Blogs > Cliopatria > Andrew Sullivan v. Arthur Schlesinger

Jun 8, 2004 8:47 pm

Andrew Sullivan v. Arthur Schlesinger

Once again Andrew Sullivan shows his occasional tendencies toward intellectual sloppiness. To use his own self important phrase, let's"fisk" this piece (with a heading titled"Always Wrong" that should give you a hint of what follows) in his blog from Monday. In it he asserts the following,
Arthur Schlesinger, who has racked up perhaps the most impressive series of completely wrong judgments about politics for decades, comes back to memory in this posting from Virginia Postrel's blog:
Arthur Schlesinger, just back from a trip to Moscow in 1982, said Reagan was delusional."I found more goods in the shops, more food in the markets, more cars on the street -- more of almost everything," he said, adding his contempt for"those in the U.S. who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse, ready with one small push to go over the brink."
Yes, they really did think like that. They really thought that the Soviet Union wasn't evil - even admirable in some respects - as late as 1982!
Wow. Where to begin. First off, I like the"most impressive series of wrong judgments about politics for decades" line. What does this even mean?Schlesinger was an advisor in the Kennedy Administration who wished Kennedy had been stronger on civil rights. He supported liberal policies on a range of issues. That sounds right to me. Maybe Sullivan disagrees. But more importantly, he takes a quotation out of context (citing from a blog, which was citing from a book review, citing from a book - oddly impressive in its slapdash way. But not so good on sourcing.) Then his conclusion is"They really thought like that." Really, Andrew? They? All of"them"? Never mind who"they" were. It's a nice and slimy form of innuendo to implicate anyone who might disagree with him -- demogoguery at its worst. Then we can get into the fact that Schlesinger can best be termed a Cold War Liberal. No delusions about the Soviets among that crowd. I would have assumed that Sullivan has heard of Americans for Democratic Action. Apparently not. On top of that, he concludes something that Schlesinger didn't, you know, actually say, and then in beautifully wretched writing ("They really thought that the Soviet Union wasn't evil -- even admirable in some respects -- as late as 1982." Read this sentence several times, and tell me that what is between the hyphens actually agrees with what comes before it. I expect this from sophomores.) ascribes some sinister view to all of those in that unidentified mass of"they." Does he mean Liberals? Please. Carter laid the foundation for Reagan's Afghanistan policy and military buildup, and all of this had to get by an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress.

I've said my piece on Reagan. But this is not really about Reagan. It is about Andrew Sullivan's double standard for rigor and fairness and intelligence. He thinks he's changing the world one well-funded blog post (and Time article) at a time. I read him daily because he is too smart to miss. But it seems that at least once a day he engages in this sort of sleazy damnation of all who do not agree with his cause du jour. It grows tiresome.

Arthur Schlesinger is not without his flaws, and it has been some time since he has been an especially relevant historian. But he deserves a lot more than this sort of lackwitted online thuggery from someone who holds critics of his side up to much higher standards.

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Richard Henry Morgan - 6/11/2004

You should check out the latest group of [fuller and fairer] quotes in Andrew Sullivan's website. Absolutely priceless.

Richard Henry Morgan - 6/9/2004

It's not Buckley's contention that Schlesinger and Sorenson led the charge on the Cuban Missile Crisis, or were even heavily involved. He's talking about a meeting on the Berlin Crisis, where they were involved. I think you're right that they didn't drive foreign policy-making -- they just seem in the Berlin case to have aggressively staked out a position, out of all proportion to their status within the Administration. I might have to go check out those two books, and find out just what their ultimate sources are for the Khruschev remark. The dates of the two books suggests to me that the ultimate source may be Khruschev's memoirs (and I'm out of my depth when it comes to assessing that reliability).

Richard Henry Morgan - 6/9/2004

Following the feeding chain backwards, I've come up with this:

Postrel is citing Glenn Garvin's 2003 review (in the magazine she once edited) of Peter Schweizer's 2002 book, which draws on his 1994 article in National Review -- Schweizer is identified in Garvin's review as a Cold War historian at the Hoover Institution. As happens in magazines, no source is cited -- do you trust National Review, or do they do hatchet jobs on quotes? I don't know, myself. The book is by Doubleday. I don't know their rep either. And I don't know how well edited Reason magazine is.

Here's the relevant article text by Schweizer, which is both wider and narrower tha the portion cited by Garvin:

"Historian Arthur Schlesinger declared after a 1982 visit to Moscow: 'Those in the US who think the Soviet Union are on the verge of collapse' are 'only kidding themselves.' 'Wishful thinkers, he wrote, 'always see other societies as more fragile than they are. Each superpower has economic troubles; neither is on the ropes.'"

Interestingly, there is a contradiction between the article and the book review citation of the book. The article attributes the "vulgar" remark to Samuelson, while the book review attributes it to Lester Thurow. I got mine from Dsouza's site (which carries no date, though another site indicates it's from 1997), which says it belongs to Thurow, and the "command economy" remark it attributes to Samuelson -- which to me sounds more like Samuelson.

