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History's Power Broker
Arthur Schlesinger, 1917-2007

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the great, usually liberal, occasionally controversial historian died on February 28. See the Times obituary here. And here is a selection of some of his essays over the years, including his very last one for the Times a few weeks ago, and his two “Eyeless” pieces—“Eyeless in Indochina,” from 1971, and “Eyeless in Iraq,” from 2003. At the bottom of the set, a dissent on Schlesinger by Noam Chomsky.pt

Folly's Antidote

“Many signs point to a growing historical consciousness among the American people. I trust that this is so. It is useful to remember that history is to the nation as memory is to the individual. As persons deprived of memory become disoriented and lost, not knowing where they have been and where they are going, so a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future. ''The longer you look back,'' said Winston Churchill, ''the farther you can look forward.'' But all historians are prisoners of their own experience. We bring to history the preconceptions of our personalities and of our age. We cannot seize on ultimate and absolute truths. So the historian is committed to a doomed enterprise -- the quest for an unattainable objectivity. Conceptions of the past are far from stable. They are perennially revised by the urgencies of the present. When new urgencies arise in our own times and lives, the historian's spotlight shifts, probing at last into the darkness, throwing into sharp relief things that were always there but that earlier historians had carelessly excised from the collective memory. New voices ring out of the historical dark and demand to be heard.” Read the rest...

On Henry Adams and Democracy

The novelist insisted on total anonymity, instructed his publisher to bring the book out on April Fools' Day 1880, and took care to be in Europe on publication day. Democracy: An American Novel] created a sensation and was a best seller in the United States and England. The author was not disclosed for another thirty-five years. He was Henry Adams. Edward Chalfant, his best biographer, believes that Adams began Democracy as early as 1867 in London when he was secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, the American minister to the Court of St. James. In 1868 the Adamses returned to the United States. Henry, thirty years old and in search of a career, supposed that political journalism might be the way to move his bewildered country in the right direction. The press, he conceded, was "an inferior pulpit; an anonymous schoolmaster; a cheap boarding-school; but it was still the nearest approach to a career for the literary survivor of a wrecked education." Where to establish a reputation? "Neither by temperament nor by education," Adams observed in his (third-person) Education of Henry Adams, "was he fitted for Boston." New York dazzled him, but he had no New York base, and so he decided on Washington. In the nation's capital Adams found active and intelligent contemporaries, eager for reform, rallied by Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch—"the broadest, most liberal, most genial and most practical public man in Washington"—united by the conviction that, after the Civil War, the whole political fabric required rethinking and renewal—"as much," Adams said, "as in 1789." He found himself at home with the young reformers, "more at home," he later wrote, "than he ever had been before, or was ever to be again." He adored Washington, "the easiest society he had ever seen." Read the full essay...

Eyeless in Indochina

In the spring issue of Public Policy, the journal of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Daniel Ellsberg advanced an arresting and subtle interpretation of the American adventure in Indochina. He was concerned to disprove what he called "the quagmire myth"—the proposition, that is, that our leaders did not know what they were getting into in Southeast Asia; that they marched blindly, step by step, into a morass; that our descent into the Vietnam catastrophe was marked (as Mr. Ellsberg accurately states the essence of the quagmire thesis) by "lack of foresight, awareness, or calculation." Mr. Ellsberg directed his critique against a view he found most conveniently formulated in writings of mine (doing so, I may add, with entire courtesy and in excellent temper). As against what I had once called the "politics of inadvertence,"] Mr. Ellsberg offered what I read as a sort of politics of clairvoyance. A succession of American Presidents, he said, fully understanding that there was a "high probability that US troops would end up fighting in South Vietnam, and US planes bombing throughout Indochina," not only "failed to resist" this future but "knowingly cooperated with and prepared" it. Read the rest...

Eyeless in Iraq

President George W. Bush has made a fatal change in the foreign policy of the United States. He has repudiated the strategy that won the cold war—the combination of containment and deterrence carried out through such multilateral agencies as the UN, NATO, and the Organization of American States. The Bush Doctrine reverses all that. The essence of our new strategy is military: to strike a potential enemy, unilaterally if necessary, before he has a chance to strike us. Mr. Bush has replaced a policy aimed at peace through the prevention of war by a policy aimed at peace through preventive war. He did this quietly, smoothly, and skillfully, without calling undue attention to so fundamental a revision of foreign policy or provoking a national debate over his drastic change of course. The combination of containment and deterrence was initiated over half a century ago by President Truman. It was confirmed as a bipartisan policy by President Eisenhower and thereafter sustained by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon (with modifications), Carter, Reagan (with deviations), George H.W. Bush, and Clinton. During the long years of the cold war, preventive war was unmentionable. Its advocates were regarded as loonies. Read the rest...

