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Summary Article: Schlesinger, Arthur Meier Jr. from Encyclopedia of the Kennedys: The People and Events That Shaped America

Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr., born on October 15, 1917, in Columbus, Ohio, spent most of his youth in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father was a professor of history at Harvard University. After graduating from that college in 1938, Schlesinger studied at Oxford University and again at Harvard as a junior fellow. During World War II, he worked for the Office of War Information and the Office of Strategic Services. In his spare time Schlesinger wrote The Age of Jackson, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1946. As a member of the Harvard faculty, Schlesinger spent much of the next 14 years on an ambitious multivolume project entitled The Age of Roosevelt.

Influenced by the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Schlesinger emerged in the early postwar era as a leading spokesman for American liberalism. As a founder of the anticommunist Americans for Democratic Action in 1947 and as the author of the influential The Vital Center in 1949, Schlesinger argued that liberals should adopt an “unsentimental” approach to politics, rejecting the utopian solutions of both the totalitarian left and the romantic right. In his works on Jackson and Roosevelt, Schlesinger sought to demonstrate that American liberalism was most successful when allied with a strong president who used his power in a pragmatic fashion.

Although Schlesinger had served as a speech writer for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, he switched his allegiance to John F. Kennedy in the late 1950s and helped recruit a group of New York and Boston intellectuals and scholars for the Kennedy “brain trust” in 1959. During the 1960 campaign, Schlesinger wrote speeches for the Democratic Party nominee and published a short campaign biography favorably contrasting Kennedy with his Republican opponent, Richard M. Nixon. After the election Kennedy asked Schlesinger to join his staff as a special assistant to the president, and he was sworn in on January 30, 1961.

As a historian and prize-winning author, adviser to two presidents, and one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a leading spokesperson for 20th-century liberalism.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Schlesinger's first assignment for Kennedy was to travel to South America with Food for Peace Program director George McGovern in February. The two men discussed food and development problems with leaders of Brazil and Argentina, and then Schlesinger continued on alone to Bolivia, Peru, and Venezuela as the president's personal representative. Schlesinger's report to Kennedy helped advance planning for the Alliance for Progress, designed to promote economic development and progressive democracy and counter the influence of Cuban-backed communist movements.

Upon his return from South America in early March, Schlesinger first became aware of plans for an invasion of Cuba by exiles trained in Guatemala by the Central Intelligence Agency. At Kennedy's request Schlesinger quickly prepared a white paper on Cuba that endorsed the Cuban revolution against Fulgencio Batista but condemned the direction in which Fidel Castro had led it. The white paper admitted past errors in American relations with the island and called upon Castro to break his connection with communism and return to the democratic goals of the revolution.

Schlesinger also sat in on the series of top-level discussions in late March and early April at which the final decision to go ahead with the invasion was reached. Although Schlesinger would have favored an American-sponsored overthrow of Castro by a “surgical stroke” if it could have been easily done, he argued that the planned military operation would either fail or lead to a prolonged civil war. In either case, he said, such intervention would destroy the goodwill the new administration was trying to develop in Latin America.

During the weeks immediately before the April 17 invasion, Schlesinger was in frequent contact with the Cuban Revolutionary Council, the exile group in titular command of the Cuban brigade training in Guatemala. Schlesinger and Adolph Berle met with members of the Council in Miami and New York, urging them to adopt a policy of social reform for Cuba that would offer “not a restoration but a liberation” of their homeland. After the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Schlesinger and Berle flew to Opa-Locka, Florida, to break the news to the council members waiting there and then fly them back to Washington, D.C., for a personal meeting with President Kennedy.

During the rest of the administration, Schlesinger remained one of the few White House staff members assigned to follow Latin American developments. He helped formulate American policy calling for the economic and political isolation of Cuba in 1961 and 1962, and helped write Secretary of State Dean Rusk's speech at the January 1962 meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) that called for a hemispheric trade boycott of the island. During the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, Kennedy assigned Schlesinger to work with Adlai Stevenson on the preparation of a speech to the United Nations reflecting the administration's demand that the Soviet Union immediately remove its long-range rockets from the island.

Two months after Kennedy's assassination, Schlesinger resigned his post as a White House special assistant and began work on a history of the administration. His best-selling A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House was published in 1965 and won the Pulitzer Prize for biography the next year. Although critical of Kennedy for an occasional misjudgment or mistake, the work viewed the administration as one embodying “the life-affirming, life-enhancing, zest, the brilliance, the wit, the cool commitment [and] the steady purpose” of the young president.

Returning to academic life in 1966, Schlesinger voiced measured criticism of the Vietnam War policy of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. He served as a presidential campaign adviser to both Senator Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.) in 1968 and Senator George McGovern (D-S.D.) in 1972.

See also: Bay of Pigs; Bundy, McGeorge; Connally, John Bowden, Jr.; Cuba; Day, James Edward; Eaton, Cyrus Stephen; Eisenhower, Milton Stover; Freeman, Orville Lothrop; Goodwin, Richard Naradhof; Graham, Philip Leslie; Kennedy, Robert Francis; Lovett, Robert Abercrombie; Mann, Thomas Clifton; McGovern, George Stanley; Morrison, DeLesseps Story; New Deal; Nixon, Richard Milhous; O'Donnell, Kenneth Patrick; Powers, David Francis; Randolph, Asa Philip; Reston, James Barrett; Ribicoff, Abraham Alexander; Rusk, David Dean; Stevenson, Adlai Ewing; Vietnam; Webb, James Edwin; White, Theodore Harold; Wilkins, Roy

Further Reading
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Houghton Mifflin Boston, 1965.
  • Copyright 2012 by Joseph M. Siracusa

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