Schlesinger, Arthur Meier, Jr.

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SCHLESINGER, Arthur Meier, Jr.

(b. 15 October 1917 in Columbus, Ohio), historian, educator, liberal spokesperson, and author of two Pulitzer Prize–winning histories who served as a special adviser to President John F. Kennedy and is considered by many as the most notable public intellectual of the 1960s.

Schlesinger was one of two sons born to Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Sr., and Elizabeth Bancroft, a homemaker and descendant of the historian George Bancroft. His father was a noted historian who became a professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Schlesinger was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, from 1931 to 1933. He then attended Harvard, studying history and graduating summa cum laude with a B.A. in 1938. After a year in England as a Henry Fellow at Peterhouse College at the University of Cambridge, Schlesinger was made a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard. Since this award allowed him to teach at Harvard, he never earned a Ph.D. On 10 August 1940 he married Marian Cannon; they had four children and divorced in 1970.

During World War II, Schlesinger worked first for the Office of War Information from 1942 to 1943, and then for the Office of Strategic Services from 1943 to 1945. He was discharged from the U.S. Army in late 1945 with the rank of corporal. At the end of the war, Schlesinger's book The Age of Jackson (1945) was published; it became a best-seller and won the 1946 Pulitzer Prize for history. A year later Schlesinger was offered a tenured position in the history department at Harvard. He remained on the Harvard faculty until 1962, but lived in Washington, D.C., from early 1961 until Kennedy's assassination in 1962. Between 1957 and 1960 he published a three-volume history of the policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Age of Roosevelt.

In keeping with his liberal political views (referring to himself as "an unrepentant New Dealer"), Schlesinger helped to found Americans for Democratic Action in 1947 and became an influential figure in the Democratic Party. In the 1950s he served as a political adviser to Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaigns. In the early days of the 1960 presidential campaign, Schlesinger offered advice to three contenders for the nomination: Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, and John F. Kennedy. Although he preferred Stevenson, he decided to back Kennedy in view of the Massachusetts senator's strong showing in the primaries. In support of Kennedy's campaign, Schlesinger wrote Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make a Difference? (1960). His basic precepts of liberalism were clearly spelled out in this short polemic: that political leadership belongs to those who truly understand the issues facing the United States; that these issues are health, education, equal opportunity, and environmental protection; and that people of education and wealth should be concerned with "the sufferings of the poor and the inequities of society."

In 1961, after Kennedy's victory, the new president asked Schlesinger to become a special assistant at the White House. Schlesinger took a two-year leave of absence from Harvard, and, when the two years were up, he resigned from his academic position in order to remain in Washington, D.C. Schlesinger performed several functions at the White House. He was Kennedy's liaison with Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Schlesinger also served as the president's contact with intellectuals and cultural figures. One Kennedy adviser, Theodore Sorensen, saw Schlesinger as a "lightning rod" to attract Republican attacks, deflecting them from the president. In addition, Schlesinger served as an adviser on Latin American affairs and was one of the few in Kennedy's inner circle to argue against U.S. involvement in the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in April 1961, an early foreign policy debacle for the Kennedy administration. All accounts indicate that Kennedy appreciated Schlesinger's intellectual honesty and sense of humor.

In 1963 Schlesinger published a collection of essays, The Politics of Hope, in which he expressed the view that Kennedy, as a result of "his deep desire to improve the quality of life and opportunity in the United States," was having a positive and dynamic effect on the country. Kennedy's assassination on 22 November 1963 was a severe blow to Schlesinger, and he resigned from his White House post two months later. After the Bay of Pigs episode, Kennedy had asked Schlesinger to keep a journal of his White House experiences, and this record became the basis for his book on the Kennedy presidency, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1965). This best-seller, which deals mainly with foreign policy, earned Schlesinger the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for biography and a National Book Award.

Given his intimate involvement in U.S. political life, Schlesinger participated in the debate that erupted in the 1960s over the war in Vietnam. Although he initially opposed the withdrawal of U.S. influence, by the mid-1960s he came to support de-escalation, and expressed this view in The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941–1966 (1966). Schlesinger supported Robert F. Kennedy's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, serving as his political adviser until the New Yorksenator's assassination in June 1968. A decade later Schlesinger published Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), another National Book Award winner and best-seller.

Not surprisingly, Schlesinger was critical of the administration of Republican president Richard M. Nixon, and in 1973 he published The Imperial Presidency, an analysis of how power had come to be accumulated by presidents, particularly during the terms of Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon. In The Cycles of American History (1986), Schlesinger argued, perhaps wishfully, that there were cycles of conservatism and liberalism in U.S. history, and that a trend toward liberalism was due. Although his prediction was not entirely accurate, the book reflected his deep insight into the political psyche of the American people. It also reflected Schlesinger's persuasive, yet graceful, writing style.

A slender man of average height known for his love of films, Schlesinger was immediately recognizable by his ever-present bow tie. He returned to university teaching in 1966, becoming the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at the City University of New York, a position he held until his retirement in 1995. Schlesinger served as president of the American Institute of Arts and Letters from 1981 to 1984, and was awarded a National Humanities Medal in 1998. After his divorce, he married Alexandra Emmet on 19 July 1971; they had two sons.

Many observers, including his political enemies, consider Schlesinger to be one of the leading political commentators and intellectuals of the twentieth century. Although it is occasionally difficult to distinguish in his writings where the neutral historian ends and the politically engaged intellectual begins, there is no doubt that his sixteen books on U.S. history and modern politics made important contributions to the public debates of his time. Certainly he was one of the foremost defenders of liberalism. In particular, in the early 1960s his advocacy of that ideology in the highest circles of power made Schlesinger the most politically influential intellectual of that decade.

Schlesinger's papers are at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library at Columbia Point, Boston, Massachusetts. Schlesinger has published the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917–1950 (2000). For studies of Schlesinger's ideology, see Stephen P. Depoe, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and the Ideological History of American Liberalism (1994); and John Patrick Diggins, The Liberal Persuasion: Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and the Challenge of the American Past (1997). For biographical information, see Alejandro Benes, "The Guardian of Liberalism," Cigar Aficionado (1995); and William E. Leuchtenburg, "What Makes Arthur Tick?," American Prospect 12, no. 2 (29 Jan. 2001): 33–35.

Robert Hendrick

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Schlesinger, Arthur Meier, Jr.

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