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Our Worst Historian

Well, one thing I learned from the Times' predictably necrophiliac tribute to  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. is that his father provided the initial boost to what has become one of the most overrated and under-criticized careers in American scholarship. This should … Read More

By / March 1, 2007

Well, one thing I learned from the Times' predictably necrophiliac tribute to  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. is that his father provided the initial boost to what has become one of the most overrated and under-criticized careers in American scholarship. This should immediately signal a point of affinity between Schlesinger and his favorite boy-president, who also had a interested and zealous papa fond of ministering to the budding careers of his male issue.

The word "scholarship" in the above paragraph is actually fungible with the word "politics" when considering the life and influence of Schlesinger. He became, in the unironic words of the Times obituarist, a "loyal soldier" of the Kennedy White House while also acting the part of court stenographer to "Camelot."

Yet this dogged liberal anti-Communist has been heralded as the Macaulay of the New Frontier "brains trust." A reassessment is in order. What we now know, based on multiple freshets of revisionist myth-busting history, is the following about Arthur Schlesinger and his favorite commander-in-chief:

1. Schlesinger convinced the New Republic to kill a correct story on Kennedy's training of Cuban mercenaries in Miami;

2. He mendaciously claimed that those mercenaries amounted to no more than 400 disgruntled residents of Miami, when in fact the number was closer to 4,000;

3. He maintained warm relations with John Newman, Oliver Stone's hand-picked Pentagon whisperer for consultation on the ridiculous and paranoiac film JFK. Newman had argued that Kennedy kept a contingency plan for pulling out of Indochina and was thus committed to peace even before honor when it came to a criminal American bail-out of French colonialism. Schlesinger later insisted that such a plan was proof that had 'Jack' survived past '64, the first "quagmire" of national consciousness — also sometimes known as our "loss of innocence" — would have been widely averted. There is substantial reason to disbelieve this.

Gary Wills, who himself is an excellent historian when not performing the stations of the cross on behalf of Jimmy Carter, has shown that the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 was an American-orchestrated sequel to the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion. Soviet thundering about a planned U.S. attempt to overthrow the Castro regime was grounded in fact, not ideological menace, although of course Kennedy would never admit to this in public. Instead, the dire Russian response of a missile build-up in Cuba — itself designed to get the U.S. to withdraw its own Jupiter arsenal from Turkey — was signaled as an act of unprovoked Communist aggression in the Western hemisphere. The Cuban Missile Crisis was of Kennedy's own making, in other words, and that a nuclear "exchange" never commenced has been falsely attributed to this fawned-upon president's non-virtue of forbearance and shrewdness under apocalyptic pressure.

As a side note — if only because the following events had regional, not global, repercussions — the general under whom Schlesinger served as loyal soldier also targeted for premature extinction Patrice Lumumba, the first legally elected prime minister of the Congo; Rafael Trujillo, the right-wing autocrat of the Dominican Republic, whom Kennedy feared might spark another Marxist revolution in Latin America; and Ngo Dinh Diem, the repressive president of South Vietnam, whose assassination strengthened Ho Chi Minh's perception that Saigon was a defunct satrapy of Washington and led to a decade-long war in which everyone but Kennedy has been blamed for involving the United States.

Schlesinger, who had previously served in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner outfit to the CIA, always condoned or pardoned regime change when it took the form of a coup, where American sponsorship could be plausibly denied and where executives didn't even have to bother with presentations before the U.N. Security Council, let alone an authorizing vote in Congress.

As to his other great allegiance to another monogrammatic Democrat, Schlesinger's Roosevelt hagiography is only slightly less free and easy with facts and events, albeit bound by an interpretation of them that might be described as "my country, right or wrong."

In 2005, President Bush issued what I thought was a quite noble and honest apology to the peoples of Eastern Europe for their subjection to fifty-plus years of Soviet rule, inaugurated at Yalta. How did Schlesinger respond? With a not-so-fast note to the Huffington Post, arguing that Stalin's gobbling up of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary and Romania was a fait accompli by the time Roosevelt and Churchill convened with the Red Tsar about postwar spoils. The Great Game was decided by the sheer deployment of forces at battle's end, not by anemic Western diplomacy.

The best response to this act of moral cretinism — at a time when it was Eastern Europe showing the most loyal commitment to defeating the fascism of Saddam Hussein — came from Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag and the wife of Rados?aw Sikorski, Poland's former Minister of National Defence. Talking of the "small crew of liberal historians and Rooseveltians" who think America needn't apologize for its complicity in Russian hegemony, she wrote:

Their charges ignore the breadth of the agreement — was it really necessary to agree to deport thousands of expatriate Russians back to certain death in the Soviet Union? — as well as the fact that Yalta and the other wartime agreements went beyond mere recognition of Soviet occupation and conferred legality and international acceptance on new borders and political structures.

Add to this the sinister nod of acquiescence the part of the Anglo-American leadership when it came to the Katyn massacre, wherein more than 22,000 Poles were summarily shot dead, which event Stalin blamed on the Nazis when it was actually carried out, at his behest, by the Red Army.

Roosevelt was a dupe, plain and simple. The only official in his administration who was prescient about both Hitler and Stalin was the sadly forgotten proto-cold warrior William Bullitt, an ex-Bolshevik who, as U.S. ambassador to Russia, became a dogged anti-Stalinist. He was also a member of the Free French: Bullitt penned some of the most fiery condemnations of Petain and Vichy. He informed FDR that Stalin was not to be trusted, that Generalissimus was an inveterate double-crosser who'd bully the U.S. into supplying him with munitions and aid and later return the favor by demanding half a war-ravaged continent. In exchange for Lend-Lease, Bullitt argued, a guarantee should be given to Washington and London that Moscow would not seek territorial gains in Europe or Asia — a proviso that stood a better chance of being confirmed and enforced after Operation Barbarossa caught only the Kremlin master unawares and all Russia came close to becoming the most important possession of Berlin. To this Roosevelt responded:

"I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of man. Harry [Hopkins] says he's not… I think if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing in return… he won't try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace."

The rest, as they say, is history. But how sad that the only ones who would never bring themselves to recognize it as such were the shameless partisan purveyors of conventional wisdom like the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

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