Relaunching The American Interest last month, TAI chairman Francis Fukuyama wrote of “our hope that reestablishing a vital center will reconnect America with itself, and America with the world as we confront similar challenges.” Arthur Schlesinger Jr made that phrase “vital center” famous in his 1949 book of the same name. His “vital” center was not “the so-called ‘middle of the road’ preferred by cautious politicians of our own time.” (That position, after all, is only somewhere to stand if you want to get flattened.) Instead “the vital center was in a global context,” Schlesinger wrote, “liberal democracy as against its mortal enemies—an attempt to strengthen the liberal case against the renewed totalitarian impulse.”1
In the Manichean world of the 1930s and 1940s, intellectuals such as Schlesinger grappled to make sense of the horrific experiences of Nazism and Stalinism. Numerous books on freedom appeared in the immediate postwar period, including seminal works such as Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1945), Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951).
Orwell in particular, with “with his vigorous good sense, his hatred of cant,” had a profound influence on Schlesinger, but even his impact paled in comparison to “the tragic sense of the predicament of man” evinced by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Schlesinger “immersed [himself] in Niebuhr,” particularly the two-volumes of the Nature and Destiny of Man (1941-42) and The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness (1944).
Here he found arguments about the mixed nature of man and what Niebuhr called the “humble recognition of the limits of our knowledge and our power,” including how man’s wickedness made government both essential and dangerous. The aim of government, therefore, was not “the creation of an ideal society in which there will be uncoerced and perfect peace and justice, but a society in which there will be enough justice, and which coercion will be sufficiently non-violent to prevent [our] common enterprise from issuing into complete disaster.” Niebuhr’s approach, often called “Christian realism,” provided a key for Schlesinger in its warnings against utopianism, messianism and perfectionism. “He persuaded me,” Schlesinger wrote later, “that original sin provides a far stronger foundation for freedom and self-government than illusions about human perfectibility.”2
Niebuhr gave Schlesinger both the confidence and the intellectual underpinning for his first overtly political book, the aforementioned The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom. It was through the experience of Fascism and Communism that his generation had “discovered a new dimension of experience—the dimension of anxiety, guilt and corruption,” Schlesinger wrote in the foreword. “Or,” he added, paying his philosophical debts, “as Reinhold Niebuhr has brilliantly suggested, that we were simply rediscovering ancient truths which we should never have forgotten.”3
But if mankind was not perfectible, what was the postwar liberal to do in the face of totalitarianism and extremism? If Schlesinger accepted Niebuhr’s essentially conservative notion that consistent pessimism about humankind inoculated democracy against authoritarianism and totalitarianism, then, in Schlesinger’s own words, “Wherein lies the hope?”
Departing from Niebuhr, the answer certainly did not come through traditional religion, which Schlesinger saw as passé in a new scientific age. But equally the notion “that doubt and anxiety” would be banished by science and a rising standard of living he saw as another false dawn. And although society needed “a revival of the elan of democracy, and a resurgence of the democratic faith,” the evolution of democracy into a “political religion,” like totalitarianism, was not the answer either. The only way forward was to “recharge the deepest sources of moral energy” to create a society in tune with “the emotional energies and needs of man.”4
For that notion, Schlesinger found an echo in the American poet, Walt Whitman, who wrote that “to work for Democracy is good, the exercise is good—strength it makes and lessons it teaches.” So in the end, for Schlesinger in The Vital Center, it is the very process of democracy itself, not perfect ends, which forms the bulwark against extremes. “Problems will always torment us, because all important problems are insoluble: that is why they are important,” he wrote in the conclusion. “The good comes from the continuing struggle to try to solve them, not from the vain hope of their solution […] The totalitarians regard the toleration of conflict as our central weakness. So it may appear to be in an age of anxiety. But we know it to be basically our central strength.” Thus it was through a renewed commitment to the very exercise of democracy itself that “the center” might indeed hold.
What is striking about The Vital Center is the gap between gloomy, fatalistic diagnosis and hopeful, confident prescription; “the movement,” James Nuechterlein notes, “from conservative assumptions to liberal conclusions.” Schlesinger himself was not unaware of this sometimes uncomfortable shift, writing in Encounter two decades afterwards that the background of being “much influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr … accounts for the combination in the book of a certain operational optimism with a certain historical and philosophical pessimism.”