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/9/2004

Richard --
I think the thing is that no one really could have predicted with useful certainty what was going to happen in that tense period in the Cold War. No one wanted to make a move that was going to commit them to the ultimate sin, leading us into a global catastrophe, but no one was going to allow the other side to run roughshod because that too might lead to a similarly ultimate sin.
I don't think anyone seriously believes that Schlesinger, Sorenson (I'll throw in Alsop for Tootle) were involved in foreign policy making, especially at the strategic and geopolitical level. Anyone who has listened to the tapes or read the transcripts fro, say, the Cuban Missile Crisis is aware of who was in the room and who was not.
I will say that Buckley's citation of two books, one from 1978 and one from 1980 misses a quarter century of vitally important literature on Kennedy, foreign policy, the Cold War, and so forth. The nuts and bolts of this sort of stuff is not my area of expertse either, but I know the secondary literature, and there is a lot of much more recent stuff.
Must sleep. Schlesinger, Sullivan, Kennedy, Sorenson, Morgan, Tootle on the brain.

Richard Henry Morgan - 6/9/2004

It wasn't Khruschev that was under orders to withdraw. The source of that little tidbit was an interview I saw years ago on TV with the officer in charge of the operation on the ground (I think it was on C-Span, in connection with some 10 year anniversary of the wall coming down, and I think the officer in charge of the operation had written about it -- in any case, I'm certain he was identified as the OIC, and he definitely said he had orders to retreat if opposed) -- the initial tearing up of cobblestones and laying down of wire. Interestingly, tanks were not deployed by the Soviets at the outset.

The book I just read is Buckley's The Fall of the Berlin Wall, in the John Wiley & Sons series Turning Points. There are some interesting assertions:

1. By the end of June, Acheson had completed a report titled "The Berlin Crisis". In it he said that Kennedy could yield on Berlin, but then Kruschev would be back for more in the days ahead -- Berlin was not his real objective. (p.38)

2. Administration officials had already divided into two camps -- negotiation, and non-negotiation. On the non-negotiation side were Acheson, Rostow, Dulles, Foy Kohler, and the Joint Chiefs. On the negotiation side were Schlesinger, Sorenson, Rusk, Bowles, Harriman, Bohlen, and Chayes. (pp. 28-9)

3. Acheson's opponenets were led by Schlesinger and Sorenson. (p. 39)

4. Ulbricht and his boys moved their housing outside Berlin. (pp. 46-7)

5. Khruschev instructed Ulbricht that if the Allies responded with force, he should withdraw his troops. {p. 53) [apparently from Politboro minutes -- Ulbricht had been to Moscow, returned to Berlin and had a meeting in the Ministry of Health building -- Ulbricht had floated the lie that the GDR was concerned with a non-existent "polio outbreak" in West Germany -- with his subordinates, who assured him he could pull it off without complications. He then flew back to Moscow, for a Warsaw Pact meeting, where Khrushchev gave the above instruction].

6. Khruschev had informed Ulbricht that the Soviet Union was willing to give the impression that it was willing to use force, but it was not willing to risk a major engagement with the West. (p. 1)

On the crucial assertion of p.53, Buckley employs a corporate citation, involving two sources:

1. The Ides of August: The Berlin Wall Crisis-1961, by Curtis Cate (NY: M. Evans, 1978)

2. Kennedy and the Berlin Wall Crisis, by Honore M. Catudal (Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 1980)

I can't vouch for the sources, as I'm not up on this kind of literature. If Buckley is right, Acheson as much as predicted the Cuban Missile Crisis (or something like it). And if he is right, neither side was willing to go to the mat over Berlin, but the Soviet Union was willing to fake it -- and pulled it off. Needless to say, Schlesinger and Sorenson could have led the charge, without JFK actually attaching much weight to their opinions.

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/9/2004

Blogging is not history. But Sullivan has a huge, huge readership that effects not history, but current perceptions on events. When he engages in lazy ad hominem attacks that smear whole groups and then later decides who and who does not "get it" and gives out his various at their essence ad hominem "awards" while at the same time relying on a sliding scale of what conservatism is and what qualifies as right or wrong based on what interests Andrew Sullivan supports he needs to be taken to task. I guess it is time for me to establish my Andrew Sullivan Award for self-important ad hominem attacks that are poorly argued, out of context, and fraught with hypocrisy. Then maybe I'll award it daily to Andrew Sullivan.

Stephen Tootle - 6/9/2004

I don't have any desire to beat up on Schlesinger, either. I think he is a great narrative historian and biographer. I read him like I read any partisan. I actually enjoyed reading the first volume of his memoirs. He was a close friend of Isaiah Berlin, which makes me more sympathetic, too. That said, I am willing to give Sullivan a pass, too. Blogging is not history, and not every sentence will be precise, or perfect. I would be interested in reading Schlesinger's full comments from 1982 to see if Sullivan was true to the spirit of the words.

