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Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

July 2024
6min read

Arthur M. Schlesmger, Jr., Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at the City University of New York, is one of the most prolific, highly regarded, and controversial of all American historians. The Age of Jackson, The Age of Roosevelt (3 vols, to date, ig$j-6o), and A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House are his best-known works. Professor Schlesmger has also, however, maintained a continuing interest in politics and public affairs, having served as a special assistant to President Kennedy and written extensively about current politics. In this portion of his conversation with Dr. Garraty he discusses the domestic-policy records of the Presidents from Truman to Johnson, and the changing nature of the Presidency itself.

PROFESSOR GARRATY: Putting aside his role in international relations, how would you rate Truman as a President? He certainly considered himself a disciple of franklin Roosevelt. In what ways was he different from Roosevelt as a political leader and as a Chief Executive?

PROFESSOR SCHLESINGER: Truman was an authentic disciple of Roosevelt; his Fair Deal was an effort to consolidate, systematize, and extend the New Deal. As an executive he was much more orderly than Roosevelt. He lacked Roosevelt’s relish for confused, competitive administrative situations, as well as his capacity to manage people of diverse ideas and conflicting personalities. Truman’s government was organized in a much tighter way, and his program was less internally contradictory than Roosevelt’s. Of course the country was not nearly in the state of emergency that it was in Roosevelt’s time. Truman was not under pressure to do a lot of things at once. On the other hand, because the situation seemed less urgent, he had great difficulty in getting Congress to go along with anything he wanted in domestic affairs.

Yet, in spite of that, Truman drew up what has been generally recognized as the agenda for liberal action for some time to come. His Civil Rights Commission of 1946 established civil rights as a national peacetime issue. … Similarly, Oscar Ewing’s plan for medical care, although still not enacted, led to the Kennedy-Johnson Medicare plan. Truman’s Secretary of Agriculture, [Charles F.] Brannan, made an effort to get at the farm problem by shifting the emphasis from the support of prices to the support of income, again a very fertile idea, which has only been applied in a limited way. Truman tried in these ways to push forward the New Deal program. …

His Fair Deal came to frustration also because of Truman’s weaknesses. As Elmer Davis used to say, Truman was good on the big things and bad on the small ones; his tolerance of improper behavior by men in his administration, the exposure of scandals in various departments, and so on, tarnished and further complicated the prospects of the Fair Deal.

Did Truman really change his times through his own personality or ideas, or was he merely a product of the particular circumstances m which he happened to be President?

He was a continuator, and continuators often perform useful functions. Truman could not have existed without Roosevelt, just as Van Buren and Polk could not have existed without Jackson, or, in modern India, as Shastri could not have existed without Nehru. I do not think he made any great contributions so far as domestic policy is concerned through his own force of personality or his own vision. Foreign policy, of course, is another matter.

Most historians I think would agree that Elsenhower was something less than a first-rate President and that his conception of the proper role of the President was extremely limited. What is your particular estimate of his inadequacies?

I think Eisenhower symbolized and expressed a national desire for repose. Any activist President would have encountered great difficulties in the IQSO’S. My father has argued that there has been a rhythm between periods of activism and periods of passivity in American affairs. The fifties were certainly a time when the cycle was in a phase of quiescence. If Adlai Stevenson had been elected in 1952, he probably would have encountered the same frustration that Truman encountered in trying to pursue an activist policy. Eisenhower suited the national mood.

On the other hand, looking back, it’s perfectly clear that we could not afford a do-nothing Presidency in the fifties, at least in domestic affairs. One reason for the intense internal crisis in which America finds itself today is surely the failure of the national government in the 1950'$. If Eisenhower had moved on the question of racial justice, on the problems of the cities and of poverty, much of the bitterness in the nation today might have been avoided. … Had he begun to recognize things that might be done, the urban crisis might now be much less acute.

So these were wasted years, wasted as a result of Eisenhower’s conception of the Presidency—what Theodore Roosevelt called the “Buchanan-Taft” conception—the view that the President should not play a large role in initiating legislation. Eisenhower couldn’t altogether stick to that conception because it is an impossible one. He was forced into a more active stance on many occasions. Nonetheless, this was his theory.

[ President ] Kennedy made heavy use in government of intellectuals and scholars such as yourself. Was his policy actually a very novel one, or does it merely seem novel because it contrasted so sharply with that of Elsenhower before him, and Johnson after him?