That conflict was something in itself that he had inherited from Niebuhr, who, while often an appealing writer for conservatives, considered himself a liberal. But as Schlesinger later pointed out, these internal traditions within the democratic tradition were not the point. For “fascism to the right, communism to the left” were the “mortal enemies” of the vital center. Within that framework, different impulses could co-exist, because the vital center referred “to the contest between democracy and totalitarianism, not to contests within democracy between liberalism and conservatism.” The balancing trick, as a Niebuhr later helpfully summed up, was that “Democracy is on the whole the vital center, but it must be worked so that it doesn’t go to dead center.”6
The Vital Center and the articles that had led up to it plunged Schlesinger headfirst into bitter disputes that would divide the American Left. There was a world of difference between his brand of antidogmatic liberalism and what turned into McCarthyism; the question became whether it fed the same appetites. Opponents argued that Schlesinger’s critique was too strident and ignored the rapid decline in size and influence of the U.S. communist movement, particularly in the wake of growing disaffection with rigid Stalinist practices within the Communist Party of America. Some worried that a split on the Left might open up an opportunity for extremism, even fascism, on the Right. For others, the historian stood accused of being a quisling, a charge made in the most vitriolic terms by Dalton Trumbo, a member of the Communist party and one of the infamous “Hollywood Ten” brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
“He takes his stand squarely in the tradition of chronic confessors who have plagued the earth since the first establishment of orthodoxy,” Trumbo wrote. “Whatever inquisitorial courts have been set up, Mr Schlesinger and his breed have appeared in eager herds to proclaim: ‘I do not wish to imply approval of your questions, but I am not now nor have I ever been a dissenter. I am not now nor have I ever been a Communist. I am not now nor have I ever been a trade unionist. I am not now nor have I ever been a Jew. Prosecute those answers differently, O masters, send them to jail, make soap of them if you wish. But not of me, for I have answered every question you chose to ask, full, frankly, freely—and on my belly.”
Schlesinger fired back that Trumbo had been the one grubbing around on the floor. While he, Schlesinger, had always affirmed the “the basic constitutional principles that men may be questioned and prosecuted for their acts, never their thoughts,” Trumbo he found cowardly in his failure to take the stand at HUAC to defiantly proclaim his First Amendment rights to private opinions. “This accusation is a fair one,” notes Christopher Trumbo in a biography of his father. “They [the Ten] clearly harmed their case with the general public by evading questions.”7
Schlesinger had been one of the 130 liberals who founded Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) at its inception on January 4, 1947. Others included Niebuhr and Schlesinger’s Harvard friend, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith The organization itself called for an expansion of the New Deal, and was given the blessing of FDR’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, and their son, Franklin Jr. But the central objective of the new group was to become a vehicle for the non-communist Left in its vehement opposition to Stalinism.
The presence of the Roosevelts was important for Schlesinger. The 1917 generation, of which both Schlesinger and John F. Kennedy were members, had not grown up with the utopian notions about Marxism of earlier generations, but in a time of depression when Communism offered the Scylla of Stalinism to the Charybdis of Nazism. That was why progressives like Schlesinger continued to revere the New Deal. “The whole point of the New Deal,” he wrote, “lay in its belief in activism, its faith in gradualness, its rejection of catastrophism, its indifference to ideology, its conviction that a managed and modified capitalist order achieved by piecemeal experiment could combine personal freedom and economic growth.” But many were baffled, like Walter Lippmann, at why cooperation with the USSR should be such an untenable position, or why, for that matter, Dalton Trumbo shouldn’t be allowed to write his screenplays.8
A modest bestseller in 1949, The Vital Center would turn out to be among Schlesinger’s most enduring works, with new editions published in 1962, when he was a special assistant to President Kennedy, and 1998, after the original had been extolled both by President Clinton and Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. (The Speaker in 1996 had quoted the line that “The conservative must not identify a particular status quo with the survival of civilization, and the radical equally must recognize that his protests are likely to be as much the expressions of his own self-interest as they are of some infallible dogma”—a plea for humility, Schlesinger drily noted, “that neither Gingrich nor I have always observed.”). Looking back, the New York Times would conclude that it was with The Vital Center that Schlesinger “solidified his position as the spokesman for postwar liberalism.”9
1 Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Vital Center, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 147.
2 Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., “Reinhold Niebuhr’s Long Shadow,” New York Times, June 22, 1992. Reinhold Niebuhr to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Nov. 14, 1951, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. papers. Manuscripts and Archives Division. The New York Public Library [NYPL] 100/4. Barton Swaim, “Sifting the Wheat from the Chaff,” Review of Major Works on Religion and Politics, by Reinhold Niebuhr, Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2015. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 511. On Schlesinger and Reinhold Niebuhr more generally, Daniel F. Rice, Reinhold Niebuhr and His Circle of Influence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 113-144.
3 Schlesinger., The Vital Center, ix. Rice, Reinhold Niebuhr and His Circle of Influence, 116. James A. Nuechterlein, “Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and the Discontents of Postwar American Liberalism,” The Review of Politics 39, no. 1 (1977): 3-40. Christopher P. Loss. “Educating Global Citizens in the Cold War” in In Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 121–62.
4 Schlesinger., The Vital Center, 4, 170, 246-48.
5 Schlesinger., The Vital Center, 251.
6 Nuechterlein, “Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and the Discontents of Postwar American Liberalism,” 10. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., “The Vital Center Reconsidered,” Encounter, Sept. 1970, 89-93.
7 Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 203-206.
8 Alonzo L. Hamby, Beyond the New Deal: Harry S. Truman and American Liberalism (New York: Scribner’s, 1971), 279-280. Rice, Reinhold Niebuhr and his Circle of Influence, 116-121. Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, 57-59.
9 Douglas Martin, “Arthur Schlesinger, Historian of Power, Dies at 89,” New York Times, Mar. 1, 2007.