Adlai Stevenson, who invariably seems even in their own accounts to have done so little to deserve it. Yes, Stevenson was very charming (Schlesinger's friend John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that few men possessed in equal measure the talent of making one feel that there was no one to whom he would rather be speaking at this moment than one's self), clever with words, urbane, and eminently successful on foreign policy issues. Yet he was not much of a liberal domestically, especially on civil rights (as Schlesinger amply documents), and his tendency to deny his own ambition was the despair of his supporters as well as the ruin of some of his own hopes. In 1952, 1956, and 1960 he declared again and again that he did not want his Presidential nomination, forcing his party practically to get on its knees and beg (as it did, twice, with disastrous results.) Had he simply bowed out and endorsed JFK in 1960 he might well have become Secretary of State--where he and Kennedy might actually have worked very well together--but instead, his coyness made the Kennedys so angry as to rule that out. As late as the spring of 1960, even Schlesinger, who already knew Kennedy and who retrospectively has been viewed as the Kennedys' court historian, endorsed JFK only with public regret that Stevenson was not running. Schlesinger had a moment of which he was particularly proud in the fall of 1960, when both Kennedy and Stevenson asked him to write their speeches for the same event, the Liberal Party dinner in New York. "I could not resist the thought of doing both, so I did," he wrote, "a fact I have carefully kept secret from everybody (especially the two principals). . .[Stevenson's] speech was a great success in the evening, but so was Kennedy's."
Schlesinger had written speeches for Stevenson, and speechwriting remained his principal political role--literally, it turns out, until at least 2000. Kennedy brought him into the White House as a special assistant both to write speeches and offer political advice and to help on some policy matters, especially with respect to Latin America. He was one of a few major figures to oppose the Bay of Pigs, but that didn't increase his influence very much. As I discovered writing American Tragedy, he was rarely if ever involved in policy towards Southeast Asia, and he was not part of the Excom during the Cuban missile crisis. Thus he seems to have been genuinely unaware that the Administration had covertly promised to withdraw American missiles from Turkey to settle the crisis. Kennedy evidently regarded him as his contact with liberal intellectuals, about whose attacks he frequently complained. Schlesinger, not unreasonably, replied that such attacks should give the President more flexibility, since they tended to portray him as a centrist.
Although Schlesinger periodically demonstrates some capacity for hatred--Richard Nixon was, understandably, his favorite target, leading to amusing complications in the 1980s when Nixon bought the house behind his own on the upper East Side--he generally remains rather calm and unemotional. At one point, he muses perceptively about the difference between the New Deal and the New Frontier. "The New Dealers were always great talkers and philosophizers. . .Moreover, the New Deal had its distinctive rhetoric. [New Dealers] could talk about 'the people,' about their ultimate wisdom, and about the importance of doing things for them in a way quite alien to the New Frontier. The heart was worn much more on the sleeve then. The New Frontier has a deep mistrust of what it regards as the pat liberal sentimentalities and cliches of the thirties. . . .The difference in rhetoric does probably signify a deeper difference in commitment--a change, in a way, from evangelists who want to do something because it is just and right, to technocrats who want to do something because it is rational and necessary. The New Frontier lacks the evangelical impulse--in part no doubt because there is no audience for it." Thanks to Strauss and Howe, I immediately recognized that as perfect characterization of the difference between a Prophet generation (like Roosevelt's Missionaries, born from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s, or the Boomers) and a Hero generation like the Republicans (Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and company) and Schlesinger's own GIs.
Yet Schlesinger was overcome by his emotions after the death of JFK--and in a most unfortunate way. Like Robert Kennedy, to whom he immediately became closer, he simply could not in his heart accept the idea that Lyndon Johnson was now President and that there was nothing they could do about it. (The contrast in this respect between him and figures like Galbraith, Bundy, and McNamara is noteworthy.) Although Schlesinger did not deny LBJ's legislative achievements he clearly never saw the man as Presidential timber, and more importantly, he encouraged RFK's belief that Johnson might be pressured into making RFK the Vice-Presidential nominee-which, of course, he could not be. Sadly, Schlesinger's resentment of Johnson even corrupted his work as a historian. In A Thousand Days, he propagated the myth that Kennedy had not really meant to select Johnson as Vice President--that he had half-offered him the job as a courtesy, only to be amazed when Johnson jumped at it. There is nothing in his contemporary journal entry (p. 76) to support that--only confirmation that, after JFK had decided on the selection (for, as it turned out, excellent political reasons), RFK tried to talk Johnson into backing out--the beginning a long and bitter hatred into which Schlesinger allowed himself to be drawn after November 22, 1963.
