In the early 1980s The Nation invited the eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who died February 28, to join a panel. Professor Schlesinger declined the invitation, saying he would have to be “a monumental masochist” to lend himself to a proceeding sponsored by The Nation, a magazine that had been attacking him in its pages for the past thirty years.
In his 1949 book The Vital Center, Schlesinger had described The Nation (along with The New Republic) as “a fellow traveler of the fellow traveler.” As America’s premier self-proclaimed liberal anti-Communist, although he continued to write book reviews for the magazine through 1950, he wanted nothing to do with the front half of The Nation, which he saw as an anti-anti-Communist magazine.
And for many years, although both the magazine and the professor were on the liberal side of the divide in American politics, the ill will was mutual.
In 1951 in a weekly column he wrote for the New York Post, Schlesinger attacked The Nation‘s Carey McWilliams, along with two other non-Communist left-liberals (Tom Emerson and Stringfellow Barr) who had signed a letter proposing a national conference on civil liberties, as follows: “None of these gentlemen is a Communist, but none objects very much to Communism. They are the Typhoid Marys of the left, bearing the germs of infection even if not suffering obviously from the disease.”
Which prompted McWilliams to respond in The New Statesman that Schlesinger “spoke the language of McCarthyism with a Harvard accent.”
A year or two later, when Nation editor and publisher Freda Kirchwey declined to publish an article by the magazine’s former art critic Clement Greenberg accusing its foreign editor, Álvarez del Vayo, of being a Stalinist, she also declined to publish a letter from Schlesinger, in support of Greenberg, that castigated The Nation for “betraying its finest traditions…when it prints week after week these wretched apologies for Soviet despotism.” In other words, no love was lost.
Then in 1990, Professor Archie Singham, a member of the Nation editorial board, longtime Caribbeanist and activist-scholar, called. Cheddi Jagan, three-time popularly elected Prime Minister of British Guiana and by then leader of Guyana’s largest party, was in town, and would we like to invite him for a luncheon seminar in our offices?
In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Jagan, the first elected Marxist leader in the Western Hemisphere, had declined to take sides in the cold war. For that reason, among others, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco the CIA, encouraged by the Kennedy White House, covertly worked to destabilize the Jagan administration, with the result that in 1963 he was voted out of office. Now he was thinking of making a comeback, and Singham had an idea: Why not invite Schlesinger? In A Thousand Days, his memoir of the Kennedy years, Schlesinger seemed to have had second thoughts about Jagan and his own role at the time.
Once again, we invited Professor Schlesinger, but this time he said that although he had a class later in the afternoon and might have to leave early, he would be pleased to join us. Lunch began promptly at 1, Jagan held forth on his plans for a possible new presidential run and soon it was approaching 2:30. Professor Schlesinger interrupted: He had to leave, but before he did he had something he wanted to say. And he proceeded to apologize to Jagan for what he called “a great injustice” he and his Kennedy colleagues had helped to perpetrate.
Then in February 2002 The Nation Institute was putting together a panel at the Society for Ethical Culture on “Civil Liberties After September 11.” Phil Donahue had agreed to moderate, Molly Ivins was coming up from Texas, and it seemed a natural to invite Schlesinger, whose thoughtful op-ed pieces on why it was a mistake to sacrifice civil liberties in the name of national security more and more seemed to overlap with Nation values. He agreed to come, appeared on the panel and was at his most elegant and eloquent.
In the years since, we continued to have our differences–especially over matters multicultural, not to mention his reviews of books covering the cold war years by Nation contributors. These past differences were over nontrivial matters, but more and more our thoughts about the present and future seemed to converge. It is probably presumptuous to say that we learned from each other, but the public sphere will be the poorer without Schlesinger’s voice and activist historian’s perspective informing the debate.