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/9/2004

It's been a long, long time since I've dealt with Schlesinger in any depth. This is largely because I have not thought of him as a serious historian in some time. I did use his two big Kennedy books for the Freedom Ride stuff, but really he did not have much to say and I quote him little if at all -- mostly just used him to see what someone with some proximity to Kennedy had to say. I think he did a lot to make American history a vibrant field in the middle part of the century, and he usually is lumped in with folks like Hofstadter and Woodward and a handful of others. The thing is, though, that people still have to take Woodward and Hofstadter seriously. The Age of Roosevelt is still pretty monumental, but other than for color, I don't think many people who seriously study FDR say first thing, "Well, let's go see what Schlesinger has to say about this." Schlesinger has also gotten pretty cranky as he has gotten older, and a two volume (and the first one was not exactly scanty) autobiography seems to me just a little bit self-indulgent.

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/9/2004

Hard to know. But let's say you have a grad student. And he cites a source quoting a source quoting a source quoting a source. What advice do you have for him? OK. So Sullivan is not a grad student. Let's say you're, I don't know, a journalist -- better yet, an editor. And a journalist comes to you with a story. And the heart of the story is a comment you heard from someone who heard it from someone who heard it from someone. And they only use part of the quotation, with no context. And the purpose in using the quotation is to hammer the person who supposedly said it. I dunno which way you'd go. I do kno which way i would. So maybe the quotation is correct. It still does not give him a pass on the idiotic "they" stuff, or on his shoddy implications, or his generally half-assed smear job.

Tom Bruscino - 6/9/2004

I'm not a big fan--he's a little too cute and dismissive for my taste--so I think you were right to call him out on Schlesinger. That said, at some point we should get a discussion going about Schlesinger's work and legacy. I know Stephen has some strong opinions, and I think he is a character worth exploring in more detail. Maybe Tootle could start it off with the highly selective quoting Schlesinger does in The Age of Roosevelt to make Coolidge look like the devil incarnate. In any case, there is plenty there on Mr. Schlesinger.

Stephen Tootle - 6/9/2004

Was the quotation of Schlesinger incorrect?

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/8/2004

Forgive me if Bill Buckley is not for me the last word on the fall of the Berlin Wall or its history. Forgive me also if I do not ask for a little, you know, evidence linking the Berlin Wall with the Cuban Missile crisis. Berlin had been a thorn in our side, East Germany had been a thorn in our side, for a decade and a half by this point, and I'm not quite certain what we could have done about it. Meanwhile Cuba was in our back yard -- difficult not to respond to that. As for whether Khruschev was under orders to withdraw had we acted against the Wall, I do have just a few questions: Orders from whom? Orders from whom that "the officer in charge of the operation" would have known about? Why is it that conservatives now will trust the exact same people whose words, memoirs, papers, or whetever they would not have trusted before? (couldn't be that suddenly some of those sources happen to validate their politics, now could it?) And do we really believe that it was Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore Sorenson who had the President's ear on matters of national security and policy in the Germanys?
"Art" (rather failiar, aren't we, Dick?) was when wrong on the economy and the stability of the Soviet Union? In the early 1960s, in the early 1980s? And how so? And as sloppy as your argument here is, it is about ten times better than the pablum Sullivan posted yesterday.

Richard Henry Morgan - 6/8/2004

I can't say that Art is always wrong, or even wrong to an impressive extent. There is one area in which he has been wrong more than once, and in one direction.

Some years back, Ted Sorensen was on C-Span, and he was asked if it was morally permissible to tape somebody without his knowledge. This was around the time that it came out that it hadn't started with Nixon -- that JFK had taped conversations too, without notice to those taped. Ted said it depended on the uses to which the tape was put. A very politic answer, which sidestepped a least one side of the ethical question.

During the course of the show, it wandered into the subjects of the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis. I sent in an e-mail asking if there wasn't a connection between the two. Sorensen found this much disturbing.

I now know why. I just read Bill Buckley's book on the Fall of the Wall, and it was the Art and Ted show that was pushing JFK to do nothing about the Berlin Wall. Subsequent evidence has it that Kruschev had told the East Germans that they wanted to give the impression they were willing to go to war over the Wall, and subsequent memoirs by the officer in charge of the operation have established that he was under orders to withdraw if the US put up any opposition. I can't help but think that there was indeed an arrow of causation between Berlin and Cuba -- were it not for our passivity in Berlin, the Soviets never would have tried their Cuban adventure.

Art was then wrong on the economy and the stability of the Soviet Union, too. He had a lot of good company. Then again, he almost would have to, as he has no expertise in the area, and even the experts were similarly wrong.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/8/2004

Well done, Derek. It's really quite telling that what Schlesinger said about the Soviet economy was essentially the same as what CIA analysts believed about the Soviet economy. Sully could apply his non sequitor equally to the CIA. If he did, he'd be wrong on both scores.