Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: Exchange between Norman Podhoretz & Ron RadoshHistorians in the News
There are three things to say about the work of Arthur Schlesinger, who has just died at the age of eighty-nine: (1) He was an exceptionally good writer, commanding a lucid, vivid, and often elegant prose style. (2) He was an exceptionally bad historian: incapable of doing justice to any idea with which he disagreed, and so tendentious that he invariably denigrated and/or vilified anyone who had ever espoused any such idea. Like the so-called “Whig interpretation of history” in England, Schlesinger’s voluminous work as a historian amounts to the proposition that the story of freedom in America is the story of the Democratic party, and specifically of its never-ending struggle against the sinister bastions of privilege, oppression, and ignorance represented by the Republicans of the modern era and their forebears. (3) This unshakable conviction not only made his wonderfully readable accounts of the past unreliable and in many cases even worthless; it also warped his political judgment in the present, leading him in the last forty years of his life to support the forces that were pushing the Democratic party to the Left. In becoming an apologist for these forces, he betrayed the liberalism that he himself, in The Vital Center, had earlier espoused and whose banishment from the Democratic party has been, and will continue to be, a calamity for this country.
As a historian who knew Arthur Schlesinger personally, and disagreed with him a lot, I’m afraid I have to differ with your response to his life.
It is true, as many of used to say, that “he writes as he votes,” which is the straight Democratic Party line, regardless of what Democrat is in office. Nevertheless, I would not say that he was a bad historian whose work was completely worthless.
Let me give you one example. His book on the cycles of American history (a theory I do not accept) he wrote a devestating critique of the works of my own mentor, William Appleman Williams. He accurately described Williams’ analysis of US foreign policy, and tore it apart rather mercilessly. Reading his words, he helped convine me that much of Williams argument was in fact faulty.
Finally, I would agree that politically, he did betray much of the tradition he stood for. He both gave Gorbachev total claim for ending the Cold War--Reagan, to his eyes, had nothing to do with. Most egregiously, he came back from a trip to Cuba and a visit with Fidel Castro a few years back, singing the dictator’s praises as a great man. His old boss, JFK, would have been shocked had he lived to hear this.
My point is that although he did in fact, as you say, move to the Left and away from his old concept of The Vital Center, he was not a man of the far Left, and was in fact often its critic. Let us not forget his book attacking multiculturalism when it was in its heyday, which was roundly condemned by most left-wing academics in the field of American history. You may not have read this work, but I would dare say you would agree with most of what he said in it.
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michael ---- wreszin - 3/13/2007
Schleziunger thought very little of Radosh, saying he pretends to be an historian but when Radosh'b book on the Rosenbergs came out he wrote a blurb calling it the definitive history. Schlesinger and Radosh have much in common, ideological zealotry.
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