Liberalism: In Search Of

Liberalism: In Search Of

A half-century after the appearance of The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s spirited political polemic, we have more than sufficient cause to meditate on what might be called Dead Centrism.


A half-century after the appearance of The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s spirited political polemic, we have more than sufficient cause to meditate on what might be called Dead Centrism. The sight of Al Gore running furiously against himself, as much as promising military interventions while stumbling against the slightest Republican candidate in generations, alone would be sufficient cause. But the fact that so little has changed since the Berlin wall fell must be the clincher. As another Gore (this one Gore Vidal) reflected lately on National Public Radio, we’ve been stuck with the centralizing bipartisan effects of the security (or post-Republic, imperial) state since Truman, with no apparent way out.

Or is there? In this case, history counts. The hopes of change this season might be measured best not in the political arena at all but in a poignant scene of a new television series, Gideon’s Crossing. In its premier episode, a ruthless venture capitalist with a coronary problem confronts chief of experimental medicine Andre Braugher (best remembered for his haunting performance in Homicide) with a provocation now awfully familiar: "The trouble with America today is that schools teach kids too much about Harriet Tubman and not enough about Harry S Truman." African-American doc Braugher, ever the pro, refuses to dignify this verbal slap with a response, but we get the point. A newer generation doesn’t need the particular myths of brave Indian-killers, demure plantation mistresses or innocent atomic bomb-droppers: It’s a different world and the rules may not be any better, but they aren’t the same.

Rare is the book on liberalism these days that does not trace the story back to Thomas Jefferson, marrying in his Deist faith the freedom of the individual with the need for community. Fair enough, but for Jefferson the expansion of freedom rested upon the perpetual opening of new lands for the yeoman farmer, an expansion of empire obviously requiring conquest and/or removal of everything in the way. Extended onto global terrain, the concept encompassed an "Open Door" for American prospects (i.e., markets) everywhere, a vision more frequently repeated in recent years by Bill Clinton and Al Gore than by their Republican rivals.

That insight into Jeffersonianism, driven home by the late William Appleman Williams (a president of the Organization of American Historians, a favorite Nation historian and Schlesinger Jr.’s veritable bête noire), has been the foundation stone for the rewriting of US history these past thirty years. Long before Presidents bothered to explain that assorted small nations needed to be invaded for their own good, fabled statesmen like James Madison, Henry Clay and James Monroe wrote openly about underlying national purposes. Armed intervention for commercial aims, not only but most especially in the Latin America of our Monroe Doctrine, had been standard procedure for generations when the Russian Revolution rattled imperial nerves.

That’s not the whole story by a long shot. Grassroots Populism and genteel Progressivism, not to mention the stirrings of the labor movement, jump-started the domestic programs of modern liberalism. But Woodrow Wilson’s crusade set its global mission and offered proof positive, from the elevation of Samuel Gompers and the New Republic to the suppression of the Wobblies, of who would benefit and what troublesome dissidents could expect.

Heart-and-soul liberalism, reborn in the New Deal and the antifascist crusade, stalled with the welfare-warfare economy of the early cold war years. Even many Nation readers of 1948, tempted to vote for Henry Wallace, doubtless pulled the lever for Harry Truman out of twinned fears that Republicans would abolish the remainder of Roosevelt’s social programs–and hopes that the Missouri political brawler was only an interruption in the renewed march upward. No such luck. The nomination of business Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952 confirmed the centrist victory over the New Deal legacy, and despite many encouraging moments, the balance of liberalism has never really tipped back again.

If this saga from the early forties onward could be boiled down to just one intellectual, that one would surely be Arthur Schlesinger Jr. As Alfred Kazin observed at the dawn of the 1960s, Schlesinger’s apex moment, the historian-cum-adviser viewed history much as he lived it, "from the top, from the inside, among the policy makers." Even now, he remains an icon of the scholar as adviser to power, and adviser to power as scholar.

For this reader, the freshest and most revealing material is pre-1940. The memoirist has little need here for self-serving recollections, and he offers warm memories of family among the academic elite in which his father figures as one of the outstanding interwar historians.

Doubts begin to surface as the Schlesinger Jr. (he changed his middle name to achieve that status) declares Communists and their sympathizers to have been absolutely uninfluential during the New Deal years, his undergraduate days at Harvard. Post-1970 generations of social historians and musicologists have evidently been wasting their time burrowing away in the bottom-up history, rediscovering Popular Fronters in every corner of social reform and the popular culture, from the leadership of the largest (as well as most black and most female) industrial unions to the Federal (and Group) Theater, encompassing fabulous Americana from Woody Guthrie and Ring Lardner Jr. to Humphrey Bogart and Aaron Copland. Communists and near-Communists didn’t manage to intersect with his world, or at least not to his knowledge. In listing his favorite 1930s and 1940s Hollywood films, however, he stumbles across a considerable number, including She Done Him Wrong and Casablanca, actually written by future victims of the Hollywood blacklist. Who read the screenwriters’ credits anyway?