Schlesinger's most endearing quality, for me, is his consistently sensible attitude about foreign policy. He is skeptical about foreign intervention throughout, and was an early opponent of escalation in Vietnam. (As excerpts in the New York Review of Books showed, Robert McNamara began telling him as early as 1966 that he opposed escalation and wanted a negotiated settlement--something which would have come as quite a surprise to McNamara's fellow Administration heavyweights at that time, since he expressed no such sentiments to them for more than another year. He reports long conversations with George Kennan in 1961-2, when Kennan was Ambassador to Yugoslavia, about the danger of the Berlin crisis spilling into war. (By the time of Kennedy's death, Kennan had become a great admirer of the President's foreign policy.) During the Nixon Administration Schlesinger allowed Henry Kissinger, who had apparently been a protégé of his when a grad student (albeit in another department), initially to persuade him that Kissinger wanted a more rapid winding down of the war, even telling Schlesinger after the Cambodian invasion that he had wanted to resign over it but could not do so yet. Gradually, however, he acknowledges that Henry is obviously telling him what he wants to hear.
Schlesinger returned to the political wars, of course, in 1968 on Robert Kennedy's behalf, and was even more devastated by his assassination than by his brother's. The denouement of that year's campaign was surely a shock. In an extraordinarily ironic entry written in November 1962, Schlesinger recounted both Nixon's California defeat and apparently permanent eclipse ("you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore"), and the funeral of Eleanor Roosevelt, which Hoover, Eisenhower, Truman and Kennedy all attended. "As we drove from the church to the grave," he wrote, "I reflected that, if anyone had said in 1940 that the next three Presidents of the United States would be Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, it would have provoked total incredulity. . . .I swore not to hazard any predictions about the man who will be inaugurated in January 1969." He certainly would not have had Nixon on his list. In his last entry for 1969 he referred to the sixties ad "the worst and saddest decade of one's life, that 'slum of a decade,' as John Updike has called it, the decade of the murder of hope." Once again, generation is everything. From his perspective that reaction was perfectly understandable and I knew many of his contemporaries who felt the same way; but I although he and I would have agreed on most things about politics (and he gave American Tragedy a nice blurb in 2000), for me and my contemporaries the 1960s will always be the decade in which we discovered ourselves, our feelings, and what made life worth living. (Actually I enjoyed the 1970s even more.) But he is right--American politics have gone downhill ever since.
During the next three decades Schlesinger was consulted again and again by various candidates, including George McGovern (for whom we share a very high regard), Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and even, to my astonishment, Al Gore in 2000. (Apparently Democratic Boomer politicians, at least, had some conception of how much they could have used their elders' counsel.) In 1988, in the last week of his disastrous campaign, Dukakis finally declared himself a liberal in the tradition of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy--something Schlesinger had called upon him to do privately on September 1 of that year and publicly on October 21.) It was much too late. Clinton often asked for his advice but rarely followed it. His conversations with Gore are among the most humorous of the book. In a private meeting right after his vice-presidential selection in 1992, Gore talked about "values." "Our duty is not just to what helps us as individuals but to what is good beyond ourselves. . .People living unto themselves feel that their lives have no meaning. We must work to reestablish the balance of nature, and we must work to reestablish the balance of society. . ." "All this had become urgently clear to him," Schlesinger continues,” as a result of his son's accident. When the little boy was struck by an automobile and nearly killed, 'it forced me to think again about life and to focus on what is really important and vital.' He went on about regaining authenticity in living by getting back in touch with nature, his discourse had a holistic, even mystical fervor. I began to wonder what this sort of talk reminded me of. Suddenly the name swam into my consciousness: Henry Wallace." Wallace FDR's visionary Vice President from 1941 to 1945, whose Progressive Party candidacy in 1948 fronted for the Communists and cost Truman the state of New York. Schlesinger's biggest arguments with my generation were culinary rather than political. As the decades wear on he increasingly bemoans the proliferation of political and social occasions where no hard liquor is served. While I have never drunk as much as he did, generally confining myself to pre-dinner and eschewing pre-lunch, I agree with him on that one.