 

Reinhold Niebuhr's Long Shadow

Yesterday marked the centennial of Reinhold Niebuhr -- preacher, theologian, political philosopher, educator, one of the great Americans of the century. He cast an intellectual spell on my generation; though his Christian realism passed out of fashion in the hippie 60's and 70's and yuppie 70's and 80's, it is enjoying a revival in the disenchanted 90's. Niebuhr is currently a subject of acrid dispute between liberals and conservatives, each claiming him. He was a minister's son, born in Missouri. Deciding to become a minister, he went to Yale Divinity School, where he felt like "a mongrel among thoroughbreds." He came to Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1928 and taught there for the next third of a century -- taught there and taught everywhere. Until he suffered a stroke in 1952, he swept across the country and around the world, delivering sermons, lectures, political speeches, pouring out books and articles on theology, history, foreign policy, politics and culture. Read the rest...

 

Against the Murky and Pretentious Allan Bloom
The Opening of the American Mind

It is natural enough, I suppose, if you believe you have privileged access to absolute truth, to want to rid the world of those who insist on divergent truths of their own. But I am not sure that it is a useful principle on which to build a society. Yet, as I noted earlier, the prevailing fashion is, or was a year or two ago, to hold relativism responsible for the ills of our age. A key document, of course, is Allan Bloom's best seller of a couple of years back, ''The Closing of the American Mind.'' Indeed, one cannot but regard the very popularity of that murky and pretentious book as the best evidence for Mr. Bloom's argument about the degradation of American culture. It is another of those half-read best sellers, like Charles Reich's murky and pretentious ''Greening of America'' 17 years before, that plucks a momentary nerve, materializes fashionably on coffee tables, is rarely read all the way through and is soon forgotten. Now one may easily share Mr. Bloom's impatience with many features of higher education in the United States. I too lament the incoherence in the curriculums, the proliferation of idiotic courses, the shameful capitulation to factional demands and requisitions, the decay of intellectual standards. For better or for worse, in my view, we inherit an American experience, as America inherits a Western experience; and solid learning must begin with our own origins and traditions. The bonds of cohesion in our society are sufficiently fragile, or so it seems to me, that we should not strain them by excessive worship at artificial shrines of ethnicity, bilingualism, global cultural base-touching and the like. Let us take pride in our own distinctive inheritance as other countries take pride in their distinctive inheritances; and let us understand that no culture can hope to ingest other cultures all at once, certainly not before it ingests its own. Read the rest...

Disgrace at Guantanamo

The situation of the detainees at Guantánamo is a national disgrace. The detainees have been imprisoned for two years. They are ignorant of the specific charges against them and denied access to legal counsel and to their families. Although five British prisoners have been released, a "senior defense official" tells The New York Times that other detainees will be held for many years, perhaps indefinitely. Some among them have attempted suicide. It is difficult to find serious security reasons for the presidential suspension of due process. It appears to be, once again, the politics of fear and the imperial presidency redux. We have been through paranoid phases before, succumbing to panic and forgetting our constitutional guarantees. It all began in 1798 with the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Federalists would have been better advised to call these obnoxious statutes the Patriot Acts, but the conservatives of 1798 were innocent of the fine art of public relations. Recovering from our periodic attacks of panic, we have always hated ourselves in the morning. A generation from now the case of the Guantánamo detainees will be regarded as a national shame.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: A Dissent
The Responsibility of the Intellectual

It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious. Thus we have Martin Heidegger writing, in a pro-Hitler declaration of 1933, that "truth is the revelation of that which makes a people certain, clear, and strong in its action and knowledge"; it is only this kind of "truth" that one has a responsibility to speak. Americans tend to be more forthright. When Arthur Schlesinger was asked by The New York Times in November, 1965, to explain the contradiction between his published account of the Bay of Pigs incident and the story he had given the press at the time of the attack, he simply remarked that he had lied; and a few days later, he went on to compliment the Times for also having suppressed information on the planned invasion, in "the national interest," as this term was defined by the group of arrogant and deluded men of whom Schlesinger gives such a flattering portrait in his recent account of the Kennedy Administration. It is of no particular interest that one man is quite happy to lie in behalf of a cause which he knows to be unjust; but it is significant that such events provoke so little response in the intellectual community—for example, no one has said that there is something strange in the offer of a major chair in the humanities to a historian who feels it to be his duty to persuade the world that an American-sponsored invasion of a nearby country is nothing of the sort. And what of the incredible sequence of lies on the part of our government and its spokesmen concerning such matters as negotiations in Vietnam? The facts are known to all who care to know. The press, foreign and domestic, has presented documentation to refute each falsehood as it appears. But the power of the government's propaganda apparatus is such that the citizen who does not undertake a research project on the subject can hardly hope to confront government pronouncements with fact. Read the full essay...

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