Schlesinger Jr. enters academia at the very top, an undergraduate thesis already published and himself ensconced in the Harvard Society of Fellows almost before he could vote. After Pearl Harbor, he first worked at the Office of War Information, then shifted to the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA. There, it seems, he truly set his cap. Perhaps unbeknownst to him, the quiet détente set up by research and analysis division chief William Langer with Vichy French officials prefigured the support of erstwhile collaborators from Greece to Korea, and a half-century of participation in the brutal repression of assorted radical Third World movements, Communist or otherwise. But Schlesinger himself was one of the first to urge the propping up of the unpopular French-sponsored Vietnamese regime, and as in so many cases of the time, apparently considered any unpleasantness in CIA tactics a modest down side to the global crusade for democracy.

And so, in some of the highest places in the secret government, Schlesinger found sustaining friendships and comrades. Thus William Casey, surely one of the darkest figures of the century. OSS and CIA veteran, chairman of Reagan’s 1980 campaign and helmsman for Iran/contra and the contra wars, Casey was arguably more successful at subverting the Constitution than all American Communists combined (and with a civilian casualty rate unbeatable on this side of the globe). In A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, the same Casey comes off an affable agency counterpart who very much shared Schlesinger’s postwar crusade and remained a friend for life–unlike the crabby Cord Meyer (bagman for the AFL-CIO-CIA connection), who actually denounced Schlesinger for left-wing tendencies!

Back in civilian life, Schlesinger accurately describes his role as unstoppable publicist from Life magazine to the Saturday Review of Literature to the New York Post. (Later on, he also wrote for Commentary, scourge of what he considered the destructive activities and deviant personalities of Communists, near-Communists and the anti-anti-Communists of the Nation–specifically, editor Freda Kirchwey–variety.) Thanks to selective memory, Schlesinger has applied triage to the old narrative, making himself far more the civil libertarian than the congratulator of the Hollywood studios that applied the blacklist, or warning voice in his 1950 New York Post column against any peacenik "intransigent position on the use of the bomb."

All this–to be terribly overdetermined–might be said to come back to Schlesinger the historian. He recounts the best-selling status of his Age of Jackson (1946) and devotes some pages to subsequent scholarly controversy around the book that stamped a retrospective New Dealism upon mid-nineteenth-century history. Hardly a word is devoted to the issues that have involved the most dramatic revisionist challenges: Andrew Jackson’s racial and imperial politics. In recent textbooks, the proud slave-owner and Indian-killer extraordinaire seems a great deal less like a precursive Franklin Roosevelt and a great deal more like the monster who hitched white egalitarianism to a vastly accelerated program of human and natural depredation. To be generous, this painful possibility may be too far beyond the genial memoirist’s ken.

We should no doubt be cautious about judging a scholar, no less than a political figure, outside his own time. Schlesinger regrets his very low estimation of black Southerners during the 1940s and his personal harshness toward W.E.B. Du Bois. He reminds us that he wanted the New Deal minus the Communist taint far more than he wanted Harry Truman. As he recalls a little wryly, he even proposed in 1947 that a series of further new deals could lead to an American socialism. That youthful folly moved off the agenda with his conversion to Reinhold Niebuhr’s popular updating of Original Sin, as we learn in the last pages of Innocent Beginnings. Perfectionism could now be seen as a vice characteristic of the unbalanced and the politically irresponsible, whether in the 1830s-40s or the 1940s-50s. America was the place, more then ever, for realism and realists, the "doers" of the business and government world rather than the "utopians" of ideological movements.

But wasn’t cold war liberalism the most ideological of all movements? In what must be the oddest note in the volume, Schlesinger observes that a 1948 effort at cultural organizing among various freedom-loving European and American intellectuals including Sidney Hook, Nicolas Nabokov and others "came to little" because rational anti-Communists like himself resisted overwrought and irrational anti-Communists like Hook.

In the narrow sense he may be right. This little entity proved merely the precursor to thirty years of covertly funded but exceptionally high-profile activity in American cultural and intellectual life. But readers of Frances Stonor Saunders’ The Cultural Cold War will know that Nabokov was, of course, a key functionary of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, its affiliates and successors, projects involving many millions of dollars and literally thousands of intellectuals, not to mention hefty subsidies to politically reliable but ostensibly independent liberal magazines [see Michael Rogin, "When the CIA Was the NEA," June 12].

Schlesinger’s defensiveness and these absences play very strangely in the year 2000. Nowadays, one of the most bathetic sights is the senior scholar facing retirement and grumbling about "those feminist historians" (a wildly generic term) and the "politically correct" perversion of US history to include textbook chapters before Columbus; or to puncture Woodrow Wilson’s reputation as global savior; or to highlight gay and lesbian life during the Second World War; or to treat George Meany as an embarrassment and Malcolm X as a legitimate and major figure.

The doughty students of the Junior Schlesinger generation cling to the old narrative because it gave an absolute meaning to America, the one perfectible nation. But the old certainties are gone, and not likely to come back–least of all in minimizing the baneful consequences of the nation’s racist past, as Lawrence Levine, another Organization of American Historians’ president, observed in lambasting Schlesinger’s Disuniting of America in 1993. The vital center may still be successfully holding off the infidels within the Democratic Party and marginalizing movements further to the left. But it isn’t vital anymore, in history or in politics.

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