Meanwhile Schlesinger's continuing contacts with Kissinger remained valuable historically if not politically. Nixon, Kissinger told him in 1975, "was both more evil and better than people supposed. He was at his best when he was under pressure and cornered. That brought all his faculties into play. . ..It was a great myth that he was a hard worker. He was one of the laziest men I have ever seen. I don't think he ever read the Vietnam armistice agreement, for example, or the SALT agreement, or the preliminary papers on China. He worked in spurts of energy, as at the time of Cambodia or Laos or the mining of the North Vietnamese harbors. Then he would collapse into a condition of lassitude that would go on for weeks. His work habits were very much like Hitler's as described by Speer." (In the same conversation Kissinger admitted that he had favored both the Cambodian invasion and the mining of Haiphong.) And on June 14, 1948, Schlesinger had a rather extraordinary conversation with Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who favored "the complete abolition of the CIA on the ground that it has become a dangerous source of secret power in our democracy. She also said that the ovation for Goldwater at the last Republican convention almost made her change her registration from Republican to Democratic--though this may be a reflection less of liberal views than of the fact that Goldwater has described her father, to whom she is devoted, as the most dishonest individual he has ever met. She is easy to talk to, and her friendliness suggests that she has never read anything I have written about Daddy."
Schlesinger was appalled by the renewal of the Cold War under Reagan and enjoyed confronting his Harvard classmate Cap Weinberger about it. (Weinberger insisted that the Soviets were bent upon world conquest.) He amply documents something that has been almost completely forgotten: how conservatives young and old (including Richard Nixon) insisted as late as 1989 that Gorbachev only sought to make the Soviet Union a more dangerous adversary. And one of his best entries is from October 1983. "On Tuesday, the 25th, Reagan invaded Grenada. An enormous triumph for the republic--a nation of 230 million launching a surprise attack on a small island of 110 thousand. Fortunately we won. This will certainly make the Russians think twice." But he quickly adds that when he conveyed these thoughts to "a group of IBM executives and customers," the talk went down with a "dull thud. It is obvious that the Grenadan victory fills many Americans with enormous pleasure and pride. The polls report intense approval."
One Democrat did not consult Schlesinger: Jimmy Carter. And the New Yorker returned the snub with interest, refusing to vote for him either in 1976 or in 1980--the first time, he claimed, because Carter had declared his belief in the literal truth of Genesis. (He did not vote for President in 1976 and voted for John Anderson in 1980.) In retrospect that looks to me like a relatively rare lapse in judgment. But it also encapsulates the tragedy of Schlesinger and the whole bicoastal liberal movement of which he was such a part.
To those born from 1905 or so until 1925 or so, the New Deal and the Second World War had proven the validity of liberal Democratic values, grounded in a mixture of identification with the common man and rational policy analysis. Their mistake--parallel to the mistake of the Midwestern Republicans who had fought and won the civil war eighty years earlier--was to believe that those triumphs had established the truth of their beliefs for all time. In fact the United States would never have had anything like a New Deal (and the subsequent GI Bill, progressive tax structure, and cheap credit) without a catastrophic depression and a huge war. Moreover, both Southern whites and Republicans always resented what Roosevelt and Truman had done, and passed their resentment on to later generations. By 1968 the New Deal coalition had been reduced to less than 45% of the vote. In my opinion Schlesinger was wrong not to vote for Carter in 1976 because Carter, who carried the South, was the only Democrat who could have won that year, and wrong again in 1980 because Carter was indeed better than Reagan. (Ironically, I must admit that the world might have been better off had Ford, not Carter, won in 1976; but that wasn't Schlesinger's view.)