In a sense, I think it was novel. Obviously other Presidents, particularly F. D. R., had drawn on academics and intellectuals. But F. D. R. used them mostly for advice; he rarely gave them administrative responsibility, or if they held government jobs, these were not particularly connected with their intellectual experience. … Kennedy went farther than any preceding President in systematically giving intellectuals positions of administrative power.

He was responding to a situation that is going to have increasing force. Even President Nixon has drawn on the academic community. Kennedy happened to like intellectuals and enjoy their company. Nixon, I imagine, does not. But the circumstances of the Presidency in an age of high technology—the complex nature of the problems he faces and the solutions he must seek—will require political authority to draw increasingly from the intellectual community. Kennedy anticipated this, encouraged it, and enjoyed it. …

Was Lyndon Johnson’s role in history like Truman’s in the sense, to use your phrase, that he could not have existed had Kennedy not existed first, in the same way that Truman couldn ‘I have existed without Roosevelt?

In a certain sense that’s so, but there were pathetic developments in the Johnson Presidency that distinguish it from Truman’s. In a loyal, dowdy, tough-minded way Truman carried forward the main Roosevelt impulses in both domestic and foreign policy. Johnson certainly carried forward the Kennedy impulse in domestic policy: the Great Society was a new face on Kennedy’s New Frontier. The irony of Johnson is that having started out so promisingly, he allowed his domestic program to be derailed by his obsession with the war in Vietnam, an obsession that increasingly monopolized not only his own attention but the resources and concern of the country. It’s ironic because in national affairs Johnson had experience, knowledge, and sound instincts. In foreign affairs his knowledge was scant, his ideas rigid and simplistic.

In reading your volumes on Franklin Roosevelt, I was repeatedly struck by the extent to which the job oj President had become, even in the rgyo’s, so complex that Roosevelt appeared to have little to do with the shaping of legislation. If anything, this seems even more apparent m your account of the “thousand days” of John F. Kennedy. Has the role of the federal government become so complicated that any President, despite the enormous power at his disposal, is not really any longer capable of running the country?

Certainly the task of the President is infinitely greater than it used to be. It never was an easy job, but when Andrew Jackson was President the population of the United States was about twenty million, hardly more than the population of the state of New York today. It was not until 1857 that Congress, with great munificence, passed a law giving President Buchanan a staff—a secretary, a messenger, and a steward. Up to this point Presidents had to run the government ordinarily by drafting relatives, most often nephews, to write their letters and run errands for them. It was not until Theodore Roosevelt’s administration that the presidential offices were moved out of the residential part of the White House into the new West Wing. The Government Reorganization Act of 1939 created a White House staff—a half-dozen special assistants whom the President could use as he desired. After the war the President acquired the Council of Economic Advisers and the National Security Council as further means of control.

A reasonably hard-working, bright President with sufficient energy can, through these mechanisms, maintain control over the major issues that confront him. But in any enterprise so vast and multifarious as the United States government, many small things go on that the President knows little about. Robert Kennedy one day said to me as he was looking through some of the papers left by J. F. K., “I thought I was closer to my brother than anyone else. I thought he talked over with me most of the things he was involved in. But I’m absolutely astonished at the number of things he was doing that I didn’t know anything about.”

I don’t know what alternative there is. Some political scientists have suggested a plural Presidency. Others have suggested having a couple of deputy vice presidents, one for domestic affairs and one for foreign. In practice, Eisenhower did that with Sherman Adams and John Foster Dulles. I can’t conceive of any President—except one like Eisenhower—who would wish to delegate decision-making in any basic way. We’ve had two kinds of Presidents: those who like to make decisions and those who don’t. Each type designs an administrative structure to suit his purposes. …

Kennedy liked making decisions. The job of the White House staff was to alert him of impending crises before they came to him through the normal channels of government. … Kennedy wanted to know about things before they happened, and he used the White House staff to make sure he did.

What about the New Left view of Roosevelt and Truman as being reactionaries in domestic affairs?

They [New Left historians] are chronically indifferent to or contemptuous of the political realities that leaders in the real world—especially in a democratic system—have to face. They complain because Roosevelt and Truman did not take steps that would have been politically infeasible. I do not pretend the judgment is always easy. I must confess I used to have arguments with President Kennedy about such matters. He felt that there were greater limits on what he could do than I felt there were. Yet one has to admit the possibility that Presidents may know more about politics than their special assistants. Perhaps that is one reason why Presidents are Presidents and their special assistants are only special assistants. …

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