Like the Republicans who never stopped frothing at the mouth over the New Deal, Democrats of my age or older who will die longing for the good old days are arguing with history. Certainly events of the 1960s--notably the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam--accelerated the collapse of liberalism, but I now believe the backlash was inevitable. The baseball theorist Bill James once defined the law of competitive balance. Winners and losers, he argued, pursue different strategies for the future, the net effect of which is to benefit losers. For the last forty years Republicans have aggressively sought new votes where they could find them while Democrats have tried to live off the past--even while one of their most important constituencies, organized labor, has withered away. Republicans have held the White House for 28 out of those forty years. (Their "victory" in 2000 was largely the result of a more determined attitude and an obsession with winning at all costs.) The question now is whether liberalism can revive during the next ten years, or whether generations as yet unborn will revive it after several decades of Republican ascendancy. I hope that I can eventually reconcile myself to either outcome.
Maarja Krusten - 12/7/2007
The correct date of Schlesinger’s conversation with Julie Nixon Eisenhower is, of course, 1989, not 1948, as in the version of the review posted. This clearly is a typo (perhaps the text used was an earlier version) as Dr. Kaiser has the correct date at his blog at
As to Kissinger’s comment to Schlesinger about President Nixon’s laziness, the lassitude he describes more likely was due to depression than laziness. The choice to run for public office places a person in a spotlight that is not easy to endure. You win the loyalty of some people but you gain the enmity of others. And it all plays out in public. Mistakes and errors in judgment which in private life you might be able to put behind you become the object of scrutiny and endless analysis. But the people who become Presidents do not have magical inner resources unavailable to the rest of us to protect them from the pain that mistakes and errors in judgment, and the resulting harsh attacks on them, can cause, no one does, although different President’s temperaments and characters obviously have varied.
Nixon appeared to be a shy, reclusive person, not an extrovert (in the sense of Myers Briggs Type Indicators). MBTI analysts say that extroverts often draw energy from groups of people and social situations. (Bill Clinton appears to be a MBTI extrovert.) Public events that would not faze an extrovert – and might actually energize one --probably took a great deal out of Nixon. And the Presidency requires many public appearances. Introverts often hole up alone or with a single confidante for long periods of time, it’s their way of recharging their emotional batteries and preparing for the next time they have to be on display. The fact that Nixon spent hours talking to selected advisors tells us a great deal about his personality and perhaps his emotional state. (To Kissinger, this frequent need to talk things out, setting the briefing papers to which he later returned, might have seemed like laziness.) He relied on a selected few confidantes a great deal, not just as sounding boards, but because of the comfort zone he had built up with them. I don’t think he trusted many people or trusted people readily. You can hear deep, searing pain in Nixon’s voice if you listen to the actual recordings of the publicly available abuse of power tape segments from the time that two of his close aides, H. R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, resigned.
Maarja Krusten - 12/6/2007
I just saw the comment you posted on the review posted on HNN's main page. I think you must have retained in your mind the name of the earlier poster, Ralph M. Hitchens, when you addressed your complimentary note to Dr. Kaiser. You must have read his comment right before posting your own. You're not the first person to mix up names on HNN and I'm sure you won't be the last! I believe I once addressed Lawrence Brooks Hughes, a reader who comments on HNN, as Mr. Brooks rather than Mr. Hughes. I made a similar error another time with another poster. Many of us make mistakes from time to time in these informal forums.
Posted on personal time
Ralph E. Luker - 12/4/2007
This sometimes happens when a post at Cliopatria gets put up on HNN's mainpage: some doofus wanders in and confuses David Kaiser with Christopher Hitchens. They both write well. Kaiser does it sober.
john stephen check - 12/4/2007
Dear Mr. Hitchens,
I enjoyed your review very much. I read the first volume some time ago
and was struck by how well it was written. I have never agreed with Prof. Schlesingers view of American
history being a fight between conservatives being a period of catching the national breath and liberal advances but he will be one of the most influential historians of the 20th century.
Ralph M. Hitchens - 11/26/2007
Wonderful summary, with lots of food for thought for thoughtful liberals. A wholly minor comment, Kissinger's comment to Schlesinger re. Nixon (in 1975) makes a lot of sense.